History Meets Magical Folktale: Interview with Jeannie Mobley
Jeannie Mobley makes a stunning debut with her new novel Katerina’s Wish. She combines her great love of history with a magical folktale to tell a compelling story about a young immigrant girl as she comes of age in Colorado at the turn of the 20th century. Katerina’s Wish has received starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly. Mobley is an archaeologist and professor who lives in Colorado. We’re delighted to share our conversation about her work, inspirations and influences, and her path to publication.
Nicki Richesin: Congratulations on your highly praised debut novel Katerina’s Wish. I fell in love with your writing. Much like your dreamer protagonist Katerina, your book was inspired by a dream. Could you tell us a bit about how the idea first came to you and why it was important for you to write this particular story?
Jeannie Mobley: I have always been a very vivid dreamer, with very entertaining dreams. This particular one was not really the plot of the book. I dreamed I lived in a beautiful, green valley, and bad guys had taken over my home. I don’t remember all of the dream, but one scene stood out. I was standing on a bridge, over a pool shaded by large, lovely trees, and a fish rose to the surface and offered to grant me a wish. When I woke I immediately thought, “That would make a great story.” I really wanted to capture the atmosphere more than anything. The sense of a magical, hopeful place. I was also intrigued by the idea of ambiguity around the wish, keeping the reader uncertain whether it was magic, or coincidence, or something else making it come true. With those things in mind, I decided to move away from the “plot” and setting of my dream and create something entirely new.
NR: You are an archaeologist and college professor specializing in the archeology of the American Southwest. How does your deep love and knowledge of prehistoric cultures inform your writing?
JM: More than my knowledge of prehistoric cultures, my knowledge of cultural theory informs my writing. I try to avoid writing stories about the cultures I study scientifically, because I don’t feel those are my stories to write; they belong to other people. But I am drawn both to archaeology (which is a sub-branch of anthropology) and to writing fiction by my fascination with the human experience—the way we are all the same in our desires and needs, but we fulfill those desires and needs in so many different ways. And often, we fail to see that the desires and needs of others are much like ours, because of those cultural differences. Writing fiction and doing anthropology are both ways in which I explore of the deep truths of what it is to be human.
NR: You were also inspired by Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Could you please describe her influence on your work?
JM: I have a half hour commute to work, and there is a library with a good supply of audio books on the campus where I work, so I use that time to “read”. I try, about every fourth or fifth book to hit a classic that I missed, or that I might have read when I was too young to really get them. Not long before writing this book, I got on a bit of a Willa Cather kick, and my favorite was My Antonia. I loved the down-to-earth simplicity of it, and the warmth of the characters and the honesty of the story.
When I began formulating Katerina’s Wish, I wanted the characters to be immigrants, but I didn’t want to get entangled in modern immigration issues. I also wanted an immigrant group that wasn’t already the focus of many books. So, I decided to make them Bohemian, as a nod to Willa Cather, and because it felt fresher, not as thoroughly covered. I do hope that some young readers might discover Willa Cather through my book. I think she is one of the more under-read classic American writers.
NR: You did extensive research on the setting and history of the coal mining camps in Colorado for Katerina’s Wish. Which observations you made surprised you the most when conducting your research?
JM: I was surprised at how many oral histories of people who grew up in the coal camps actually felt optimistic. They had a sense of nostalgia, like those were the “good old days.” Of course people remembered being poor, working hard, never having new clothes or toys, living in drafty houses. And yet they talked about those days almost lovingly. Some of that is no doubt just nostalgia for youth, but I think it also is a testament to the human spirit, and to the strength of the families and neighbors who looked out for each other. It inspired me to infuse the story with the warmth of family, despite the harsh setting of the parched southeastern Colorado landscape and the hazards and ugliness of the mines.
NR: Katerina is an ordinary girl who braves incredible circumstances and finds the extraordinary within herself. She shows remarkable persistence and determination. How did you create this character and find such an authentic voice for her?
JM: I think Trina’s voice comes off as authentic because she is much like me. I have several older siblings who are much smarter than me, and I grew up with them getting much of the praise and attention from teachers and relatives, leaving me with big dreams but the sense that I didn’t have the natural talent to amount to much. I learned that those achievements that seemed to fall like pearls into my sister’s lap were going to take some buckling down and slogging through for me, and I guess I’ve been slogging ever since. So to me, it just made sense that persistence and determination would get my character through as well. People comment on Trina’s voice all the time, but I can’t actually hear it. For me, hearing her voice is like hearing my own accent.
