Interview: Tracy Groot

I have featured reviews of three of Tracy Groot's books now: Madman, The Sentinels of Andersonville, and Maggie Bright. Tracy writes historical fiction, some of it based in Biblical times, and some in more recent history. (You can tell I'm married to a historian: recent is measured in centuries.) She has won awards, garnered endorsements from prominent historians, and delighted many readers.

You have written a good number of historical novels now, six, if I'm counting right. What was it that drew you to writing in general, and writing historical fiction in particular?

I've wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I loved stories, loved reading. Happily, I did a lot of the kind of reading that many kids these days don't do: the classics. 'Happily', because this reading became (and remains) my source of education for the craft. I read Dickens, Twain, Alcott, Susan Coolidge, Lucy Montgomery--gracious, don't get me started. (You know what happens then, ha ha...) I read a lot of what C.S. Lewis called "old books", you know? George MacDonald. Lewis himself, Tolkien...and dynamite little wonders by writers that many folk never heard of--people like Grace Allen Hogarth, Elizabeth Enright, Margaret Sydney, Mary Holmes, Joan Robinson, Wilson Gage, Jean George, Helen Oakley.

I look at these old cherished childhood books on my shelves now and again, just to remind myself of novels that made a difference for me, when I'm feeling obscure and sorry for myself as a writer without a name like Madeleine L'Engle or J.K. Rowlings. Some of my all-time favorite books are What Katy Did, and The Enchanter's Wheel and The Vandals of Treason House, and The Secret of Saturday Cove--books unknown by most, but known to me. Like I am unknown by most, but known to the One who matters most, the One from whom I will get the only "Well done" that really matters, on those days I feel obscure and sorry for myself, ha ha!

So that's what drew me to writing--great books. And what draws me to writing historical fiction in general, well, that's a great question: the (mercifully) short version is that the definition of historical fiction is broad and wide: I can do pretty much whatever I want in whatever time period I want. Historical fiction means two things, generally: event fiction, as in Gone with the Wind and A Tale of Two Cities, and period fiction, as in True Grit, the Downton Abbey stories, and, really, A Tale of Two Cities again. Both event fiction and period fiction are historical fiction, as they are rooted in a certain time in history. So for me, it's one great big field day. I can ride a horse on the prairie in 1872, or I can rescue a stranded soldier under heavy enemy fire on a beach called Dunkirk in 1940. I can barf up demons on a northern Galilee shore, circa 0 B.C./A.D., Next day I'll be thrown overboard in the middle of a hellish storm, circa 750 B.C., because I told the sailors that the particular deity I worship said they should.

I'm close to saying historical fiction is the One True Genre. But it ain't so. There's Narnia. And Middle Earth. And Hogwarts. There's the plumb opposite of historical fiction, and that's a fave of mine, sci-fi. (Ender's Game, Dune, etc...) So HF is not the One True Genre, but it is my favorite playground. :)


Now here's a question I've been itching to ask you in particular. In Madman, you included a miracle in your story. Now I've actually heard it said that including God in a story in essence ruins that story, because you can resolve a problem at any time by throwing a miracle at it, which creates a bit of a conundrum for writers who believe that God can and does intervene. What are your feelings about that? And do you have policies about how and why you will "let" God intervene in your stories?

Deus ex machina. Yep. Had a local college prof accuse me of this, when he read the manuscript. He didn't like it that Zagreus was rescued at the temple by following "the big bright man", an angel only he could see. I nodded politely, thanked him for his time, and still had the angel do the rescuing. Why? Because, really, the whole darned thing was impossible, if the prof had stepped back to look at the whole. Kardus, hearing voices only he could hear--isn't that some other kind of god out of the works? The formula is wrong, I tell you. Why can supernatural evil operate as deus ex machina, and that's allowable, but not supernatural good?

It was sort of me flipping the bird to this illogical notion.

No, I don't have policies for how and why I'll let God intervene in my stories. Sometimes, I'll just let it play out--with Maggie Bright, the intervention was oh so English Channel that was the calmest it had been for that time of year in a hundred holding to their tasks under inhuman conditions to rescue others...the timing of Hitler's sudden stop of his Blitzkrieg, when if he'd pushed a little further he would have utterly decimated the British Army; this is God, this is God out of the works, and I believe much of these things happened because of prayer. Churchill himself called it a miracle. Many at the time did. Dopey revisionists cry foul.

I think it best not to have a policy for how we tell our stories. Just tell them naturally, let them come. Let people gripe. As long as you are convinced that the story is falling out true, well, that's all that matters. I'm glad I didn't listen to the prof. He was most illogical.


