Saturday, February 25, 2012

Interview with Rosslyn Elliott

Shelf Life is pleased to present this interview with Rosslyn Elliott, the award-winning author of Fairer Than the Morning, the first novel in the Saddler Legacy series.

Rossyln is a graduate from Yale University, where she earned a BA in English and Theater. In 2006, she also earned her Ph.D. in English from Emory University. When she's not writing, she is homeschooling her daughter or teaching in children's ministry. 

Let's give a warm welcome to Rossyln Elliott, as she talks about her newest release, Sweeter Than Birdsong. 

Read the review for Sweeter Than Birdsong 

Questions & Answers with Rossyln Elliott 

Can you tell us a little bit about your book? 
Sweeter than Birdsong is based on the true love story of Kate Winter, a brilliant, beautiful woman crippled by her shyness, and Ben Hanby, a genius composer who also leads a secret life working to free fugitive slaves. Both of them lived in Ohio in 1855 and attended Otterbein College, which still stands in the town of Westerville. 

In the novel, Ben casts Kate to sing in his musical, but the whole time she is quietly planning to use the performance to mask her escape from town and her suffocating family life. But when a frightening accident throws Ben and Kate together, their lives and secrets mingle in ways they could never have expected. Kate must find her courage and her voice if she is to sing a new song for their future.
What inspired you to write Sweeter Than Birdsong?

In 2006, when I got up the nerve to try my hand at writing my first historical novel, I was living in Westerville, Ohio.  I decided to go visit a small local house museum so I could research all the kitchen artifacts and farm tools. Before the tour, a guide took me into an outbuilding and showed me a video about the Hanby family, who had lived in that house. By the time I stood up thirty minutes later, I knew that I had just been given an amazing true story that needed to be told. The Hanbys lived romantic, action-filled lives marked by courage, and most importantly, they served others out of faith and love.

Do you find it difficult to write real-life historical figures as your characters?

I find it easier than writing completely fictional characters. I am passionate about telling real history and keeping it alive, so anytime I can engage that passion, it’s easier to love my story, and that helps me write. 

Also, it’s a fun kind of puzzle to decide how to weave the history and the fiction together to make the most engaging story without losing its real essence. However, I do feel a deep responsibility to the people in my story to portray them fairly and accurately, as I would want to be portrayed if it were my own life being fictionalized. If I don’t have enough information to portray a real person with reasonable accuracy, I’ll change that person’s name.

When researching these characters, what did you admire most about them?

There’s a lot to admire about many people in the Hanby/Miller/Winter families at the center of this trilogy. But I think what admired most about Ben Hanby was his burning commitment to help others and end slavery. As a boy, he watched a fugitive slave die in his family home, and it changed him forever. The strong faith his father passed on to him left him unable to become complacent or forget the suffering of others. 

And what I admired most about Kate Winter was that even though she was very shy, she showed a lot of courage by becoming one of the first women to graduate from college in America. Women attending college was a very controversial subject in her time, so she would have known that she would be criticized for daring to do it.

Which character could you relate to the most?

I relate to all of them in different ways, but the way I empathize with Kate is in her quest as a young woman to rise above the expectations of others and learn what she herself considers important. It’s easy to start living someone else’s life in order to please those around you, and hard to find the truth and stand up for it.

Reading the stories of slaves and abolitionists has to be tough. Do you ever find yourself writing and researching with a box of tissues handy? 

Oh yes! The research doesn’t usually make me cry, but in order to sit down and write this material in the way it deserves, I have to connect emotionally with the scene. When my friend once stopped by unexpectedly while I was writing, I was all red-eyed and weepy. Fortunately, she understood when I explained that I had just been writing a really tough scene. It’s good to have friends who can put up with these things. 

Sweeter Than Birdsong appropriately encompasses a love for music. Do you have any favorite musical instrument that you enjoy to hear more than others?

I love the whole orchestra, but if I had to pick one, it would be the harp. I often need to find a place of peace and calm, and harp is excellent for that.

You mention that your heroine, Kate, sings like an angel. Did you have any modern day songstress in mind when imagining her voice? 

I imagine her voice as a silvery light soprano, with a hint of an Irish sound. If you listen to “She Moved Through the Fair” on Youtube with Charlotte Church or Orla Fallon, Kate’s voice is somewhere between those two sounds.

If Sweeter Than Birdsong became a movie, who would you cast to play Ben and Kate?

