Writing the books she’d want to read: a conversation with Sarah Shoemaker

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By F. Josephine Arrowood

Sun contributor

Novelist Sarah Shoemaker of Northport has been an educator, university research librarian, world traveler, wife, mother, and grandmother. She recently spoke with the Sun about her most recent books, Children of the Catastrophe (2022) and Mr. Rochester (2017). Shoemaker will appear at the Glen Arbor Arts Center on Saturday, Aug. 26, at 11 a.m. for “Coffee With the Authors.” Other events this fall can be found on her website, SarahShoemaker.net.


Glen Arbor Sun: Tell about your pre-writing life. You grew up in the Chicago area?

Sarah Shoemaker: When I was growing up in Naperville, it was still a small town. I had a typical growing-up experience; I was sort of a tomboy, and a reader, and spent a lot of time at the library.


Sun: When did you first want to be a writer?

Shoemaker: When I was about in third grade, I thought that I would be a writer when I grew up. But life happens—and in my case, I got married, had children, I was a stay-at-home mom. We lived overseas for five years—which gave me the background, by the way, to write Children of the Catastrophe, and where I actually learned about the Catastrophe.


Sun: The Catastrophe is the survivors’ name of the events of September 1922, when the Anatolian coastal city of Smyrna [called Izmir by the Ottoman Empire, now modern-day Turkiye] was set ablaze by arsonists, after Greece had taken control of the territory. The Catastrophe marked the end of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), and Smyrna/Izmir once again came under Turkish rule.

Shoemaker: We lived in Turkiye for two years, in Izmir, in the mid-1960s. I heard there about the burning, and that no one really knew who started burning the city, but it was pretty much destroyed. We came back to the States for three years, and then moved to Athens, Greece. And I heard again about the burning of Smyrna, because a lot of the people who fled went to Greece, which is not that far away. I heard from them that definitely the Turks did it. Well, who knows?

When I got interested in writing this book, I read as much as I could about that time period, and…I’m convinced the Turks were responsible. Even today, the Turks won’t admit it—but it’s not really what my book is about.


Sun: Your novel is about two normal families of Greek descent living in the multicultural metropolis of 1920s Smyrna, with every reason to be happy—until a terrible event overtakes them.

Shoemaker: I should say that I knew the story, but I didn’t really think about writing it until we came back from Greece. My husband is a teacher, and one of his colleagues, George, is a Greek-American, whose father grew up in Smyrna at the time of the Catastrophe. Like many families, his did not have enough money to pay the expensive charges for everyone to be able to leave. They chose the oldest child to be saved, which was George’s father. They paid for him to get on a ship to America, and he eventually ended up in Detroit.

His story made me feel what it would be like—to have that experience of being in a place where you’re going to be killed if you can’t escape—and how that would be. Actually, we’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing recently, as in Ukraine, for example, where people had perfectly happy, normal lives…and suddenly, it’s not that way anymore.

I wanted to write a book about a family, who had all kinds of reasons to be happy and look forward to the future, and then to have everything fall apart. I wrote this story because I knew the place, I knew the cultures in both Turkiye and Greece, so I felt that this was a story that I could write.


Sun: You were busy raising your family for a number of years; you returned to school later in life; you’ve also been a teacher and a college librarian. When did you begin your writing life?

Shoemaker: When my youngest child started kindergarten in the late 1980s-early ‘90s, I finally started writing. I wrote about five books before anything got published. I did eventually publish three books that were thrillers—espionage or spy stories—and had pretty good experiences with those. Then life intervened again and I didn’t write for several years. One of those life things was that we moved up here [to Leelanau County]. At a book group, we were discussing Jane Eyre, and people were saying they couldn’t understand why Jane would fall in love with Mr. Rochester; he seemed so mean…. I just thought, somebody needs to write his story, and I decided I would write [it]. That was published five years ago.


Sun: After I read Mr. Rochester, I had to go back and reread Jane Eyre. I was so impressed with the seamless melding of your work and Bronte’s masterpiece; the plot points; the language; each character’s point of view. Talk about the process of having to do that close reading, and figuring out where you were going to tell his story.

Shoemaker; I had to make notes of where the character [Edward Fairfax Rochester] fits in; how to fit him into the Jane Eyre story. I was “looking for” Mr. Rochester all along: what he was doing, how he was acting, why he would do certain things…. I was trying to understand his psychology.

Of course, Rochester doesn’t appear until well into Jane Eyre. So much of my story is before he meets Jane. That’s where I was really trying to build who I thought he was, while also trying to follow the [original] book. I wanted to know why he would have gone to Jamaica, how he would be put into the position of having to marry a woman there.

One amusing thing that happened was I came across a passage where he talks about his youth, and he says something about “going to university,” and I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I have to send him to university!” I had to figure out what years he would have been there, where he would have gone. I looked up famous English authors who were likely to have written about their experiences. And I found out that college life then was a lot like college life now: they cut classes, drank a lot, and so forth!


Sun: The language, the dialogue—all felt very true. You’re a research librarian by training…

Shoemaker: If you read enough books that were written at that time, you can sort of get the language in your head, what terms were used then…you’re researching not only what happens, but how people talk, how they live, and what they think.


Sun: You wanted to get into Rochester’s psychology. I felt you gave a really sympathetic portrayal of him, but you didn’t give him a pass on being a slave owner. At the same time, you didn’t intrude authorially with 21st century ideas of social justice, or that he should have somehow been against slavery, even though he was the son of a slave holder/sugar plantation owner. How did you negotiate that?