LOL! So now I would like to turn to how you decide what stories you want to tell. When I was reading The Sentinels of Andersonville, the whole Black Lives Matter was erupting. Your story of the concentration camp at Fort Sumter almost automatically calls up the parallels with Nazi concentration camps, where a complacent and complicit population turned their eyes away. But at the same time, I was seeing something all too similar going on across the Internet, as so many people refused to acknowledge what was happening right in front of their eyes. It gave your story a rather profound resonance with me at that particular time. Which is a very roundabout way of asking, do you start with a theme like complacency in the face of oppression, and find a story to illustrate it, or do you start from a particular historical incident that sparks something in you, and let the theme come in as it will, or something else entirely?

Oh, man. You ask such great questions, Janet. The kind that matter.

I think I become aware of theme as the story itself progresses. So that means I start out with the event, I guess; I believe our subconscious leaps at the theme from the get-go, when our conscious self is attracted to a story--our subconscious already goes to work on theme, I believe, giving the conscious part of us a break from having to think too deeply at the beginning. I believe, then, (at least for myself) that my lines would get too fouled up in onerous multi-tasking: I'm a simple person, and operate far better with one focus at a time: tell the event.

Then, as things pick up speed through research, and story develops through new things I learn, I hit upon the Real Reason I'm writing the book--and that reason is always, always, always vague at the beginning.

For example: I'm writing a story about Jonah. What got to me first about him was the fact that he ran from God. What got to me second is wondering about Nineveh. What got to me third was the men he sailed with. Ah...but what got to me fourth is what I'm currently fascinated with, and now I believe I've gotten down to it: Jeroboam the second, and the lamentable state of Israel at the time. Things were falling apart in Israel. The glory days were long past. King David the Golden One was the best king they had, and Jonah the prophet wishes he could've dealt with him, and not Jeroboam the Schmuck. Yes, Nineveh is bad--sinful, and stained, and rotten--but Israel suffers from lack of conviction. Israel, I believe, is in far more desperate straights than Nineveh.

So what do I feel Jonah is really running from?

I think he's madder than heck, not at God, but at Israel. At Jeroboam. At himself, because he is part of Israel. I think he laments the good old days of King David. I think he's furious with God because, deep down, he knows Israel needs a prophet and a good old repentance, not Nineveh. In fact, it was not long after this time in history that Israel disintegrates completely.

And then Jesus comes. Fixes things for good. But that's another timeline, another continuing part of the great story...

I digress.

My point, and there is one up there in that verbiage: Just as Arnold Toynbee said that character is formed by an interaction between a person's heredity and his response to his environment, I believe that theme is formed by a interaction between a writer's findings in research--his study of the event. Theme comes, and when it does, when we finally recognize it, then as Stephen King says, we can turn up the volume on it in the rewrite. (Though it seems my work is in a constant state of rewrite, ha ha...)

Wow. That's an extensive answer. But that's what you get for asking a great question--infliction in totality. :)


Those have been very extensive answers! But please permit me a last quickie or two. Would you like to put in a quick word about your most recent novel, Maggie Bright, and perhaps lift the veil a wee bit on what is coming next?

A word on Maggie Bright.

Maggie Bright's got my attention not because of the Dunkirk story, but because of the prayer story. Don't get me wrong. The story of an entire army in straits that make "desperate" a morbidly inadequate word, and civilians and a navy come to the rescue of that army, and the civilians and the navy get blown up and fired on to do so...that's incredibly appealing to me. But when a story like that carries with it stuff I can live on for today...that's win-win. See, prayer is something like sweet old aunties—there, and available, but not much noticeable unless you, well, notice. When you do, you see the value, you realize you've been missing something. And you engage once more. Through the writing of Maggie Bright, I remember once more my call to prayer: that prayer really, really, really gets things done. I remember that it is likely my number one responsibility as a Christian. I remember that it is the singularity that keeps me in touch with both my Creator and His creations, keeps an invisible hand-holding circle going on.

So that's why Maggie has my attention, and likely will keep for some time to come. It's an age old story of God, man, and the exploits of both. That's always a good story.

What's next for me?

A lot of reading. And then later, when I'm ready once more, a lot of writing. I have a half-finished manuscript I want to get back to, a story about Jonah told half from his point of view and half from the views of the men with whom he sailed. And I may mess around with YA fiction, co-writing some stories with a friend of mine. For now, it's all about filling up a well that has gone all but dry. I do see a shine at the bottom of that well, so the refill is on its way. Reading does it. And knitting. And puzzles. And paint-by-numbers. And cleaning my house. And baking. And taking walks. And lunches with friends. And prayer. :) And remembering that God is the restorer of my soul, not me.

