Friday, October 19, 2012

Isolated on a Mountain in 1899: An interview with historical fiction author Carol Ervin

1) Please tell us about your book. 

The Girl on the Mountain is a bit historical, a bit mysterious, somewhat religious, and (I’ve been surprised to learn) shot through with human sexuality, though nothing explicit. The story opens in 1899, with a young wife whose husband leaves her in an isolated mountain cabin while he works in a logging camp through the week. The rail line that carries logs down to the sawmill passes by her cabin, and several times a day she waves to the trainmen, the only humans she sees on weekdays. Then her husband disappears, and she finds herself abandoned in a sawmill town with no friends or family, the object of gossip.

2) Please tell us about your lead, May Rose.

May Rose suffers from lack of family, a mother who died when she was born and a father who left her to be raised by his sister, who died before May Rose reached her teens. Now her uncle and cousins are supposed to be homesteading in the West, but she’s lost track of them, a mystery that runs through the story.

Her lack of family and her prettiness make May Rose a target of predatory men. Her strongest characteristic, and a great motivator, is her compassion for unfortunate children.

3) What got you interested in writing turn of the twentieth-century historical fiction?

I was inspired to set a story in this period because I feel physically close to it. In my region of West Virginia, artifacts abound: foundation stones of old sawmills, traces of logging roads, antique shops with tools and utensils in dim buildings from the same era. Years ago when we moved to our farm, elderly neighbors shared stories of their youth. Living here and experiencing a culture that carried on traditional ways of doing things, I felt like we’d stepped fifty years back in time, in a good way.

4) Do you feel historical fiction is more valuable as a tool to understand a past or as a useful way of exploring universal themes and ideas about the human condition that are outside the emotional context of modern events and societies?

Fiction can make history more understandable, and reading historical fiction has affected some of my ideas. But mainly I like period fiction that broadens my awareness and connects me to people of other times and places. In researching and writing The Girl on the Mountain, I felt close to grandparents I never knew.

5) What sort of research did you do in order to capture the intricacies of the period and place you portray?
Many details are from personal experience, like knowing a woman whose fingers were bitten off by a pig, but I read articles about logging, railroading, and sawmill work in Goldenseal, the magazine of West Virginia traditional life, found descriptions of products like washing machines and canned milk on company websites, read about the construction of wooden trestles, looked up popular novels and music of the period, talked with my railroad-hobbyist neighbor and read about railroad carts (speeders), checked usage of words in the Oxford English Dictionary to be sure certain terms were not modern. Twice I rode a narrow-gauge logging train pulled by a Shay engine at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park. The most important reference was Roy B. Clarkson’s Tumult on the Mountain, Lumbering in West Virginia—1770-1920. It’s a wonderful book with some 250 photos, first printed in 1964 and still in print from McClain Printing Company in Parsons, WV. I love the people in those old photographs.

6) What were your primary thematic goals in this book? Were you more interested in exploring identity directly or the social interface of gender and gender roles?
A writer’s beliefs do come out, and one of mine is that we make many mistakes in judging others. May Rose misjudged her husband. The townspeople misjudged her. I showed what I believe to be true of male and female roles of the period—women had little power to sustain themselves or advance without the influence or protection of a man. But even then, women found ways to be influential.

7) Please tell us about your other projects. 

When readers of early drafts warned that Wanda, May Rose’s 13-year-old sidekick, might “steal the show,” I decided to make her the main character in a sequel. Wanda’s story begins 15 years later, after much of the land has been devastated by fires and floods. The first draft of Wanda’s story is nearly complete. The third book in the series will bring back May Rose.

8) Do you have any excerpts you'd like to share?
Here’s an excerpt liked by my writer-friend, Lindy Moone. The passage shows May Rose near the beginning of the story, trying to decide how to deal with her husband’s deceit:

At dusk she dragged the porch stool and the shotgun to the middle of the clearing and watched the dark spaces between the trees to prove she had nothing to fear. A tract of thick virgin timber, saved from the logging company by a surveyor’s mistake, surrounded the clearing on all but the west side. There the railroad track passed at the edge of the sky. Her ears tuned to sounds of leaf whisper and high cricket drone. Hawks drifted in circles above and below her line of sight. This, like dawn, was the clean time, when the earth did not tremble with far-off crash of trees, and passing trains did not smother the air.

The better parts of two years with Jamie begged to be remembered. They might be as much as anyone had. They might be more. She closed her eyes and saw how his face transformed when he smiled, how the edge of his lip turned up. She remembered the rhythm of his work songs, how she shivered when his hands stopped her in the garden or at the stove. She felt his lips on her neck and the length of him against her those Saturday nights, when he took her breath--those Sundays, when they knew what mattered.


Thanks, Carol.

If you'd like to see more from Carol, please visit her at

If you'd like to purchase The Girl on the Mountain, please visit

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