"I would call it historical adventure or historical romance is fine too. I don't mind the romance label. I think there are lots of books that are romance that don't have the label on it. What happens, though, that I don't like is when that label is used in a derogatory way. In a kind of a condescending way. To say, for example, that this is some kind of fluffy woman's story and that there's not really much substance to it. That trivialization of anything that women might be interested in. I reject that reading with the word."
Sometimes, when Sara Donati talks about the distant past -- the historical past -- it's as though she's talking about something fresh and new and intimately familiar to her. When she speaks of it, the North American 18th century where the characters of her Into the Wilderness saga are based seems almost alive and current. As though she's talking about another country rather than another time. For example, when speaking about the third book in the series -- the one she's writing now -- Donati says, "Now they're home again and all the adventure comes from the political intrigue of the time." It's now, not yesterday. This is part of the vibrancy Donati brings to her writing: while the author knows she lives in a small hamlet in the modern Pacific Northwest, there seems to be a part of her that's adventuring off in another century on a different coast and it's all as alive for her as she makes it for the readers who devour her books.
Donati did not set out to write immense historical novels that are occasionally labeled as "romance." In fact, Donati was a professor of linguistics when she was hit with the notion to tell a story where women featured prominently in adventurous roles.
"I was in an academic setting where such things are frowned upon," says Donati. "You know: plot is a four letter word. And I just had a real interest in frontier stories."
Donati didn't know that she was writing a novel. In fact, she wasn't sure that what she was working on would ever be seen at all, but a strong compulsion drove her. It had, "occurred to me that James Fenimore Cooper's stories -- the later ones -- and Jane Austen's characters overlapped," says Donati. "And I had this idea about taking these type of female characters and putting them into an adventure setting to see what would happen."
What happened, ultimately and among other things, was a five-book deal with Bantam and a growing legion of fans that can barely wait for the next installment in her saga of the frontiering Bonner family in 18th-century New York state, a story that some critics have said takes up where The Last of the Mohicans left off.
In Dawn on a Distant Shore the Bonners -- complete with Nathaniel and Elizabeth's newborn twins -- are taken to Scotland against their will on the orders of a Scottish Earl who may be a Bonner cousin. The Earl is the last male in his line and is desperate enough for an heir that it seems as though he'll stop at nothing to get one.
This slight sketch barely scratches the surface of the many layers of adventure in Dawn on a Distant Shore, but it does lay the groundwork for a fast-paced novel of adventure with -- yes -- a little bit of romance.
Sara Donati is the pen name of Rosina Lippi, who won the 1998 PEN/Hemmingway Award for First Fiction with her debut novel, Homestead, a story set in Austria between the two World Wars. Rosina Lippi is also the author of several respected scholarly works, including English With an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States (1997) and Germanic Linguistics: Syntactic and Diachronic (1996). Donati lives in the Pacific Northwest with her mathematician husband and their 11-year-old daughter, Elisabeth.
Linda Richards: This book is going to be huge for you, I think. It's doing very well already. You have a warm and wonderful battery of fans.
Sara Donati: Yes. Thank you. Thank them. It's doing very well already. I'm very happy with it. I think I've been very fortunate in finding a readership fairly early and hooking into a group of people who are very interested in the characters.
Dawn on a Distant Shore is the second book in the series?
Yes. And I have a contract for three more. I'm working on the third one.
When will that be out?
I would say I will probably finish that about a year from now -- in the early summer of next year -- and then it depends on Bantam: how long it takes them to get it out. So maybe 18 months from now.
Maybe it all depends on how well your garden grows, too.
Yes. [Laughs] Yes, exactly.
Because I understand you're an avid gardener.
I am. I do a lot of gardening. Could you tell from the book?
Yes and I read it somewhere. In the background material I got with the book.
I've actually had people write to me and say, "I can tell from this book that you're an avid gardener."
The apricot roses and so on?
Well, I paid a lot of attention because even though I'm an avid gardener, I wasn't gardening in the 18th century. So it took a little work. But my parents-in-law who are English and are very, very avid gardeners, whenever they see a period movie -- for example, there was one movie that they saw where they said it was a lovely production, but the apples were wrong. They were huge, round apples and they had much smaller ones then. Also the strawberries were wrong. So I had them to kind of put me on the path.
