The computer screen in Cecelia Holland's office on California's foggy northern coast in Humboldt county glows and blinks like a space-age lighthouse. An Internet junkie, Holland has just printed out a pile of color photographs that show weather patterns and the enigmatic designs that catabolic winds make on the ocean's surface. The pictures serve to remind the 53-year-old historical novelist that there is a very beautiful and elaborate order to natural events. "The ideal novel," she tells PW, "should seem to be a scattered, random series of seemingly unrelated events until the very last word, when it all comes together."
Undeniably, any trip in October to California's redwood country will have the feel of a pilgrimage. One drives these twisted roads trapped behind trucks carrying the huge trunks of redwoods. The gap-toothed forest on either side of the road opens every few miles on a company town or a sawmill.
Cecelia Holland's front yard is full of cats and dogs and cars and teenagers, friends of Holland's three daughters, who all seem to flow in and out of the house, which burnt down and was entirely rebuilt. For a writer with an imagination as rich and strange as Holland's, the house has an almost eerie, empty feel. A bohemian den mother in heavy glasses, Levis and sandals, the author is simultaneously focused and distracted, watching the driveway for careless drivers with brand-new licenses, setting curfews and dispensing gas cards throughout our interview. She has, without a doubt, an inventor's intellect, the mind of a computer genius and a storyteller's delivery. She speaks very quickly, relying heavily on gestures, imparting too much information for the tape machine and certainly for the pen.
Holland's 24th book, Railroad Schemes, will be published under Tom Doherty's imprint at Forge. It is her 22nd work of historical fiction, her third novel set in 19th-century California. Even the outlaws and robber barons of this novel seem tame in comparison with Holland's other subjects and settings: the Norman invasion of England in 1066 in The Firedrake (Atheneum, 1966); the Magyar-Turkic wars of the 16th century in Rakossky (Atheneum, 1967); 12th-century Sicily in The Antichrist (Atheneum, 1970); 11th-century Iceland in Two Ravens (Knopf, 1977); and Byzantium in The Belt of God (Knopf, 1980). Holland's protagonists include Knights Templar, pirates, kings, Irish clan chiefs, lepers and lords.
Despite her declared faith in the order of the universe, Holland balks when given a list of her seemingly unrelated books and asked to explain her motivations for writing each one. "There's no rhyme or reason," she professes. Sometimes it's a place, she notes, sometimes a piece of primary research like an ancient text; sometimes it's an article in National Geographic or Scientific American, and sometimes it's an event in Holland's own life that she feels would be best untangled ("rounded off" as she puts it) in the process of writing a book.
Born in 1943 in Henderson, Nev., Holland grew up in New Jersey in what she calls a "yeasty soup of aunts and cousins." Her father was the CEO of a small chemical company, and her mother was part of an eight-family cabal of very smart, very verbal Catholic women living in a tight radius in northern New Jersey. It was an environment that fueled the young writer's armchair fantasies. "That's why I'm here," she says. "It was good material, but it was suffocating."
When Holland wrote The Firedrake, she was 23 years old, had just graduated from Connecticut College and had walked out of Columbia's MFA program after three weeks of writing seminars. "New York City was just too tempting," she claims. Her second novel, Rakossky, was an effort on the part of this young, self-proclaimed anarchist to understand the Vietnam war. As a salesperson at Brentano's on Fifth Avenue in New York City in the late 1960s Holland was allowed to bring home books to read. The Vineland Map and the Tartar Relations, the text that provides evidence that the Vikings were the first to discover North America, was her inspiration for Until the Sun Falls (1969), a book about the Mongols.
North by Northwest
According to Holland, it wasn't until she was married in 1969 that she began to invest her books with elements of her own life. She was living in Pasadena, Calif., in 1974, when her first child, who was 10 months old, died of a heart defect. "I remember holding that baby on my lap just before she died," says Holland as though it happened yesterday, "and thinking, if this baby dies, I'll die." It was a defining moment. "It was after she died," says Holland, "that I began to create my first real woman characters." The couple went on to have three daughters in rapid succession: Bonnie in 1974, Karen in 1977 and Deborah in 1981. Eventually, she and her husband divorced.
It was in 1982 that Holland packed the three girls in the car and drove up the coast of California, looking for a place to live and write. They stopped in Ojai, in Sonoma and in Mendocino before landing for good in Fortuna. "It had a library close to the ocean, and it was as far as I could get from my mother," she laughs.
Holland has been edited over the last 30 years by some of the industry's legends, including Henry Ford at Atheneum (1966-1970), Bob Gottlieb at Knopf (1971-1985) and Peter Davidson at Houghton Mifflin (1988- 1992). Holland says it was Gottlieb, the editor of Great Maria (1974), a novel set in medieval Italy about a woman who loses a baby, who encouraged her to make the protagonist more dramatic. "He was a really terrific editor," Holland says. "It took a lot of pushing to make me develop that character, and now, of all my books from those first three decades, Great Maria is the only one still in print."
