A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with Linda Bennett Pennell
A Literary World
Author Interview with Linda Bennett Pennell
Welcome to A Literary World. Today, I am honoured to have as my guest, Linda Bennett Pennell, an author who describes herself a true G.R.I.T.S (Girl raised in the South) and whose love of America’s “deep south” is clearly evident in her novels. After being named a finalist in the Writer’s League of Texas 2009 Manuscript Contest, Linda set about pursuing her dream of becoming a full-time author and in 2013, released her debut novel Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel to glowing reviews. Since then, she has not looked back.
Welcome to A Literary World, Linda.
1. Where do you live?
I live with my husband in the Houston, Texas metro area in a part of Harris County that was still ranching country just twenty-five years ago. When our boys were small, cowboys and large herds of cattle were our close neighbours.
2. Can you tell us what your novels are about and what inspired you to write them?
Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel (Soul Mate Publishing, 2013)
Lake City, Florida, 1930: Al Capone checks in for an unusually long stay at the Blanche Hotel. The following night, young Jack Blevins witnesses a body being dumped heralding a summer of violence. One-by-one, people controlling vice activities swing from KKK ropes. No moonshine distributor, gaming operator, or brothel madam, black or white, is safe from the Klan’s self-righteous vigilantism. Jack’s sister Meg, a waitress at the Blanche, and her fiancé, a sheriff’s deputy, believe the lynchings are cover for a larger ambition than simply ridding the county of vice. Someone, possibly backed by Capone, has plans for filling the voids created. But as the body count grows, they come to understand this knowledge may get them killed.
Gainesville, Florida, 2011: Liz Reams, a young academic specializing in the history of American crime, moves across the continent to follow a man who convinces her of his devotion yet refuses to say the three simple words I love you. She is attracted to edginess and a certain type of glamour in her men, both living and historical. Her personal life is an emotional roller coaster, but her career options suddenly blossom beyond all expectation, creating a very different type of stress. To deal with it all, Liz loses herself in her professional passion, original research into the life and times of her favourite bad boy, Al Capone. What she discovers about 1930’s summer of violence, and herself in the process, leaves her reeling at first and then changed forever.
The Blanche Hotel really exists. It has stood on Marion Avenue in Lake City, Florida, the hometown of my high school years, since 1902 and is home to the state’s first elevator. Due to its location near the once major thoroughfares of US Highway 41/441 and US Highway 90, it has played host to famous, infamous, and ordinary citizens traveling to points farther south or west in the state. The town is known as the gateway to Florida. I have stayed overnight in the Blanche and eaten many Sunday dinners there after morning services at the First Baptist Church. In the South of my childhood, dinner was eaten at noon.
Columbia County, where Lake City is the county seat of government, has always been in a prime location for certain types of business, not all of it legal. Over the years, the county has had its share of moonshining (illegal alcohol), gambling, and prostitution operations. Knowing that Al Capone was once a guest at the Blanche, writing the novel felt like going home. It also allowed me to explore the themes of racism, family dynamics, friendship, and women’s issues. In many ways, Meg, the main character in the historical chapters, is an homage to the women in my family who were young during the Great Depression. With the exception of Capone, all events and characters are products of my imagination.
Confederado do Norte (Soul Mate Publishing, 2014)
Set during the aftermath of the American Civil War, Confederado do Norte tells the story of Mary Catherine MacDonald Dias Oliveira Atwell, a child torn from her war devastated home in Georgia and thrust into the primitive Brazilian interior where the young woman she becomes must learn to recreate herself in order to survive.
Mary Catherine is devastated when her family emigrates from Georgia to Brazil because her father and maternal uncle refuse to accept the terms of Reconstruction following the Confederacy’s defeat. Shortly after arrival in their new country, she is orphaned, leaving her in Uncle Nathan’s care. He hates Mary Catherine, blaming her for his sister’s death. She despises him because she believes Nathan murdered her father. When Mary Catherine discovers Nathan’s plan to be rid of her as well, she flees into the mountain wilderness filled with jaguars and equally dangerous men. Finding refuge among kind peasants, she grows into a beauty, ultimately marrying the scion of a wealthy Portuguese family. Happiness and security seem assured until civil unrest brings armed marauders who have an inexplicable connection to Mary Catherine. Recreating herself has protected Mary Catherine in the past, but this new crisis will demand all of the courage, intelligence, and creativity she possesses simply to survive.
