There’s an old saying about teaching and writing that goes like this: Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.
Bestselling author Jodi Daynard has done both.
For years she taught creative writing at Harvard University and essay and short story writing at MIT. At Newton South High School, she even started a horror and science fiction class, where students read Frankenstein, Beowulf, Ray Bradbury and Flannery O'Connor.
Between classes she wrote stories and reviews for the New York Times Book Review, the Village Voice, the Paris Review, AGNI, FICTION, and the New England Review. She finished a few contemporary novels too—and shelved them. In the 1990s, she convinced a group of well-known authors to write about their favorite places for The Place Within: Portraits of the American Landscape by Twenty Contemporary Writers.
Then she read a book that changed her life: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785 – 1812. Ulrich’s look at the world of midwifery intrigued Daynard. Midwives were privy to lots of personal information because of their work as healers. “What if a midwife came to wash a body and discovered that the person didn’t die of natural causes?” she wondered.
Daynard created Lizzie Boylston, a Massachusetts midwife, and dropped her into colonial North America, where she joined real life characters Abigail Adams and George Washington during the country's struggle for independence. It wasn’t a stretch; Daynard had studied American history in graduate school. The Midwife's Revolt, published in 2015, became a #1 Amazon bestseller in historical fiction.
"This humorous, exciting and touching story retells the familiar saga of the Revolutionary War in a stunning new way that feels fresh and alive, and Lizzie emerges as a dynamic heroine who pushes against the boundaries of her time," said Kirkus Reviews.
Daynard followed Revolt with two more historical novels: Our Own Country and A More Perfect Union.
Daynard, who lives outside of Boston, will deliver one of several keynote talks at the Historical Writers of America's conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in September.
She stopped teaching last year to write full time. But she’ll have plenty to say about writing and her new book at the conference, which runs from Sept. 21-24. This week, HWA board member Paul Davis asked her a few questions about her work, interests and writing habits.
Paul: I recently read your dark take on suburbia in an essay you wrote called “Suburbia, U.S.A.” It’s not a friendly place. One passage stands out: “I remember playing with my friend Paula in her house in Scarsdale. While we played, her mother sat before a mirror in a far-off bedroom, staring at herself in a negligee, puffing on a cigarette.” How did you go from topics like "suburbia" to midwives and the American Revolution? Did you ever consider writing a contemporary novel?
Jodi: Now, wait a sec--there are two questions here! When I was young, I felt very motivated to write personal essays. People said that I had a “voice,” and I got a lot of positive reinforcement for my essays—that is, I got them published pretty easily. I always wrote novels, too, but for a long time they didn’t go anywhere, so I figured, “All right, I guess I’m an essayist.”
Somewhere, stashed away on various obsolete hard drives, are my first three novels, all contemporary. When I’m on my death bed, I’ll probably instruct someone to burn them. I went to graduate school in history, but at first it had no connection to my fiction. Then, over time, my love for early American history and artifacts merged with my narrative sensibility. I also quickly discovered that by placing characters in a faraway time, I gained much more freedom to explore them than when they felt too close to me.
I became fascinated by the early midwife figure because she was privy to the most intimate aspects of a family’s life, and also because she was an “outlier.” In performing a community service, the colonial midwife was permitted to use her talents and intelligence in a way most other women were not. The midwife figure was the beginning of my obsession with society’s outliers.
Paul: Were you working on The Midwife's Revolt while still teaching high school? Did you self-publish before you left your teaching post?
Jodi: Yes, I’ve written all my novels, except my very first one, while teaching. My first teaching job, actually, was at Harvard University, where I spent four years before moving on to M.I.T. and then Emerson. Later on, switching to high school made life easier for a number of reasons, but working two jobs was still very arduous: I literally worked all day and did little else. It’s not a lifestyle I’d recommend for people who want “balance” in their lives! And yes, I published The Midwife’s Revolt on my own while I was still teaching.
Paul: I'd like to know a little more about your 13 years as a teacher at Newton South High School. What books did you teach? How interested were the students?
Jodi: The best teachers, like the best writers, have a unique voice. My teacher-voice was strongest at the college or graduate school level, where students were eager to learn what I had to teach. Moving from college to high school teaching, I essentially had to remove my writer’s hat and don a parental one. I loved my young students, but in the end, they needed me more emotionally than academically. I tried to get them excited about writing and to understand the basic human drive to tell stories. Sometimes, I made an electric “campfire” in the middle of the room, and they would bring in blankets and take turns telling the fireside stories they had written. They loved that! Grammar and thesis development? Not so much. In high school, I got to teach some of my favorite books: Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Hamlet, and Jane Eyre. But few students fell in love with these books the way I did when I was their age. Most high school students these days are not very avid readers. Many don’t read at all unless they’re forced to.
Paul: You also taught a horror and science fiction course. Did you introduce it? What books were assigned?
Jodi: I developed a horror class while I was teaching at Harvard. I thought it would be popular, and it was. We read a lot of classics as well as some things that others wouldn’t consider “horror,” including parts of The Odyssey and Beowulf, and Frankenstein, War of The Worlds, H.P. Lovecraft, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Bradbury…I could go on. My high school seniors loved the horror class, too, especially when I added some dark science fiction. It attracted all the nerds—I felt right at home!
In some ways, horror literature is at the root of my early development as a writer. While I never wanted to write horror myself, as a teenager I was definitely drawn to the literary “dark side.” I loved Edgar Allen Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. Their fiction spoke to my personal sense of reality, my sense of what it meant to be human.
Paul: At HWA, we celebrate both self-published and traditionally published authors. Did you consider a traditional publisher for The Midwife's Revolt?
