Interviews

Nobel Prize Winning Interview with Leah Angstman

Hey everybody, it has been a little while since my last interview and there are two reasons for that: the continual ignoring of me by the Nobel Prize committee and a crazy number of amazing books turning up that are begging to be read by me. One of those that turned up was by Leah Angstman, a rather stunning story that made the ice cold heart inside me melt…I reckon Leah started some kind of climate change in me…so I thought she was the ideal candidate to get my interviewing back on track. So, wave hysterically at Leah as she answers the following questions.

Q1: Tell us a bit about yourself and how have you been handling the pandemic? 

LA: I have trouble introducing myself—I know myself quite well, but I struggle to put words to what I know. I process in blips of odd facts rather than in any kind of linear structure. I’m a mama to 1-year-old Torgo—a German Shepherd christened after a laughable villain with goat legs in a tragically awful 60s horror movie—the editor of Alternating Current Press and The Coil, and the author of Out Front the Following Sea, a novel of French and English colonial tensions during King William’s War in 17th-century New England (Regal House, January 2022). I’m good at arranging other people’s syntax, terrible at speaking aloud, and sorta okay at history.

I’m as bored as is everyone of the pandemic, but I’ve gotten by all right. I run my own business and work from home, so I was luckily in a better position than a lot of people, and I was able to hustle for some freelance editing gigs when my partner was put on half-pay. But 2020 was 10 years in one: my dog died, my cat died, my dad almost died, my state was on fire, ash fell from the sky every time I tried to breathe. Funny thing is that I haven’t written one single word about the pandemic the whole time we’ve been enduring it—it drains me even to think about. If historians look back on other historians, then some future historian will wonder why my slate is so blank for such a crucial moment in time. But the world was too real to me; I lost the desire to read novels, fiction felt cheap, and I suppose I looked for answers in the past, like I usually do—I read more research archives in 2020 alone than I had for the entirety of my life prior combined. But, hey, I’m still here. Still staying home. Vaccinated. Just … waiting it out, partially calm and partially binge-raging a lot like this.

Q2:  How did you come up with the idea for the plot of Out Front The Following Sea?

LA: Everything about Out Front the Following Sea was an accident. I had written poetry since I was a teenager and had never even penned so much as a prose poem or microfiction when I randomly thought one day that I should start an epic novel. Which I of course shouldn’t have, because I spent the next 11 years trying to undo every sentence I’d initially written. The book was an excellent exercise in editing and reediting and reediting, but the first iteration, clocking in at nearly double the length she is now, didn’t even have a plot. I was Virginia Woolfing just to hear myself talk and purple-prosing like a Melvillian disciple, but so much of it ended up being useless. I don’t think the plot even truly found itself until draft two or three.

Q3:  You must have done a lot of research to create this story. It comes across as feeling very authentic, especially the use of language. How did you go about doing the research? (I loved that you included a map of the ship at the start, did you get the chance to go on one?)

LA: In the most simplistic terms, I love language. I thrill at discovering “new” old words and can’t wait to insert them into some future passage. For this particular book, it was very important for me to make sure the Pequot language was portrayed as authentically as possible, which was its own kind of challenge because it wasn’t a written language, and the last Native Pequot speaker died in 1908. It’s considered an extinct language. There are close dialectal variations (Mohegan), close Eastern Algonquian cognates, some fragments of remaining scholarly attempts to capture a few phrases and syntax, but I largely had to piece together the structure from white translators’ and colonial settlers’ vocabulary lists from the 1600s and 1700s, which of course is problematic in its own right. You can find a resource list for those translations in the back of the novel.

The older words I use within the English language tend to come from diaries and written accounts of the time. My favorite way to get the feel of a place and time is to read really boring things, like itemized cost lists from merchant shops, town records (births, deaths, weddings, properties, census, wealth accounts), farming almanacs, newspapers (especially classifieds and advertisements), local diaries or record-keeping journals of regular civilians, local histories put together by resident town historians and archivists, scientific papers, and personal letters written back and forth between everyday people. My reading list tends to look a little like Henry David Thoreau mentioning the cost of each nail to build his house. I pay particular attention to architecture, how people would have moved within a given space under certain restrictions, historical weather, and even what the actual phase of the moon was on a given night.

And lastly, the ship. Ah, the ship. I love to draw maps, and since so much time is spent onboard the fluyt Primrose, the diagram had to be included. But the nautical realm is not my area of expertise (though it is my area of affection), so I do my best with my Treasure Island-understanding of daring ship adventures, close my eyes, and cross my fingers that I get most of it right, and I avoid mentioning the difficult ship lingo and items that escape me as a land-dweller. The diagram comes from an amalgamation of real diagrams of the time period, but no, I’ve never been on a fluyt, nor any ship that old. I have been on some stunning and fascinating ships, however—among them Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous flagship US Brig Niagara, a great 1797 East Indiaman replica called the Friendship of Salem, and the world’s actual oldest ship of any type still afloat, the USS Constitution aka “Old Ironsides.”

