Friday, May 19, 2017

A Q & A with Sarah Shoemaker, author of Mr Rochester

On May 15 The Berkley Public Library and local bookstore Book Beat sponsored a Q and A with Michigan author Sarah Shoemaker whose first book Mr. Rochester went on sale this week.

I was thrilled to chat with Sarah before the program. I learned she was a United Brethren pastor's daughter who was lucky to spend 15 years in one parish.

Sarah began by introducing herself, talking about her career and lifelong interest in writing, and how the book came to be written.

A lifelong writer with a stack of unpublished manuscripts, when her son went to college Sarah returned to school to become a librarian. After she and her husband left Metro-Detroit for Up North she became involved with the local book club. Their choice of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte led to a discussion weighing why Jane would love the gruff, angry Mr. Rochester. A remark that someone should tell his story got Sarah thinking. On the drive home, she decided she would be the one to discover Mr. Rochester's story.

She began by reading period books, then started in writing, continuing her research to understand the 19th c writing style and the background history for her story. She was thankful for the Michigan Electronic Library for obtaining the 50 or so books she needed for her work, including an 1836 volume held together by a rubber band and a rare narrative, Marley, about running a Jamaican plantation.

It took two years of writing and one year of rewriting before Sarah's manuscript was handed over to her agent. The agent met with Grand Central Publishing whose new editor was hired to expand their brand into literary fiction. And the book was sold!

Sarah's editor was precise and demanding, resulting in a flurry of rewriting. In a year the book was ready for market.

When asked about cover ideas, Sarah imagined an English landscape painting with a silhouette of Rochester, back turned, as if surveying the scene. When she saw the cover of a man's silhouette revealing a Jamaican landscape painting it was not what she expected. After reviewing English landscapes, she decided that the cover was, after all, the best choice. The audience agreed it is a great cover.

Another interesting tidbit about the cover is the typeface font and style imitates the first published edition of Jane Eyre, down to the periods.
title page of Jane Eyre, 1847 edition
Sarah explained that 19th c books were not bound with covers as bookbinding was a separate industry from printing. People paid to have a book bound for their permanent library, often in a matching style.

I had detected a Dickensian feel to Mr. Rochester's boyhood story. Sarah told the audience that Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens was a source for understanding the experience of Rochester's education, but she wanted a positive experience for her hero. The friends he made at school offered him the love and acceptance he lacked from his father and brother.

Sarah carefully considered how to keep Rochester true to his own character, and I thought did a great job.

When asked what was Rochester's pivotal life event, Sarah considered and determined that it was his Jamaican experience. Married to the mad Bertha altered his entire life, and even brought him to be the tortured resident of Thornfield Hall who is saved by the love of Jane Eyre.

Another member of the audience questioned Rochester's lack of class consciousness. At one point while an apprentice he tries to befriend a factory worker and is repelled. Sarah noted that in the 19th c, as too often is the case today, those in positions of power often used it for sexual favors. Rochester had to learn to respect class lines. Consequently, Sarah imagined he was careful in his situation as Jane's employer so as not to be seen as abusing his power over her.

Sarah read the opening paragraphs of her book, told first person in Rochester's voice. He tells he was raised by a "succession of nursemaids and governesses, who were sometimes bad and other times worse. It was years before I could think of a governess as anyone other than a presence that must be borne." And for those readers 'in the know' we understand the irony of this statement.

Read my review on Mr. Rochester at https://theliteratequilter.blogspot.com/2017/05/mr-rochester-by-sarah-shoemaker.html