Author Sarah Blake's historical novel, The Postmistress takes readers back and forth between small town America and war-torn Europe in 1940. It is the story of three women who lives come together because of a letter. Blake explains, "Over the course of the novel both of these women find themselves faced with a piece of news they find they cannot deliver in the form of a letter, thereby upending all that they lived by: order, truth."
Commitmentnow.com: What skills does it take to create and write a novel like The Postmistress?
Sarah: Well, I'm not sure whether stubbornness is a skill, but this novel took so long to write and was so difficult to figure out how to write, that I think the only thing sometimes that kept me going was just sheer mulishness.
But I think too, writing a historical novel requires the skill of being able to somehow transform research into story. For me, it's almost like having had to become fluent in another language--the customs, the diction, the events of the 1940s.
Commitmentnow.com: Tell us about your novel. How did you come upon this plot and create these characters?
Sarah: The Postmistress is about three women whose lives come together in 1940 because of a letter. Two of the women have jobs that revolve around delivering the news.
The first, Iris James, is the postmaster of a small town at the end of Cape Cod. She believes firmly and squarely in the sanctity of the United States Postal Service. Frankie Bard, a young intrepid reporter who has talked her way into Edward R. Murrow's radio studio in order to get the story of the war going on in Europe believes in getting her countryman to wake up and pay attention to what is happening.
Over the course of the novel both of these women find themselves faced with a piece of news they find they cannot deliver in the form of a letter, thereby upending all that they lived by: order, truth.
The third woman, Emma Fitch, a young newlywed in the town where Iris is postmaster, is the woman whose letter they hold.
The plot came about because I had an image in my head of a woman in a post office slipping a letter into her skirt pocket instead of delivering it. So I needed to know who she was, and when this was, and why on earth she would do such a thing.
From there Iris was born and the town around her, and Will and Emma grew up also. Frankie Bard arrived into the town late in an early draft, and then I realized I needed to know why she was there, and so I followed her backwards into the war to discover what she was running from.
Commitmentnow.com: How did you first become involved with novel writing?
Sarah Blake: When I was very young I wrote lots of stories, but then as a college student and afterwards, I was writing and studying poetry. There came a point however, when I just found myself wanting to write past the ending of a poem, wanting to break out into a larger room, with dialogue and characters, and so I just started to write scenes of something I thought might be the beginning of a story.
I wanted to write a novel in the style of Charlotte Bronte, so the scenes started to shape themselves around a plot, and that's how Grange House, my first novel began.
Commitmentnow.com: What advice do you have for aspiring novelists who dream of writing as you do?
Sarah: The only advice I have is to read as much as you can, and as widely as you can, and to make time to write--even if it's for half an hour--every single day.
Commitmentnow.com: What makes you such a good writer?
Sarah: Yikes! Well, first of all, thank you! I don't really know how to answer that as I feel as though I have so much to get better at--but when I am proud of my writing it's where I can hear that the sentences have some rhythm to them, where they push emotion through the sound and the beat of the prose.
Commitmentnow.com: What about this novel are you most proud of?
Sarah: I am proud of how it moves back and forth between the States and the war on radio broadcasts. The day I figured out that I could portray the two places in the same moment through Frankie's broadcasts I was so happy because it seemed so natural and because it does so much work.
Commitmentnow.com: What skills does a writer need to cultivate?
Sarah: Patience. Stamina. And then the capacity to write your heart out, all the way out so that there is something on the page to come back to and revise and fine tune. The first draft, no matter how messy, is vital to getting the beat of a novel.
Commitmentnow.com: What do you think deters many people from becoming successful writers?
Sarah: Not having the necessary amount of time and energy to keep a big project alive in your head and on the page.
Commitmentnow.com: Were you surprised how this novel ended, or did you know the ending the entire time you were writing?
Sarah: I was surprised by what Frankie did at the end, yes. I had thought she was going to do something else, but when I got there, that's just what seemed right to me. So far, both my novels have surprised me at the end, which is so exciting for me!
About the Author: Born in New York City, Sarah Blake is the author of a chapbook of poems, Full Turn (Pennywhistle Press, 1989), an artist book, Runaway Girls (Hand Made Press, 1997) in collaboration with the artist, Robin Kahn, and two novels. Her first novel, Grange House, (Picador, 2000) was named a “New and Noteworthy” paperback in August, 2001 by The New York Times. Her second novel, The Postmistress, will be published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in February 2010. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Good Housekeeping, US News and World Report, The Chicago Tribune and elsewhere.
Sarah taught high school and college English for many years in Colorado and New York. She has taught fiction workshops at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown, MA, The Writer’s Center, in Bethesda MD, The University of Maryland, and The George Washington University. She lives in Washington DC with her husband, the poet Joshua Weiner, and their two sons.