Q4:  There are some brutal scenes in your book. Was it is hard to write them?  Are there any bits you wished you had done differently?

LA: My book is a lot less brutal than actual history was, but yes, I write brutal and violent stories. There are enough people who romanticize history into silly ruffles and cotillions, and I’ve never been big on that. History generally sucked for most people, and only the tiniest sliver of a privileged class got to enjoy anything—mind you, they still pooped in pots and holes in the ground—and usually their privilege was at the expense of someone else’s agony. I consider it a great trait of mine that I can look back at historical events without rose-colored glasses and am able to see clearly that even the historical folks I admire had plenty of flaws. There are no real heroes in history—just people doing what they think is right (or specifically what they think is wrong) at the time to muddy it all up into a palette of grays. I love the nuances that so many stories miss, but with each nuance comes the necessity of tackling uncomfortable truths. History is an ugly beast, and the discomfort is what I love most about her. She’s wildly imperfect and dark.

So, were the brutal scenes hard to write? No, on the contrary—they were hard for me to rein in. I could have made everything so much worse and still been within historical accuracy, and I don’t always know where to draw that line. I have to rely on editors to tell me when my brutality is too much.

As for what I might have done differently, eh. A story goes through so many different iterations, and at some point, you finally have to say you’re done and walk away from it. I could write it and rewrite it and change a hundred things and end up with an entirely different story, but it ends where it ends, and I’ve walked away from it. I’m too busy for that kind of regret. If there’s something I should have done differently, I’ll recycle it for some other story in the future. She is the beast she is. Let her go.

Q5:  Where do you do your writing?  Do you have an interesting view?

LA: I don’t have any one specific place where I do my writing. I lounge on multiple couches, sit at the kitchen table, stand at a standing desk, write in bed, sit in my backyard, write in the car, pace all through the house, talk into my voice recorder while I’m walking the dog. This entire book was first handwritten (yes, handwritten!) on loose-leaf lined paper while sitting on a bean bag in front of an iron stove heater in the dead of a freezing winter over the course of a few weeks, and by the end of the first draft, my neck hurt so bad that I had to ice it for days. So, do I have an interesting view? Sometimes. I do have the Rocky Mountains right in my backyard. Sometimes I have an incredible sunrise. Sometimes this face is my view.

Q6:  Your book is out this January. You got any publicity plans to get it noticed?

LA: Wait, I thought this interview was going to win the Nobel Prize? That’s what I’ve been banking on all along.

In all seriousness, I have purchased lots of advertising space in literary marketplaces, am in the middle of a huge mailing campaign to bookstores, am spending a ton of money I don’t have on advance reader copies, and am planning several U.S. tours throughout 2022 to bookstores, colleges, libraries, and literary festivals. Everything else is just hustle, hustle, hustle.

Q7:  Are you much of a reader?  What is your favourite book?

LA: I’m an avid reader, though most of what I read “doesn’t count” for reading challenges, Goodreads, or booklists. I read a ton of old research documents, letters, treaties, legislature, old medical journals, and of course I read a ton of submissions for Alternating Current Press. I try to read one “real” book per week, so I always set my Goodreads Challenge for 52 books per year, but most of them tend to be audiobooks while dogwalking or poetry books if I slip behind in my challenge and have to catch up. The rest of the time, I’m stuck reading these 800-page biographies that I can hardly hold open in my hands.

My favorite books are all old nostalgic (and brutal) kids’/YA books from my youth: The Witch of Blackbird Pond, My Brother Sam Is Dead, The Summer of My German Soldier, Johnny Tremain, Call of the Wild. For big-kid books, I love the ones that tear me to pieces: Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Killer Angels, The Things They Carried, Lonely Hearts Hotel, and a handful of others that you can find on my Bookshop list. My favorite book is in there somewhere, but it changes from day to day.

Q8:  If you could go into a book or movie as one of the characters, which book would you choose and how would you influence the story?

LA: The dog lover in me would say Rin Tin Tin, or Buck from Call of the Wild, but there’s little I’d change except giving a swift buttkick to the Man in the Red Sweater for clubbing dogs. I guess I should leave it at that, so I don’t crash headlong into spoiler alerts. I can think of a gazillion I’d-make-this-person-not-die scenarios, but I don’t want to spoil the stories for those who haven’t read them!

Q9:  What is your favourite meal?  And if you could pick one person to share that meal with, who would you pick?

LA: Comfort food, mostly any kind of mac and cheese. The history nerd in me says I’d want to share it with the marquis de Lafayette, first circa 1781, coming off the triumph of Yorktown, to see him at his happiest, but then at a second meal later, after the agony of the French Revolution, after being jailed for years, after leaving the French legislature (but before being asked to come back to America, so let’s say early 1824), to ask him what parts were worth it, and what parts he’d do over if he could. Maybe I’d have a third mac and cheese with him on his deathbed and just let him ramble and reflect in a pneumoniatic haze while I write it all down, the arbiter of his memoirs.

