Interview with Lori Benton, Author of Mountain Laurel

01 Sep 2020

What can you tell us about your new release, Mountain Laurel?

Mountain Laurel is set in 1793 North Carolina. After a couple of false starts, Scottish-born and Boston-bred Ian Cameron is once again set on establishing a life that will make his father proud, though Ian would settle for unashamed. But in his newly adopted role as his planter uncle’s heir, Ian soon finds himself at odds with his kin’s acceptance of slavery and the injustices he witnesses. He’ll need a force more compelling than familial expectations to guide him through the web of kinship, oppression, and casual cruelty in which he’s all too quickly become entangled.

As an enslaved young woman, Seona has few avenues of self-expression. The one she has found, secretly drawing on scraps of paper she scrounges, has been discovered. To Seona’s surprise, Ian Cameron not only keeps her secret but encourages the endeavor. But trusting her master’s nephew in this one thing leads to complications Seona could never foresee.

What or who inspired you to become an author?

It was Leah, my best friend in the third grade. One day she told me she’d written a story and showed it to me to prove it. It was a moment of revelation, one of the standouts in my life. Already an avid reader, inspired by my favorite stories to create costumes and role-play my favorite characters, it had not yet occurred to me that I could write an original story of my own. I promptly did so. I continued writing stories into high school and always enjoyed writing projects best of any schoolwork—except for art. When I was in my early twenties, knee-deep in an art career, I decided to write a novel and see if I could get it published. Since then I haven’t stopped writing, except for a few years in my early thirties when I struggled with chemo fog, post cancer treatment. The journey from that decision to write a novel to finally seeing one published took twenty-two years. I wrote several novels that turned out to be for practice before Burning Sky was published in 2013.

What’s on your top 5 list for the best books you’ve ever read?

This is always a tough question to answer. Tomorrow I might come up with another list but the ones that come to mind right now are:

Summer of the Danes by Ellis Peters (narrated by Patrick Tull)
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis (narrated by Steven Crossley)
Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon (narrated by Davina Porter)
The Mitford series by Jan Karon (narrated by John McDonough)

That last one was a cheat (a whole series!) but I’m going to cheat again because I really ought to put James Alexander Thom’s eighteenth-century frontier stories on this list. If it were a six-book list, I’d include The Red Heart or Panther in the Sky.

Say you’re the host of a literary talk show. Who would be your first guest? What would you want to ask

Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander books. I’ve known her for a long time via a writers’ forum we both frequent. She’s been a huge inspiration to me in many ways, including the writing of Mountain Laurel. It was an unexpected characteristic given to a minor character in her book Drums of Autumn that inspired Mountain Laurel and its sequel (coming in 2021). In Drums, Josh, an enslaved young man on a plantation, speaks with a Scottish accent. When I asked whether she had made this up or found it in her research, Diana shared the source that inspired her to give Josh that surprising character trait. I read it for myself then did what writers do: let my mind go spinning away with a thousand what-if questions. That story-weaving eventually led to the creation of Lily and Malcolm, two secondary characters readers will meet in the pages of Mountain Laurel.

What would I ask Diana? Just a million things! But I’d start by asking what challenges she faced writing Outlander, a novel about a place (Scotland) she’d never at the time visited, a thing I’ve done myself with some of my eighteenth-century stories.

What’s your favorite thing about writing?

It’s also the thing I find the hardest—the actual writing. Most days writing is flat-out hard work. Until it isn’t. Until inspiration shows up at last and something surprising happens on the page, something that moves me to tears, makes me laugh, solves a plot issue, reveals another facet of a character I thought I knew inside and out, or deepens a theme in some unexpected way. Those are the moments I write to reach.

What is a typical day like for you?

I like to be at my computer as close to 8 a.m. as I can manage, after seeing my husband off to work, feeding the dog, etc. I’ll dink about with email and social media for a bit but when 9 a.m. rolls around, I want to be working. I’ll write until lunch, take a break and ride my stationary bike, then, if a deadline is pressing or I feel motivated to do so, I’ll go back to the computer for a couple more hours. (This might be to write or for promotional work.) That’s the shape of a typical writing day. In the weeks right before a deadline, I’ll often set my alarm for 3 a.m. and get an extra writing session in before my husband wakes up, then break until he leaves for work. I do my best work in the mornings. Afternoon work tends to be less productive.

What scene from Mountain Laurel was your favorite to write?

I’m normally a linear writer, but not with Mountain Laurel. It was the first book I wrote as I was recovering from the aforementioned chemo fog and discovering that I needed to retrain my brain to do what I’d been doing for a decade before the cancer journey began—sit down at the computer each morning and hammer out words for about four hours at a stretch. Plotting a whole novel was beyond me, but I could see a few vivid scenes. So I wrote those, not knowing where they might fit into the vague notion I had for this story. Proceeding in that manner, I eventually finished Mountain Laurel, but those early scenes remain some of my favorites, because they brought me out of the fog and returned the joy of writing to my life. One of those has to do with that raven on the book’s cover. It’s the first scene in Mountain Laurel that features the raven, but that’s all I can say without giving away a major spoiler in the story!

Do you have a motto, quote, or philosophy you live by?

Taped to my monitor is this quote, unattributed, and it’s been there so long I have forgotten who said it, but it’s a reminder my oft-impatient spirit needs constantly. “Don’t steal tomorrow out of God’s hands. Give God time to speak to you and reveal His will. He is never too late; learn to wait.”

Lori Benton is the author of the new book Mountain Laurel.

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