Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors..
Recently, we interviewed Cynthia J. Bogard about her writing and her recently released book, A History of Silence: A Novel, a tender, hard-hitting, and sometimes darkly unsettling tale that excels in portraying the complex intensity of its characters. (Read the review here.)
Cynthia J. Bogard has reinvented herself as a novelist after a successful career as a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Hofstra University in New York. Born and raised in rural Wisconsin, she’s lived in Kuwait, Greece, Mexico, New York, Texas, Vermont, and in Madison, Wisconsin. World traveler, longtime feminist and environmentalist, Greece, mid-20th century jazz, and Mother Nature are all close to her heart. These days, Cynthia lives with her spouse and two rescue dogs in Montpelier, Vermont. Visit www.CynthiaJBogard.com for news and other writings by Cynthia.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
My mom’s story is that when I was 2 ½, she got up from the sofa, where she’d been reading me a picture book, to check on my baby sister. When she returned, I was reading the book aloud to myself. She thought maybe I’d memorized it and gave me another, less familiar book. But I figured out the words in that one, also. I absorbed that words were magic early, and, from that day to this, I’ve been a voracious reader. That habit served me well in graduate school, in my life as a professor, and now, as a novelist. Thanks, Mom, for reading to me often as a young child!
The four main women you have written in A History of Silence are distinctly different characters, and yet their stories reflect and contrast one another’s in such dimensional ways. How did you develop each woman and her story? Were they all developed in tandem, or did you create one and model the next knowing what gaps you needed to fill, or was it something else entirely?
The novel is based on a true story I heard from my co-worker, Sylvia, decades ago when I worked as a developmental editor for the government research institute in Kuwait. I dedicated the book to her in thanks for starting me thinking about a plot to explain what she saw. Without giving away too much of the novel, Sylvia went to the funeral of a murdered male colleague at the college (not in Texas!) where she’d been teaching and noticed what Maddie noticed in the prologue. So, the two young women, Jane and Jenny, Liz, the wife of the murdered man, and the outside observer, Maddie, all sprang directly from the tale Sylvia related to me, a story I could not get out of my mind. I originally wrote a draft of this novel while living in Greece in 1985-86, then put it in a closet and went out and pursued my life. When the Covid lockdown started and I decided to retire a bit earlier than I’d planned, it seemed natural to turn to that draft and see if I could make it into a compelling plot.
I’ve only written two novels so far, but my experience has been that if you deeply channel your main characters, they will tell you what their lives need to be about.
A History of Silence is a strongly feminist tale, and yet it also deals with racism and its effects. Did you always know these were two issues you wanted to tackle in your novel, or did they arise naturally as you were writing the story?
The racism element in A History of Silence is the direct result of the Black Lives Matter movement. As I observed that social movement of people braving the pandemic to ask for justice at the same time I was revising the novel, I was struck with how the plot of my novel could be put to a larger, higher purpose if Maddie’s girlfriend was a Black woman. Thus was Roz born and in my mind, her story ultimately drives the plot. As a sociologist, I’ve obviously thought about and read about and taught about racism, especially in the American context. Since the dark cloud of racism continues to hang over our nation, I was gratified that I found a way to incorporate it into the plot. The novel is much stronger as a result.
As a long-time feminist, I’m also always concerned with the effects of patriarchy on women’s ability to pursue our best lives and selves. I presume all my books (and certainly The Heartland Trilogy) will centrally concern women negotiating the perils of the patriarchy and striving to find their path. Sometimes, challenging patriarchy will be only a subtle element of the plot, as in Beach of the Dead; sometimes, it is front and center, as in A History of Silence and Longing for Winter.
How has your background as a professor of both sociology and women’s studies informed your writing, and specifically the writing of A History of Silence?
As a sociologist, I studied homelessness and the lives of homeless people for over a decade, interviewing many dozens of men, women and children who lacked the essential stability of a home. One unexpected finding from these interviews was the extensive trauma so many had experienced and the unresolved grief so many carried with them. My life and writing have been enriched by gaining a small window into the lives of the people I interviewed and imagining walking in their shoes. In addition, in my undergraduate years, it seemed every woman I met had survived sexualized trauma. Given these experiences, A History of Silence was driven by the questions: How do individuals, especially women, cope with trauma and grief? How do they go forward despite what has happened to them?
