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Thursday
Jan202011

A Homecoming

I recently purchased a necklace from a favorite fair trade and world imports store here in Houston. I’m not much of a jewelry kind of girl, but this necklace caught my feminine eye nonetheless. When I secured the delicate silver chain, and the turquoise square rested right below my neck, I smiled. Such a pretty thing. But I was hesitant to purchase it — was it “me”? The clerk behind the counter said, “You’re a beautiful woman. An artist. You look like you know color. But I don’t know if you understand yourself.” I thought, Dear God, she’s right. At 36, I still really don’t know myself. The pendant on the necklace is like a small frame without a photograph or painting to fill its empty geometry — fitting for a woman trying to figure out who she is, who she should be.

This is only the latest piece in the puzzle of self-journeying. When A.S. “Pete“ Peterson asked me to blurb his newest book, Fiddler’s Green, I was humbled. And concerned. Who was I to try and jot down just the right words to praise a book I loved oh so much? I wanted to write my blurb for Fin Button’s sake, and for the sake of Peterson’s great writing. So I gave it my best shot:

“There’s more to this story than meets the eye. Sure, there’s peril, piracy, heartache, and humor, yet enveloped within the expected is the unexpected. Fin is not always who I want her to be — instead, she is who she is. She wrestles with goodness and redemption — and they wrestle back. I love characters who reach out, grab my arm, and pull me into their lives, forcing me to look them in the eye, to bear their burdens and joys. Peterson is right up there with my favorite authors who write truthfully, and who know how to take the hurt and ‘turn it to beauty.’”

I mean to tell you I wrestled with Fin as much as she wrestles with goodness and redemption. I love flame-haired Fin Button. But sometimes I wanted to shake her shoulders, or give her a long hug (though she might’ve slapped me).

I keep wearing my turquoise necklace with any and every blouse, and as I look into the mirror at the blue square that frames my skin, I think of Fin. Not that she would wear a necklace (no way), but I wrestle with my life, my circumstances, with equal tenacity, confusion, and at times, tears. Like Jacob wrestled with the Angel, I want blessing and peace.

I am surely not trying to make this book about me. No. But I did find myself in A.S. Peterson’s masterpiece, Fiddler’s Green. And don’t we all find ourselves in our favorite books, if quite by surprise? We live in Story, so we resonate with great stories.

Read Fiddler’s Green and see if you don’t wrestle with both Fin and yourself and come out a new person on the other side. You might be surprised who you see in that frame matted with the blue of the sea.


Jenni Simmons: You selected a beautiful Annie Dillard quote to preface Fiddler's Green — why did you choose that one?

A.S. Peterson: The quote is from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, one of my favorite books of all time. The quote says: "And shadow itself may resolve into beauty." One of the themes of the book is that no matter how dark and how bad things are, no matter how far you've strayed, there's always the hope that the helmsman knows where he's going, that the Author is in charge, and in the end will weave something beautiful out of the tangled mess the world makes of us. Annie Dillard perfectly captures that sentiment.

JS: The design and clever details of the Fiddler’s Green cover art look twice as good as those on The Fiddler's Gun, which I also loved. What inspired this new design? How did you collaborate with Evie Coates?

AP: I couldn't be more thankful for Evie and her attitude and willingness to work with me. Most readers probably don't know this, but authors rarely get any serious input into the cover art or the design of their book. That's typically up to the publisher and the publisher alone. So I consider it a real privilege to have been able to design my own.

Basically, Evie and I sat down about once a week to look at the progress and discuss options. I gave her a long list of motifs that I thought were important and useable — things like the swan, the compass rose, slave manacles, and the Maltese cross. Then she'd disappear for a week and come back with new sketches and drawings, and we'd discuss what worked and what didn't. The general idea for The Fiddler's Gun cover was embarkation. The view is from the Georgia shore, looking toward the sea and the ship in the distance. The idea for the Fiddler's Green cover is homecoming. The view is from the sea, looking homeward. I think it turned out beautifully.