Jodi: Oh, sure. Well, The Midwife’s Revolt has a traditional publisher now. But about five years ago, my wonderful agent, Emma Patterson, tried very hard to sell it, and everyone pretty much said the same thing: there was no market for American historical fiction. Also, I was relatively unknown at the time, and the publishing industry was under a great deal of pressure to reverse the trend of dwindling profits by taking on blockbusters. This was just at the time digital publishing was gaining legs. Looking back, I see clearly the various forces that conspired to derail our efforts. But at the time, the rejection was very demoralizing. I’m glad I persevered, though. I self-published Midwife, which was soon scooped up by Lake Union Publishers. The novel went on to sell well over 100,000 copies and is still selling well. So, I guess those folks who wouldn’t take a risk on me were mistaken. There are some lessons to be learned here.
Paul: What is it like working with Amazon?
Jodi: Amazon, Amazon, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Now, I know not everyone feels similarly, but that’s a discussion for another time and place. Amazon has a conventional publishing wing comprising something like fourteen imprints, including my publisher, Lake Union. Lake Union has published three of my novels now, and I doubt anything could ever tempt me away from them. My editor, Jodi Warshaw, is an incredible human being and has supported me from the very beginning. Lake Union also has a terrific staff, including careful copyeditors, proofreaders, audio producers, and some heavy-hitting marketing wizards. Production is blazingly fast, which is satisfying for an energetic writer with a lot of catching up to do. At first, I admit, it felt odd that they didn’t focus on traditional ways of marketing like author tours, readings, newspaper reviews, etc. But there’s nothing quite like having a friend call you up one morning to say that your new novel was on their Kindle screensaver. To be honest, it sometimes feels a little like I’m working with God.
Paul: What attracted you to the colonial period? In another interview, you said you do a lot of research. How much time do you spend reading letters, diaries and biographies versus writing? How do you know when you've done enough research?
Jodi: I never planned to write historical fiction. But I always loved to study history and for years have been an avid collector of early Americana. In my house, you feel like you’ve stepped into the 18th century. There’s something about the simplicity and functionality of early American objects that I find very beautiful. I feel like there’s a correspondence between America’s early artifacts and its philosophical tenets, too. Something very pure—in theory, anyway.
I got the central idea for The Midwife’s Revolt after reading Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812. My midwife, called to wash a dead body, suspects that the person did not die of natural causes but was poisoned. When I rummaged around for a setting, I lit upon Braintree, Massachusetts, during the American Revolution. I was reading the letters of John and Abigail Adams at the time and was smitten, especially with Abigail. I think I wanted to be Abigail Adams’s BFF. So, I made Lizzie Boylston her best friend, and then I lived through Lizzie. It’s a clever trick we writers get to play.
Now that I’m not teaching anymore, research moves along more quickly—maybe four months as opposed to six.
Anyway, by the time I’ve finished the research, the characters and story have grown. Scenes have come to me, movie-like, and I’ve got a pretty detailed outline. I can feel my characters rustling impatiently behind a sort of theater curtain, eager to bust out and start their drama. That’s when I know it’s time to begin writing.
Paul: I see you write your first drafts by hand. Why?
Jodi: Maybe it’s just because I’ve been doing it that way forever. But a better explanation is that I don’t like anything to come between myself and the story. A computer screen, a keyboard, a mouse—these are distractions. I don’t want to see anything except that inner world. I also don’t want to objectify it or allow my discerning inner critic time to offer any unwanted feedback. Brain-to-hand conveyance, especially for that first draft, seems the least intrusive. Future generations of writers will no doubt benefit from advanced writing recognition software, but it’s not there yet.
Paul: I also read that you revised The Midwife's Revolt 20 times! How long do you spend on a revision? What do you look for in each draft?
Jodi: When it comes to revision, I think I might be slightly deranged. Chances are that by the time you read this interview, I’ll have revised my answers at least three or four times (I’m up to seven now, actually). Maybe it’s that I’m not a very good writer but am simply a tireless reviser. I spent years writing book reviews, and that helped me to become a really critical reader. Being a critical reader is something you have to be if you want to write professionally. This is even more true if you want to write literary books, which I do. An author who is relying on the plot alone to carry the reader forward—think Grisham or Patterson--may not need to be quite so picky. But when it comes to both emotional authenticity and the use of the English language, I am a terrible perfectionist. If it doesn’t ring true emotionally and sing musically, I’m not happy.
That said, my revision process involves not so much what I look for as what I can “see” at any given time. I am pretty blind for so much of the process. For example, in my first five or so drafts I might only “see” language issues or excess wording and believe the plot to be sound. Then at draft six I’ll suddenly become horrified by the stupidity of my plot—or certain aspects of it, anyway. For the next few drafts, I need to deal with the domino-effect of having changed the plot line and, concomitantly, the characters’ motivations. Drafts eleven to fifteen, I’m back to wordsmithing the new material. Up and down it goes, like poor Sisyphus.
Paul: What's next? Will you stay in the colonial period?
Jodi: Each book inches a little closer to the present day. The next novel is set just after the Civil War and involves two girls on a train. I’ll be freer to speak about this new project at the conference in September. Maybe by the time I’m ninety, I’ll be ready to write a contemporary novel again.
Paul: Finally, which writers have influenced you? What books are currently on your night stand?
Jodi: My go-to muses are Shakespeare and Charlotte Bronte. Between the two of them, they’ve got most of the answers I personally seek. Traces of Nathaniel Hawthorne remain in my DNA, because for me he was the first novelist to recognize America’s most disturbing contradictions, and I’m obsessed with America’s contradictions. I love nonfiction, too: big, meaty biographies like David McCullough’s John Adams or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time and Team of Rivals. But when I’m actively writing or gearing up to write, I tend to stick to lighter fare, thrillers that have no chance of taxing my emotions and that I enjoy but generally forget by the next day. I can read deeply or write deeply, just not at the same time.