Bee Ridgway’s brand new debut fantasy, The River of No Return comes out tomorrow, and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book, her writing, and much more!
Please welcome Bee to the blog!
Bee, will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Have you always wanted to write a novel?
I was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. My Dad was a Methodist minister and my Mom was a minister’s wife. Being a minister’s wife is a full time job, by the way – but she wanted to pursue her writing. So when I was still a little girl my Mom went back to school at UMass to get an MFA in creative writing. From the time I was little both my parents were writers. My Dad wrote a sermon every week, and my Mom was constantly working on her writing. They each had a typewriter in the house, and you could hear them crashing away for hours on end. I thought it was the most romantic sound. After my Dad left the church, he went to work for my mother, becoming a “writer’s husband.” They are now 79 and 83, and they both still write every day.
I guess I always thought I would be a writer, too. I ended up in academia – I’m an English professor at Bryn Mawr College. Scholarly work is a different sort of writing life altogether, but it is a writing life! I never really thought I would suddenly write a novel, but when I did, my friends were blasé. “We always knew you would do something like that,” they said. Why didn’t they tell me?
Will you tell us a little about The River of No Return and what inspired you to write it?
The River of No Return is a time travel adventure historical apocalypse romance spy picaresque sentimental journey of a novel. In a nutshell, Nick Falcott is a Regency aristocrat and a soldier in Wellington’s army. About to die on a Spanish battlefield, he instead jumps forward in time 200 years. He is met, in the future, by a mysterious organization called The Guild, a brotherhood of time travelers who seem, at first, to be friendly. But soon Nick begins to suspect that The Guild is not as friendly as it seems! Meanwhile, back in 1815, Julia Percy is facing her own problems as she begins to realize that time is not as stable as she always thought it was. The novel follows these two characters, and a host of other time-travelers, in a love story that carries them from 1813 to 2013 and back again.
A lot of things inspired me to write the novel. Nick’s house in Vermont is a house I lived in, and I thought up the germ of the story there. But in another way, writing the book was simply a logical extension of reading for me. I read all the time. I read for class, and my working life is taken up with discussing books with students and peers. But I also read all the time for pleasure. One day I found that I was simply inspired to write popular fiction instead of read it, and I put everything into the book that I most like in the books I read. I enjoy love stories, but I often wish the romances I read expanded their view-frame to look at other characters and other problems besides those of the hero and heroine. I like dystopian fiction, but I also really love a happy ending. I grew up reading Ian Fleming over and over again, but although I love him I couldn’t really stand his jingoism. I wanted to write a novel that pleased me, as a reader. At one point my working title for the novel was “As I Like It.”
Time travel, secret societies…what kind of research did you do for the book?
The time travel in my novel has nothing to do with science – there’s no faster-than-the-speed-of-light stuff. I know that everything about my time travel idea is completely impossible, in terms of physics. The idea of time travel following streams of human emotion really comes from my experience of teaching students how to read literature that is anywhere between a hundred and three-hundred years old. Tricking them into feeling the power of that literature, into falling back into it. I often experience time travel, of a sort, when I teach, and it’s a trick of the emotions – just like in my novel. I did a lot of research into the historical detail in the novel, and into the citations in the book. There are references to other books scattered throughout the text, hidden like Easter eggs. I wanted there to be little gems from other times all the way through, and finding them, and figuring out how to weave them in seamlessly, was extremely fun.
Why fantasy? What do you love most about the genre?
I’m influenced strongly by the fantastical children’s literature I read when I was young – and that I continue to read! What I love about fantastical children’s literature is the way in which magic, or strangeness, can simply exist alongside real life, and the child heroes accept it as normal. There’s no hand-wringing in the Narnia series over whether or not wardrobes and lampposts that lead to alternate universes make sense – they simply become a part of the story, as real as railway cars and rationing. For my adult characters in my novel, I wanted Time Travel to be something radically disruptive, but that exists in the real world. I wanted the fantasy element, in other words, to always comment back upon what’s real, what’s historical, what’s human.
