Today I am so pleased to welcome my friend and fellow author Jeannie Mobley back to the blog!
Jeannie was the very first interviewee in my Colorado is for Writers series, when her debut middle-grade novel, Katerina’s Wish, was released. Now we’re just days away from the release of her second book, Searching for Silverheels. I got to read an advance copy, and I loved it just as much as I loved Katerina. You can read my review of the book at the end of this post.
Here’s the blurb about Silverheels, then you can read on to my interview with Jeannie and enter to win a signed copy!
In her small Colorado town Pearl spends the summers helping her mother run the family café and entertaining tourists with the legend of Silverheels, a beautiful dancer who nursed miners through a smallpox epidemic in 1861 and then mysteriously disappeared. According to lore, the miners loved her so much they named their mountain after her.
Pearl believes the tale is true, but she is mocked by her neighbor, Josie, a suffragette campaigning for women’s right to vote. Josie says that Silverheels was a crook, not a savior, and she challenges Pearl to a bet: prove that Silverheels was the kindhearted angel of legend, or help Josie pass out the suffragist pamphlets that Pearl thinks drive away the tourists. Not to mention driving away handsome George Crawford.
As Pearl looks for the truth, darker forces are at work in her small town. The United States’s entry into World War I casts suspicion on German immigrants, and also on anyone who criticizes the president during wartime—including Josie. How do you choose what’s right when it could cost you everything you have?
Interview with Jeannie Mobley
Tara Dairman: I love how the relationship between Josie and Pearl is so layered, and continues to develop throughout the book. Did their dynamic come to you easily, or did it take a few drafts to get right?
Jeannie Mobley: The relationship between the two characters was the very first thing that came to me about this story, so I’m glad you loved it! This book was born when I was driving across the state of Colorado. I had driven from my home in Longmont, in the northeastern part of the state, to Cortez, in the extreme southwest corner. The trip was a bittersweet one, joining old friends who I hadn’t seen in some time, in order to scatter the ashes of another old friend. So, close, complicated, enduring relationships were on my mind. And on the way home, I was listening to an audiobook, Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas (one of my favorite historical fiction authors). In the book, a character briefly retells the legend of Silverheels. I had known the legend since childhood, having grown up in Colorado, and as a kid I had a very romantic view of it, but hearing it again as an adult, I had a more cynical take on it. It hit me like a bolt of lightning–what an interesting story to have an old cynic and a young romantic debating the truth behind the legend. By the time I got home from that trip, the characters and their relationship had taken shape in my mind. It developed so quickly, so naturally, and so solidly that I knew I had something, so I started building a setting, time period, and story around them. Their relationship was spot on from the first draft. It was elements of plot, secondary plot, and the shape the legend took that shifted through various drafts.
TD: Of course, I have questions about food. 🙂 Between the cafe where Pearl works and the big picnic, there is so much scrumptious food in Searching for Silverheels! How did you learn what kinds of foods were popular in 1917? And do you have a favorite dish from the book?
JM: I must admit, I gained weight writing this book. For months while working on it, I craved pancakes, which I hardly ever eat. On several occasions I snuck away from my writing desk at lunchtime and went to the nearby Perkins Restaurant for pancakes. So while it’s not necessarily my favorite dish, it is something I associate strongly with this book. Plus, I love all the colloquial words for pancakes–like hotcakes and flapjacks. Somehow, they taste better when you call them flapjacks.
I actually didn’t do much research on 1917 foods. Instead, I drew on my own memories, from having grown up in the country and traveled a lot of back roads in my childhood. My dad loved to stop in for a cup of coffee and pie at small town cafes when we traveled, and I acquired my love of that setting from him. In small, agricultural towns, the café is often the gathering place, and there is almost always that table in the corner full of old timers, talking at length about nothing in particular. So that was the setting I tried to create in my book. It’s a setting I like to think of as perpetual and timeless in rural America, not just a feature of the early 20th century. I think of the food in those places as timeless too: pie and coffee, eggs, hash, pancakes, fried potatoes for breakfasts, sandwiches and stews and soups for lunch.
