Striking a Balance: An Interview with Jill Caugherty

Conducting an interview with a writer who shares my publisher is always lovely, and such is the case with author Jill Caugherty. She’s also a member of the Women’s Fiction Writer Association, so I’m lucky to keep up with her on several virtual fronts. Jill writes “coming-of-age fiction set during the Great Depression,” and her short fiction has been featured in 805Lit, Oyster River Pages, The Potato Soup Journal, and The Magazine of History and Fiction. Readers appreciate her work: one reviewer wrote, “From the beginning, everything about this story felt true and genuine,” while another said, “The characters in this book were masterfully developed.” Besides working on her on own craft and book promotion, she’s also a wonderful literary citizen; Jill supports other authors with book blurbs, reviews, and information exchange. It’s certainly a hectic time of the year, so I’m thankful Jill took the time to answer my questions.

Christina: Your second novel, The View from Half Dome, published in April. The book is set in 1934 and is described as “a moving coming-of-age story about hope, forgiveness, Nature’s healing power, and the courage to grow, regardless of age.” Where did the inspiration for this book come from? And the characters—who inspired them?

Jill: While writing my first novel, Waltz in Swing Time, which is also set during the Great Depression, I extensively researched the nineteen-thirties. In particular, I was fascinated by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), a work relief program founded by President Roosevelt as part of the New Deal. Since the thirties are an often overlooked time period in historical fiction, I decided to leverage my research to write a second novel about the Depression, set primarily in Yosemite National Park, where the protagonist’s older brother works for the CCC. While researching Yosemite in the thirties, I found articles about the park’s first female ranger-naturalist, Enid Michael. She and her husband, Yosemite’s Assistant Postmaster, were elite climbers who didn’t use ropes. Enid was amazing in other ways too; she managed the public wildflower garden with help from the CCC and wrote over 500 nature articles on Yosemite—the largest body of work on the park. Moreover, every year she had to reapply for her position. She faced opposition from her supervisor, who criticized her “sing-song” voice, “sloppy” attire, and “stubborn” personality, and insisted that the CCC boys would be better supervised by a male naturalist. How could I resist? I had to weave her into the story.

Christina: Both of your novels are historical fiction. What about historical fiction compels you to write it? What sort of challenges does writing historical fiction have? Did anything surprise you in your research for The View from Half Dome?

Jill: For me, historical fiction is an opportunity to do a deep dive into the people, customs, values, and society of often-forgotten time periods, and make them come to life for modern readers. I enjoy crafting stories that interweave historically accurate facts with fiction. One of the challenges is striking the right balance so that detailed facts don’t burden the story. While researching The View from Half Dome, I was delighted to discover Enid Michael. I had never heard of her before, let alone known that she was Yosemite’s first female ranger-naturalist. An out-of-print book, The Joy of Yosemite: Selected Writings of Enid Michael, Pioneer Ranger Naturalist, edited by Fernando Penalosa, was a goldmine find, since it contained articles that Enid Michael herself had written about Yosemite. Through them, I got glimpses into her personality and opinions.

Christina: Your first novel, Waltz in Swing Time, is based on your grandparents. How difficult was it to write a story involving someone from your family? Did your writing process for the two books differ?

Jill: Partly because it was my debut novel, Waltz in Swing Time took me over twice as long to write (ten years) as The View from Half Dome. Writing loosely about a family member did pose a unique set of challenges. Although I fictionalized most of Irene’s childhood in Waltz in Swing Time, I had the advantage of a trove of stories about my grandmother, on whom Irene’s character is based. At the same time, I had to maintain some distance to avoid portraying her in an overly complimentary/glowing way. By the time I started The View from Half Dome, I had learned to streamline my writing process, leveraging plotting techniques and beats from books like Save the Cat: Writes a Novel. Additionally, I joined a critique group through WFWA (Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association), who provided excellent feedback and suggestions on early drafts of The View from Half Dome.

Christina: You’ve spoken about your publication journey with fellow author Karen Osbourne, and every author has something unique to share. Would you provide a few details for our readers? What is one thing you’d be sure to tell an aspiring novelist with respect to the publishing industry?

Jill: The publishing industry is not for the faint of heart! It pays to be persistent and optimistic when pursuing publication. That said, don’t lose sight of the writing process itself. For most of us, that’s what matters most, because it sustains us and gives us joy. I’ve also learned not to query agents or publishers until my work is extremely polished. Preferably that means allowing critique partners and beta readers to review early drafts and then incorporating their feedback into thoughtful revisions.

Christina: Piggybacking on the prior question—the publishing industry is often cited for being ageist, which includes being biased against older authors. As an author whose first publication released when you were well into adulthood, did you find any obstacles in your journey to publication?

Jill: I was fifty-two when Waltz in Swing Time was published. Fortunately, I can’t think of any obstacles in my journey to publication that were related to my age. I’m not sure whether it helped that for the majority of the novel, my main character, Irene, is a young woman, coming of age. Since the novel is dual timeline, several chapters also feature Irene as an older woman in an assisted living home, but she’s a youthful-spirited person.

Christina: Over the years, you’ve held “software development, product management, and marketing roles.” How have those informed your writing?

Jill: These roles have given me several key skills that translate well to creative writing, including paying attention to details, as well as grasping the big picture of a product and its benefits and distilling it into a compelling marketing story. Having a big picture vision is useful when plotting a novel and crafting compelling characters and their emotional journeys. Paying attention to detail helps during the copy/line editing process, and when ensuring consistency in timelines and plot points.

Christina: I love to ask about pets, and you have Jax, who is a perfect writing partner. What else can you tell us about this adorable cat and any others?

Jill: Jax is a pandemic rescue cat. We adopted him in August 2020, when he was three. He’s a Tuxedo breed, and he’s extremely affectionate, playful and athletic (we’ve nicknamed him “Acrocat” and “Cathlete” for his high jumps!). He also loves crawling onto laps. However, his pet peeve is that he must come to us, not vice versa! He’s one of our two “only” cats. Our other cat, Roxie, was four years old when we adopted Jax. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the two cats never got along, and we discovered that Roxie is much more comfortable living in our daughter’s room, as far away from Jax as possible. 🙂

Christina: What’s next for you?

Jill: My work in process is contemporary, based on a fictional tech startup. It alternates among four different POVs (two women and two men ranging in age from late twenties to early fifties). I just received feedback from four beta readers, and I’m awaiting feedback from a South Asian sensitivity reader. Right now I’m in the process of incorporating the beta reader feedback, and then I’ll share the revised
chapters with my critique partners. Once I’m confident that the novel is as polished as possible, I’ll query agents.

Jill can be found in multiple places!
Instagram: @jillcaugherty
Facebook: @jill.caugherty
Twitter: @JillCaugherty

Thanks to Jill for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an artist, author, or podcaster who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.

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