JS: The story of Fiddler's Green has such a wide, breathtaking arc. Did you have to do a lot of research, or do the realistic details come from your love of history?

AP: The history of the Knights of Malta was so fascinating to me that I really wanted to take the time to paint a memorable portrait of them, to honor them in my small way. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of inaccuracies. I'm sure a stickler for history could pick the book apart, but in my opinion the flavor is right. I think I managed to convey the decaying culture of the knighthood and the sense of fallenness about them. They'd once been a great power in that part of the world, but by the time of the events in the book, they are tottering on the brink of irrelevance. I think there's a sadness inherent in that and I wondered what it would have been like to be among them as they fell apart. One of my favorite scenes in the book is the moment when the grand master of the Knights rebukes his bailiffs for their pettiness and their mockery of Jeannot, one of the main characters. That scene captures the broken state of the knighthood in the late 18th century and attempts to redeem it in some measure.

JS: How did the Knights of Malta capture your attention exactly? I mean, they are quite a different crew than the folks in The Fiddler's Gun.

AP: Early on I knew Fin would go to the Mediterranean to contend with the Barbary pirates, but I didn't know the logistics of that, so I started doing research. That's when I stumbled upon the Knights and their colorful (and sordid) history. I think my actual thought process was something like, Whoa. Knights! The more I read, the more excited I got about writing a book that not only had pirates and massive naval battles, but also featured an ancient order of seafaring knights. I kind of geeked out. And they were the perfect balance to the rough and rowdy bunch that Fin had fallen among in the first book. If Fiddler's Green is about a lost soul in search of home, then the Knights seemed to be the perfect engine for that journey.

JS: Which books did you read to research this epic story?

AP: One of my main resources was a fantastic book called Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World. How's that for a title? It's an amazing and exhaustive work that contains everything from ship's logs, to maritime economics, to descriptions of everyday life on actual pirate ships.

I've had a few people comment that some of the "pirate-speak" in the first book is a little over the top and unrealistic, and I've got to tell you that the opposite is true. I had to tone it way down, in fact. The reality is that the way pirates and sailors of that time period spoke was incredibly colorful and complex. Today, when someone says that you curse like a sailor, they mean you use a lot of cuss words, but to actually curse like a sailor is much more literal. They actually called down curses, invoking all sorts of nasty stuff. It's fascinating to me. Little of that made it into the book, but there's certainly a maritime flavor to the language that's fairly authentic, although in a more playful way than in something like a Patrick O'Brien novel.

JS: The patron list in the back of the book is twice as long for Fiddler's Green as it was for The Fiddler's Gun. Does that encourage you, not only knowing that people love your writing, but also the patronage of the literary arts?

AP: Yes, it does encourage me. But it also makes me very careful. If people are willing to put their trust in me and put their money on the line, then it's my solemn responsibility to honor that trust and deliver the very best book that I can. I don't want to let anyone one down.

JS: The Fiddler’s Gun sold out, right? How can we readers and patrons help get it back in print?

AP: This is such a funny problem to have. The book sold out in about two weeks. One week I had several hundred copies in stock; two weeks later they were gone. I didn't see it coming at all. So I'm going to spend January doing some edits and redesigning some things in the hopes of having an expanded second edition out as soon as possible.

There were an unfortunate number of typos that made it through the editorial process the first time around, so I'm glad to be able to fix those as well as to address some issues of rhythm and pace that I was never happy with. The changes will be invisible to the average reader, but they'll make for a much better book on the whole. I'm also adding the content of The Fiddler's Gun: Letters as an appendix. The letters are a collection of pseudo-historical documents that provide a different perspective to some of the events in the book. The collection was printed as a short run of 100 signed and numbered copies, so very few people got to read it. It was well received, though, so I'm happy to be able to add it to the second edition of the novel.

The best thing people can do to help is to tell their friends about the book. Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. The second edition is going to cost a big chunk of money and I hope there will be readers waiting to buy it when it's finished.

JS: So, parts of Fiddler's Green made me cry. Would you consider this a good sign?

