Thursday, March 5, 2015

Interview with Kathy Hepinstall & Becky Hepinstall Hilliker, authors of Sisters of Shiloh

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome authors Kathy Hepinstall and Becky Hepinstall Hilliker to Flashlight Commentary to discuss Sisters of Shiloh.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Sisters of Shiloh. 
Thanks so much for having us! Sisters of Shiloh is the story of two sisters who join the Stonewall Brigade during the Civil War and fight disguised as men. One sister, Libby, vows to avenge the death of her husband after he is killed at Antietam, and her older sister, Josephine, follows her, determined to keep her safe at all costs. Along the way, Libby begins to descend into madness, and Josephine finds love amidst the turmoil of war, but cannot reveal herself without betraying her sister.

Where did the idea for this story come from and why did you feel it needed to be told?
Becky: Soon after Kathy published her second novel, The Absence of Nectar, she came to me and asked if I had any ideas for a novel that we could write together. I have always been a big fan of history, and studied it in college, where I was fascinated by the stories of the real women who fought disguised as men in the Civil War. I told Kathy about these female soldiers and she became equally intrigued. From there we developed the plot outline together.

Kathy: Something seemed so wrenching about girls blooming into mature sexuality who needed to subvert that sexuality and hide their womanly traits in order to fight a man's war. At first Libby was avenging the death of their brother.  In later drafts, the object of her revenge became Libby's dead husband.  But from the beginning drafts to the end ones, Josephine was fighting only to protect Libby -- and how much she was really "fighting" is something explored in the novel.

What sort of research went into Sisters of Shiloh? Are there many resources available on women who fought in the Civil War?
Becky: When we began this process in the fall of 2002, there had been very little written about the subject, but we did find a fantastic book called They Fought Like Demons, to which we owe special thanks for helping us create these sisters based upon several of the real women who fought. There were very few vetted historical sources available on the Internet, so it was really only used in the process of contacting local historians and experts. We researched this book for about a year and a half, and continued the process while we were writing (undoubtedly, some question would arise within the narrative - what kinds of objects might be in the scene, what flora and fauna would be nearby, etc.). We visited all of the battlefields and walked the fields with Park Rangers, trying to envision what it would be like for the characters. We spent a week at Antietam and were so lucky to get to meet repeatedly with a National Park Service Archaeologist - he was a wealth of information about the realities of war and the specifics of the battle of Antietam. We met with local experts in the Winchester and Sharpsburg areas. We researched in the Handley Library in Winchester, and in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park Archives at Chatham Manor. We also poured over scores of books we found about the period, including several first-hand accounts. We studied what people of the period wore, what they ate, how they spoke and how they acted. 

Why did you choose to write Sisters of Shiloh from the Confederate perspective? 
Becky: The narrative of the book was dependent on the real history to shape it. For example, we knew that in order for Libby and Josephine to find Arden's body at Antietam, they would need to live a reasonable distance from there. That led us to discover Winchester and its own fascinating role in the war (it changed hands more than 70 times), and we decided to make that their home town. Also, there were certain major battles in which we wanted our characters to fight (earlier versions of the novel spanned a longer time frame and included the battles of Gettysburg and Spotsylvania). In trying to find a real brigade that fought in those battles and those of Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, we came across the Stonewall Brigade and learned more about Stonewall Jackson, and we found the zealous devotion to him from his soldiers to be really compelling. 

Kathy: From a literary perspective, there is something really intriguing about believing fervently in a cause that is ultimately doomed - it’s a great tragic element. Although these characters are ultimately on the wrong side, the ideas that spur them into fighting - like loyalty, revenge, patriotism, grief, love and rage - are universal. These women were just women following their hearts in a unique way, and I think everyone can understand that, whether they agree with the political aspects of their cause or not.

How did your relationship influence the dynamic between Libby and Josephine?
Kathy: Being sisters, we had a a lifetime of memories and experiences to draw upon when creating these characters. But neither character is based exactly on one of us or the other - there are aspects of each of our personalities in both of the sisters. Becky is my little sister, and I feel as protective of her as Josephine does for Libby. But she is also a romantic at heart, like Josephine, and I am very passionate about what I value, like Libby.

