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Sam Thomas teaches history at University School, an independent day school outside Cleveland, Ohio. Before coming to US he taught at the college level for seven years, and received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with his wife and two sons.
His debut, THE MIDWIFE’S TALE, is a historical mystery set in 1644. Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.
Kirkus Reviews, everyone’s toughest critic, said: “Historian Thomas’ fiction debut is packed with fascinating information about a midwife’s skills and life during the English civil war. The ingenious, fast-paced mystery is a bonus.”
We gave Sam the Deb Interview and here’s what he said…
Do you have a regular ‘first reader’? If so, who is it and why that person?
My first reader is my step-sister, Laura Jofre. She is now a freelance writer (she wrote a chapter in The Drinking Diaries), and in a previous life she was Faith Sale’s assistant at Putnam. (Sale edited Kurt Vonnegut and Amy Tan!)
When I finished The Midwife’s Tale, I asked Laura to read it over, and to be brutal in her criticism. She (reluctantly, I think) agreed, and brutal she was. She forced me to rethink plot, character, language…pretty much everything. But I rewrote the book based on her feedback, and then went looking for an agent. I gave it one more (light) revision after that, but the book I wrote using Laura’s feedback is more or less the one that hit the shelves last week.
I think Laura is a perfect first reader because she has a much more literary bent than I, and as a result she pushes me out of my comfort zone. She also has a fantastic eye for character, and thanks to her I am much better at writing about the emotional side of my characters. (I’m not the most in-tune with anyone’s emotions, let alone fictional characters, so I need this nudge!)
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Take “No” for an answer.
The problem is that writers are not very good judges of their own material. (I’m not, you’re not, it’s just the way it is.) We write what seems like a perfectly good novel, and then see if we can get it published, and in most cases we fail. I asked my fellow bloggers at Book Pregnant if they had written a book prior to writing the one that was published. An overwhelming majority (2:1) had tried and failed before finally succeeding with a second (or third! Or fourth!) book.
If agents keep turning you down, there are two of possible explanations. One is that your work is great, but for some reason nobody in the publishing industry recognizes its greatness. The other is that your book is not great, and that you need to get better as a writer.
Chances are that it’s the second one. Put the first one in a drawer, and get started on the second.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
When I was in the Army, stationed in The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, I acted as the armed escort for a string quartet from the Skopje Symphony. They had come out to our base to perform, and afterwards we had to give them a ride home. I was tapped as one of the escorts.
So there I was, driving through downtown Skopje, with a 9mm Beretta stuck down the back of my pants, a viola in the back, a violist next to me, and I thought to myself, “I am the only kid from my high school class who has done this.”
Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
Oddly, the book that most affected me has very nearly the same title as the one I wrote. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale is one of the most magnificent works of social history I’ve ever read. In it Ulrich tells the story of Martha Ballard, a midwife in Maine around the time of the American Revolution. Her starting point is Ballard’s diary, but Ulrich interweaves it with hundreds of other sources to recreate the incredible richness of Ballard’s life.
When I read this – my first year in graduate school – I thought, “This is the book I want to write.” Little did I know how close I would come to getting my wish!
Well, I have to go with Historical Bridget Hodgson, the midwife on whom I base my main character!
The only problem is that Historical Bridget is so amazing, I can’t include everything without straining the bounds of credulity. In early modern England, midwives often acted as godmother to the children they delivered, and thus could name the child. (The priest asked, “What is the child’s name?” and the godparent’s answered.)
I was able to identify four of Bridget’s goddaughters, and they were named Bridget, Bridget, Bridget, and Bridget. It almost goes without saying that her own daughter was named Bridget. The problem is that as soon as I write that into a novel, it becomes either satire or slapstick. (Catch 22′s Major Major Major Major springs to mind, as does the “Roger, Roger, do we have Clearance, Clarence?” exchange from Airplane.)
There is also some evidence that two of Bridget’s sons were hanged for highway robbery, and that her work as a midwife raised her from poverty to riches. The first of these is pretty unlikely, and the second even more so, but neither story would work in the kind of book I am writing.
Wow–she does sound fascinating and so does A MIDWIFE’S TALE! Thank you for joining us, Sam, and for the great interview.
If you’d like to learn more about Sam Thomas and The Midwife’s Tale, find him on Facebook and visit his website here. Click here to buy a copy of the book, or pick up a copy at your local indie. And don’t forget to comment below to get a chance to win one free copy (US addresses only) from the author!