In her novel Landscape of a Marriage, Gail Ward Olmsted (Yes! A relative of THE Frederick Law Olmsted) quotes Fred as saying, “…in a civilized country, no man should be expected to walk, let alone interact with others before consuming a sufficient amount of coffee.” I have never felt so close to someone I’ve never met before! But unlike Fred, I do not typically have black coffee and pickles for breakfast. Perhaps that is the secret to years of enjoyable and productive work?
I am honored to have Gail with me for this month’s Coffee Chat. I hope you will pour a cup of coffee, however you enjoy it, and join us as we talk about the research process for an historical work, why it’s important to keep the reader in mind, and Gail’s definition of literary success!
Me: Are you a coffee drinker? What is your go-to beverage when writing?
Gail: I adore coffee, black and strong! I would drink it all day long if I could, but these days if I want to get a decent night’s sleep, I switch to decaf or water by early afternoon. I usually keep a Yeti mug of water nearby at all times.
Me: When did you first feel like a writer?
Gail: My first book is titled Jeep Tour, set in beautiful Sedona, AZ. I started writing it on a lark following a trip there with my family. It took me years to really focus and get it published. When that first shipment of printed books appeared on my doorstep, I knew I wanted to have that amazing feeling again and again. It never gets old!
Me: Describe your writing process. Do you outline? Does it change depending on the project?
Gail: Landscape is my fifth novel and the first historical work I’ve written. Since I was telling a story about real people set in a time I knew little about, I was very careful to learn what life was really like in the second half of the 19th century. I researched everything, and I created an outline to plot out the story – to keep it moving as it spans more than 40 years.
Me: In this book you give voice to a character who was hidden in the shadow of her husband. What was the most interesting thing you learned about her?
Gail: There has been very little written about Mary Olmsted, so I chose to create a compelling main character who could keep up with her workaholic visionary husband, give birth to seven children and figure out how to thrive in such a chaotic time. Landscape of a Marriage is the story of Mary’s journey which begins with a marriage of convenience, borne of duty and obligation, not romantic love. I needed to reveal her strength and compassion and love for her family and friends. I wanted to give her the passionate union that I felt she deserved.
Me: How long did you spend researching this project? What was the process like? Did you ever consider putting it aside?
Gail: I read every book and article I could find about Frederick Law Olmsted, and there are plenty. He wrote several himself! I tried to focus on his personal life but as he involved his family in everything he did, it was impossible to not get caught up in all of his professional accomplishments. I found myself writing a scene (actually a chapter) then going back to research the details- what Mary would be wearing, what the family ate for dinner and how they spent their time. Then I would make the needed changes or enhancements and move on to the next chapter. I never put it aside for more than a day or two for nearly three years!
Me: In your Author Note, you mention “writing the book you want to read.” Is the final product what you intended, or did some aspects change along the way? What is it like to read your own finished book?
Gail: I originally wrote Landscape in the third person, but I found I connected so much better with Mary and her life by rewriting it in the first person. I also edited the final manuscript and reduced the final word count by about 10%. I’ve since read sections or individual chapters, but never the whole book from start to finish. I am fairly certain that I never will.
Me: What other books do you want to read? In other words, what are some stories you still need to tell?
Gail: I’m working on a contemporary story about a disgraced assistant district attorney. She is attempting a career comeback as a legal advice blogger and is about to host her own daytime TV show. I love stories about redemption, second chances. This will be my sixth book and all of my main characters share that goal, that search for their ‘happily ever after.’
Me: If you could have coffee with Mary Olmsted, what would you ask her?
Gail: That would be a wonderful conversation! I would ask her to share some of her memories of traveling and some of her favorite places. She spent a good deal of time in Europe, went to California during the Gold Rush, and to Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1893. She lived in New York, Washington DC, California, Maine and Boston, moving her growing family along with her each time. I would ask her, ‘Where did you get your energy? How many cups of coffee did it take?’
Me: If you could offer your younger self some writing advice, what would it be?
Gail: I would remind myself to always keep my focus on the reader. At the end of the day, it’s all about them- their enjoyment, their connection with the characters and the story. Save the self-indulgence for journals and diaries, I would advise myself. Tell the story you want to tell, but make sure it’s one your readers will want to read!
Me: What is your definition of literary success?
Gail: For me, success is not about sales or rankings or how much money I earn, although I’ve got no problem cashing royalty checks. I do love to read a good review from a reader who ‘gets’ me and I have this fantasy that I’ll be sitting somewhere on a plane or a park bench and I’ll look over and see a total stranger reading one of my books and smiling. That would be fabulous!
Purchase Landscape of a Marriage by Gail Ward Olmsted (Available July 29, 2021).
***Authors and publicists: if you would like a book considered for an upcoming Coffee Chat, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Order I Love You More Than Coffee by Melissa Face.