You wouldn't want to be talking about things that hadn't been invented yet.
I work very hard to avoid anachronisms but sometimes it's just impossible. In the first book somebody wrote to me and said, "It's all very good and you did a really good job, except," I have somebody sitting down on a hay bale and they weren't baling hay until 1835. So that got past me and things do get past me, but generally I'm pretty good about catching things.
You have a background that helps with that as well.
My academic background is in linguistics so I pay a lot of attention to language issues and I try not to misrepresent those. I think a lot of people who write novels about 18th-century America and England and Scotland tend to misrepresent Scots. They like to think that Highland Scots were Scots speakers when they were Gaelic speakers. A Highland Scot wouldn't necessarily speak Scots at all. If they had a second language it might even be English.
What are referring to when you talk about someone speaking Scots?
When I'm talking about Scots I'm talking about a variety of English that was spoken in Scotland and was the official language and was the published language of Scotland until about 1750. And then English started to make inroads and replaced it eventually. It's still spoken now. In the lowlands they spoke Scots. In the highlands they spoke Gaelic. And then there was English. So you have Scots as one language, Gaelic as another and some presence of English as a third language. But when you read novels that are set in 18th-century Scotland, you often have highlanders who are represented as Scots speakers when that just is not going to be the case. But it's kind of a fictional license that people take because they think that people don't know the difference. And if it's all in Gaelic you're going to be in trouble, because it's a difficult language.
In Dawn on a Distant Shore you've gently set up all kinds of wonderful stuff for the next book. Are you able to talk about any of that?
I will say that it's all set in upper New York state and New York City and they don't go anywhere else. I've actually had quite a few readers who said, "I love this book, but please send them home again. They should be at home. Don't send them away." And I can promise them that I won't send them away on another ship's voyage because this was extremely hard to write. [Laughs] It took a huge amount of research. They needed to do this adventure thing. Now they're home again and all the adventure comes from the political intrigue of the time.
And there's lots.
Oh, tons. For the third one I'm going to New York in May to spend a week in the archives at the New York Historical Society. New York City in 1802, you have no idea what an exciting place that was. How interesting. John Jacob Astor, who was the first of the Astors, was an immigrant from Germany. His multi-branched empire was just getting off its feet. All these different people: Thomas Jefferson was hanging around. Alexander Hamilton. It was a slave-holding society. There were immigrants from all over the world. It was a really interesting place. And when I'm researching it I think, "Gosh! How can anybody not be interested?" It's my job, really, to make it come alive in the story as part of the story.
And you like having some of those people have cameos.
Oh yeah. I have real people in all the time. Like Anne Bonney [an aging pirate in Dawn on a Distant Shore] was a real person.
When I read it, I thought she might be.
Because she felt real?
Well, yes. And she had a relatively small part but she seemed so well fleshed out.
You do a lot of legwork in your research. Do you also work with experts? Or...?
I have consultants. I have colleagues that I worked with when I was in academics for a long time. I was on the faculty in the linguistics program at the University of Michigan. I had colleagues there who were actually native Scots. Lowland Scots. And they can put me in touch with other people. For example, my French is minimal. But I needed to do 18th-century Montreal French for this book, so they put me in touch with somebody who could give me that. Because I could figure out how to say something in modern French but I could never figure out how to say it in the Montreal French of that period. It was important to me. There was like, four lines in there but anybody who knows French well enough or who knows Canadian French or knows that part of the country will say, "Oh look: she's not using 20th-century Parisian French," which would stick out like a sore thumb. So yes, I did have consultants of various types.
I understand that you and Diana Gabaldon are friends.
Does that precede the books? Or is it through the books?