Shoemaker: There were of course always people who thought that slavery was wrong, but I didn’t want Rochester to be that kind of enlightened, because it was unlikely that he would be…. I tried to make him kind, but not antislavery, because that wouldn’t be realistic for him. People have told me I should have made him more antislavery—but this was not the person he was. And this wasn’t what the book was about. He did treat the slaves that he came personally in contact with—he treated them as well as I could have expected him to.


Sun: Rochester’s problem—what the story is about—is that of a sensitive second son who was not loved by his father in the way he wanted and needed to be. Yet he feels a tremendous responsibility and has the burden of trying to do right by the family, even though the family had not done right by him—including his forced marriage to the madwoman Bertha. He has his burden of filial responsibility, trying to live up to that, and desperately hoping for some peace in his own life. Being true to Bronte’s character and the things that occurred in Jane Eyre—you can’t really go off-script, but you were able to create a complex, nuanced, believable character.

Shoemaker: I know it was disappointing to some people, but we need to accept how people were; they really didn’t think the way we do now, except for a very few. I always tried to make him true to what I thought he would be.


Sun: Was it easier to write Catastrophe or Rochester?

Shoemaker; I can’t say I thought one was easier. They’re two very different books, and each one had its own appeal to me. With Catastrophe, I wanted to write about people [the Dirmigi and Melopoulos families] who had a really lovely life in Smyrna—until they didn’t. That’s quite different from what I was doing with Mr. Rochester. [With Catastrophe] I could make the ending whatever I wanted it to be. I could have gotten the whole family onto a ship and have them end up in America, but I wanted it to be a more thoughtful book, a more realistic book.


Sun: As Stephen King says, you were telling the truth in your fiction: “This is how it goes.” Actually, that holds true for both of these novels.

Shoemaker: I wrote this book quite some time ago, long before what happened in Ukraine. Who, five years ago in Ukraine, would have thought what was going to happen in their country? I have to think, Ok, nothing bad is going to happen in my country. But how do I know? We all live lives that we assume will go on just the way they’ve always done—and usually they do—but sometimes, they don’t.


Sun: You mentioned the difficulty of getting Children of the Catastrophe published. Talk about your publishing experiences.

Shoemaker: Catastrophe was originally much longer. But my agent told me, “I will not try to sell this book unless you get rid of the last third of it.” I thought, I’m not going to do that. Time went by, and I thought, I’d really like to get this book published, and it’s extremely difficult to get an agent, so maybe I should just try to do what she told me. Then she took it, but it was still difficult. Part of the problem was that the burning of Smyrna was not that well-known [in historical fiction]; editors were afraid to take a chance.

A lot depends on what is popular right now—but when you’re starting to write a book, you don’t know what’s going to be popular in two or five years…. Something you write fits right in, sometimes it doesn’t. One advantage of writing something like Mr. Rochester is because Jane Eyre is a long-time popular book and will remain…it’s not going to go out of style. Actually, people asked me whose story was I going to write next? I thought, ‘This is a one-off, I’m not doing this again!’ And there are a lot of books based on Jane Austen’s books, the Brontes’ books….


Sun: That’s a whole genre. You’ve never had to self-publish. Is that an option?

Shoemaker: I would never self-publish. I’m not a salesperson; I don’t want to fight that fight. Other writers have had success with it, but that’s not me. I’ve published five books with major publishers. I don’t need to force myself out into the world to sell my book.


Sun: Talk about your writing process. What would a typical writing day look like for you?

Shoemaker; I’m a morning person. Right after breakfast, I generally go up to my study and write. When I first started—when you’re serious about writing, but you’ve never been published—it was hard to get going. So for a long time, I worked under the challenge of “three hours or three pages, whichever came first.” And a lot of times, it would be three hours. Because I’m a morning person, that’s when I do my best work, and that’s what worked for me.

Now I don’t have to do that anymore. I tend to know what’s going to happen in the beginning and essentially in the end, but I’m not sure about a lot of what happens in the middle. What I used to call my subconscious, I let that do a lot of the work; I wait until my mind knows what should happen next. I know that sounds really weird…your mind is working all the time, and it’s different from your brain. It works. I’ve never had writer’s block; I’ve always felt it’s going to come to me: I know I need a character, I know what they have to do, and my mind figures it out. Does that sound weird?


Sun: To a fellow writer, it sounds like “showing up at the page.”

Shoemaker: I don’t remember the famous writer who described writing as driving a car at night: “You can only see as far as your headlights show, but you can travel across the whole country that way, because you only have to know what’s going to happen next.” Then you get there, and figure out what’s next.


Sun: Who were some of your writing influences?

Shoemaker: Gosh, that’s hard! I’ve read a lot of books I’ve really loved, but I can’t really pinpoint any one that I would say, “Gosh, I really want to write like him or her.”


Sun: What are you reading now; what’s on your nightstand?

Shoemaker; My favorite so far this year is Horse by Geraldine March; it was great! I’m about a third of the way through Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake. I really liked her two books of essays. I like Alice McDermott’s books. In nonfiction, I read After by psychiatrist Bruce Greyson, about the mind and near-death experiences. That book has really stayed in my mind.


Sun: So what is your next project, if you can divulge a hint?

Shoemaker: I haven’t really decided. I’ve had a lot of people say, “I want to know what happens to Dmitri from Children of the Catastrophe; you need to write a sequel.” We’ll see.