Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 8, 2015

Erika Robuck and Sarah McCoy: A Conversation about Fiction

After a lovely day in Concord, Massachusetts, which I spent being escorted around Orchard House by the gracious director to take pictures of May Alcott’s artwork, then crossing the road with my daughter to walk from behind the Emerson House through woods, fields, and roads to Walden Pond, I was hot, tired, and tempted to buy Erika Robuck’s and Sarah McCoy’s new novels and skip their talk at The Concord Bookshop. I’m so glad I changed from sneakers to loafers, found some iced tea, and got myself over to a delightful conversation about creativity and ways the past and present meet. That love you see in the photo warmed the audience, too, as the bookshop’s ever-smiling Dawn asked thoughtful questions that Erika and Sarah answered with honesty, precision, and charm.


Dawn first asked about inspiration. Erika Robuck spoke about the importance of place and the day when she toured some historic sites in Concord and stopped at the window in the Old Manse where Sophia Hawthorne, recovering from falling on ice, which led to a miscarriage, used her wedding ring to scratch words in the pane: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.” Erika spoke about imagining the fury Sophia Hawthorne must have felt to scratch into glass. As Erika spoke with passion, I felt as if she were still there, almost standing beside Sophia with an arm around her. So when Dawn said that the first person voice in THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE felt authentically Sophia’s, I believed her and can’t wait to read the novel about an artist and devoted wife and mother.

Sarah McCoy spoke of the origins of THE MAPMAKER’S CHILDREN as being haunted by a line that came to her and an angry, pained voice that wouldn’t go away, until the middle of one night when she couldn’t sleep so her husband told her to get out of bed, get her notebook, and begin. She found a way to link the inner turmoil of a contemporary woman struggling with a definition of family with Sarah Brown. Who was Sarah Brown, beyond being the daughter of man sometimes credited with beginning the Civil War by leading an attack on the Confederate arsenal at Harper’s Ferry? Trying to answer the question of who Sarah Brown was, exploring her role as an artist and mapmaker for the Underground Railroad, led Sarah McCoy from Concord, where Sarah Brown stayed with the Alcott family, to Harper’s Ferry, a West Virginia town both lovely and haunted by its past, and a small museum in Saratoga, California where a few of Sarah Brown’s paintings and information is proudly preserved.


The authors also discussed lines between fact and fiction, the pain and strategies of cutting after gathering lots of information, the use of contrast to power a narrative, punctuation as a tool or a device to bring out the music of language, and ways they live with the subject, such as Erika setting up sort of altars on her desk, and drinking what they drank, and Sarah cutting herself off from social media, and sometimes making dinner, in order to immerse herself.

These novels about strong women would make wonderful Mother’s Day gifts. I hope to be reading them on Sunday.


  1. loved your post, Jeannine! I lived in Lincoln for 3 years – within walking distance of Walden Pond – & will always remember it as the place I started writing seriously.

    • I expect you wouldn’t have missed New England last winter, but that’s cool that you began seriously writing in a place where so many writers lived. I’m glad to bring you back for a brief spell!

  2. I almost got lost in this blog piece as I clicked on all the links, the authors’ websites, the essays they’ve written for Writer Unboxed, their books, until I finally found my way back to Jeannine and her daughter and that wonderful mother-daughter day you had in Concord. Orchard House! Old Manse! I flash back instantly to Concord and Lincoln of Jane Langton’s Diamond in the Window. And all of it shared with a daughter.

    Those books are on my list, as well as Grand Central, a collection of stories about the iconic station, with contributions by Erika and Sarah.

    • Candice, I loved your piece in The Artful Blogger, and smiled when you mentioned that pivotal reading of Diamond in the Window. So I’m glad this led you back to that area. Also just loved finding the magazine in Barnes and Noble and recognizing “you” among the pictures on the cover. Yes, Grand Central — they introduced each other’s work, but both held onto that book. Thank you for commenting!

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