NR: I especially enjoyed the magical folktale about a carp who grants wishes you included within the novel. You discovered a series of books no longer in print called Favorite Fairy Tales (each book title is then followed by a particular country). You researched old Bohemian folktales from Favorite Fairy Tales of Czechoslovakia retold by Virginia Haviland. What did you find distinguished Czech folktales from other fairy tales?
JM: Eastern European folk tales have a number of different qualities to them, including some really gruesome villains (I didn’t use those), but also a different cultural feel. They feel a little more exotic, either because they are less often heard, or because the cultural details are less familiar to the Western reader. Some of them, however, have parallels in the Western fairy tale tradition—like the tale of Marushka who is much like Cinderella, or the Magic Carp, which is similar to (but more fun than) the Aesop magic fish story. The carp story I used actually appeared in my sources in two versions, one with the fish, and the other with a little elf that lives in a tree and doesn’t want the woodcutter to cut his tree.
NR: As a child, you spent a lot of time in the outdoors with your family: camping, hiking, and travelling around the country in your parents’ camper. You’ve said your only entertainment was an 8-track player. As both a teacher and an author, how do you encourage students to avoid media so that it doesn’t hinder their creative development?
JM: Because I teach at the college level, I don’t necessarily encourage my students to avoid media, but I do encourage them to value some of the less-technological ways of doing things in the world. I encourage them to explore the possibility that there are many right ways of doing things, not just one, and encourage them to consider that possibility when they encounter other approaches, or when they need a new approach in life themselves.
As an author, I used to worry about the technological world we live in, and wonder if kids today still cared about stories like this, in which life is so simple and there are no bells and whistles. What I have discovered with this novel is that to many readers it is exactly that—novel. The bells and whistles of modern life have become so common place that the idea of living simply and by your own wits and hard work is a refreshing change to readers. I hope that readers who admire Trina will themselves see that they can make their dreams come true through creative solutions and effort.
NR: If you could invite any five people (historic figures or living) to dinner, who would you invite and what would you serve at your feast?
JM: You have me a bit stumped by this question. I have quite a few historical figures I would love to know, but I’m not sure I would want them all at a table together. Not to mention that some of them might find me rather dull, and I would hate to disappoint any of my heroes. So, I think I would just invite over some of my wonderful writing friends for a warm, friendly evening of comfort food, conversation, and laughs that will run well into the night. The problem is, limiting myself to five. I would definitely start with my wonderful editor, Karen Wojtyla, who I haven’t met in person, but who cracks me up on the phone, and my agent, Erin Murphy. From there, I would invite three other writing friends, since I could only invite five, but then I would secretly slip word of the gathering to about twenty others and let them crash the party. I’m a “more the merrier” kind of person.
As for the menu, I think I’d go for lasagna full of all kinds of veggies and heavy on cheese, green salad, fresh bread, and a wide assortment of chocolate goodies for dessert. There always has to be chocolate where my writing friends gather!
JM: I don’t have a single specific mentor, but I belong to several fabulous, nurturing communities of writers. Early in my writing, when I was mostly just having fun with it, I joined the Coffeehouse Percolator Yahoo Group, which is a very positive, supportive group who does daily freewriting to prompts. A really fun, liberating experience for me. I also have a critique group that has been together for nearly a decade and they have been wonderful. Finally, my agency, EMLA, has a forum and annual retreats, and provides me with a group of people who are not only warm and supportive, but also collectively know everything there is to know about the writing life. I count them among my most treasured friends. All the support has been so meaningful to me, that I always try to help aspiring writers when I meet them. A kind of pay-it-forward approach.
NR: If you could be reincarnated as a character from children’s literature, who would it be and why?
JM: Winnie the Pooh. If you had asked me ten years ago, I might have picked someone more adventurous, (Artemis Fowl, perhaps?) but at this moment in my life, I would love to leave all the chaos of schedules, cell phones, and political campaigns behind and spend a little time in the warm, friendly, innocence of the 100 acre wood.
NR: Which projects are you currently working on? Do you have a story you’re yearning to tell?
JM: I’m working on another historical story set in the Colorado mountains in World War I. It is a story of a young girl and a suffragist, and twines itself around the Colorado legend of Silverheels, a gold-rush era dancehall girl. I also have several other first drafts sitting around awaiting revision, so I have plenty to keep me going for a while.
Nicki Richesin is the author and editor of four anthologies; Crush, What I Would Tell Her, Because I Love Her, and The May Queen. She is the San Francisco correspondent for Du Jour and a frequent contributor to Sunset, The Horn Book, 7×7, The Huffington Post, and Daily Candy. Find her online at www.nickirichesin.com.