But if you caught me unawares with this question on the street, the fangirl in me would probably just squeal and blurt out: Bruce Springsteen! I’d totally have mac and cheese with The Boss.

Q10:  When your book eventually gets made into a series/movie who would you like to play the parts of Ruth, Owen and Samuel?

LA: Oooof, this is very difficult because Owen was actually fashioned with a young Wes Bentley in mind, circa 2002 in The Four Feathers (only with shaggy hair), and I just don’t know anyone today who comes close to that. Wes Bentley is too old now to play a twenty-something, but Hollywood! If you’re listening! Find me a young Wes Bentley! But if I have to pick someone of age, then okay, let’s go with … Dylan Sprayberry? With shoulder-length scruffy hair, some dirt and sweat, rolled-up sleeves, and a five o’clock shadow. Is he versatile enough, though? It’s a pretty taxing role.

For Ruth, hmmm, I don’t know very many young stars these days. I think I’ll pick Sophia Lillis. She’s the rightish age and has incredible natural beauty (those freckles!). Give her long hair and we’ve got a Ruth.

For Sam, I guess I imagine him as a younger Russell-Crowe-as-Javert, but since that’s not an option anymore, well, I’ve always been a fan of the unnerving eyes and commanding voice of Richard Armitage. He can be equally placating and terrifying.

Q11:  What plans you got for the future? Any new books coming out after Out Front the Following Sea?

LA: I’m slow to finish things, but I’m not slow to start things. I always have a poetry collection, a story collection, an immediate novel, and a long-range novel that I’m working on at any given time. I try to write one poem per weekend, one short story per month, one novel per year, and one long-range novel over the span of as long as it takes. (For the bigtime fans, you can subscribe to my Patreon for my story-a-month and poem-a-week posts.)

So, my poetry project is currently a longform narrative about the marquis de Lafayette during his time in the French National Guard; and following the completion of that one, I’ll begin an epic biography-in-verse of my twelfth-great uncle, American Revolutionary War “hero” (myth? legend? folklore? actually a stubborn pain-in-the-arse?) Ethan Allen. I’m currently shopping a poetry collection about the American Midwest and the selling of my childhood home (which has been three times a bridesmaid, never a bride: she’s been a finalist in the Cowles Poetry Book Prize and the Able Muse Book Award, and a semifinalist in the Hillary Gravendyk Prize), and I’ve got another completed feminist poetry collection about women in history that’s getting its final editing touches from beta readers and should be ready to shop in 2022.

For short stories, my current project is Second Sons. It’s a riff on the horrible “The _____’s Daughter” title trend, but each historical story is titled “The _____’s Son,” and it’s about the tragedies of secondborn sons throughout history (but don’t worry, there are plenty of ladies in it; it’s not a sausagefest, I promise). It’s turned out to be shockingly dark so far, even for me. Next on deck after that is Imagined Endings for the Disappeared, a collection of made-up endings for the real-life disappearances of historical people. And my agent and I are currently shopping my first completed story collection of short, non-linked “histories,” which includes my favorite thing I’ve ever written, a novella about a female botanist in the 1850s.

And ah, the novels, novels, novels. My second novel, about the French Revolution, currently longlisted for a Goethe Award for post-1750s historical fiction, is under consideration from a press right now, and we’re hoping for a spring 2023 release for that one, especially since Paris seems to be a hot trending topic in historical fiction at the moment (though the book was first written in 2011, when no one cared about the trend yet). If you thought my first novel was brutal, lol, wait until you get to the noyades de Nantes. My agent is also shopping my third novel, about the decline of the Gold Rush in 1850s Sacramento Valley, which is currently longlisted for a Laramie Award for Americana fiction; and my in-the-works project is my fourth novel—an accidental loose sequel to the latter book, taking place ten years later at the end of the American Civil War in the western wilderness. And of less interest to you, probably, is that I’m working on a series of historical coming-of-age stories for middle-graders, about young girls and boys/pre-teens/teens living in various places in the U.S. throughout history, exploring different regions, historical events, wars, cultures, &c. Those are under a pen name because of the brutality of my adult books.

The current long-range novel project looks like it’s going to end up being a trilogy. It’s an ungodly ambitious alternative history of the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars, featuring real-life historical individuals. It’s a lot. I’ve had to read six huge biographies just for the first two paragraphs’ worth of writing. Based on that, I think the first book will take me three years to finish, and the entire trilogy (if it turns out to be a trilogy) will take me 10 to 15 years. Wish me luck!

Practical task:  I am doing a gnome gallery on my blog, can you create a piece of artwork based on Gnomes, can be any medium and you are welcome to name the piece. 

Massive thanks to Leah for such a great interview, some fantastic books to look forward to in the future. And Sophia Lillis is an awesome actress and would love to see her playing Ruth.

Leah Angstman is the author of the debut novel of King William’s War in 17th-century New England, OUT FRONT THE FOLLOWING SEA (Regal House, January 2022), and the editor-in-chief of Alternating Current Press and The Coil magazine. Find her at leahangstman.com and all over social media as @leahangstman.

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