I had a great time with Kathleen Ernst at the Historical Novel Society Conference where we sat together on a panel. I was so pleased she agreed to be interviewed. Her latest book is Hearts of Stone, set during the Civil War. The New York Public Library has selected it among their Books for the Teen Age list and it has received many other honors.
I'm not sure if we choose our stories or if they choose us. What was the case with Hearts of Stone?
Hmmn, a very interesting question! I think Hearts of Stone chose me.
I'm never short of ideas; I have so many story ideas swirling in my head that I'll never have time to write them all. But somehow, certain stories wriggle up to the top of my subconscious, nudging until I take the time to write this particular story. Sometimes stories simmer for years before I feel compelled to write them. Other times it happens more quickly, and this was the case with Hearts of Stone. As soon as I started reading and thinking about homeless refugee children during the Civil War, Hannah appeared, wanting her story to be told.
What were the challenges in bringing this story to life?
Patience, patience, patience. I wrote the rough draft in probably about six months, then spent eight years revising, marketing, revising again.
In hindsight, I realize how much I learned about the craft while revising this novel. It's a much better story than it was in its earliest incarnations, and I'm glad (now!) that it didn't sell quickly!
I did major revisions for several editors before the novel found the perfect home at Dutton. My Dutton editor asked for only one significant change, which called for starting the story in a different place by adding a new first chapter. I did, and I *love* the addition. I'm trying to hold on to that knowledge--that it's OK, even necessary at times, to take years delving into a novel, polishing, deepening, making it the best I can.
How do you feel teens relate to Hannah?
I think teens can relate to Hannah in a couple of different ways.
First, they see modern refugees on the news, but often know very little
about their experiences. I hope that reading Hannah's story will help them imagine the plight of all the young people made homeless by wars and violence. Perhaps it can help personalize what they see on TV. And in a broader sense, I think teens can relate to the core emotions Hannah had to grapple with: grief, hurt feelings, homesickness, worry, regret, the burdens of responsibility. The time and place may be very different, but the human emotions transcend any period.
Many historical fiction authors have a favorite time period. Do you?
I've written five novels and one nonfiction book about the American
Civil War, which obviously says something! I grew up in Maryland,
surrounded by Civil War history, and certainly that fostered my interest. I've written about many times and places, though, and would not want to be identified only with the Civil War. I enjoy the challenge of delving into a new period. In any case, I try to look for untold stories--little known threads that have largely or entirely escaped novelists' notice.
What can your fans look forward to next?
I have a new historical mystery, "The Runaway Friend," coming out in Spring 2008. It's set in Minnesota in the 1850s, and is about a Swedish family settling into their new home. I'll soon start work on another historical mystery, which is slated for release in 2009. I've also just finished an historical ghost story that I'm quite excited about! I hope to have more news to share about that soon. Readers can always keep up with the latest on my website, http://www.kathleenernst.com/.