Brutal Roots: An Interview with Leah Angstman by Dawn Raffel

Leah Angstman is the author of the historical novel of 1689 King William’s War, Out Front the Following Sea (Regal House, January 2022), and serves as editor-in-chief for Alternating Current Press and The Coil magazine and copyeditor for Underscore News, which has included editing partnerships with Portland Tribune, High Country News, and ProPublica. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Publishers Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Nashville Review; and she’s recently been a finalist in the Chaucer Book Award, Cowles Book Prize, Able Muse Book Award, and Richard Snyder Memorial Prize, and longlisted for the Hillary Gravendyk Prize, Goethe Book Award, and Laramie Book Award. You can find her at leahangstman.com and on social media as @leahangstman.

Dawn Raffel: I’ve always felt that the best books offer a ticket to someplace new—whether that someplace is geographical, historical, or simply a destabilization of the familiar. Out Front the Following Sea, set in Seventeenth-Century New England, offers that on so many levels.

For starters, most of us think of New England as fairly benign, but in Seventeenth-Century pre-America, it was a place of bloody conflict between the British, French, and Native Americans, as well as between Protestants, Catholics, and Quakers. It was a time of religious intolerance, racial hatred, oppression, violence, and disease. What drew you to this particular period?

Leah Angstman: My favorite thing about this period, actually, is probably the violence and uncertainty of it. The 1600s through mid-1700s in America is generally my area of historical study, and I love how it’s not at all what people like to think it is. People want to give it some simplistic glossy sheen of “simpler times,” and it just wasn’t. (All you anti-vaxxers out there, take note: the life expectancy at the time barely topped 40 years old for an English male, and horrid diseases and illnesses (that we now have vaccines and cures for—thank you, science!) were the biggest killers.) I always like to say as a reminder: Even the 1% still pooped in chamber pots. Women expected to lose half their children before the babies outgrew infancy, but that expectation didn’t make the losses any easier to bear. I doubt there was a single colonist in the 1600s who didn’t have PTSD. They spent their lives terrified—of their surroundings, of one another, of wraths from a god. They were surrounded by death and sickness and war and starvation regularly. They were completely unprepared to handle natural disasters, weather changes, and bears that wandered in from the woods. And just like today, at least 30% of them would have been neighbors you hated, whose politics you didn’t agree with, whose kids bullied yours, who owned other people, whose dogs trampled your vegetable garden. These are age-old grievances.

The 1600s get us, as Americans, down to our barest humanity and nature. We see acts of selflessness and sacrifice in the time period that are redeeming and astounding; we see acts of violence that are premeditated and horrifying. And mixed in with all of this, we see survival, no matter the cost—the barest essentials of thriving against unforgiving terrain, lack of resources, and constant uncertainty. It is a fascinating time period that tests its subjects unendingly (not only European white colonists, but Native Americans and African Americans, of course, as well), and yet, as they were all as human once as we are now, they no doubt laughed, told jokes, made merry, had drunken parties, hugged one another, and found reprieve in mischief and meet-cutes.

DR: How do you think the time period pertains to the conflict and division we live with now? For instance, when people comment that we’ve never been more divided, do you feel that’s a fair assessment?

LA: Ha! People who think we’ve never been more divided never witnessed the tarring-and-feathering mobs of Revolutionary Massachusetts vs. the Tories; never witnessed the violence between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans in the early 1800s that nearly started a civil war; never witnessed the mob protests of the wildly unpopular War of 1812; never witnessed the leadup to (and the Reconstruction after) the American Civil War, where racial lynchings, murders, rapes, robberies, arsons, and cults were as commonplace as weeds; never witnessed the Tulsa Race Riots, Great Depression, Civil Rights era, &c., &c. Dissent is not new. Racism is not new. Violence is not new. Colonialism is not new. Taking what we want at the expense of others is not new. And fighting about all of it is not new.

What’s new is the Internet. What’s new are cell phones. What’s new is the ability to find and connect in the blink of an eye with people all across the world who think just like you, to have that information be widespread, to have your horrible opinions and beliefs validated by others who are also horrible human beings. But I believe that at least 30% of us have always been horrible humans, and I think that, all through time, “progress” has always been marked by steps forward, then steps backward, forward, backward, ad infinitum. If there is anything to be learned from humans, it is that we are not linear. All progress comes with pushback. It’s very visible right now because of the Internet. You simply can’t have another coverup like the Tulsa Race Massacre because people have cell phones. Someone is going to record something, and it will get replicated and replicated until it’s known and twisted to fit whatever narrative is the passing fad. Propaganda (and truth!) has always existed on both sides, just not this fast.