In 2008, I read an article in Garden and Gun magazine about the present day Confederados of Brazil and found their history fascinating. These descendants of former Confederates are easily recognizable as such because they commemorate their heritage on festival days by wearing Confederate grey uniforms and antebellum ball gowns, and with the Confederate Battle Flag on prominent display. While I do not agree with their ancestors’ decisions either before or after the war, I thought their story would make for interesting reading.
In addition, writing Confederado do Norte allowed me to accomplish several goals. Once again, I wanted to explore themes, in particular, how one defines family, citizenship, and personal responsibility. Since the book is a fictional memoir, it gave me the opportunity to write in the first person, a challenge I wanted to try my hand at meeting.
When War Came Home: a Civil War Anthology (Real Cypress Press, 2015)
When War Came Home contains four short stories of ordinary Southerners caught up in a conflagration not of their making, but which dominated their lives for four long, bloody years. The stories are set in the mountains of northern Georgia where support for the Confederate cause was mixed at best. Some north Georgians hated the very idea of secession and did what they could to reject demands of the CSA. Others participated, either grudgingly or enthusiastically, in a cause that asked them to fight for someone else’s way of life, for the mountain South was not divided into large plantations populated by wealthy masters and hundreds of slaves. Instead, the area contained small farms that a family could till unaided by forced labour.
I wrote When War Came Home as much for my children as anything. Three of the stories are based on actual events in my family history. The final story is a prequel to Confederado do Norte.
Casablanca: Appointment at Dawn (The Wild Rose Press, August 28, 2015)
Casablanca, 1943: a viper’s nest of double agents and spies where OSS Officer Kurt Heinz finds his skill in covert operations pushed to the limit. Allied success in North Africa and the fate of the First Allied Conference—perhaps the outcome of the war—hang on Kurt’s next mission. The nature of his work makes relationships impossible. Nonetheless, he is increasingly torn between duty and the beautiful girl who desperately needs his protection and help.
Sarah Barrett, U.S. Army R.N., is finished with wartime romance. Determined to protect her recently broken heart, she throws all of her time and energy into caring for her patients, but when she is given a coded message by a mysterious dying civilian, she is sucked into a vortex of danger and intrigue that threatens her very survival. The one person who can help Sarah is Kurt, a man with too many secrets to be trusted.
I have always been interested in World War II history. Playing a game of what if with the First Allied Conference, where the policy of unconditional surrender of the Axis powers was set, gave me hours of fun. The novel is also the closest to a true romance that I have written to date.
3 How did you come up with the titles?
My titles are usually set before I even begin writing. They simply flow from my mental wanderings as I process new information, especially events or persons who seem like good subjects for a story.
4. In Confederado do Norde, your protagonist, Mary Catherine MacDonald Dias Oliveira, moves from Georgia to South America. Was there a particular reason that you chose Brazil? Was it commonplace for people to flee after the Civil War?
Although former Confederate leaders like General Robert E. Lee begged his countrymen to stay and help rebuild the South after the war, approximately 40,000 decided they would not live under the terms of Reconstruction, as the federal plan of occupation is known. These former Confederates moved farther south into Central and South America. Many of them ultimately returned to the US, but of the ones who remained abroad, the Confederados of Brazil were among the largest contingent. Around 20,000 immigrated to Brazil because Emperor Dom Pedro II saw an opportunity to gain citizens with knowledge of agriculture who could help settle and subdue his country’s wild interior. He advertised in US newspapers and set up emigration offices with offers of subsidized passage to Brazil and free land once the colonists arrived. It was an offer too good to pass up for some. The vast majority of former Confederates, however, stayed home and rebuilt.
5. We learn that Mary Catherine moves to Brazil because of her father and Uncle’s refusal to accept the terms of reconstruction in the aftermath of the war. Can you tell us what these terms were and how did they affect the people of the Confederate States?
The terms of Reconstruction were actually quite generous, in my opinion and that of many historians. As background, it is important to note that Andrew Johnson succeeded Abraham Lincoln as president in May 1865 upon the latter’s assassination at the hand of John Wilkes Booth, an ardent Confederate. Understandably, many in the North were intent on making the South pay for starting the war (1861-1865), and in their minds, for killing their president. While many northern Republicans wanted to punish the South, Lincoln and Johnson, wanted to heal the country. Theirs were policies of reconciliation, for the most part. Space does not permit to describe the terms in detail because Reconstruction involved several acts of Congress over a period of several years. The following is a very brief summary of the tow most important facets of Reconstruction.
On Mar. 2, 1867, Congress enacted the Reconstruction Act, which, supplemented later by three related acts, divided the South (except Tennessee) into five military districts in which the authority of the army commander was supreme. Johnson continued to oppose congressional policy, and when he insisted on the removal of the radical Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act, the House impeached him (Feb., 1868). The radicals in the Senate fell one vote short of convicting him (May), but by this time Johnson’s program had been effectively scuttled.
