The DMS was lucky enough to interview Joan Hiatt Harlow. Lizzy recently reviewed her stories, Thunder from the Sea and Joshua's Song, and it was great to share our thoughts about it and hear yours. We are excited to learn a little bit more about the story behind the story. So, without further ado... take it away, Joan!
What inspired you to write Thunder from the Sea?
I love the culture, language, and history of Newfoundland, the island of my mother’s birth. And I love Newfoundland dogs! My earlier book, Star in the Storm was received so well, with several awards, and my fans asked for more dog stories.
I discovered in my research that a strong earthquake happened back in 1929 off Newfoundland and caused a tsunami. The earthquake was felt as far south as South Carolina! So that earthquake and tsunami became a major part of my story. I remembered hearing true stories about orphans in Newfoundland and Labradors who were taken in by kind (and not-so-kind) families, so I used an orphan in my story as the main character. The Grenfell Mission in the Northern Peninsula was a famous orphanage for homeless children usually of fisher folk, many of who died of tuberculosis. (Surprisingly, after the book came out, I received e-mails and letters from people who had spent their childhood in that same orphanage.)
Although the subject of adoption was not my original purpose in writing the story, I have received appreciative letters from adoptive parents who have loved the expressions of unconditional love shown by Fiona and Enoch to Tom in this story. And of course, the unconditional love of the wonderful dog.
By the way and coincidentally, I have another Newfoundland orphan (and dog) in my book, Secret of the Night Ponies.
Thunder from the Sea went on to win the Nutmeg Award (chosen by the Children of Connecticut.) It was also nominated for many other awards.
How long did it take you to write Thunder from the Sea?
It took me about a year to write the story – and about a year of research.
You must do a lot of research for your historical fiction books. What was your research process like for Thunder from the Sea and Joshua’s Song? Was there any aspect of your research that was the most interesting?
For Thunder from the Sea, my research included making inquiries at the Grenfell Mission archives and historical archives of Maritime Canada. I also added Newfoundland expressions and Newfoundland adaptations of ancient Celtic holidays. The many stories my mother had told me, helped so much in my creating a story with accurate events, language, and descriptions.
For Joshua’s Song, my own school age memories of Boston – the newsboys, the smell of the molasses flood that permeated the North End—especially in the summer-- became the scene of the story.
The old newspaper coverage of the disaster helped me to bring about “what actually happened” into my fictional characters. Some of the characters in my book were borrowed from history, such as President Kennedy’s grandfather, etc.
Where did you come up with the main characters: Tom and Joshua? Did you ever have a dog like Thunder or Sirius?
The boys were pretty much my own creation, although they are so real to me that I think of them as “real people.” I also used bits of characters of actual boys I have known.
No, I did not own a Newfoundland dog – but I did have a dog that I loved with all my heart and that is probably how the feelings of my characters are shown for their dogs.
Sirius was the name of a famous champion sire of the first registered Newfoundland Dogs. It is the name of the brightest star (next to the sun) in our hemisphere and that’s where I got the name for the dog in Star in the Storm.
JOSHUA by the way, is the name of my grandson. Just had to use it!
What are some of your favorite books from childhood? Were there any specific authors who inspired you?
I cannot remember any particular author that I loved as a child – I loved all books and devoured them. When I was in elementary school I loved Nancy Drew, but I was also reading my mother’s “Book of the Month Club” Selections. I would have the book opened and read before she did! I liked Greek Mythology and even Balzac (translations). And yes, Saturday mornings were spent on the porch, reading boxes of comic books, with my friends – all boys, by the way.
One of the boys grew up to be a doctor. I used Dr. Sullivan in Thunder from the Sea and the other is an engineer (MIT graduate.) I can’t say reading comic books spoiled our love of reading or our educations in any way!
If you could live during any time period in history, when would it be?
I am very happy and thankful I lived in the generation into which I was born. Even though it has been a generation of wars, life is full of exciting discoveries. Earlier generations suffered greatly from plagues and poverty and ignorance.
In my writing and research I am able to time travel to other eras. However, it’s nice to come back to this time period.
I would like to live forever! In that way I would be able to see the outcome of everything.
If you could befriend a character from any of your books, who would you befriend? Why?
What an interesting question. This is the hardest of all to answer. I love my characters and to me they have lived and handled things quite well. But Jake in Blown Away! will always be searching for answers, after losing his best friend. He’s just beginning to sort things out, and could use a bit of affection, trust, and guidance. Also, I would like to befriend Meg in Midnight Rider, a secondary character that I borrowed from history. Although we don’t know what happens to her in my book, I do know what really happened to the Meg I borrowed from history.
Meg in my story Midnight Rider, whom Hannah befriended, was very much like the girl I came upon in my research who was befriended by General Gage and his wife. As powerful as General Gage was in his day – the girl, Meg, was the one person that had the Gage’s completely perplexed and helpless. So how could I not use her in my story? Of course, the impish things she did in the book are totally fiction and from my imagination.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?
I am very happy living right here in Venice, Florida. I sometimes miss New England – even the snow and storms. But I do love the birds and flowers and sparkling seas that surround this state.
I’ve seen many beautiful places, from New England to China, to Canada (including Newfoundland) to Mexico, etc. but where I’m living is “just right” for me.