Well, I think that's about it. :)

Good talking with you, Janet.


And it was good talking to you too, Tracy. :o)


Tracy Groot's website

Review: Maggie Bright


I love Tracy Groot's writing for a number of reasons, but a big one is her characters. She loves her characters, so much that you can't help but love them too. They are quirky and spunky and sparking with life. They are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, facing extraordinary evil, and they defiantly put their little brick in the wall erected against that evil. Groot doesn't write the world-changers—the Hitlers and the Churchills—she writes the common people caught up in the maelstroms of the worldchangers who find a way to do their part in perilous times. How can we do anything but cheer? Groot clearly believes that such small players matter, and matter immensely, seeing as she seems to seek them out in so much of her historical fiction.

In Maggie Bright, it is 1940 and we are in London. The British Expeditionary Force is being pushed back to the beaches of Dunkirk, and Hitler can no longer be dismissed as a delusionary buffoon, not even in far-off America. Maggie Bright is a yacht, one that young Clare Childs has inherited. Little does she realize that along with it, she has inherited a cause. The yacht harbours a secret that she is unaware of, but that others are eager to get their hands on. The Burglar Vicar and far darker characters turn up looking, and Clare gets pulled into a story bigger than herself. The Shrew, an indomitable retired schoolmistress with a shrill shriek and a killer kettle, William, a repressed bobby with a passionate heart under the rigid exterior, and Murray, a young American cartoonist with an international following and his own claim to the Maggie Bright, soon tangle their lives up with hers, and they all find themselves doing battle in one way or another.

At the same time as the Maggie Bright's story is playing out, Private Jamie Elliot is frantically scrambling through Normandy, trying to get safely to Dunkirk with his charge, Captain "Milton", who has lost both his men and his mind and can now communicate only by quoting Milton. The image of the grieving captain laying leaves across the gaping chest wound of a dead French child in a ditch while quoting Paradise Lost is not one that is likely to leave me soon.

Groot's blurbs come from some prominent historians. My husband, who is also a historian, was suitably impressed. This speaks to the quality of her research, and her ability to put a very human face on the great events of history. Maggie Bright will appeal to lovers of history, lovers of humanity, and anyone who believes that small lights shine brightest in the deepest darkness.

Tracy Groot's website

Review: The Sentinels of Andersonville

Some stories are drawn in black and white because the black is so deep and so dark that we could not bear to read them without the light to keep us from drowning. Yes, I know I'm mixing metaphors, but I just finished reading The Sentinels of Andersonville and I'm feeling a bit scrambled. The Civil War prison camp at Andersonville was a piece of hell on earth, and reading about it at all would be unbearable without the counterpoint of the genuinely good people who tried to do something about it.

Tracy Groot's historical novel was inspired by an incident during the Civil War, when some concerned people from Americus, Georgia, having learned of the plight of the starving prisoners of war in nearby Fort Sumter, took up a collection of food and tried to deliver it to feed their starving enemies. They were turned away, their food undelivered. Groot imagines a story inspired by them and the other individuals who did what they could to stand against the evil among them.

The descriptions in the novel of the conditions in the camp – and I suspect that Groot spared us some of the worst – are quite simply hellacious. We can count ourselves lucky that words do not convey actual smells. But the novel focuses on the people of integrity who tried in their various ways to do something about it and while they weren't able to eradicate the evil they were at least able to alleviate it a bit. And because we spend the bulk of our time with them rather than down in the camp (although we do spend some time there), it becomes bearable reading. Not just bearable, inspiring. The deep friendships and romances that form between the people battling vicious hatred, the ones who can see the human face of their enemies and who bear the reproach of being branded traitors for doing so, balance out the horror of those who knew exactly what was going on and didn't care, or worse, actively supported it. In real life, the commander of the camp, Captain Henry Wirz, was put to death for war crimes in 1865.

I enjoyed The Sentinels of Andersonville very much. Groot is a skilled, award-winning author who wins praise from almost every quarter, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, and is one of authors whose books I buy as soon as I see the name on the cover. I expected good things, and I got them. I smiled, I laughed, I fought back tears. And perhaps more important, it made me wonder what I should not be looking away from and what I can do about it. Yes, I'm afraid this book will do that to you.

My review of Tracy Groot's Madman

Tracy Groot's website