Monday, September 29, 2014
P.S. Duffy is the September Author in the Spotlight here on Booksnob's blog and I decided to ask her some questions about her book, her writing life and the books she loves and recommends. Read on to learn more about P.S. Duffy and her novel, The Cartographer of No Man's Land.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I came to Minnesota from Washington, DC almost 30 years ago to get my doctorate at the University of Minnesota and never left this land of lakes and dreams. I love the open skies, The distant horizons, and the people, and think our grandchildren are lucky to be growing up here in Rochester. I’ve been writing all my life and now write for Mayo Clinic. I’m the author of essays, scientific papers, a text book on right hemisphere brain damage, and a memoir, called A Stockbridge Homecoming, about my family’s time during the Communist Revolution in China, where I was born in the late 1940s. People find it odd that my writing crosses from the neurosciences to fiction, but both science and fiction require imagination, precision of language, and a leap of faith from idea to execution. I was a dreamer as a child and I still am.
2. What inspired you to write The Cartographer of No Man’s Land?
I always knew I’d one day set a book in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, where my family had a summer house. When I first saw the bay at age ten, I was struck by an overwhelming sense that I’d been there before. It was that familiar to me. Back then I played pirates and wrote pirate stories set among the islands. When I started this book, a vision of a father and son came to me—a very vivid scene. The rest of the characters filled without effort, and I knew I had entered a world unknown to me before … and yet somehow familiar. Imagining that world, those relationships was easy; getting it right on the page took numerous revisions before I could bear to let it go out into the real world.
3. How long did it take you to conduct the research for this book of historical fiction? And why did you choose the period of World War I?
The research took four or five years during which time I continued to write and revise. I researched both the First World War and life in Nova Scotia circa 1917. Initially I set the story right after the war, but as I did the research, the war kind of snuck up on me, and soon I began to see my characters in it, particularly after visiting the battlefield cemeteries in France, which brought me to my knees—a humbling, deeply emotional experience.
4. Usually an author puts some of her own life experiences in the book. Did you do that? Do you have anything in common with your characters?
The boat Simon Peter designs is modeled after a little wooden sailboat I used to own; his mucking about in boats and certain scenes, like watching twin dolphin cross the bow of a becalmed boat, are things I experienced around his age. My grandfather, Simon Peter, a man whom I never met, was from Nova Scotia and was reportedly a good but most often a very bad man. I now think I was subconsciously trying to rehabilitate him by naming this golden boy of a character Simon Peter. My father was an Episcopalian minister, so the thread of Angus’s experience in the seminary and the pacifism of his father, Duncan, are familiar to me. My mother was definitely not a pacifist and is the model for Ida, the down-to-earth housekeeper. There’s a bit of her in Duncan as well. And there’s a bit of me in many of the characters—I ’d like to think especially in Angus, the reluctant soldier, but I
can only strive for his humility and grace.
5. The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is your first novel. Can you tell us why or when you decided to become a writer?
I began writing around age eight with a few tragic stories, silly and sad poems, and a novel, handwritten into a speckle-covered copy book. It was about the impossible friendship between a rich boy and a poor boy, which, for some reason, I set in Greece, a country I knew absolutely nothing about. In my family, my sister Patty played the piano; my sister Polly painted, and I, Penny, took pen in hand. Writing fed my soul then and does now, but aside from the masterpiece I wrote at eight, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land was the first piece of fiction I wrote with publication in mind. Within two years of writing it, it was in print. Sometimes the stars align, the timing is right, and you can’t believe your good fortune.
6. Are you currently working on a new novel and will you share part of the plot with us?
I am! But I don’t want to share any more than to say that you’d recognize some of the characters.
7. Do you like to read? What authors or books influence you?
Yes! Love to read. At odds with this fast-paced world, I’m a fan of the long form essay, especially in areas I know little about. I also love fiction. For their vivid imagery and rhythm of language my early influences were G.M. Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and the earliest--Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward Angel. My current favorites are Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Atonement for plot, setting, character development; Colm Toibin’s The Master for the richness of his prose and fullness of the narrator’s voice; and strangely, Paul Harding’s Tinkers, a wild, stream-of-consciousness, nearly hallucinogenic book that took my breath away—a book you either love or hate. I’d add Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and must say that though I rarely read mystery, Gone Girl had me turning pages with increasing speed until I reached the end. Right now I’m reading John Williams’ Stoner and Kate Adkinson’s Life after Life—enjoying them both.
8. Name one book that you believe is a must read and tell us why?
To me, To Kill A Mockingbird is pitch-perfect in every way.
9. What is the most important lesson/idea you want readers to take away from your book, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land?
That our saving grace, our best hope in times of upheaval is found in the small, quiet acts of humanity that bind us to one another.
10. Tell us in one sentence why we should read The Cartographer of No Man’s Land
Many readers have told me that the world of Cartographer stays with them long after they have finished the book and becomes like a memory of their own making.
If you like to win a copy of P.S. Duffy's book, The Cartographer of No Man's Land, enter here: The Cartographer of No Man's Land Giveaway