Although I haven’t produced a quilt in nearly a decade, quilting is still at the top of my list of favourite hobbies – whenever I can get some spare time as I invariably say. So, when I noticed the theme of S. R. Mallery’s short story collection, Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads, in a synopsis of the book, it immediately drew my attention. I’m pleased to welcome the author, who is on an historical fiction virtual tour, here today to answer some questions about the collection.
Tell us about your short story collection.
SRM: The eleven long short stories in Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads combine history, mystery, action and/or romance, and range from drug trafficking using Guatemalan hand-woven wallets, to an Antebellum U.S. slave using codes in her quilts as a message system to freedom; from an ex-journalist and her Hopi Indian maid solving a cold case together involving Katchina spirit dolls, to a couple hiding Christian passports in a comforter in Nazi Germany; from a wedding quilt curse dating back to the Salem Witchcraft Trials, to a mystery involving a young seamstress in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; from a 1980’s Romeo and Juliet romance between a rising Wall Street financial ‘star’ and an eclectic fiber artist, to a Haight-Asbury love affair between a professor and a beautiful macramé artist gone horribly askew, just to name a few.
What prompted you to write about these historical events?
SRM: I remember my father sitting with me on his back porch one summer’s night years ago and while the fireflies glowed and crickets sawed, he told me about the horrors of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. I couldn’t get the image of all those poor immigrant girls who died so needlessly out of my head, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to mold that historic event into a fictional story.
Being a professional quilter at that time and surrounded by fabrics and textile art, I lived and breathed sewing. So one day, after I had written “Sewing Can Be Dangerous,” I had an epiphany: I would write a collection of short stories that all had a single ‘thread’ of either sewing or crafts.
That started me down the path of researching various historic times. If a certain event or era appealed to me, I started looking into what kind of sewing connection they might present. For example, my story, “Precious Gifts,” was based on a tiny slip of paper that I saw in a History of Sewing Machines exhibit. It was placed inside a counter next to one of the early Singer machines and it read something to effect of, “1870, Washington Territory: I put my Singer in the cornfield so in case of an Indian attack, it will be safe.” The fact that her sewing machine was worth far more than her family or her cabin absolutely fascinated me! The other stories were developed from sifting through history books, movies documentaries and/or reading articles.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
SRM: I did do a lot of research to make sure basic events, dialects, clothing, culture, and general ambiance were authentic, but my interest and tendency has been to create fictional characters that interweave with real historical people. Therefore, I found that if being accurate historically got in the way of plot or character development, I often opted for the ‘loosely based on facts’ alternative.
What research did you do for this book?
SRM: As mentioned, I use a variety of research sources: books, the internet, movies, documentaries, photographs, and music from pertinent time periods. The story about drug trafficking led me to an interview with someone in the Doctors Without Borders organization. For my Salem Witchcraft story, I looked at actual court scripts of the time, but changed the language enough so as not to violate any copyright laws. For the mystery cruise story, I had plenty of experience teaching quilting, so that was fun and easy to write!
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write? Which do you prefer to write and why?
SRM: Yes, I most certainly do! I love writing about both. To me, writing about a famous person includes ‘discovery reading’ about them; their odd quirks and human factors that are generally not known. Fictional characters are very enjoyable as well. With them, I get to really use my imagination – What are their personalities like? Nasty? Evil? Kind? Confused? Multi-layered? Thus, to me, interweaving fictional and historic figures together offers me the best of both worlds!
In an historical novel or story collection you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
SRM: I am a very visual person. I will read printed material, but really, for me, the most effective way of learning about a subject is by looking at coffee table books, because they contain both texts AND photographs. For example, I love the DK Eye Witness books because I can really get a feel for history, objects, people, food, etc through them. In fact, I developed my medieval embroidery story after reading and seeing line drawings of a 13th century manor with its entire wing devoted to sewing and embroidery. Also, by listening to music of the time period I’m writing about I can not only think up plots and character motivations, I can literally feel myself being transported back into that era.
I also often refer to books/websites about slang, speech patterns, etc. to help authenticate my work. However, although I do try to make my text somewhat in keeping with the time period, I usually reserve the real authentic lingo for my dialogues.
There often seems to be more scope in historical works for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other? And, if so, why?
SRM: I do tend to mostly use female protagonists, particularly in this collection. In my novel Unexpected Gifts, however, there were several chapters in which the main character was male. But in analyzing this very good question, I realize I am not only more comfortable with writing about women, I truly respect what they have had to endure in times past. For that reason, if I come across a strong woman in my research, I’m all the more drawn to her.
Thank you for answering my questions so well. I find the theme of the story collection fascinating and look forward to the book’s release on 16th December. For more information about the collection and the author, please visit S.R. Mallery’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.
About S. R. Mallery: She has worn various hats in her life. First, a classical/pop singer/composer, she moved on to the professional world of production art and calligraphy. Next came a long career as an award winning quilt artist/teacher and an ESL/Reading instructor. Her short stories have been published in descant 2008, Snowy Egret, Transcendent Visions, The Storyteller, and Down In the Dirt. “Unexpected Gifts”, her debut novel, and “Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads”, her collection of short stories, both books by Mockingbird Lane Press, are available on Amazon.