I am always so honored when Lori Benton stops by the blog & today she’s here to chat about her new historical fiction Mountain Laurel!
Lori Benton was raised in Maryland, with generations-deep roots in southern Virginia and the Appalachian frontier. Her historical novels transport readers to the eighteenth century, where she expertly brings to life the colonial and early federal periods of American history. Her books have received the Christy Award and the Inspy Award and have been honored as finalists for the ECPA Book of the Year. Lori is most at home surrounded by mountains, currently those of the Pacific Northwest, where, when she isn’t writing, she’s likely to be found in wild places behind a camera. Her latest novel, Mountain Laurel, releases in September.
SERIES: Kindred #1
GENRE: Inspirational Historical Fiction
PUBLISHER: Tyndale House
RELEASE DATE: September 1, 2020
“A fascinating story, rich in emotion.” —Diana Gabaldon, New York Times bestselling author of the Outlander series
North Carolina, 1793
Ian Cameron, a Boston cabinetmaker turned frontier trapper, has come to Mountain Laurel hoping to remake himself yet again—into his planter uncle’s heir. No matter how uneasily the role of slave owner rests upon his shoulders. Then he meets Seona—beautiful, artistic, and enslaved to his kin.
Seona has a secret: she’s been drawing for years, ever since that day she picked up a broken slate to sketch a portrait. When Ian catches her at it, he offers her opportunity to let her talent flourish, still secretly, in his cabinetmaking shop. Taking a frightening leap of faith, Seona puts her trust in Ian. A trust that leads to a deeper, more complicated bond.
As fascination with Seona turns to love, Ian can no longer be the man others have wished him to be. Though his own heart might prove just as untrustworthy a guide, he cannot simply walk away from those his kin enslaves. With more lives than his and Seona’s in the balance, the path Ian chooses now will set the course for generations of Camerons to come.
A story of choice and consequence, of bondage and freedom, of faith and family.
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Hi Lori! Welcome back to the blog!
Q: How did you start writing novels? What drew you to this period in history?
Lori: Though I wrote my first story in third grade, it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I attempted a novel. Until then I’d studied art and had become a professional wildlife artist, with paintings hung for sale in a local art gallery. After committing myself to finishing that first novel (a Celtic fantasy tome) I never went back to painting except as a hobby. The writing bug had bit!
I tried my hand at various genres before I discovered my sweet spot: historical fiction set during the 18th century. I found it through a book I read set during the 1760s, Drums Of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon, and a Revolutionary War movie, The Patriot (Mel Gibson/Heath Ledger) which I watched around the same time. Both brought this historical era to life in a way school history lessons never had.
Carrie: That’s the way of story, isn’t it? Bringing to life truth & history in a way that academics often cannot…
Q: In addition to writing, you also do a lot of nature photography. How do those two art forms relate for you?
Lori: With both the art forms I seek to create a mood, tell a story, or evoke an emotional response in the viewer or reader, but there’s a fundamental difference which makes them complimentary. Writing is the most draining creative work I’ve ever pursued. Photography tends to fill my creative well rather than drain it. I spend time outdoors in the spectacularly beautiful Pacific Northwest getting the photographs, which I edit in my downtime using various phone apps. That’s pure fun. Writing has its moments of fun too, but there’s a lot of left-brain work that goes into constructing, editing, then promoting a novel that photography as a hobby doesn’t employ. Added bonus: being outside in wilderness places keeps me in touch with the lives my character lead, closer to the earth than most of us live today.
Carrie: what a great perspective! And you do such gorgeous work in both art forms ♥
Q: How is Mountain Laurel different from your previous books? What made you want to write about this specific setting and situation?
Lori: Mountain Laurel bears the strongest connection to my 2019 release, The King’s Mercy. Both tackle issues of slavery, freedom, and injustice. The rest of my previous books are set on the 18th century frontier and deal with the collision of world views between Native Americans and European settlers, employing characters who, willingly or not, cross a line between cultures and find themselves changed by the experience.