Under the terms of the Reconstruction Acts, new state constitutions were written in the South. By Aug., 1868, six states (Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida) had been readmitted to the Union, having ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which declared all men free, as required by the first Reconstruction Act. The four remaining unreconstructed states—Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, and Georgia—were readmitted in 1870 after ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the black man’s right to vote. In addition, former Confederates had to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States and the Constitution. Reconstruction last from 1865 until 1877.
6. In Chapter 2 we are made aware that Mary Catherine’s life might have turned out differently had it not been for a handful of newspaper editorials and advertisements. Can you tell us what they were?
The newspaper articles and advertisements were written, for the most part, at the behest of Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II, who sought colonists to help settle and subdue Brazil’s wild interior. He offered subsidized passage and free land.
7. What qualities did you look for in Mary Catherine?
The book’s dedication reads as follows: With love to and in loving memory of the remarkable women whose examples have guided me throughout my life: Mama, Estelle, Chris, & Josephine. These members of my family survived the financial ruin of the Great Depression and went on to help win World War II through their work and support of their men. Two of them worked their way through college at a time when women were not always welcome in a university classroom. They overcame financial hardship and gender discrimination to become successful parents, teachers, and leaders in their communities. Their strength, courage, loyalty, kindness, and loving devotion to family and friends were the qualities I wanted for Mary Catherine.
8. With Historical Fiction, one of the most difficult things to get right is the voice. In Confederato da Norde, much of the dialogue is that of a Southerner. How important do you think this is to a novel?
I believe that staying true to the voice of a region and period is vital to the authenticity of any work of historical fiction. I find it grating when modern expressions slip into what is supposed to be historical fiction. It will often cause me to not finish the book.
9. In Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel, your novel is set in Florida. One often associates Al Capone with Chicago so why did you choose to set this novel in Florida?
Al Capone owned a luxury property in Palm Isle, a section of Miami. He is known to have stayed at the Blanche in transit from Chicago to Miami.
10. What is it that attracted you to organized crime and the underworld of notorious gangsters?
While I wouldn’t want to live next door to them, law-breakers and evildoers can make for fascinating reading. Their motivations and thought processes can make them seem exotic to the ordinary person. In addition, I spent my high school years in Florida, which is no stranger to organized crime.
11. In When War Came Home, set in the mountains of Georgia during The Civil War, we learn that this was a place where support for the Confederacy cause was mixed. Why was this and did it apply to other states in The Confederacy?
The American region referred to as “the South” is actually made up of many different types of topography. These sub-regions aren’t all conducive to the popular image of large plantations worked by hundreds of slaves. In the states where the Appalachian Mountains are found (western North Carolina, northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee, northern Alabama, and all of West Virginia), farms were small and often worked only by the family that owned the land. In fact, West Virginia broke away from Virginia because the mountaineers of the area so disagreed with going to war and seceding from the union. When these mountain folk wore Confederate grey, whether grudgingly or enthusiastically, they were fighting for someone else’s way of life.
12. Apart from the terrible events of The Civil War, the legacy of slavery and the KKK, etc., there is another more “romantic” side associated with Deep South – that of storytelling. You mention that was a part of your childhood. Can you tell us more about this and how has it impacted on your writing?
My extended family was populated by an older generation of wonderful storytellers who can take ordinary events and make them funny or poignant simply by the words they choose, their pauses for effect, and their intonation. Many of them were also excellent mimics and could reproduce the personal eccentricities of their friends and neighbours with ringing clarity. I loved hearing them tell their stories while sitting before my grandmother’s pine log fires in winter or on her wrap around porch in summer. It was entertainment and oral history, an art that I fear is fading in the face of technology.
13. How long did it take you to write each book?
My goal is to produce one book per year. I have a very full life outside of my writing and I like to do extensive research for accuracy’s sake. I am not above taking liberties with history, but I want it to be a conscience decision when I do so.
14. What are you working on now?
My work-in-progress is entitled Miami Days, Havana Nights. It features history professor Liz Reams from Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel. This time, she is chasing Meyer Lansky, a.k.a., the mob’s accountant and a founding member of Murder, Inc.
15. As a writer of historical fiction, what is it that you look for in a story?
When I am a reader, I want stories that are well written, well edited, historically accurate with the basic facts, entertain, and/or provide new information.