One thing I tried to do with this book is show the parallels between then and now—that’s how history stays relevant. The treatment of women all through time has been abysmal, but women have also been standing up for themselves all through that same time. The Me-Too movement didn’t materialize out of thin air. Women were fighting back long before there was a hashtag for it. Besides feminism, the other big conflicts in this book are religious persecution, which is still such an issue today, and the othering of outcasts, which is something we think about now far more than we ever did in the past. The liberal-minded have become more humanizing, trying to find ways we can celebrate and be aware of differences, rather than branding outcasts or shoving “undesirables” and “ungovernables” out of sight in an attic or dungeon or asylum somewhere. My protagonist Ruth’s surroundings are populated with perceived outcasts who become very human friends and are less hypocritical than those who initially cast them out.

DR: Recently, you tweeted: “Lol, I’ve now seen my novel listed as Women’s Fiction in several places, & ye be warned: If you buy it thinking it’s any kind of women’s fic, you’ll be sorely shocked & damaged. Think more along the lines of: Clavell, Mantel, Bernard Cornwell, McCarthy, Doctorow, Melville.” But certainly Clavell, Cornwell, McCarthy, Doctorow, and Melville are not known for strong women characters—a few of them scarcely have women characters at all—whereas you have a heroine. In fact, women’s stories might be the most hidden of the hidden histories you plumb here. Was this a primary motivation?

LA: (We’ll have to agree to disagree on Bernard Cornwell—I think he tries to write strong women, even when his plots don’t allow for it nicely, but) yes, it’s not much of an oddity that I grew up reading epic male writers who didn’t shy away from brutality, since for a long time, that was all you could find in the historical-fiction realm. Men wrote about violent battles, seafaring journeys, historical adventures, “exotic” cultures. Women wrote romance. That’s what was on sale at the mass-market counters. That was the norm.

When I think of my own writing, which is always impossible for me to categorize perfectly because I’m too close to it, I find it pulls heavy influence from those male writers who wrote about manly men doing manly things in manly times, but that the books I loved best dug deep into that problematic system, and made that manly manliness vivid in a way that bared all of the patriarchy’s flaws while still depicting it as coming out ahead in the end. And that to me, as a younger person reading the Sharpe series and Ragtime and Tai-Pan, was what history was, whether I liked it or not. It was the men who had the say about what the men were doing in a country (or countries) driven by men passing laws that only governed men, and I felt that was an accurate depiction, even if I couldn’t find anyone to root for, even if it was a brutal truth to face, that the women were sidelined. I always wanted to take that narrative and turn it on its head—keep the brutality and the grittiness, but throw out this idea that women wrote about whimsy and impulsive emotion, while men spoke for everything else.

So, I do enjoy me a good heroine, though I’m not sure I’d call Ruth that. She’s feisty and independent, but at times she very much acts out of impulse with gray-area actions that I’d consider far more survivalist than heroic. But she has a story to tell that is an overlooked story of the time: Women survived, often better than men. Women were here, and they were tough, even if history (selectively) doesn’t remember them that way (or at all). Men (as a whole) have always felt threatened by women, but men have also always been ruled in paramount ways by their mothers and wives and daughters. I like to tell the stories of mothers, wives, and daughters, but there’s no reason it has to be whimsical—I want the darkness of every age to seep into the pages, even if I have to buck all the accepted genre categories and carve out my own niche.

DR: Seventeenth-century women were treated like property (and readily called witches). You’ve given us a character who refuses to be owned, constrained, or confined. And yet, here it is 2021, and your book is “branded” as women’s fiction. That’s not really a question, but feel free to comment.

LA: Ha! The irony. I learned a long time ago that I don’t get to pick my own genre—someone else is always going to label me however he sees fit. But I wish we could move away from calling a story “women’s fiction” simply because it has a woman protagonist. My most ardent supporters of this book have surprisingly been men, and it’s almost shocking to them when they consider that a woman wrote it (though it shouldn’t be, but alas) because it doesn’t shy away from brutality and uncomfortable truths. But call it “women’s fiction,” and you will cut out a large chunk of my most supportive readers. When I hear “women’s fiction,” I think of Fannie Flagg and Chanel Cleeton, Nancy Thayer and Debbie Macomber. I think of The Guernsey Library and Potato Peel Pie Society and Before We Were Yours and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. And there’s nothing wrong with that category, but I think if you pick up my book thinking that you’re going to get some uplifting tale or light romance set against generic hard times, then you’re going to get your heart and soul broken and be mentally incapacitated for a week.