Holland considers Jerusalem, a chronicle of the 12th century wars between the Christians and the Islamic armies of Saladin (published by Beth Meecham at Tor in 1996), her most successful work of historical fiction simply because it is the most accurate. "Of all my books," she says, "this comes the closest to faithfully reproducing what it was like to live in that period. Because I stuck more assiduously to the facts, I may have uncovered something universal about how and why political solutions to social questions don't work."
An Outsider Artist
The author remains wary of the publishing industry ("Writing has nothing to do with business"), and prefers, like so many writers, not to think too much about marketing and sales. Her agent, Ralph Vicinaza, is in New York, and Holland makes a reluctant visit about once a year.
While holding the publishing world at a distance, Holland has developed a cult following in northern California. She participates in prison literacy programs, runs writing workshops and has taught English at alternative schools. Holland even caused something of a local scandal in 1996, when she was convicted of a misdemeanor charge for furnishing local teenagers with marijuana in the woods outside Fort Bragg. Holland recalls the incident with contrition. "I made a mistake and I'm sorry," she explains. "I do think it was blown out of proportion because of who I am. It was very embarrassing and cost a lot of money, but I'm glad it's over."
One can't help but see an eerie resonance between this event and Holland's fiction, and Railroad Schemes is in fact drawn very much from Holland's own life in Humboldt County. The 16-year-old protagonist, Lily, orphaned early in the book, is reluctantly adopted by King, a noble outlaw who's repeatedly drawn back to a defining moment early in his life. Years ago, emerging from the hold of a boat in New York on which many Irish immigrants, including his mother, had died, King dropped the hand of his four-year-old sister, who ran into the crowd and was lost forever.
Lily is based on a young girl who came to Holland several years ago in need of a substitute mother. Holland acknowledges that King is loosely based on herself. "The relationship I had with this girl," says Holland, "was not normal. It was good and bad all at once. She needed a mother, even if it meant bitterly resenting that mother." In the book, it is unclear, almost until the very end, what role King will assume in Lily's life: Will he be her lover or her father? Sometimes, he looks at her with what seems like sexual longing, and sometimes he seems to be using her to redeem that defining, awful moment on the gangplank.
"I didn't fully understand King until I discovered the naif artist Henry Darger, who died recently in Chicago,'' says Holland. After his death, a friend discovered a vast collection of wild collages and text hidden in his apartment. "The outside of this man, by all accounts, was a gray husk," says Holland. "Inside was a world of storms and dragons. When he was four years old, his mother died in childbed after the birth of his baby sister, who was put up for adoption. The thrust of the manuscript is little girls in peril. It is essentially 15,000 pages of the artist re-creating the moment when his life fell apart. This is the way people's minds work! They develop images of reality and impose them on actual events, trying to make sense and order. It takes incredible creativity, and it often scares people."
One can't help but think of the author herself, tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, imagining maps and trade routes and the interior lives of obscure and not so obscure characters in history. In pursuing her research, Holland relies a great deal on the library of Humboldt State University in nearby Eureka, and on the public library. She has not traveled as much as she would like to for publicity or research because she raised her three daughters alone ("Really, they raised me") and chose to stay close to them.
"It's easier with the California books," she says, "because I can visit the towns." But finding the material she needed on early Los Angeles for Railroad Schemes proved surprisingly difficult. "A lot of the historical material in Los Angeles, along with the landscape, has been obliterated. It's part of the myth, the undeniable power of the place," she admits, chagrined.
What research Holland has unearthed thus far has proven so captivating that she has already begun developing her first book of nonfiction, tracing the story of Nancy Kelsey, the first woman to come to California in 1841. Kelsey was 18, pregnant, with a baby on her hip, when she made the trip from Missouri with her husband. They were led by a famous mountain man, Brokenhand Fitzpatrick, across the Great Basin. "It's the great California story," Holland chuckles. "When they left, they didn't know how to get here, and when they got here, they didn't know they had arrived."
Holland is already straining against the limits of nonfiction. "Facts can't help but bleed into supposition," she complains. "For example, why did Kelsey marry so young? Did she elope or did she get married in the usual way, out of her parents' house." Holland prowls through copious genealogy sites on the Web but has found that genealogists are less interested in the life of the past than in where dead people were buried.
It is their lack of curiosity that seems to stun Holland. It seems that her own anarchism and atheism have only sharpened her interest in patterns, of human behavior or natural events like the wind. In the end, it is curiosity that the storyteller prizes above certainty. Perhaps this is a defining characteristic for a writer of historical fiction.
"I struggle to believe in as little as possible," says Holland. "The more you believe, the less you think. We live in a period of time, like every other period of time, when everything seems to be coming to an end. As a species, for some unknown reason, we always look into the future for the answers, when they are right there behind us, buried in the past."