Today I am featuring an author interview with Marian Szczepanski, author of Playing St. Barbara, on the first stop of her blog tour. I will follow up with a full review within the next few weeks. I’m about a third of the way into the book, and so far, I am fascinated with the story and with the setting, as I grew up in a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania. Reading Playing St. Barbara is helping me to learn more about what life for my grandparents and great grandparents may have been like.
About the Book
In the Depression-era coal patch known as The Hive, miner’s wife Clare Sweeney keeps secrets to survive. Stripped of her real name, she hides her friendship with a town pariah, haunting guilt around the deaths of her three infant sons, and determination never to bear another. She defies her abusive husband and the town’s rigid caste system to ensure a better future for her daughters, who harbor secrets of their own.
Deirdre conceals her attraction to a member of the despised Company police. Katie withholds her plans for a college education—and the convent—from her high school sweetheart. And Norah suppresses the cause of her mother’s frequent miscarriages, the devastating memory of one brother’s death, and her love for a married man.
The four women’s intertwined lives eerily mirror the 7th century legend of St. Barbara, patroness of miners, reenacted annually in the town pageant. Each daughter is cast as St. Barbara, but scandal and tragedy intervene, allowing just one to play the coveted role. In turn, they depart from The Hive, leaving Clare to endure her difficult marriage—till a mine explosion rocks the town. Forced to confront the ghosts of her past, she faces a life-changing choice. Her decision will test her capacity to forgive and challenge her to begin a courageous journey to self-redemption.
About the Author
The granddaughter of immigrant coal miners, Marian Szczepanski grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania and lived as a young child in the Jamison Coal Company house where her mother and aunts were raised. She holds an MFA in fiction from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has won awards for short fiction and magazine feature writing. Playing St. Barbara is her first novel. She lives in Houston, Texas.
What was your inspiration for “Playing St. Barbara”?
For several years, I’d volunteered on the Houston Area Women’s Center’s domestic violence hotline. I talked to countless women in difficult marriages or relationships, encouraging them to leave and providing information on how to make an escape plan. I was struck by how women in vastly different life circumstances told such similar stories, and I was moved both by their courage in reaching out for support to free themselves and the crippling fear that kept so many from following through. I wanted to write about a character who was similarly conflicted, but I didn’t want to commit any breach of confidentiality. Then I read an essay in Poets & Writers Magazine whose message was “write the story only you can write.” I dismissed the idea at first, but it kept coming back until I started to reflect on my childhood and the stories I heard growing up in southwestern Pennsylvania. My grandfathers were immigrant coal miners, and the stories primarily focused on them. I began to wonder, what about the women? What were my grandmothers’ lives really like? The only grandparent I ever knew was my maternal grandmother, and she died when I was ten. Maybe this was the story only I could write–going back in time to the Depression era and writing about the women in mining towns. I realized that this would offer me the chance to write a character who experienced domestic violence, but place her in a time and setting completely different than that of the hotline callers.
What’s the biggest message that you hope readers draw from your book?
The women in Playing St. Barbara experienced formidable obstacles to personal fulfillment–poverty, class discrimination, sexual stereotyping, domestic violence, limited education–yet they persevered, turning to each other for support. It’s the message. It’s much the same message that I stressed to hotline callers: you are not in this alone; you don’t have to live in fear; now matter how hopeless it may seem, you have the ability to change your circumstances. I also hope to give readers a window into the world of my grandparents and their contemporaries and share a piece of history few people outside that region know about.
What was your biggest challenge while writing “Playing St. Barbara”?
Finding information. I assumed there would be plenty of archival material about coal patch women, but I found only one book of oral history excerpts from miners’ wives and daughters. There was abundant information about miners, mining history and technology, labor history, coal company practices–but none of it focused on women. I had to read “between the lines” in archival material to imagine how, for example, strikes and company store policies shaped women’s daily lives. I also had to radically adjust my perspective from a 21st century feminist with a master’s degree to that of a Depression-era woman with limited education, no skills outside of housework, and no personal income. How could such a woman not be intimidated by the prospect of striking out on her own in order to escape an abusive spouse or father? And if she did decide to leave, how would she pull off an escape without money and much (if any) knowledge of the world beyond the confines of the coal patch?
What made you want to become a writer?
Reading. I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, and I’ve always gravitated toward fiction. I absolutely love getting lost in a novel. I studied journalism in college, and I worked in corporate communications and later wrote freelance magazine articles. Just for fun, I took an introductory creative writing class at the local community college after my third daughter was born. I followed it up with fiction writing the next semester, and I was hooked. I earned an MFA at Warren Wilson College, and I’ve been writing novels ever since.
What are some of your favorite books?
There are SO many! Some favorite novels: Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, anything by Hilary Mantel, but especially A Change of Climate and Wolf Hall, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, Jane Smiley’s The Age of Grief and novellas Ordinary Love and Good Will, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway . Short story writers I especially like are George Saunders, Anne Enright, Alice Munro, Antonya Nelson, Andre Dubus, and Lorrie Moore. And every writer should read Joan Frank’s marvelous gem Because You Have To: A Writing Life. In the interest of space, I’ll stop there!
What do you do for fun?
I love to read, travel, hike, and cross-country ski. I’m also a shameless NBA basketball addict and die-hard fan of the San Antonio Spurs.
Are you currently working on any other projects?
I rarely write short stories, but I’m in the middle of a long one about a crazy situation I encountered while traveling with my husband in Yorkshire, England. I’ve also started another novel, very different than Playing St. Barbara, with a contemporary setting and a main character who’s a ghost. I’m having a great time getting to know her and figuring out why she wandered into my story.