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March 7, 2019

Authors Maureen Doyle McQuerry and Stephanie Morrill Discuss Historical Fiction

Posted by Rebecca M
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Historical fiction allows you, the reader, to travel back in time from the safety of your couch, subway seat or other favorite reading spot. Today on Teenreads we had the chance to talk to two young adult authors who write incredible and rich historical fiction. First, Maureen Doyle McQuerry is the author of BETWEEN BEFORE AND AFTER, a dual-perspective novel where 14-year-old Molly worries about school, friends and her parents’ failed marriage, but mostly about her mother, Elaine, and her growing depression, leading her on an adventure where she discovers the impact the flu pandemic of 1918 had on her family. We also talked to Stephanie Morrill, who wrote WITHIN THESE LINES, where Evalina Cassano’s life in an Italian-American family living in San Francisco in 1941 is ordinary until she falls in love with Taichi Hamasaki, the son of Japanese immigrants, at a time when inter-racial marriage is illegal in California and Taichi and his family are forced to move to a Japanese-American internment camp. Both authors have written complex, deeply research stories about love, family and American history. Keep reading to see what they had to say about mental health representation, their characters and more. 


Teenreads.com: We’re so thrilled to be speaking with two young adult historical fiction authors today! We have Maureen McQuerry, author of BETWEEN BEFORE AND AFTER, and Stephanie Morrill, author of WITHIN THESE LINES. To get us started, could you each introduce your main characters and describe the time periods they live in?

Maureen Doyle McQuery: Elaine Fitzgerald lives in an Irish immigrant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York in 1919. Her mother and younger sister die in the Spanish Flu pandemic, her father succumbs to alcoholism and Elaine must care for herself and her younger brother Stephen. The early nineteen hundreds were a tumultuous time, World War I ended in November of 1918 just as the flu pandemic swept through the U.S. Thousands of immigrants flooded major cities. They arrived poor, desperate and hoping for a better life. Elaine’s family was one of them.

Molly Donnelly is Elaine’s daughter. She and her younger brother Angus, live with their mother in 1955 San Jose, CA. The fifties were also a time of change. World War II ended in 1945. Soldiers came home, started families and moved to newly formed suburbs to pursue the American Dream. Men’s and women’s roles were clearly defined. More than anything Molly wants to fit in, but her  family didn’t fit the mold, a reclusive, single, working mother and an uncle who performs a miracle make it difficult not to stand out. And then there’s a family secret that shows up on their doorstep.

Stephanie Morrill: My main characters are Evalina Cassano, an Italian-American girl who is passionate about social justice, and Taichi Hamasaki, a Japanese-American boy, who cares deeply about doing the right thing and honoring his family. They live in San Francisco and the story takes place right after Japan bombed pearl harbor and deals with the chaos involved as Taichi’s family is sent to Manzanar War Relocation Center.

TRC: Both of your books take place during pretty tumultuous times --- the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic and World War II. Can you explain what drew you to these divisive moments as the settings for your stories?

MDM: I have a family connection to the flu pandemic of 1918. My grandmother died in the pandemic and father, who was 10, became homeless. His stories gave me the seeds for BEFORE BETWEEN AND AFTER. I was also interested in how one event could change the trajectory of not only one family, but of generations. 600,000 people in the U.S. died during the flu pandemic. That’s more than died in World War I. The impact on families continues today. 

SM: I really wanted to talk about the incarceration of Japanese-Americans and the blatant racism involved in that decision, seeing as the majority of Americans of Italian and German descent were allowed to carry on as normal. Italian and German Americans certainly faced prejudice of their own during the war, but not the wide scale evacuation like the Japanese-Americans.

TRC: Now that we’ve set the stage a little bit, I have a few questions for each of you. Maureen, your book is told in dual narratives alternating between 1918 New York City and 1955 San Jose, California. Can you tell us why you chose this format? How did you pace each story in a way that allowed them to coexist and inform one another?

MDM: Alternating the two storylines was one of the greatest challenges in writing BBA. Molly’s story spans one summer while Elaine’s story spans years. It was tricky to know when to cut from one timeline to another, and I did a lot of moving scenes around to try to make it work. I kept Molly’s voice in first person so that it would be more immediate. I used third person for Elaine because I needed to cover a span of years.

We’re all shaped by the culture, time period and critical events of our childhood. I wanted to show how the events and the culture of the early 1900’s contributed to who Elaine became. Elaine’s family trauma and determination to survive also shaped the woman and mother she became.

Molly is a child of the 1950’s and her family situation is very different than her mother’s was at the same age. But she is also searching and longing for a more connected family. It was important that the two story lines come together in the end, the past arriving to change and redeem the present. Both Elaine and Molly realize that their own stories will keep changing and the ending can’t always be predicted from the beginning.