We met online, through a third party and started conversing just normally in the regular context of conversation. Then once in a while she'd show me something she was working on and I'd show her something I was working on. This was before Into the Wilderness sold. She was extremely supportive. She's a very generous person. I had an agent at the time that I wasn't really happy with and she introduced me to the agent I have now. The funny part is -- and most of her readers will know -- is that when I was doing the research [for Into the Wilderness] there's a flashback to the battle of Saratoga which was a major battle in the revolutionary war. I was doing the research on the battle of Saratoga and Diana said to me, "Hey my characters are in the battle of Saratoga." It was the first time our storylines intersected. And I said, "Well, I've got this injured boy over here and Nathaniel is looking for a doctor. Can I have Claire?" I was completely joking. And Diana said, "Sure. I'll send her over." So her characters show up briefly in my storyline.
Oh how fun!
And it's just meant to be an inside joke -- you know it's very short, it's in flashback. It's like two paragraphs, there's no dialog between the characters or anything -- they come and they go. And anybody who knows her books goes, "Huh?"
Did readers catch it?
Oh yes! Did readers catch it? Yeah! In fact there's this persistent rumor -- though she and I have both been very vocal -- that Sara Donati is actually Diana Gabaldon. She says that she gets e-mail all the time asking if she's Sara Donati and I get e-mail asking, "Are you Diana Gabaldon?" And we both say, "No!" We're going to have to get our picture taken together some time. And she was nice enough to give me a very nice cover blurb for the first book. I didn't ask her for a blurb for this book because there's a little bit of backlash sometimes. She has such loyal fans and people want me to write like her. And I don't. I write very differently in a different type of story. So people are sometimes disappointed by that. You know, it's not the normal thing. But there is a little bit of backlash that way, so I thought, "Let's just leave it at this point and not do that again."
She told me at one point that she was going to have my characters show up in one of her upcoming books and that would be a very quiet thing and no one is going to draw any attention to it. If people notice, fine and if they don't, they don't.
That's fun. On that backlash, though: The periods you write in are close but your stories and your styles are very different.
Mine is not time travel and hers are written in first person. The beauty of her books -- and it was a really masterful stroke on her part -- since Claire is from the 20th century she can observe what's going on from the 20th century. I can't do that. So it's a very different kind of book and a very different kind of story. Into the Wilderness was about half written when I met but there are people who feel some compulsion to compare on a very basic level. Which is unfortunate. I think what's unfortunate is that, for us, the character sharing was just kind of fun. Sort of an inside joke. We thought people might notice and it would be great if they did and OK if they don't, but [some people] wanted to make it more than it is. More than a simple inside joke. And people ask if it'll happen again and well, no. It was just kind of a one time deal.
Dawn on a Distant Shore is actually your third book, isn't it?
Yes. This is my third novel.
You wrote your first novel under a different name?
Under my own name. This [Sara Donati] is a pen name. My name is Rosina Lippi.
That's not a secret though, is it?
No. It's widely known.
I just wanted to ask that because I didn't want to be the one who blew your cover.
The idea was never to have a cover. It was just that Into the Wilderness and Homestead -- which is the other novel -- sold within three months of each other. And the publishers have this little phrase, "Confounding reader expectation," so they asked me if I'd use a pen name, and I had no problem with that. So that's how that happened. But I don't make any secret of that at all. In fact, on the Sara Donati Web site there's a sub-page that says, "Who is Sara Donati?" and then there's picture of me and a picture of me and under one it says "Sara Donati" and under the other one it says "Rosina Lippi," so it's not a secret at all.
Homestead is a very different kind of novel. It's set in Western Austria between the World Wars. That one won the PEN/Hemingway Award [for First Fiction] last year.
The Donati books are big, historical fiction novels. What's brought you here?
I think what happened was, I was writing Homestead and more literary short stories and I had this real compulsion to write a big, adventure-type love story. I was in an academic setting where such things are frowned upon. You know: plot is a four letter word. And I just had a real interest in frontier stories. Especially since I'd read a lot of them and the female characters were all so two-dimensional. I think the spark for these stories really came on the day that it occurred to me that James Fenimore Cooper's stories -- the later ones -- and Jane Austen's characters overlapped. So you could have those kind of well-drawn female characters in one part of the world, and then over here stories that seemed to be in a different universe. I had this idea about taking these types of female characters and putting them into an adventure setting to see what would happen. It was a really strong compulsion in me to try that. But I worried about it. I had a very close friend who is a writer and she said to me, "Tell the story." And I did, not knowing what would happen. If it would sit in my drawer. If I'd ever finish it. If it would ever sell. And the rest is history, as they say.