The time frame of A History of Silence was an accident of the first draft. But when I returned to the novel 35 years and a sociological and women’s studies education later, I realized that there was a profound advantage to this period. The novel is set in the 1980s, when mainstream American culture was just beginning to grapple publicly with LGBTQ rights, with taking the survivors of sexual violence seriously, with the ongoing implications for our culture of the enslavement, then suppression of Black Americans. The novel’s characters must find the courage to face these still-salient elements of American patriarchy. The novel’s premise: History not confronted, history not spoken about, haunts the present. I find this is as true for a society as it is for an individual.
Did you have to do any research for the writing of A History of Silence? If so, what was that process like?
Encountering a wide variety of experiences, people, and places in my nearly seven decades of life provided much of the research for A History of Silence. Having a rich and varied past and some time to reflect on it is the single best, perhaps the only, advantage to being a beginning novelist at my age! For the details I was unsure about, well, research, it’s what academics do. So, I knew where to look and whom to consult to nail down a detail about Juneteenth or weevils infesting cotton crops in Texas. For Beach of the Dead, I improved my knowledge of seashells, sea turtles, and the Zapotec people. I
love learning new facts of all sorts, so the research needed for a novel is fun for me to do.
I imagine your work has been influenced by various writers. Do you have any favorite authors or books?
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has been a touchstone of my life and writing since I first encountered it as a young teen. My second novel, Beach of the Dead, can even be read as an odd retelling of the female quest narrative popularized forever by Bronte in Jane Eyre. Likewise, Dorothy Gilman’s Caravan (a Jane Eyre-type quest novel, set in North Africa, starring an American girl who grew up as a carnie). I am in awe of and in intellectual debt to Charles Dickens. His compassion for those struggling with poverty and oppression has not only influenced my writing, he has influenced my politics, even my choice of career. A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities are my favorites, but Dickens is a gift in my life. I have loved and enjoyed Isabelle Allende’s rich storytelling and compelling women characters for decades. Novels that re-tell legendary epics so the women are written back in I find compelling. Two old favorites are Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Firebrand (The Iliad through Kassandra’s eyes) and The Mists of Avalon (the King Arthur tale through his sister Morgan le Fay’s eyes). Tony Morrison is an inspiration, albeit an intimidating one, as is Margaret Atwood. Alice Walker’s Celie is a character for the ages. More recent favorite authors include Colson Whitehead, Richard Powers, and Sarah Winman. I like writers who excel at world-building and novels that feature characters who face adversity with grace and inventiveness. As a Vermonter with Quebec an hour north, I can’t help but be a Louise Penny fan – the solidarity and safety of the village Three Pines (where there are nevertheless murders) are themes any novelist needs to take seriously.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Life is long. Have more patience with and faith in yourself. Keep writing and keep reading. Know what shaped you, for good or for ill, and strive to get over the bad and appreciate the worthy. Get out of your head and attend to the task at hand. When you find something special, run with it (I did that, once in a while!).
What do you hope readers will take away from A History of Silence?
That the past must not be silenced, supressed, or forgotten. It must be dealt with honestly and confronted with courage if a person or a country is to move forward in justice. That women can not only survive trauma, we can survive confronting and acknowledging it and gain strength from learning how it has shaped our lives. That the best antidote to the isolation that trauma causes is solidarity.
That the only way out is through. That’s a mantra I learned long ago that is the central takeaway from each book in the trilogy
What’s next for you?
The second book in the trilogy, Beach of the Dead, is finished and nearly ready to be sent to the editor at Atmosphere Press. I have a contract and it will be out in early 2024. I’ve begun work on the third book, Longing for Winter, and hope to complete a draft in 2023. Several other novel ideas are simmering on the back burner until the trilogy is complete. My life has been an incubator for novel ideas so it’s likely I will run out of it before I run out of them.
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