What are some of your biggest literary influences?
When I was in graduate school, studying American literature, a friend of mine brought me a Georgette Heyer novel. She said I needed something light, to help me through the big, meaningful novels I was stuffing into my head. I became a complete devotee of Heyer, and there is a lot of her in my novel. I admire the confectionary of her writing – her books are like meringues, or spun-sugar sculptures. I wanted to have just a dash of that sparkle in my novel, too. But I still love the big, meaningful books that I study and teach. In the 19th century, writers and readers believed in the power of emotions. What you felt as you read could change you, could change your soul, could change the world. Realism and modernism – our inheritance from the 20th century – made very different claims for the power of literature. It was more documentary, more educative. My idea of time travel as an emotional power comes directly from the literature I read and teach, from 19th century literature itself. Not so much the British Georgian lit, but the antebellum American stuff. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I’m not saying I write like them! But I like to write passionately, and to believe that writing and reading touches the heart . . . which is certainly an old fashioned view. But it’s the idea behind the time travel in my novel, and it was the emotional tenor of the writing experience for me. Finally, to return to children’s literature . . . I was blown away, I continue to be blown away, by some of the great authors of children’s fantasy, especially the writers of series. E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Madeleine L’Engle, J.K. Rowling. I will return to them again and again as long as I live.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Oh, I’m sure my answer is very common, but I don’t care. Absolutely Jane Eyre. I read that book when I was twelve and it transformed me. I could not believe what I was reading. When I was finished I just squeezed it, hard, in my hands for the longest time. If I could read it again, fresh . . . or rather, if I could go back to being twelve and reading it for the first time, I would, in a heartbeat. And I don’t say that I would go back to being twelve easily . . . I love being an adult!
What would you like for readers to take away from The River of No Return?
First and foremost, I want my readers to have a lot of fun reading the book. I had more fun writing it than I’ve ever had in my life, and I hope it is fun to read. I hope it makes them laugh, that it is a page turner, a tear jerker . . . all those good things. I hope they come away wanting more. If I wish for anything deeper, I hope readers come away inspired to “jump.” To try to change themselves into their ideal, dream self.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
I like to read. I read all the time. When I’m not teaching, reading, or writing, I like to cook and I like to walk. I live in South Philly. It’s a beautiful old falling-down kind of city, Philadelphia, perfect for long walks. We have a great old-fashioned Market – Reading Terminal Market – where we do most of our shopping. Then I lug it all home and cook it up. My craptastic old stove is finally dying – only two burners work. So in addition to teaching and reading and writing and walking and cooking I’m also dreaming up a new kitchen.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing the next one, of course! And having a pile of fun doing it. The first one came out in a rush, as if it had been cooped up in the dark too long. I’m having to coax this one out, like a cat from under a sofa.
About THE RIVER OF NO RETURN
“You are now a member of the Guild. There is no return.” Two hundred years after he was about to die on a Napoleonic battlefield, Nick Falcott, soldier and aristocrat, wakes up in a hospital bed in modern London. The Guild, an entity that controls time travel, showers him with life’s advantages. But Nick yearns for home and for one brown-eyed girl, lost now down the centuries. Then the Guild asks him to break its own rule. It needs Nick to go back to 1815 to fight the Guild’s enemies and to find something called the Talisman.
In 1815, Julia Percy mourns the death of her beloved grandfather, an earl who could play with time. On his deathbed he whispers in her ear: “Pretend!” Pretend what? When Nick returns home as if from the dead, older than he should be and battle scarred, Julia begins to suspect that her very life depends upon the secrets Grandfather never told her. Soon enough Julia and Nick are caught up in an adventure that stretches up and down the river of time. As their knowledge of the Guild and their feelings for each other grow, the fate of the future itself is hanging in the balance.