DR: Out Front the Following Sea is extraordinarily well-researched, from life onboard a ship to the daily details of a village (backbreaking labor, heartbreaking losses, virulent gossip, and enforced piety), to the painful reality of “negro bondsmen” in New England. How long did you spend on the research? Did you work with original source material?

LA: This is generally the time period that my brain kind of “lives in” most of the time, so a lot of the story and its environs came from past research, forming into a novel from endless daydreams. I tend to go pretty deep in my research, rabbit-holing all over the place, but I think the thing that really sets my writing apart in that area is that I’m not afraid to pile on the erudition. My characters are not going to walk through a room without my telling you every item that’s in there. I want my readers to visualize this world in the Clavell-style, the Suttree style, encompassing nearly to the point of hallucination. I often wield my research as a weapon—you will not walk out of this book without having tasted rotten cod, heard in your head the sound of the Pequot language, felt the itch of dirt paste underneath your unwashed clothes, leaned against a half-timber French colombage wall filled with pierrotage stones.

It took me eleven years to write this book. A lot of that was research, though most of it was rewrite. I do work with original source material, definitely, especially letters, town records, diaries, and local histories of the locations. I subscribe to several obnoxiously nerdy research websites. I like to study family trees, birth and death records, and, if applicable, read newspapers from the time period. Nothing gives me the atmosphere of a time and place like reading day-to-day newspapers (which isn’t applicable for this book, but plays a huge factor in my third novel that takes place in 1854, so you’ll see it come around again in the future). A lot of what I read would be considered excruciatingly boring to most people.

DR: Early on, Ruth wrangles her way onboard a ship as “freight,” yet she also discovers a secret woman shipmate. Did you find references to women shipmates in your research?

LA: There were definitely more women sailors and pirates than history talks about. We don’t often think about the amount of women throughout history who were outside the law, who did plenty of desperate things to survive. Sailors (not working as part of a navy) kidnapped many women, and some of those women stayed onboard those ships at their own will—say what you will about Stockholm Syndrome, but the result is still the same in the end. Officers’ wives sometimes traveled with their husbands. Many females were born aboard ships. Many women grew up as sailors’ daughters, born into the trade, including female captains like Gráinne O’Malley (1500s), who were even more adept than their fathers. Some ships contained entire traveling brothels. We know about pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonney because they were famously captured and convicted, but for every person in history that you hear about, there are a hundred, a thousand, that you’ll never know. There were certainly female stowaways and escaped slaves.

The character of Frankie, however (who is named after my paternal great grandmother) has more of a purpose than just being a young woman aboard a ship. She’s androgynous. She dresses like a boy, talks like a Cockney sailor. When asked if she’s a girl, she says no. She’s a symbol of identity- and gender-fluidity through the ages—the idea that LGBTQUIA+ orientations and non-heteronormativity and gender-fluidity existed since the dawn of man, even if it feels to us like a really modern issue (because it’s more visible now than ever and has become a deep, urgent human-rights issue, not just something guests politely ignored at dinner parties). Frankie demonstrates that the diversity of the age goes well beyond the surface level, and she’s accepted by her crewmates who work with her, while—tying back into the controversies still raging in our modern age—being othered by those who think she’s bad luck without knowing her.

DR: I must say you spare no detail in describing various forms of torture! Among them: branding (Ruth is branded with the letter “w” for witch, while a Quaker character is branded with an “h” for heretic), pillorying, hanging, beheading, maiming (a child’s tongue is cut out), and abacination (I had to Google that one). What did you hope to show us there?

LA: No matter how brutal my descriptions, they are not more brutal than actual history actually was. I think it’s important for us to face uncomfortable truths—things weren’t just mildly inconvenient for women and outcasts and Native Americans of the age; dissent and differences were deadly, or, as the Quaker in the book says, “Sometimes your fate is worse than death: you have to live with it.” I think a lot of colonists walked around with scars. A lot of them were punished, mutilated, and physically marred in horrifying ways, for insignificant offenses, and often for beliefs and suspicions that could never be proven. It’s easy for us to become distant from that, to see it in old woodcuts and ill-proportioned paintings, and think that that past doesn’t belong to us.

But then take a look at how “civil” we are now, when we tie a tortured Matthew Shepard to a fencepost to die in the heat because he’s gay, when we run trucks into groups of people protesting inequality, when police use strangleholds on Black men until they stop breathing, when a guy in Fort Worth dismembers three people in a motel room as part of a biblical sacrifice, when someone walks into a nightclub in Orlando with a semiautomatic rifle and kills and injures a hundred people because those people are gay, when over nine hundred people “drink the Kool-Aid” at gunpoint because they’ve been brainwashed. We are part of that violence. That brutality is in our roots. Only in facing it can we help shape the future against it.