That said, I have looked at menus from the early 20th century to get a sense of some of the types of sandwiches, for example. Unlike today, where sandwiches are made out of processed lunch meats, then sandwiches were made from a big ham or roast or other chunk of meat, cooked and sliced on the premises. Cold tongue was a common sandwich meat in the early 20th century that you don’t see much on menus anymore. That one doesn’t show up in Searching for Silverheels, but I’m saving it for some book in the future. I figure that has a great gross-out factor for today’s kids that I should take advantage of at some point. (I’m calling dibs on the cold tongue sandwich here, fellow authors!)
(Note from Tara: I actually love cold tongue! I grew up eating it at kosher delis in New York.)
What I had to do to put the café into 1917 was to think about differences in supply connections and in equipment. In a small mountain town in 1917, chances are Pearl’s mom would have been cooking on a wood-burning stove. Coffee pots would have been percolators on the stove top, not electric drip brewers, and hotplates/heat lamps wouldn’t have been an option. I can’t quite imagine feeding crowds of people cooking like that, but then Pearl’s mom is a pretty strong woman.
Also, in 1917, food would have had to come in and out of the area by train, and so seasonality of foods would be much more relevant–no fresh strawberries in December or apples in June. Anything out of season would have to be canned–no good frozen transport, at least not in rural Colorado. I used the seasonality to my advantage–making it a big event when Colorado cherries arrive and Mrs. Barnell bakes cherry pies. The whole town turns out for a slice of those pies!
I also made use of what I knew would be local resources–trout out of the mountain streams and wild game like rabbits and deer (although I think my rabbit stew and venison might have gotten edited out of the book). Because it was a small, somewhat isolated town, I figured people would have used more neighborly barter to pay their bills, like bringing game to the café when they could. That is something that I think is more true to 1917 than to today.
TD: Thank you for all this food insight, Jeannie! I love it!
Searching for Silverheels, like your first book, Katerina’s Wish, is set here in Colorado. Are there other parts of the state–or other periods in the state’s history–that you hope to explore in future books?
JM: I am working on a book now that is set in Denver in the 1930’s, but I don’t pick Colorado locations for their own sake. I tend to think of the premise of a story first, and then look for the time and place that best suits it. In both of my books so far, the time and place that suited happened to be in Colorado. Having grown up here, I know a lot of the local history, and that makes these settings easy for me to recreate. Silverheels had to be set where it was because it had to connect to a local legend, and I picked the time period (World War I) because I wanted to build a powerful theme around what gave women strength, so the First World War was an obvious choice because of the conflict between women’s suffragists and the war effort, and also the ways women had to step up and fill in for men on the home front. However, if my next idea connects best to a time and place far from Colorado, I would certainly not hesitate to set the story elsewhere. One of my current projects is set on a train running from New Orleans to Chicago, for example. For me, setting has to serve the story, not the other way around.
Thank you so much, Jeannie, for all this behind-the-scenes insight into your wonderful new book!
Tara’s review of Searching for Silverheels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This fantastic sophomore outing confirms Jeannie Mobley as one of my favorite middle-grade authors. This book has the perfect mix of mystery, history, politics, and romance, with a good dose of humor thrown in for good measure.
The story, set during WWI, focuses on the relationship between 13-year-old Pearl and 70-something Josie. Josie wants all American women to have the vote; Pearl wants Josie to stop bothering the tourists at her mother’s cafe with her political rants and suffragist handbills. And maybe she’d like a little romance on the side at the Fourth of July picnic, too.
Pearl’s and Josie’s brushes with each other lead to a bet regarding the truth behind a local legend: the dancer Silverheels, for whom Mount Silverheels is named. I could say more, but the twisty-turny plot is really so delicious that the less you know going in, the better.
I give this book two huge thumbs up–I fell in love with the characters, learned a lot about a specific corner of Colorado and a specific time in history, and was smiling the whole time. Can’t ask for a better reading experience than that!
GIVEAWAY ALERT! You can enter to win a signed and personalized hardcover copy of Searching for Silverheels by leaving a comment on this post! You can also earn up to two extra entries by posting about this giveaway on Twitter and/or Facebook–please mention or link your extra posts in your comment.
I‘ll announce a winner on 8/28. Good luck!