Book Chat with Bee Ridgway

I LOVED Bee Ridgway’s novel The River of No Return so jumped at the chance to ask her a few questions. But first, if you’ve not read the book here’s Bee talking about it to give you a flavour of this fantastic new novel.

Interview with Bee Ridgeway

Your novel covers many time periods – did you have a favourite?

The book is set mostly in Georgian London.  The early 19th century is my scholarly period – for my day job I teach antebellum American literature — and it is also the period when my pleasure reading is usually set.  I am a big historical novel buff, and an inveterate reader of historical romance.  But is the Regency my favorite?  I don’t know!  I loved writing the contemporary scenes as well, but putting characters from the past into them.  I’m fascinated by how people from other times might experience the world as it is now.

And how did you go about researching so many times and locations?

I relied on a mix of things I already know, memory, fantasy, judicious internet snouting, and good old-fashioned library research.  What was different than the scholarly research to which I’m accustomed was the need for specific visual details.  Julia needs to look something up in Johnson’s Dictionary – well, what did that look like?  How many volumes was it?  She needs to hide something, but she doesn’t have pockets – what would she carry?  And what would it look like?  I spent a lot of time looking at old maps of London, and zooming around Devon on Google Earth.The River of no return

It feels from reading the book that there will be an epic struggle between The Guild and The Ofan. Did you have an overarching storyline in mind when you started writing the book?

No, the first draft came out page by page, in a straight line.  I never knew what was happening next.  Basically I would write every day until I hit a cliffhanger, then sleep, then wake up knowing what happens next.  Once I had that first draft down I went back in and started making the storyline more complex.  In the first draft the struggle between the Guild and the Ofan was there, but not a huge part of the plot.  In revisions it became more and more important.

Did you know it would become larger than one book?

Not after the first draft.  The first draft wraps up all loose ends quite neatly.  But with revisions the problems of the world I’d created became more complicated.  The issues that Nick faces in the 19th century, and the problems from the unknown future, all became more complex.  By the time I’d worked through a second draft – which was 150 pages longer than the first – I knew it was going to be a series.

Do you have the whole story all planned out or are you waiting to see where the river takes you?

I’m waiting to see where the river takes me!  This worries me a bit.  You hear that the masters of the series – like Rowling – knew exactly what was going to happen from the moment they put pen to paper.  That’s just not how I roll . . . but I hope I can keep it all in order as I go forward!

The idea of time flowing like a river was a new one for me. What inspired you to think of time in this way?

That’s a good question.  I think I’ve always thought of time as a river.  I grew up on a very beautiful river – the Connecticut, that flows down through New England.  I canoed on it, swam in it, hiked along it, and looked at it all the time.  I also knew about its history, about the terrible battles that were fought up and down it in the 17th century, as the English colony expanded across Indian land.   There are many old Puritan graveyards along the river, and the gravestones are carved with these grim admonitions warning the living about the dangers of sin and hell.  I think, in other words, that the Connecticut River itself made me think always about time, and lifespans, and changing eras.  My Native American character, Leo, is from the Connecticut River Valley.  But now that I think about it, rivers also featured in a lot of the songs and saying that my family used.  My Dad was always fond of quoting Heraclitus.  Something like, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Which really is the boiled down philosophy of my novel! And then there were hymns that my grandmother sang.  She was from the Ozarks, and was full of amazing folk hymns.  “When we go down to the river to pray,” and “When peace like a river attendeth my way,” and about sixteen songs about the River Jordan.  It’s chilly and cold, it chills the body but not the soul.  And my Mom, who grew up in St. Louis, on the great Mississippi River, used to sing that song from Showboat:  “Old man river, that old man river: he must know something, but he don’t say nothing.  He just keeps rolling, he keeps on rolling along.”

Which of your characters do you empathise with the most and why?

Nick is the character who came to me and demanded that I write the novel.  I know him the best, and in so many ways the novel is his story.  And Julia was a character who hid from me for a long time.  She took her time letting me know who she was and what she needed.  I always appreciate that in a person who becomes a friend – someone who holds off, and is careful with their affections.  Arabella is a very minor character, but she is stunted by the time she lives in, and there isn’t really any hope for her.  I felt sorry about abandoning her to her time.  But of all the minor characters who took over and demanded my heart and soul, I love Arkady the most.  He is the old Russian Count who befriends Nick.  He is a bit of an old buffoon, and he is silly about women – but he is the one who has real grief in the novel, and whose passions are perhaps the most intense.

Which of your characters, who might not have had much page space this time, are you looking forward to developing in future books?

Peter and Leo.  Peter is the girl from the 1980s whom we meet in the catacombs.  She’s a teenager, trying in her own fashion to learn about the deep past.  She has a very fleeting part to play in this novel and I’m really looking forward to developing her further.  Same with Leo, who is Nick’s best friend.  He’s Pocumtuk, from the Connecticut River Valley, and Nick meets him in Future School in Chile.  Leo serves as bookends in this novel, and I’d love to flesh him out in future writing.

The River of No Return is a very filmic book. Have you had any thoughts on who you’d cast as your leads?

I grew up in a town that had an old fashioned cinema that showed double features.  They cycled through the same double features year after year, and I saw them all.  My imagination is filled with old time stars like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.  So that’s not very helpful!  But lots of other people have had thoughts about who should play whom in the movie version.  I have a Pinterest Page devoted to the question.  Here’s the link!

Do you have any favourite books you would like to recommend?

Oh, about a hundred thousand! I’m an English Professor, and basically my entire job is recommending books to people.  But since my field is 18th and 19th century American lit, the books are obscure.  Elizabeth Stoddard’s THE MORGESONS is one of the great forgotten psychological novels of all time.  There is no greater page turner than E.D.E.N. Southworth’s THE HIDDEN HAND.   And my pleasure reading tends to find me in the mid twentieth century.  The funniest book ever written, in my opinion, is THE PLAGUE AND I, by Betty MacDonald. It’s the memoir of a year she spent in a TB sanitarium outside of Seattle, and I know it doesn’t sound funny but it is.  And then there’s the immortal Georgette Heyer – THE CORINTHIAN is the most immaculate Regency novel ever written.  In terms of time travel, I can recommend three novels by Native American writers that are completely astonishing.  THE KISS OF THE FUR QUEEN by Tomson Highway, FLIGHT by Sherman Alexie, and DROWNING IN FIRE by Craig Womack.  And then there are the children’s book additions to the genre.  Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING series is perfection.  But you know what I read recently that just cracked me up and made me happy?  THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion.

I’d like to send a massive thank you to Bee Ridgway, her answers are fascinating and insightful and she’s made this fan very happy!

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