TRC: BETWEEN BEFORE AND AFTER is a work of historical fiction, and the timing does inform the narrative, but at the heart of your book exists a really strong mother-daughter theme that transcends time. Molly’s mother, Elaine, is battling depression and has shut herself off from most human connections, including Molly and her brother. When Molly starts to find clues about a big family secret, she thinks it might help save her mother and their family. Can you tell us a bit about their dynamic?

MDM: As teens, both Molly and Elaine struggle to save their families. The adult Elaine is distant, preoccupied and emotionally unavailable as a result of past trauma, but also as a result of guilt. Molly knows her family is full of secrets and doesn’t know how to find the answers. Like many mother and daughters, Elaine and Molly, long to be close, but don’t know how to talk about difficult subjects. I wanted the reader to realize how similar Elaine and Molly are when faced with challenges. They are both curious, determined, driven, but neither of them recognizes their similarities until the final third of the book. The reader will, long before that. 

Their relationship changes as secrets are revealed and Elaine comes to terms with past choices. But change in people happens slowly. As Molly says, “there was a loosening in Mom, like a sliver of ice had melted, changing the shape of her interior landscape in ways that were only beginning.”  I like to think their story ends with hope, “light seeping in through the cracks.”

TRC: It’s no secret that mental illness is still stigmatized in our country, but the situation has definitely improved. Can you tell us a bit about how you wrote Elaine’s depression? Did you have to be careful to avoid certain phrases or reactions that might seem anachronistic given the time period?

MDM: One phrase I avoided was the label PTSD. Many flu orphans, especially those who were forced to survive on their own, later displayed symptoms of what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. In the early 1900’s there were few social safety nets. Orphanages were overcrowded and often poorly run. Class distinctions between the flood of struggling immigrants and established wealthy families made the situation worse.

Elaine as an adult, exhibits signs of depression fueled by PTSD, but her struggles are never labeled. In the 1950’s mental illnesses including depression, PTSD and alcoholism were family secrets and rarely addressed. They were the elephant in the room. Molly is ashamed of her mother’s behavior as much as she is frightened by it, and she longs for a whole family, but she’s never really able to talk about it even with her uncle, the most stable adult in her life.

As I was writing BETWEEN BEFORE AND AFTER, I was very aware of current resiliency studies. The studies ask why some people flourish despite early trauma while other don’t. Two of the many findings that build resiliency are: having one stable, caring adult in a child’s life and the belief that we are not victims of our circumstances, but that we have the power to change them. I tried to write those two truths into Elaine and Molly’s stories.

TRC: Now onto Stephanie, whose book, WITHIN THESE LINES, is set during World War II, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. What really sets your book apart is that it focuses on two children of immigrants, Evalina, an Italian-American and Taichi, a Japanese-American. Their story kicks off when Taichi is sent to an internment camp, and Evalina becomes vocal about the injustice of it all. Can you tell us a bit about their love story?

SM: When I first had the idea for WITHIN THESE LINES, I didn’t realize that interracial marriage was actually illegal in California at the time. That broke my heart! I knew Evalina and Taichi would need to be strong characters to be defying not just family and societal expectations, but to ultimately intend to break state law in order to be together. But I also wanted to show that strength looks different on each person, so Evalina is outspoken and passionate while Taichi is more the type to quietly do the right thing even at great personal cost.

TRC: One interesting thing about Taichi’s experience in the internment camp is that it is not just anti-Japanese sentiments making him feel unsafe, but also tensions within the camp. Can you tell us more about his experience? What kind of research did you have to do to really “get inside” these sorts of camps?

SM: On top of reading multiple memoirs written by Japanese-Americans who lived in Manzanar, for a while I pretty much lived on the Densho Encyclopedia website. It’s a fantastic compilation of oral histories and original source documents from the evacuation. I was also fortunate enough to have a park ranger from Manzanar read the manuscript and help me get as accurate as I could with the camp’s very complex history.

Understandably, there were people within the camps who felt like they shouldn’t just go along with the evacuation but should speak out. And that if America was going to treat them like enemies, they would rather live freely in Japan. On the other side, many Japanese Americans believed cooperating with the U.S. government was the best way to show that they were 100 percent loyal to their country. And many fell between those two perspectives as well, I’m sure.

Both of these perspectives made a lot of sense to me, and I hope that comes through in the story even though Taichi chooses to side with those who cooperate.

TRC: Much like BETWEEN BEFORE AND AFTER, your book also contains themes that will speak to modern readers while still reflecting the divide in America during World War II. What do you hope readers will take away from the racial injustices and social justice efforts that take place in WITHIN THESE LINES?

SM: There’s a line in the book when Evalina overhears a family friend saying that she’s in favor of the evacuation because “why risk it?” Evalina thinks, “This kind of thinking—that the theoretical risk to our safety is worth the sacrifice of their actual freedom—is why Taichi’s uncle was taken away to prison camp for merely being a fisherman.”