What inspired this specific story is a mixture of the profound and the playful. The profound has to do with Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn. A character in that book, an enslaved young groom called Josh, spoke with a Scottish accent though his ancestry was African. Josh grew up hearing the speech of his Scottish owners so that’s who he sounded like. This scenario broadened my understanding of how the unique circumstances of our upbringing help create who we become. We’re born with DNA linking us to a people group, but extraordinary influences can instill in us unique qualities not all in that group share. We are individuals, not types—or worse, stereotypes.
Still fascinated with Josh long after I finished Drums of Autumn, I asked myself a string of what if questions, which led to creating several of Mountain Laurel’s characters, Seona, Lily, and Malcolm. I chose North Carolina for a setting because of all the southern states, I was most familiar with that one. The movie The Patriot settled the time period; I fancied the look of the knee breeches the male characters wore! After learning when they went out of style (around 1800), and not wanting to write about a war, I picked 1793.
Carrie: ‘what if’ questions lead to some pretty intriguing stories 🙂
Q: What kind of research did you do to inform this book?
Lori: Mountain Laurel was the first 18th century set book I wrote and I came to it largely ignorant of the time period. Much research was needed to make the world of these characters come alive. I researched and wrote this novel from 2004 to 2009, after which I published six more 18th century set novels, the research for each building on knowledge I acquired writing Mountain Laurel. I read hundreds of books on topics ranging from 18th century practical life (what they wore, ate, lived in, did for work and play) and the history of Colonial America and North Carolina, to more specialized topics like plantation economy, slave laws, the Underground Railroad, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the Scottish Jacobite Rising, the building of the Dismal Swamp Canal, how to construct a dovetail joint, treat malaria, and fire a black powder rifle. I watched every documentary on the 18th century I could find, spent thousands of hours online, and took a memorable road trip through western North Carolina. I immersed myself in the 18th century for those five years, a process that continues.
Carrie: oh wow!
Q: Could you tell us a little about the main characters in your novel and the challenges they faced?
Lori: After several failed attempts, Ian Cameron is once again trying to establish a life that will make his father proud—though he’ll settle for not disappointed. But in his newly adopted role as his slave-owning uncle’s heir, Ian finds himself at odds with the southern acceptance of slavery. It soon becomes clear he will need something higher than those familial expectations to guide him through the web of kinship, oppression, and casual cruelty in which he finds himself entangled.
As an enslaved young woman, Seona has few avenues of self-expression. The one she’s found—drawing pictures on the scraps of paper she scrounges—has been uncovered. Instead of punishment for what is forbidden, Ian encourages the secret endeavor. But trusting her master’s nephew in this one thing leads to complications Seona could never have foreseen. When more than one path to freedom opens to her, she must choose which she will take, and whether Ian Cameron should have anything to do with it.
Carrie: i love that Seona is an artist!!
Q: The plot of Mountain Laurel centers on slavery and how different characters respond to its injustices. How did you go about representing these struggles?
Lori: The struggles I chose to represent sprang from the characters themselves, though I was conscious of creating as broad a variation as I could across the spectrums of race, social position, and world view, in order to keep the story balanced and nuanced. Once I’d spent enough time getting to know the characters to understand what those individual responses to slavery would be, I read every book (especially slave narratives) and website, and watched every movie and documentary on the subject I could find. The rest was up to me as a storyteller—as is the case with every character I write—to work myself under the skin and into the heart and mind of a life I haven’t lived, to feel the suffering of wounds I haven’t taken, to rejoice in triumphs I haven’t known. In other words, to stretch my human empathy as far as it will go.
Carrie: … which in turn helps your readers to stretch their own human empathy as they embark on the journey with your vividly & thoughtfully-drawn characters!
Q: In your research, did you come across any true stories like Ian and Seona’s story?
