Katie: The thing the struck me most is the amount of research that must've gone into creating such an accurate portrayal of the Civil War Era. What was your research process like? How did you make this story feel so authentic?
Jane: From the time I was a little kid growing up in Virginia, the Civil War seemed to be everywhere. You didn't have to go far at all to see traces of it. Sometimes just around the bend was a marker telling of battles lost and won, captures and casualties, shadows of a time that was very far away, yet still within reach. So I read everything I could get my hands on about the war and dragged my mom and dad on special "Janie has to do this" Sundays for years until I decided that when I grew up I would write about the war. Research was so accessible in Virginia. Just across the bridge, the Library of Congress and the National Archives sat, waiting, it seemed, for me to explore. Handling old books and documents, inhaling the musty pages, became familiar and intoxicating. It still is. Hard work, though, to go beyond the obvious, beyond works well covered and often repeated. And of course, online resources are available; if you know where to look. So all this is to say I got a very early start, learned the basics and raced on from there. Then as now, I was drawn not to tales of generals and famous battles but to the unknown men and women who roamed the Civil War landscape. I read letters, piles of letters from and to soldiers, mothers, brothers, and especially from those on the home front. Research helps me "see" this time. Details of clothing, foods, language, the very fabrics of people's daily lives—churning butter, rolling bandages and pie dough, riding through rain in carriages or carts—comforted me, knowing I could be truthful, even when writing fiction. And because the other part of my early life revolved around acting in plays, I felt I could give voice to these people, not in a past life way, but by letting my research and imagination become a vehicle for my writing.
Katie: Where did the character Maddie come from?
Jane: Great question! I wanted to write about a teenage spy, a girl, a special, fearless girl who would inspire, awe, and excite. Spy craft has always interested me. The Civil War was full of stories of secret agents on both sides of the conflict. But could a teenager have become a spy? I was working on a nonfiction project about President Lincoln's spymaster Alan Pinkerton, a prominent character in Alias Dragonfly. Much to my surprise, I learned he actually used his teenage son as a sometime-courier. Perfect! Because I was about to write a novel, I could have Pinkerton hire a teenager, and why not make her a girl? What made her a good spy? And how did she get her remarkable memory and powers of observation? I didn't want her to magically, supernaturally come to be who she was. No, what else could have happened? I thought long and hard, consulted a neurologist and came up with this: Maddie had head injury from a fall that at first isolated her, made her feel like a freak in her little town, and finally her runaway brain became her great gift. This unique ability made her the perfect spy.
Jane: Timothy Webster. His real story is so compelling and ultimately tragic. And he was a master-spy: Pinkerton’s pride and joy. I took some liberties when I made him Maddie’s handler and tutor, but felt he might well have helped to train one of his boss’s spies. Maddie’s efforts to find and save Webster are a big chunk of Alias Sparrow Hawk. So for now, I’ll let that be a surprise.
Katie: Your website mentions you are an author, historian, actress and voice over talent. Tell us about some of these exciting jobs.
Jane: Writing books, acting in plays from the age of eight, then finally getting my Equity card and playing leading roles on the regional theatre circuit took up most of my life for quite a few years.
When my wonderful daughter Jessie was born we moved from New York to California. I wanted to spend more time as a mom and less time as an actress with a crazy, late-night schedule so I transitioned to TV commercials and voiceovers. It is my good fortune to be with a great voiceover agency, William Morris Endeavor, and have a wonderful literary agent, Robert Astle. They have impelled my journeys, believed in me, and created my perfect storm. In some ways, especially when I was starting out as a shy, bookish kid, I was more comfortable pretending to be someone else, inhabiting a character. I do that now when I record a voiceover or write my novels in the first person. Come visit me at janesinger.com.
Katie: I know you are passionate about another topic: no kill animal shelters. Tell us a little bit about A New Leash on Life.
Jane: I can’t say enough about the “earth angels” of New Leash on Life and the Lend A Paw Program. My daughter and I are social therapy dog handlers and have witnessed many miracles when we visit eldercare facilities and special needs schools. It has changed our lives. Far too many animals are abused and abandoned. Our wonderful, gentle little Caspy, a Havanese mix who was once homeless, has gone from “rescued to rescuer." Here is an article about the work we do and here's a link to our blog.
Katie: Tell us what to expect from the sequel to Alias Dragonfly.
Jane: In Alias Sparrow Hawk, you will meet a tougher, war-hardened Maddie. She’s fighting her nemesis (a fanatical assassin), navigating love in a time of terror, and growing up.
Katie: I noticed in your novel you included a section of discussion questions. When you wrote this novel were you intending on it being used in classrooms?
Jane: Oh, yes. I very much want to go to schools and spin some tales, inspire and educate. And if a teacher wants to use my questions to inspire, I will be very proud.
Katie: Any advice for aspiring authors?
Jane: Write, write, and write some more, every day, even if it is just a sentence. It is not enough to like writing, you must NEED to write, to make it as necessary as brushing your teeth. Be ready for a lot of rejection, and try, try, try to find your own voice. Expect moments of joy beyond joy and prepare for grunt work, revisions, and stay open, curious and inspired. Writing is often a lonely business. Don’t give up. I never will.
Thank you, Jane.
You can find Alias Dragonfly here.
You can find Jane Singer here.
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