Becky: Writing this book together was truly one of the highlights of my life and we had a blast doing it. We get along so well and really respect each other’s strengths and opinions, so it was a seamless process. We only had one major disagreement - and that was over the life of a particular character that Kathy wanted to kill off, but I wanted to live. I won’t tell you who won…

I loved your use of Les Miserables. Why did Hugo’s classic appeal to you? 
Becky: I have four young children and a military husband who is gone for long stretches of time. There are times when the thought of getting to sit down in peace after they’re in bed and watch Downton Abbey is all that gets me through the day! That’s a lot like what Les Miserables did for the soldiers. It was hugely popular in the US at the time and had been serialized into five parts. During the war there were a few huge battles, with several smaller engagements throughout, but mostly soldiers endured this awful monotony of long, grueling marches and camp life.

Kathy: We loved the idea of soldiers in the middle of this terrible war, never sure whether they will live or die, consumed with this fictional story of Jean Val Jean. Just shows human curiosity and human desire for great storytelling are part of the DNA.

Slavery is usually tackled head on in Civil War fiction, but with exception of a short discussion between Arden and Libby, you chose to downplay the issue. Why?
Becky: Although slavery was a very important factor in the Civil War, there were many people who fought on both sides for other reasons, and we wanted to explore those motives. And, at the heart of the story we didn’t want to get too bogged down in all of the politics of the war - what was most important to us was to keep the focus on the sisters and their devotion to their cause and to each other. 

Matthew is a minor character in Libby and Josephine’s story, but he caught my eye. What do you hope readers take from his role?
Kathy: Matthew is a fine soldier, a good man, and a homosexual, which was not a term bandied about in that time period.  The fact that Josephine sees his love as real and redemptive and writes his parents was meant to show a certain respect for the homosexual men who fought and died for their beliefs on both sides, while keeping their secrets.

Becky: Josephine understands what it is like to fight in this war while maintaining a secret identity, so I think she is drawn to Matthew’s plight. And, of course, she is curious about it, as well. 

Private Abraham was another memorable minor character and I found his final scene quite striking. Why did you feel it important for Libby and Josephine to witness this moment?
Kathy: Private Abraham represents the darkest fringe of the war, when it enters the mind and causes chaos. He simply could not stand up to the things he witnessed.  He was a foreboding of madness and despair.

Can you tell us about Arden? Most of what we learn of him comes through Libby and Josephine, but I couldn’t help wondering how you, as authors, viewed his character.
Kathy: We wanted Arden to be a jerk, but a jerk that is actually capable of love and sacrifice.  We wanted him to be Josephine's antagonist, and be insensitive and brash.  We wanted for Josephine to have good reason to want to kill him.  In an earlier draft, Arden even goes so far as to impregnate Libby before they were married, which led to a painful miscarriage, but we ended up taking that out.  Arden's ghost is meant to raise one of the questions that drive the book - did Josephine kill Arden on the battlefield?  The ghost is not so much to symbolize the true character of Arden, which was a mixture of traits, but to add tension to an already tense plot and to demonstrate Libby's spiraling madness - the reader is never told whether or not Arden is literally meant to be seen as a ghost, or a figment of Libby's imagination.

Your narrative touches on many themes. Which is your favorite and why?
Kathy: The theme of love being stronger than war and death was our favorite. Perhaps because it was a woman's take on the war, and in general I think women are usually more measured and hesitant about the necessity of violence.  But this idea of sisters loving each other through thick and thin, and love ultimately conquering their separation, and the spiraling madness of one of them, inspired us and we hope it inspires others.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
Kathy: I don’t want to anger any readers, so I will say: SPOILER ALERT: The scene where Wesley sees Josephine as a woman for the first time, and embraces her, is a favorite of ours. We liked the unapologetic romanticism of it, and the woodsy setting. And the nudity :)

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it? 
Kath: Again, SPOILER ALERT. The ending scene, where Libby must decide between the ghost of Arden and her sister's life, was particularly challenging.  We rewrote the ending from the original and was not sure exactly how it would play out.  We wanted it to be in keeping with the personalities and motivations of the characters, but we didn't want it to come off as hokey or over sentimentalized.  We hope we struck a good balance.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
What a great question!  In earlier drafts, there was a scene where Floyd returns home.  We loved the character of Floyd, how loyal he was to his son and to Wesley. Wish we could have spent a little more time with him, and see him come home to his wife at last.