It was life changing?
It was life changing, yeah.
The first book sold very well?
Yes, it sold very well.
How well did it sell?
I honestly don't know. I have a real mental block about sales figures. I actually don't really want to know them. I want them to say, "It's doing really well," right? Or, "Well, it's down a little this week." Those are the kinds of things I can deal with. I don't want to hear specific numbers. I know for Homestead because those are smaller numbers: literary numbers. I can cope with those. I know that Homestead sold 24,000 copies last year in softcover which is really good for a literary novel. And it's doing really well: and that's a number I can hold on to. It's a small number, but it's a respectable number for the genre and I can keep that. But the numbers for this stuff, well, I'll tell you this. This is a funny little fact. Dawn on a Distant Shore knocked John Grisham off number one in New Zealand.
When I got that e-mail I just cackled with laughter. I was very excited about that. [Laughs]
So I take it you're big down under.
The books are doing very well in Australia and New Zealand. They just sold in England and they're doing very well in Germany.
You grew up in Chicago?
What sent you to linguistics?
I was very young when I realized how important language was to building walls and bringing them down, sometimes. Then when I moved to Austria I was near Switzerland where they speak a variety of German -- it's really Swiss German -- and it's really different from book German. It's really a different language. And the stereotypes and the discrimination were really apparent to me right away. So all of these things eventually clicked together enough to send me to graduate school in linguistics.
Where did you attend graduate school?
You lived in Austria for four years, didn't you?
What were you doing there?
It was not in one piece, it was in two lumps. The first time I went to teacher's college there and then I taught grade school for a year. Then I came back and I did a bunch of other stuff. Then I went and finished my undergraduate degree and then I went on to graduate school. Then I went back to Austria to do my field work for my dissertation because I wrote my dissertation about variation and change in a particular dialect of western Austria. I had to do field reporting so that was another two years, on and off, there. Then I got my Ph.D., then I got married and went to Michigan.
So it's Dr. Lippi?
Yes, but I don't use "doctor" unless I'm in the hospital and I have to try to get someone to pay attention to me. [Laughs]
Is your husband a writer?
No. He's a mathematician, which is like yin and yang. He works for the University of Michigan. He telecommutes from home [in the Pacific Northwest]. So he works upstairs in his study at the University of Michigan and I work downstairs in my study and it works out pretty well.
He's in another place and you're in another time.
Yes, that's right exactly. [Laughs]
I wanted to ask you what genre the Donati books are.
Well, I would call it historical adventure or historical romance is fine too. I don't mind the romance label. I think there are lots of books that are romance that don't have the label on it. What happens, though, that I don't like is when that label is used in a derogatory way. In a kind of a condescending way. To say, for example, that this is some kind of fluffy woman's story and that there's not really much substance to it. That trivialization of anything that women might be interested in. I reject that reading with the word. I'm comfortable saying this is a romance. I would call it an adventure-slash-romance because every once in a while I get a reviewer -- in fact there was one guy in Vancouver, Washington -- who wrote like a four line review that said something like, "Nathaniel's Mohawk name is 'Between-Two-Worlds.' Kind of like a university professor who writes bodice-rippers." And that was the whole review!
And it's not a bodice-ripper. At all.
Exactly. And I wrote to him and I said, "Did you read this? Because this novel is 900 pages long and there's some sexual content on five pages."
I would not have called this a historical romance. My understanding of the term is that in a historical romance, the history is only there to dress up the romance. In a romantic historical, there might be romantic elements, but the history is important. So I wouldn't say this is historical romance.
I wouldn't say so, but Bantam markets it as historical romance. If they want to do that, I don't have a problem with that. In a traditional genre romance all of the conflict is about getting the couple together and that doesn't happen until the end of the book. In my book [Into the Wilderness] it happens almost in the beginning. So it doesn't follow the rules of the genre but, on the other hand, there's a love story in it. So if people want to call it romance, that's fine. If they do it in a derogatory or dismissive way, of course I'm not going to like that. Are they entitled to their opinion? Yes. But I'd prefer it if they read the book before they review it. | March 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.