So much of what we hear from politicians and opinionated news sources is rhetoric designed to evoke fear. Fear is such a powerful motivator. I would love if this book caused people to become more curious about their fears and ask why they’re afraid and if it makes sense. I think that can be a great starting place for creating inclusive policies and communities.

TRC: Now a question for both of you: research! How did you start to research the time periods in your books? What was the most interesting thing you learned in your research that you did not already know?

MDM: I am so grateful for all the online resources available today, such as primary records from National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control about the flu pandemic. I was able to read survivors stories in letters, medical reports and newspaper articles from the time period. There are wonderful collections of photos from the early 1900’s as well as a few videos. Google Earth was a huge help in establishing Elaine’s neighborhood, but it wasn’t enough. I also traveled to Brooklyn and was toured through the neighborhoods by an elderly, longtime resident who pointed out where the business where Pop worked used to stand. Being in Brooklyn let me imagine the atmosphere, weather, sounds, smells, everything so critical in making a story real.

I grew up in pre-Silicon Valley San Jose, CA. Like Molly, I moved from San Francisco to San Jose when I was young. Even though I arrived later than 1955, it was still a time when new tract homes created suburbs that took over the fruit orchards and farms of early San Jose. I was able to conjure much of the atmosphere from memory. It was fun to research the history of my home town, read early newspapers, peruse photo collections and visit again with my story in mind.

SM: Because the idea for my book was born out of a two-part "Stuff You Missed in History Class" episode about the evacuation, I began my research process with a great overview of all that happened. From there, I looked at their show notes and followed every thread I could. Researching is like a web, where one source leads to another. I finally had to cut myself off and remind myself that I was writing a story, not a dissertation.

I learned a million new things because I was so ignorant about the evacuation. I mentioned earlier how surprised I was to learn that interracial marriage was illegal in many states in the 1940s, but on a more upbeat note, I was delighted to learn how the Japanese Americans found enjoyable ways to pass their time within the camps. They started camp newspapers, played tons of sports, had classes on all kinds of subjects, held community dances and so much more. I loved how they worked together to make the most of a bad experience.

TRC: I think that readers often confuse historical fiction with history --- something that they may originally find boring. What draws you to historical fiction, and why should more readers try books in this genre?

MDM: Cultures change, but the human story remains the same. We have the same hopes, fears, loves and dreams. History is millions of individual stories about people like us trying to survive their lives and that’s why we read. Being immersed in a time period other than my own always shows me something new about the world. Most historical fiction is very atmospheric. The setting is strong enough to be a character in the story and that appeals to me. It’s also refreshing to escape, for the space of a story, the noise of our own culture.

SM: Something I really like about historical fiction is the escape of it. It’s similar to sci-fi or fantasy in that way, where you feel as though you’ve been transported somewhere else completely. Who hasn’t wondered what it would’ve been like to live in the 1920s/Ancient Egypt/medieval Scotland? Historical fiction can give you a taste of that!

TRC: What are some of your favorite works of historical fiction? Are there any time periods you particularly love reading about?

MDM: There are so many I love that I have to keep the list short. Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian series: HAWK OF MAY, WINTER'S SHADOW and KINGDOM OF SUMMER is an all-time favorite. I like anything Arthurian. Phillip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke series are wonderful historical mysteries. Both series have huge YA appeal. For literary historical, I’m a fan of ALL THE LIGHT WE COULD NOT SEE, SNOW IN AUGUST and THE HISTORIAN. And I still love my first novel, THE PECULIARS, which is set in an alternative, steam punk 1888.

As for time periods, I love Victorian mysteries, all that foggy Sherlock Homes atmosphere, and  Arthurian stories, knights, quests and Camelot.

SM: There are so many books I want to name that I’m struggling to limit myself! THE BOOK THIEF comes to mind. Not only is it the only book I’ve ever read where Death is a narrator, but it was the first exposure I had to what Germany looked like during the war. I finished the book feeling much more sympathy for the residents of Germany after having read that.

And while none of these books take place in the 1920s, that’s one of my favorite eras to read about.

TRC: Last of all, can you give us any hints about what you are working on next?

MDM: I have several projects in the works. One is a dual narrative about two teens who are struggling to find their way after grief. They go on a quest to find the oldest living tree in the Inyo Mountains of California. There’s a touch of magical realism involving the mythic Lone Pine Devil and an encounter with the three Fates. I’m also working on a series of books with my son-in-law for younger readers called Big Ideas for Little Humans that introduce children to philosophy.

SM: I read several amazing books in the last year with a dual timeline story, including Maureen’s, and now I’m itching to try that technique myself. I think that will be incorporated into my next project.