I’d probably cast Liv Tyler as Kate, because she has the right coloring and she’s very good at playing the kind of delicate but courageous woman that Kate needs to be. The mystery of Arwen in Lord of the Rings is a good match for Kate, even though Kate’s not quite as exotic-looking as Liv Tyler can sometimes be. Ben is really, really hard to cast. I’ve never been able to find an actor who looks just like him, but for his personality, I’d cast a young Ioan Gruffudd. He has the intensity and artistic side to play Ben.

I love how this story deals with abolition. I've become involved with the modern day abolition movement myself and have found some of your words encouraging. If you could go back in time, what would you say to encourage abolitionists?

I’d say stick with it!

The hardest part about fighting social evils is how long it takes to change people’s hearts. 

The movie Amazing Grace is a great depiction of the necessary perseverance, as William Wilberforce spends his whole life to fight chattel slavery in the British Empire.

Your novel also deals with women's rights. What are you most grateful for as a result of the courage of women like Kate?

The right to vote.  Though Kate wasn’t a suffragette, women’s attendance at college proved that women were not intellectually inferior to men. Unbelievable as it sounds to us today, it was quite common in Kate’s time for men to argue that women would be damaged by attending college. Many Victorians believed that women never ‘matured,’ that they were always somewhat childlike compared to men. So I’m grateful for the greater respect that we received as a result of the achievements of women like Kate.

Sadly slavery has not ceased to exist. Many women are trapped in sexual slavery. There's a generation that is rising up, much like the abolitionists movement you've written about. I loved this line in your novel. You said, "This tragedy will not end until every voice cries out!" Do you believe this is true to abolishing modern day slavery? 

Yes! I believe the chief problem with modern day slavery is that it’s harder to mobilize people against something illegal than it is to fight an unjust law like the slavery laws of the early1800s. In Ben Hanby’s time, Americans were furious that they were expected to be complicit in returning slaves to their masters because of the Fugitive Slave Law. I think we tend to think of human trafficking/slavery as “law enforcement’s problem,” instead of feeling a personal responsibility to stop it. But I’m very hopeful about the groundswell of support among young people to fight modern-day slavery. 

What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?

I hope they will be encouraged to put their compassion for others into action, as both Kate and Ben do in this novel. Many people are already trying to help the oppressed and the poor, and for them I hope that the story will remind them that someday, all those seeds they’re planting are going to burst into flowers.

Can you tell us what you're working on now?
The third novel in the series, Lovelier than Daylight, takes place another twenty years after Sweeter than Birdsong. It’s about the Hanby family and their part in an explosive battle over temperance in Westerville in 1875, known as “the Westerville Whiskey Wars.” Susanna Hanby just wants to prevent families from suffering by shutting down the town saloon, but the handsome son of a German-American brewer stands in her way!

 Thank you so much for joining us today! What an honor to have you here. 

Also, Rosslyn Elliott has a blog where she welcomes comments from readers. You can also follow her on Twitter or Facebook. Check out her beautiful website as well!

Don't Miss the Opportunity to Get to Know Rosslyn Some More with Her Facebook Chat and Giveaway!

To celebrate the music in all of us, Rosslyn and Thomas Nelson are hosting this "sweet giveaway". 

One fortunate winner will receive:
  • A Brand new iPod Nano (Winner's choice of color!)
  • Fairer than Morning by Rosslyn Elliott
  • Sweeter than Birdsong by Rosslyn Elliott

Enter today by clicking one of the icons below. But hurry, the giveaway ends at noon on February 28th. Winner will be announced at Sweeter than Birdsong Author Chat Facebook Party on 2/28. Rosslyn will be chatting with guests, sharing a sneak peek of the next book in the series, hosting a trivia contest, and more! She'll also be giving away some GREAT prizes: gift certificates, books, season 1 of DowntownAbbey, and a book club prize pack! (Ten copies of the book for your small group or book club AND a LIVE Author Chat for your group with Rosslyn.)

So grab your copy of Sweeter than Birdsong and join Rosslyn and friends on the evening of the 28th for an evening of fun.

Enter via E-mail Enter via FacebookEnter via Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the fun. RSVP today and tell your friends via FACEBOOK or TWITTER and increase your chances of winning. Hope to see you on the 28th!


  1. Thanks for having me, Holly. I truly enjoyed your questions, and I felt both your review and our interview went to the heart of what the book is all about.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I loved hosting you for this interview. I'm glad I was able to get to the heart of the book!


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