16. What part of the research process did you enjoy the most?
Discovering something not widely known about a historical event or person is a thrill, but that is fairly rare. Overall, I enjoy delving into the details and putting those pieces together to create greater understanding.
17. What were the whispering voices of advice that helped you? Do you have any tips for us?
When asked for advice to new authors, I remind them of some rather basic things that can get lost in the stress of writing for publication. First and foremost, be kind to yourself. Rejection is a painful, yet necessary part of the industry. Take for improvement what you can from negative feedback and move on. Nothing kills creativity like self-doubt and negative self-talk. Do your utmost to produce the best product you are able and then move on. If you edit forever, you will never publish. Do your research and keep it handy for reference. You will be criticized if you mess with history, which is the stock and trade of the writer of historical fiction. Be ready to address those critics, only when absolutely necessary, and then move on. Are we seeing a theme here? There is no perfection in this life. That said, we must strive for our best, learn from our mistakes, and keeping writing.
18. You have a favourite quote regarding your passion for writing. Can you tell us what it is?
Favourite quote regarding my professional passion: “History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.” Voltaire
19. What are your typical working conditions? Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?
I write sitting in the family room of our main residence or our beach house, with all that such rooms entail. Since I compose on a laptop, I can basically write wherever I am. It is a tribute to my personal version of attention deficit disorder that closing out the world is very easy for me. When focused, a gun could go off at close range and I might not notice.
20. Do you write longhand?
No, strictly Scrivener for writing novels.
21. Do you listen to music when you write?
Because I love music and I am a singer, I find that music is the one thing that can distract me when writing. I will stop and just listen too often, so no music.
22. What kind of child were you?
Not by choice but due to serious birth complications, I was an only child. Born to older parents, I was sometimes wished I had little brother but that was not possible. Coming from a large extended family was a joy. If they were all still living, I would have 24 first cousins and more second, third, etc. than I can count. I loved playing with my cousins and I am still close to them. Even as a small child, I was drawn to anything that had a past, whether shabby or chic. I guess you could say that my whole life has led to my being an author of historical fiction.
23. Were you an avid reader?
Eventually, I became an avid reader. Early on, I feared reading because of poor and improper instruction. Every mistake that can be made with a child’s primary education was made with mine. The good news for me is that I was able to work it out on my own and by the time I was a young adolescent, I was reading for pleasure, but not in the young adult genre. I went from never reading for pleasure to reading adult novels without any stopovers for Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Anne of Green Gables, National Velvet, or Rebecca of Sunny Brooke Farm.
24. Can you share with us some of the things you like to do when you’re not writing?
Music in many ways was my first love, but one that I have never pursued professionally. I sing first soprano with my church choir and with the Texas Master Chorale. Aside from singing, I volunteer with my church and local arts organizations. I also am called back to the school district from which I retired to act as a substitute administrator when needed. I stay very busy.
25. Do you have a philosophy on life?
My philosophy of life, much like the core of my Christian faith, is rather simple. Love God, friends, and family. Be kind whenever and wherever humanly possible. Help those unable to care for themselves. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Recognize and stand against evil. Lead a good life defined by service and contributions to others. Have fun along the way to keep things interesting and to stay renewed and refreshed for the important work.
And a few quick questions:
26. Who are your favourite authors?
Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and other gothic romances number among my earliest and still favourite reads. Being a complete Anglophile, I also adore Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellis Perry, Anne Perry, etc. Give me mystery and a historic setting!!!
27. What are some of your favourite books?
See # 26.
28. Favourite type of music to relax to?
I find music of the Baroque period relaxing.
29. Favourite film?
WAYYYYYYY too many to pick just one. I really love the period pieces and mysteries. No surprise there, I guess.
30. Favourite painting?
When I was younger, Rembrandt’s Man in the Golden Helmet and Monet’s Waterlilies really spoke to me. They still do, but currently the work of my friend from high school, Atlanta artist Dede Collicott, has a special place in my heart. She is a rising star in the New American Impressionist Movement.
31 Favourite holiday destination
Once again there any many, but if my answer is based on frequency of visits, I would say the Great Smokey Mountains and Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
32. Favourite drink
I’m a Georgian by birth. There is no other choice but Coca Cola, first produced in a drug store in downtown Atlanta.
33. Where can we buy the book?
Buy link for Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel: http://amzn.to/16qq3k5
Buy link for Confederado do Norte: http://amzn.com/B00LMN5OMI
Buy link for When War Came Home: http://amzn.com/B010RXNZRO
Coming from The Wild Rose Press August 28, 1025 on all major outlets: Casablanca: Appointment at Dawn.
“There is no greater agony than bearing the untold story inside you”