AP: Oh, that's that best sign. I love making people cry. I did plenty of crying when I wrote it. I'm sure there are some coffee shop patrons around Nashville who think I have serious emotional problems. The sight of me sniffling in the corner of a Starbucks is tragically common, I'm afraid.

JS: How long did it take you to write Fiddler's Green?

AP: I wrote the first third of it immediately after I finished The Fiddler's Gun several years ago. Then I put it away while I dealt with the publication process for the first book. I picked it up again early this year and finished it in August, I think.

JS: Is Fin Button always who you want her to be?

AP: I suppose you could say that she's never who I want her to be until she achieves her real independence in the final scenes of the book. The woman at the end is who I always knew she could be, but to bring her to that point, I had to put her through the wringer. Sounds a lot like life, doesn't it?

But characters certainly do surprise me from time to time, Fin included. Her reaction in the final scene with her father is not the one I expected. When I sat down to write that scene I envisioned a substantially different ending. Fin caught me by surprise, and I'm glad she did.

JS: Why did you have to put Fin through the wringer to make her be the woman you wanted her to be?

AP: Storytelling is all about change. If characters don't change, you don't have a story, and change is achieved through the interaction of conflict and grace. Because Fin is such a strong-willed character, the forces necessary to affect her change needed to be even stronger. So there's a lot of pain in these two books, and a lot of resistance. But just like in life, the most painful times, and the times when we put up our strongest defenses, are the ones that eventually flower into the most beautiful seasons of renewal.

From the beginning, I had an image in my mind of Fin's eventual renewal, and in order to make that image as powerful to the reader as it was to me, the pain and resistance that preceded it needed to be substantial enough to give it emotional weight. There's a moment in the last few pages of the book when nearly everyone who's read it has told me that's the moment when the tears came. The reason, I think, is because it's a moment of complete release. The story and the characters have, up until that moment, been filled with tension and grief, and then the floodgate opens and things change. It's the moment of Fin's surrender to transformation. For me, that's what stories are all about: the moment of transformation.

JS: When did you know the ending of Fiddler's Green? Was it hard to say goodbye to Fin Button as you wrote those last words?

AP: I knew the ending almost from the beginning. There were some subtle changes along the way, but the final image remains almost entirely intact. The last quarter of the book was difficult to write because I had to pull so many threads together and resolve them in just the right way. But the final scene was pretty easy. I'd been looking forward to it for years. It was satisfying.

JS: I wanted to know every detail of the rest of Fin's life, but I admire the fact that you ended her story as artfully as you did. Was that intentional — to not "jump the shark," so to speak?

AP: I spent a lot of time thinking about how the ending needed to feel, and I realized that with my favorite books, the thing I remember most about them is the feeling the final pages left me with. Jayber Crow, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, The Lord of the Rings, The Book of Sorrows — the thing that sticks with me about all of those is their endings, and with each one, they left me in a place of wondering what happened next, while at the same time being absolutely satisfied that the story was finished, that I hadn't been cheated. I believe that's important.

A proper ending needs to contain a note of continuance. The reader needs to believe that although the last page has been turned, the characters remain and the story goes on dwindling toward the horizon. It's not about answering every question, it's about deepening the mystery. That's what a well-written book does: it deepens the mystery inherent in the sub-creation.

That's a fine line to walk, but based on the feedback I've received and the strong emotional reaction that readers have to the book, I think I managed to strike the right balance.

JS: Do you have another book in the works? (Please, God.)

AP: I've got a couple actually, but I haven't yet decided which one I want to commit to next. I've always wanted to write an epic Western, so I'm leaning in that direction. We'll see. There will certainly be another book, though I doubt it'll be ready by next Christmas.


Jenni Simmons is the editor of the Art House America Blog, assistant editor and staff writer for The Curator, a drummer's wife, caretaker of three cats (Harley, Milo, and Lily Belle), freelance writer, aspiring guitarist, coffee/tea/bourbon-drinker, bookworm, music fanatic, and a bird-watcher.

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Reader Comments (1)

Great interview Jenni!

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

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