Portland author Sara A. Mueller says her first impetus to write came to her as a child in a household of voracious readers. “I suppose everything I wrote down was what I had in my imagination,” she said.
Though she didn’t attempt writing with an eye toward publication until her 20s, Mueller said she wrote as soon as she could scribble “make-believe.” A longtime fan of horses and historical fiction, she wrote fantastical stories about ponies and fan-fiction — a pastime she considers good training for any writer. “I rarely wrote any nonfiction or essays,” she said, “and didn’t keep a journal of any kind.”
Mueller’s debut novel, The Bone Orchard, was released this week by Macmillan. It’s a story about a witch named Charm who comes from a long line of necromantic workers. The Bone Orchard combines Gothic literature, the mystique of Victorian high-society life, and the aesthetic of Edwardian clothing and architecture. Charm is both a prisoner and a survivor, and she must care for a unique type of tree that grows bones from its branches in place of fruit, while trying to heal from the difficult and haunting struggles of her past.
“My mother was a domestic-abuse survivor from her first marriage, and she was a very strong person,” Mueller said when asked about the book’s connection to her own life. “She was a survivor, and I wanted to see someone in literature who always got back up.”
While her mother’s experience was nothing like anything the characters in her book undergo, Mueller said it was important to convey that same determination. She wanted to see it mirrored in fiction — to see someone who survived and overcame without feeling shame about her past. Depictions of women characters during the Victorian era and in Gothic literature, she said, mimic high society of the period. That tendency toward demure femininity makes her strong main character stand out.
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, you can catch Mueller talking about The Bone Orchard with Arkady Martine, author of A Memory Called Empire, in a free, virtual presentation by Powell’s Books. I chatted with Mueller about her novel, writing, and her love of libraries. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What writers do you look up to? Do you have any favorite books that have influenced your life?
Mueller: When I was very small, I read a lot of the things that every other girl growing up in a small town reads in the library — Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre, for example. Libraries were a huge part of my life and still are today. Around that time, my father read James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks to me, which somehow led me toward The Count of Monte Cristo. That one probably gave the librarians pause.
So you’ve always been a big reader.
My father was a geologist for a mining company and moved a great deal. I was born in the upper peninsula of Michigan, which is all beautiful farming country in the south and forest, trees, mountains, and lakeshore in the north. Out there in rural areas, books became my friends.
Reading was something that everyone around me did. My parents read to me when I was little. I am dyslexic, so learning to read was a little rough. My parents would help me by reading part of the page and having me read the next part. They were always so kind and patient about that. When you move a lot, as I did, almost every small town and public school has a library. Libraries became a formative part of my educational and reading journey.
Your website says that you’ve traveled to every state in the country. How have your travels shaped your writing style or practice?
Since everywhere I went I was the new kid in school, it took a while to get integrated into each new place. Reading and writing gave me something familiar, a connection to worlds I already knew. They gave me friends when I didn’t have any. I always liked my imaginary book-friends. This also made it very clear to me that libraries are the great universal. They offer a feeling of familiarity. To be honest, I’ve never met a librarian that wasn’t trying, who didn’t want to help you find whatever your kind of story was, whatever it was that you needed.
I traveled a lot in my younger years, and later my husband got a job in Portland, so we came here. Portland is one of my favorite places I’ve ever lived. It’s large enough to be a city and have a lot of different cultural influences, but small enough that you can drive across it in an hour. I think that’s just great.
The Bone Orchard is your debut novel. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind this work?
A friend had drawn a picture of a tree with bones as its fruit and I thought it was really cool, so he said I could use it in a story. I had been reading a lot of Victorian and Gothic lit at the time, which is very much about past wrongs coming back to haunt the living. Around the same time, I went to a talk about dissociative identity disorder. The three events sort of all folded together.
How much research went into developing this historical world?
Some of it was things I already knew. I had already lived in places with big Victorian houses, so I knew what they looked like. I had already experimented with the clothing, so I knew roughly how it went together. The majority of specialized research was about dissociation from trauma. The version depicted in the book was highly fantasized, but I did need to look it in the face and figure out how, to the best of my ability, to represent it without doing a disservice to people who experience it. I read a lot of first-hand accounts and made it my goal to look at trauma respectfully, writing about it without making light of it. I wanted to honor the survivors.
Have you always been a fan of science fiction and historical drama?
Yes, I read a lot of mythology as a kid. If I was at home sick and my mother saw a book in one of the grocery store stands that looked like it had a rocketship or dragon on the front, she bought it for me. Reading was always a family support thing. Pretty much everyone in my family reads in one capacity or another.
You are also a historical costumer, gamer, cook, and horsewoman. How did you get into these things? Are you able to partake in all of them in Portland?
I got into horseback riding because my mother wanted to get me outside. She asked me to pick a sport and when I told her what I wanted to do, she took a deep breath and said, “OK.” I fell in love with a horse that needed desperately to be rescued, so my mother helped rescue it. The thing I did most was dressage, which involves riding in a very precise pattern, a little like doing partnered ballet with a horse.
In high school, I started gaming. A friend gave me a Dungeons & Dragons book and I’ve been doing tabletop role-play games ever since. A bit later, I helped my friend do natural dying demonstrations at a Renaissance fair and had to sew my costume. Eventually, I did a full Victorian 1880’s bustle ball-gown project. I’ve even done Edwardian walking skirts. I enjoy it; sewing is very creative and very exacting in some ways, not unlike dressage. It’s a process of nitpicking until you get right. Writing is a little bit like that, too.
How did you go about creating Charm, the hero in your story?
Charm came about as I was writing. I knew to begin with that she would have grown extra bodies for her dissociated identities, and since I knew that from the start, what I had to do was decide how Charm and The Lady (Charm’s other personality) would operate — what parts of the past they would shed to get away from that past. The book originally started with more “bone ghosts” than there are now, but as I figured out what Charm’s past was, I could figure out what each ghost entity would represent: pain, shame, desire, justice, etc.
What are your writing habits like? Do you use a computer to write?
Writing this one was a strange process because I couldn’t stop writing it. I tried to make sure that when I was writing, I watched dramas and productions from books that were written in that period. I read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and that gave me an idea of the rhythm of people’s speech … the way a turn of phrase is used that might not be how we would form a sentence. I largely write on the computer, though I do write by hand if I am away from my desk. I love a fountain pen. I am very fond of a company called Lamy, but I like any fountain pen that is going to give me a smooth experience. The nice thing about writing by hand with one of those pens is that it does make you slow down and think.
Are you working on any upcoming projects?
My next book is almost certainly going to be a dark fantasy with historical inspiration out of the early modern period, rather than the 19th century. I’ll put it like this: I have several ideas and several things started. I’m also going to have more virtual reading events at Mysterious Galaxy in LA and Copper Dog Books in Massachusetts…. I have a lot coming up.