Following up on her critically-acclaimed debut novel An Unseemly Wife, E.B. Moore’s new release Stones in the Road follows eleven-year-old Joshua from his Amish home in Pennsylvania to the wilds of Colorado and beyond. Christopher Castellani has called Moore’s novel “…an epic yet intimate journey through the harrowing terrain of 19th Century America.” Liz took time out from her launch recently to speak with Dead Darlings about her latest book.
Dead Darlings: In your debut novel An Unseemly Wife, and now in Stones in the Road, a protagonist of Old Order Amish descent journeys west to Pittsburgh and beyond. What has captivated you about this story line not once, but twice?
E.B. Moore: Though the setting is similar, these are two very different stories of survival. The first is about a mother of four battling against her husband’s decision to go west just when their fifth child is due; while Stones in the Road follows an eleven year old boy escaping his father’s repeated beatings. He’s desperate to get west, but has no experience dealing with predators in the outside world of “English.”
When I was a kid, my mother told me the bones of these stories, events taken from the lives of her father and grandmother. They made me realize how close I came to never being born.
You wrote half of Stones in the Road before turning attention to An Unseemly Wife. When you returned to your earlier manuscript, did you find yourself looking at the material in a different way?
Originally, I had seen Stones in the Road as only Joshua’s story, but my editor encouraged me to add a woman who would carry through the whole book, someone going with him, she said. Impossible. I resisted, since being on his own so young lead him into the best and worst predicaments. His mother’s parallel point of view was the only possible addition I could imagine. I gave it a try, and in the end, I think each character enriched the other. Thank you Tracy Bernstein.
Joshua’s mother, Miriam, bears a heavy load in this story, as she grieves for her lost son and tends to her husband Abraham’s physical and emotional wounds. What special challenges did you encounter in rendering Miriam as a character?
Taking Miriam from a completely devoted wife and stripping her of almost every support she relied on was a brutal process, not unlike what happened to Joshua, only this happened in the safety of her own home. The challenge was giving her moments of respite, even joy, and then figuring out what the fall of innocence would do to her as an Amish woman, as a wife, and mother.
What interests me now is how much debate she generates: How could she not know her son was being beaten? A mother always knows her child, how could she not have recognized him when he first came home? I’ve loved sitting in on book clubs where the debates get very heated on both sides, readers who believe in her innocence and readers who think she didn’t want to know.
In Pittsburgh Joshua enjoys a respite from the harshness of his travels when he is taken by Mrs. Biddle, a widow. I’m interested in Joshua’s decision to continue west after experiencing the comforts of home. Can you elaborate on that choice?
The comforts evaporate for him and for Mrs. Biddle, since she too loses her home. Even though she encourages Joshua to return to his family, he thinks his father would kill him. The west, where he’s heard summer reigns year round, holds a more promising future.
Your portrayal of the American West in Stones in the Road is both poetic and unsparing. Did any authors inspire you as you were considering how best to write about Joshua’s journey to Colorado and beyond?
I dip into several books when I get stuck, opening one at random for an infusion of excitement: March by Geraldine Brooks; Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; and Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, but the biggest help in writing the journey west came from following the trail, Omaha to Laramie and over the mountains in a snowstorm. White knuckles on the wheel, I kept telling myself, at least you’re not in a covered wagon.
Given the marvelous coming-of-age story arc you’ve created in Stones in the Road, I’m curious if your agent or editor suggested positioning this novel as Young Adult? Does it matter?
Fortunately, no one suggested this, even before I added Miriam’s character. I think the business of forcing books into slots of this kind is a disservice to authors as well as readers. Agents and publishers aren’t always to blame. The Christian Book sellers took on An Unseemly Wife, since it featured an Amish family. They lumped it in with the Amish genre, a big mistake. The book is a dark survival story not the romance they expected. Some readers went so far as to return the book, complaining that Ruth (the wife of the title) “enjoyed marital relations too much.”
We live in a world affected daily by religious fundamentalism. I’m curious whether your perception of Amish values and practices may have shifted over the years.
Religion has always fascinated me, what people believe and how it changes their lives. I think everyone is entitled to his or her own form of worship, and my perceptions have no bearing on it. In telling these stories I generate debate, but don’t take sides; only my characters do.
Where would you like to take your fiction-writing from here?
For the moment I’ve abandoned the Amish, focusing instead on a more current day story about an elderly woman escaping the clutches of her children. She runs away from Mass General Hospital wearing her johnny, a mink coat, and goggly-eyed slippers. On the lam and full of joy, she avoids capture with the help of a homeless man and a five year old.
When this is finished, I may go onto the third Amish book, a time when Esther, from An Unseemly Wife, and Joshua, from Stones in the Road, come together.