Lori: Stories like Ian and Seona’s were common in the antebellum South. Some were more complicated than what I’ve depicted and many did not end with the changed heart of a man who chose to take responsibility for his ‘shadow family’ living among the community he, his father, uncle, or neighbor enslaved. Some did take responsibility for their children in the slave quarter, with varying degrees of compassion. Others were indifferent. Some cruelly sold their offspring away to enslavement elsewhere. That a heart could be so hardened to one’s own children is one of the darker morally corrupting facets of chattel slavery. I chose to write about it that the light of redemption and grace I wanted to shine through it would be the brighter.
Readers interested in learning how fraught with complications the life of an enslaved woman who caught the eye of her white master could be should read Harriet Jacobs’ narrative: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Carrie: One of the reasons I am so drawn to reading books set during this period of time is because of the heroes (both Black and white) who stood up for what was right & risked everything to shine a light on & stop what was horrifically wrong.
Q: What did you learn from writing Mountain Laurel?
Lori: Aside from every historical aspect touched on in this story, I learned a great deal personally through writing Mountain Laurel. About nine years into my writing journey I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and spent that year in treatment. Pronounced in remission by year’s end, I presumed I’d pick up where I left off with the novel I’d been writing at the time of my diagnosis, only to find myself suffering an unexpected side effect of chemotherapy—chemo fog. I could no longer meet the mental demands of novel writing. In those days, my identity was wrapped up in being a writer. With that stripped away, I was unsure who I was, what I should be doing. Eventually I stopped spinning my wheels trying to get back what I’d lost and surrendered my passion for writing and the hope of being published. “Thy will be done,” was my prayer.
Five years later, with a vague notion of a story set during the 1700s, I finally felt that old passion stirring again. But could I do it? Not just write a novel, but give myself what amounted to a history degree? God was asking me to take a leap of faith and trust Him for healing. I did, and along the way learned that God’s plans for me are good, but His timing is His own. I learned that writing must never again become an idol. I must hold it with an open hand. I learned how to lean into Him daily for the clarity to write. My mind will never be as sharp as it was before chemotherapy, but in my weakness, He has shown His strength repeatedly.
Carrie: I’m so sorry to hear of your struggle with lymphoma and the woes of chemotherapy – but oh how sweet is God to not waste a bit of that? “God’s plans for me are good, but His timing is His own” – so true!
Q: What is your hope for readers of this novel?
Lori: There’s a wonderful thing I’ve discovered about celebrating the grace and redemptive power of Jesus Christ in the form of story. While I’ve had my conversation with the Lord about these characters and themes, after the book is published it becomes the reader’s turn. It still amazes me how God can speak to each reader’s heart something unique. Whatever that turns out to be, my hope is that readers are drawn closer to the Lord through Seona and Ian’s story, and that they turn that last page of Mountain Laurel more in love with our gracious Jesus than when they began.
Carrie: amen. ♥
Q: What can we expect from future books in the Kindred series?
Lori: Shiloh is the title of Mountain Laurel’s sequel, but it also happens to be a sequel to another novel of mine, Burning Sky. Over the years I’ve received requests from readers to write more of certain characters’ story, but none more frequently than the Mohawk warrior, Joseph Tames-His-Horse, introduced in Burning Sky. I’m excited to reveal that, while Shiloh is primarily the second half of Ian and Seona’s story, Joseph returns to play a significant role in it.
If you haven’t yet met Joseph Tames-His-Horse, for the sake of his obviously compelling story having the greatest impact, I recommend reading Burning Sky before Shiloh releases in 2021.
Thank you so much for taking time to talk with me! 🙂
Tyndale House is offering a print copy of Mountain Laurel to one of my readers! (US only. Void where prohibited by law or logistics.) This giveaway is subject to Reading Is My SuperPower’s giveaway policies which can be found here. Enter via the Rafflecopter form below.
What about you? What makes you want to read Mountain Laurel by Lori Benton?