11/4/13 – INTERVIEW WITH MARIAN SZCZEPANSKI, AUTHOR OF PLAYING ST. BARBARA
Novelist Marian Szczepanski and I met at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in the summer of 1993. We recently reconnected through a mutual Facebook friend who had just reviewed Marian’s new (and first!) novel, Playing St. Barbara. Marian was gracious enough to catch me up on the missing twenty years, including how she came to write this historical novel chronicling the brutal lives and enduring spirit of Depression-era immigrant coal-mining families in southwestern Pennsylvania.
TZ: When I first met you at Bread Loaf, you were working on young adult fiction. When and why did you shift form the young adult world to the world of historical fiction?
MS: At Bread Loaf, I had just started what turned out to be a coming-of-age novel for adult readers. At the time, YA lit was read almost exclusively by preteens. Hunger Games and Twilight were years in the future. My first novel dealt with a variety of adult themes and contained scenes that would have gotten it onto the Banned Books list for school libraries in short order. When I first pitched it as a coming-of-age story to an agent, he was interested, but wanted me to tone it down and market it as YA lit. I decided against it and continued to pitch it as an adult novel. When I got the idea for the novel that became Playing St. Barbara, it appealed to me because I’d never written anything set in a time period different than my own. With each book, I like to do something different, add a few new gadgets to my writer’s toolbox. I’d done a coming-of-age novel, followed by one with a metaphysical theme. Writing something historically based struck me as a worthy challenge, and it more than lived up to that expectation!
TZ: The other thing I remember from our Bread Loaf days was your excitement about discovering the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson—something you went on to enroll in and complete. What impact did that program have on you as a writer?
MS: Warren Wilson’s MFA program taught me to read like a writer, to think deeply and critically about the craft of literary fiction, to accept and learn from constructive criticism, to embrace the discipline of revision, and to incorporate writing into my daily routine. It also gave me an incredibly smart and supportive community in which to develop as a writer. The atmosphere at Warren Wilson was remarkably collegial, among both students and teachers. I was ridiculously raw when I started, and I listened in awe as other students offered what struck me as profoundly erudite comments in workshops and classes. I wrote intuitively and wasn’t at all well-read, and I feared I’d never catch up. I found my place there, however, because of the program’s emphasis on diligent apprenticeship. We’re all in this together, and we’re all here in service to our craft—that was the implicit message. Many of my closest friends are those I met at Warren Wilson, but the all-in-this-together alliance extends to all graduates. We’ve been referred to—jokingly, of course—as a cult. The loyalty to and respect for each other and the program is that strong.
TZ: Playing St. Barbara beautifully recreates another era and is obviously based on a tremendous amount of mind-bogglingly diverse research. How important was it to you to get the details right?
MS: Thanks, Terra! It didn’t take long to realize that, if I wanted to write a Depression-era story, I had to fully commit to research. Initially, I thought I’d only need a cursory understanding of coal mining since I was focusing on women. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. In that time and place, women’s situations hinged wholly on those of men. I had to know as much as I could possibly absorb about mining, as well as labor issues, national and international politics, immigration trends—the list was enormous. I did nothing but read for more than a year, just to get a sense of the pressing issues and their timeline.
I adopted Hemingway’s iceberg principal. I needed to know everything about the iceberg, even though readers only saw the very tip. I knew that if I cut corners, the narrative would become vague and less compelling. It became a personal challenge—to verify every detail. In addition to assembling a small library on coal mining, I did a lot of squinting at archival newspapers on microfiche machines. I gleaned information from grocery store ads, as well as front page headlines. I also watched old movies and took notes on interiors, clothing styles, even slang. And, whenever I could, I explored sites myself—including an abandoned coke yard. My Facebook page has short video about my experience there. I had no intention to risk life and limb in pursuit of information, but it was the best way to get the details I needed.
TZ: Having written an historical (or historically-based) novel myself (Time’s Fool), I remember having to balance my desire to dump all my hard-earned research against my desire to move the story forward and stay true to the characters. I think you’ve worked the historical details almost magically into the plot, setting, and dialogue, but was this ever an issue for you at all?
MS: I’m thrilled that you think I’ve hit the right balance with fact with fiction. I started wrestling with this issue when I realized I absolutely had to describe the appearance and function of a mine yard with coke ovens, but just enough to let readers visualize it. Finding that “just enough” point was difficult. I rewrote Chapter 3’s mine yard description scene at least ten times, trying to whittle it down to a page. The book is a split narrative, with chapters alternating (with a few exceptions) between one daughter’s point-of-view and her mother’s. Each of the mother’s chapters is dated. That made things tricky, in that I had to know exactly holidays like Memorial Day occurred in 1933. It also gave me a strict timeline to follow during a major strike in 1933 and the war in Europe in 1941. It was a tightrope walk from first page to last, trying to use pivotal historical events as catalysts in the characters’ personal lives. It took a while to understand that I needed to entertain, not educate. I wasn’t writing a history of labor unrest in Fayette County or a textbook on advances in mining technology. I was writing a story about people whose heartaches and triumphs hinged on these larger issues, but the story was about history’s impact on ordinary people, not history itself.
TZ: You’ve said that Playing Saint Barbara was in part inspired by your own family history, as well as your long-standing interest in American social history. But that still leaves open plenty of territory. What was it about a Depression-era, coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania that caught your imagination and convinced you that there might be a novel buried in it?
MS: I was working on a different novel that wasn’t going well and happened to read an essay in Poets & Writers Magazine. The gist of the piece was “write the story only you can write, and it will find a home.” The story only I can write? I thought. Such hubris, thinking there’s something only Marian Szczepanski can write. I tried to get back to the other novel, but that question kept nagging me. What is the story only I can write? Images started coming to me: the physical landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania, the postage-stamp-size coal towns, identical company houses in perfect rows, women in housedresses like my maternal grandmother’s. I’d heard countless stories about miners’ league baseball games and church festivals. The tiny town where my mother and aunts grew up still has a church festival with a renowned fireworks display that draws crowds from as far away as Pittsburgh. My friends’ surnames all reflected the region’s ethnic heritage. Here was the story only I could write, and instead of writing about the miners, I’d write about their wives and daughters—their struggles to assimilate as immigrants, their bravado in the face of discrimination and poverty, and especially their ability to come together and create the melting-pot culture that defines southwestern Pennsylvania. As soon as I started reading about the longstanding and extreme labor unrest in Fayette County (adjacent to the one where I grew up), I knew I had found the perfect turbulent and dramatic historical backdrop for my characters’ personal journeys.