An interview with E.B. Moore, Author of An Unseemly Wife

lizE.B. Moore lives in a city loft, but writes her way back to farm life in Pennsylvania where she grew up. She retired as a metal sculptor in her fifties and hung her tools on the loft beams before looking for another creative outlet. Joining workshops at Harvard Extension with the youngest of her three children (now a novelist), she studied poetry, and published a chapbook of poems, New Eden, A Legacy. These poems served as the foundation for her novel, An Unseemly Wife (forthcoming from NAL/Penguin on October 7, 2014).

An Unseemly Wife is based on family stories of betrayal and hard won survival as her Amish great grandmother attempted the cross-country trek in a covered wagon with her husband, an infant, and four other children. Moore is addicted to discussing books, reading, writing, cooking, and eating. Not necessarily in that order. She graduated from The School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator, and has received full fellowships to The Vermont Studio Center and Yaddo.

Dead Darlings caught up with E.B. Moore last week and she gave us insights into writing her debut novel.

Ruth’s world in New Eden in the last century was very different from our world today, but it came alive through Ruth’s consciousness. Did you have much research to do?

I grew up on a Pennsylvania farm and had to leave when I was sixteen, so staying in Ruth’s head around animals and the land seemed very natural to me, a great way to revisit my youth. Beyond that, I did do a lot of research, reading journals and letters, investigating the history of the trail and following the parts Ruth took.

The novel begins when the dreaded English show up in New Eden. Ruth shoos her children away from the door, fiercely wanting to protect them against people she’s been taught to fear. Eventually, Ruth turns to them for help. What allows her to trust others outside the Order?

Facing dangers of the trail brings on closer associations with the English. Ruth comes to see them, two very different women particularly, as individual people, which enables her to form a bond she’d never have imagined.

What were the challenges in creating the character of Aaron?

One of my first readers hated Aaron so much I realized I had to make his intentions clear. He feels the weight of the future. He can’t afford to buy the land his family needs, so when fertile land is being given away in the west, he has to balance the need with the dangers of getting it. He wants to stay true to his beliefs and start a new community, though the Elders see this as disobeying the Ordnung rule to stay separate. Aaron is actually a forerunner to a movement that has spread Amish enclaves all over the country.

Was it difficult to write about the times Ruth’s children’s lives were at risk?

When writing about children in extremis, it’s hard to gauge how much to tell. Some readers can’t stomach any of it and will stop reading, but to get the impact of the event and its effects on Ruth’s future actions, I had to add details that were grueling to contemplate.

Your novel alternates between the present and the past. How did that structure emerge?

To understand Ruth’s struggles, I had to show her devotion to Aaron in the past, their courting, the joys of their life on the farm, as well as the pleasures and confines of the Fold. The calm of their old life served as a counterpoint to the risks they faced on the trail and highlighted what Ruth loved and was forced to give up.

Early on, Ruth writes to her brother Daniel telling him that she has fought with Aaron over his decision to go west. In this letter, Ruth tells a story that she can’t tell in the main narrativeHow did you come up with this idea?

Some people are good at arguing, while others freeze up. Often in cases of high emotion, it’s easier to say things in a letter before the anticipated face to face. It gives time to get out a coherent thought without being interrupted either by words or a furious scowl. Fortunately, Ruth develops the ability to defend herself as the need increases.

You have another book about this family. Could you say a few words about it?

Yes, I’m trying to finish it soon. The book is a novel, based on my grandfather’s early years. It follows Joshua as he escapes his father’s wrath and a fire that leaves them both badly burned. Joshua, age eleven, heads west across the country in a ten-year fight for survival. He tries to replace the good part of his family life, as his mother, in a parallel point of view, struggles to accept God’s will—her son is dead. But questions haunt her, and she digs at her husband, determined to uncover details of the fire and his part in Joshua’s disappearance.

E.B. Moore will be reading from An Unseemly Wife at Porter Square Books on October 14th at 7 PM. Along with Novel Incubator alum Jennie Wood and Kate Racculia, E.B. Moore will be reading at Craft on Draft on October 7th at 6:30 PM.


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