Into the Wilderness came into being because I wanted to read stories of the women on the New York frontier in the post-revolutionary period. Since no one else seemed inclined to write those stories, I began to consider writing one after re-reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers. While I was pondering how such a story might be approached, I saw Michael Mann’s 1992 film adaptation of Last of the Mohicans, and that provided the spark: what if (as Mann implies at the end of his film) Hawkeye and Cora actually married and made a home for themselves in the wilderness? This was contrary to Cooper’s storyline for the Leatherstocking Tales, in which Hawkeye ends his days sad and disillusioned.
So I gave Hawkeye and Cora a son, Nathaniel, and I opened the story almost forty years after the fall of Fort William Henry. But I needed a female character to challenge Nathaniel and the wilderness both, a woman who would come to see the endless forest with new eyes. I was re-reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion (I try to reread all of Jane Austen every year) when I began to wonder about her characters. What would Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice have done, how would she have acted, if Darcy had decided to pursue his future in the wilderness of the newly formed United States? What if Captain Wentworth, upon marrying Anne Elliot and taking her away from her obnoxious Kellynch family, had said “let’s see what adventures await, let’s get out of this genteel country neighborhood setting?” What about Jane herself, if she hadn’t come down with the disease that killed her at such a terribly young age, what if she had been given the opportunity to travel away?
Of course, Jane Austen probably would not have given up her quiet home and family. But her characters, there was another issue. Thinking about them, eventually my Elizabeth Middleton took shape: a woman aware of the world and her role in it, and never quite resigned to either. She has some of Elizabeth Bennett’s insight, Anne Elliot’s curiosity about the world, Elinor Dashwood’s extreme rationality, her sister Marianne’s passion. But there is also a dash of Mary Bennett in Elizabeth: the book-obsessed young woman understood by none of her family. Mary Bennett has always seemed to me the one female character in Pride and Prejudice who gives away some of Jane Austen’s own weaknesses. Austen is unable to show any kindness towards Mary, and I have always wondered why. So this was my opportunity to take these women out of England, and to see them make their way in a different kind of world. Thus Elizabeth Middleton slowly took shape.
Q: How would you classify your novels?
I suppose I would call them (in fact, I have called them, when forced) historical fiction or historical adventure. That is, a lot of research goes into each one and a prime concern is making the era come to life. Beyond that, I hope to keep the reader turning the pages, interested in the characters and the plot. There is a lot of plot; some of it has to do with a love story. Various bookstores and reviewers have called these novels ‘romance’. Sometimes they seem to expect me to be put out or angry about that, but in fact I don’t mind. A love story is a love story, after all. I’d consider Pride and Prejudice and Taming of the Shrew romances, too. One label I do not like is ‘bodice ripper’ because it is disrespectful to me, to my characters, and to the readers. Not to mention that it’s factually incorrect: no bodices are ripped, torn, or damaged in any way in my work. That is, I don’t write gratuitous sex scenes.