DR: Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. The book opens with seven pages of beautifully hand-drawn maps. I’m not really a map person, but I lingered a long time with each of these. Can you tell me more about them, and the decision to include as many as you did?

LA: They were inspired by Thomas Minor’s 1600s map of Stonington, Connecticut, and how that first drew me into the location, which was largely accidental. I had the story in mind before I had the exact location. One of the maps is based exclusively on Minor’s original map, while the others are cobbled together from various sources. As you open the book, you are entering the Age of Sail, a time when maps were the difference between surviving long enough to set foot on land, or running out of fresh water while surrounded by a mocking sea of water you couldn’t drink. My hope is that the maps pull you into this environment that, while being familiar to us now, is still different enough to warrant some navigation. Boundaries are different. Towns and provinces have different names from what they’re called now. My hope is for the reader to step inside the book and be immediately immersed in the landscape and atmosphere, to understand at the onset that we’re about to take a pretty epic journey. Look, look, I even mapped it for you!

DR: The book is divided into three acts, each named for a Shakespeare play (A Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Measure for Measure). Why this choice?

LA: You are the first one who has made this connection! That delights me. The book has three distinct parts: the before, the during, the after. Those parts give you a place to pause and reflect on what you’ve read or where you’re about to go, and each time a new act starts, protagonist Ruth has to start over with some new development that has upended her life as she knew it.

Throughout the book, references to Shakespeare are made several times. He’s a precursor of the time period, and the era is still very much coming off the end of the Elizabethan years, which were incredibly overwhelming. Ruth has read Shakespeare and often feels as if she’s in a play, with everything around her creating a theatrical swell that spins around her in center stage. The book mirrors Shakespearean storytelling, with absolute tragedies sandwiched between epic bookends to each segment, dark comic relief, wild tempests, side characters who carry the story onward, heightened language and feats. One of my other lives before this life was as a theater major in college, and theater is always a part of me, that heightened sense of plot and persona. Ruth is nothing if not a character in her own play, and the book is nothing if not a theatrical production itself, broken down into acts for its actors. The Brechtian side of me wants you to remember this is all an act, all a play, all a story. Take a breath at the intermission. Go make popcorn.

DR: How challenging was it to write in archaic diction? Do you ever catch yourself speaking that way now?

LA: I used a lot of words that I found in old documents, and they felt organic to me because they were rooted in real people’s diaries and accounts of the time period. I love language, how it ebbs and flows and changes over time, tracing its origin, finding its branches. It wasn’t any harder for me to write archaic language than it was for me to write any of the book to begin with, or any of it at all. The whole thing just kind of bloomed and took on a language of its own.

The only things I regularly say in outdated language are swear words. My mom never liked swear words, so I avoid them out of habit, and fill in the spaces instead with “Oh, fie!” and “Oh, daisies!” and “Oh, murder!” Because of Ruth, I do say “God’s teeth!” now. “Gadzooks!” (which stems from the blasphemous “God’s hooks,” referring to the nails that held Jesus on the cross, if you’re a believer of that story) is another common one for me.

DR: Despite having to dwell in some of the grimmer chapters of our history, the book is suffused with wit and reads as if you had fun writing it. Did you?

LA: I did! I believe that, even in our darkest hours, we fall back on laughter. People make us laugh when we feel we should be doing anything but. Laughter is a universal language, and jokes are as old as time. I think people have always found humor in dark situations, and Ruth and Owen are no different. Ruth is sixteen/seventeen in the book, and Owen is twenty-two. They’re adults by history’s definitions, but they’re also still kids. They know each other well. They have shared pain on and off the page, a shared history that unfolds before the life of the book even takes place. Of course they’re going to laugh and joke with each other and find camaraderie in shared experiences, even when those experiences are difficult to face. Of course they’re going to poke each other in the ribs like adolescent mischief-makers.

When I am uncomfortable, I laugh. When a person falls on his face, I will probably reflexively laugh before I check to see if he’s okay. I once made my whole row of cousins laugh during a quiet funeral. It’s a reprieve. It’s a relief from despair. It’s how we tackle things as humans. We can’t just sit in the mire—we’ll die there. We have to have a break.

Dawn Raffel is the author of five books, most recently The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, which was chosen by NPR as one of the great reads of 2018. Her other books include two critically acclaimed short story collections (In the Year of Long Division; Further Adventures in the Restless Universe), a novel (Carrying the Body), and a bestselling memoir (The Secret Life of Objects). She has published in a wide range of literary and mass circulation publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Conjunctions, BOMB, Open City, NOON, New Philosopher, the Mississippi Review, and many others.

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