Historical novelists frequently have adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Sisters of Shiloh and if so, what did you alter? 
Becky: We felt very strongly about not altering historical details for the sake of dramatic effect. Luckily, the Civil War is such a wealth of drama, that there isn’t any need to make it up. However, because of the historical aspects that we needed to honor (such as the dates of the battles), there was one more minor skirmish that we needed to amplify a bit. The skirmish did actually occur, but because we needed our characters to have experienced more fighting before participating in the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862, the skirmish near Martinsburg in November was embellished a bit. 

 If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Kathy: I’d sit down and talk with Libby.  I'd tell her that as shocking and devastating that her husband's violent death was, that retribution is not the answer. These grudges, these hatreds, led to over half a million young men (and women) losing their lives in what I believe was a war that could have been prevented, if people had not been so convinced that war was the way to solve their deep divides. I'd ask her if she could possibly channel her grief and rage into volunteering to nurse the wounded men of both sides who poured into town during the war.  
Just because I’m curious, if you could cast actors to play the leads in a screen adaptation of Sisters of Shiloh, who would you hire?
Kathy: Well I'd definitely hire Jennifer Lawrence as Libby!  I think she could totally rock that role!  As for Josephine…that would be a bit more difficult.  Maybe Jessica Brown Findlay from Downton Abbey.  And I'm partial to Nicholas Hoult for Wesley.

Becky: I totally agree about Jennifer Lawrence. I also think Hailee Steinfeld or Saoirse Ronan might be compelling as one of the sisters. There’s an actor that plays Gunnar in Nashville named Sam Palladio who I think could embody Wesley. As for one of my favorite characters, Floyd,…hmm, that could be interesting. Maybe Robert Downey, Jr. 

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have any new projects in the works?
Kathy: I have my first Young Adult novel, The Lifeboat Clique, coming out next winter under my married name of Kathy Parks. And Becky and I are laying the groundwork for a novel about female Russian fighter pilots in World War II.

Becky: There were several groups of female pilots, but the pilots who flew one type of plane were called The Night Witches, and the sound of their planes evoked terror in the German countryside. Once again, here’s another side of history that hasn’t had nearly enough attention paid to it. 

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“The Hepinstall sisters provide a fascinating glimpse into Civil War life from an unconventional perspective.” - Kirkus

“The very best historical fiction delivers us into another time and place. In Sisters of Shiloh, Kathy and Becky Hepinstall plunge us so deeply into a complete and vividly rendered world of Civil War battlefields and Confederate campsites, we can smell the gun powder and taste the metallic tinge of fear along with their remarkable heroines.” - Janis Cooke Newman, author of Mary

"Sisters of Shiloh is an unsparing, bloody, emotional tour-de-force. With Kathy’s experience as a bestselling author and Becky’s history degree, the Hepinstalls are a highly effective writing team. They present lucky readers with a tale of love and hate, vengeance and devotion, and the darkest secrets imaginable. Highly recommended for all." - Historical Novels Review

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Kathy Hepinstall grew up outside of Houston, Texas. Kathy is the best selling author of The House of Gentle Men, The Absence of Nectar and Blue Asylum She is an award-winning creative director and advertising writer. She currently resides in Santa Barbara, California with her husband. Visit Kathy’s Blog.

Becky Hepinstall grew up outside of Houston, Texas. She holds a degree in History from the University of Texas in Austin, and currently resides in Virginia Beach, Virginia with her husband, a Navy pilot, and their four children.

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Format: Print, Audio & eBook
Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Released by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 
ISBN-13: 978-0544400009
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
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Check Out All the Stops on Kathy Hepinstall & Becky Hepinstall Hilliker's Sisters of Shiloh Blog Tour Schedule

Tuesday, March 3
Review & Giveaway at The Book Binder’s Daughter
Wednesday, March 4
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Thursday, March 5
Review & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Review & Giveaway at With Her Nose Stuck in a Book
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, March 6
Review & Giveaway at Unshelfish
Saturday, March 7
Review & Giveaway at The Maiden’s Court
Monday, March 9
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, March 10
Guest Post at A Literary Vacation
Review & Interview at Books and Benches
Spotlight at Layered Pages
Wednesday, March 11
Review at Beth’s Book Nook
Thursday, March 12
Review & Giveaway at A Literary Vacation
Interview & Giveaway at Forever Ashley
Friday, March 13
Review at 100 Pages a Day
Monday, March 16
Guest Post & Giveaway at Mina’s Bookshelf

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