An interview with the author
Q: Liberty Hill is a fictional three-part series about two Irish immigrants who settle in California during the Gold Rush. What’s the story behind the story?
A: I grew up in Northern California. My hometown Sonora is known as “The Gem of the Southern Mines”, and it’s surrounded by historic Gold Rush sites. Calaveras, Murphys, Columbia, Angel’s Camp. I spent my childhood and teenage years exploring these places. The history has always been so intriguing to me. Though it’s a small landmark now, Columbia was an enormous boomtown during the Gold Rush. There’s this beautiful cemetery where the tombstones are all weathered and covered in ivy and moss. Most of them are from the mid nineteenth century, belonging to immigrants from all over the world. I used to walk around and take pictures, and my imagination would run wild. Who was this person from Laos? What did their life look like? Who did they love? How did they die? That’s when the idea for Liberty Hill began to form. I wanted to recreate California as it was in 1849, when “the whole world was converging at once”.
Q: What were some aspects about the Gold Rush that make it a good setting for a story?
A: It was a crazy time. The more I researched, the more I was inspired. California truly was the Wild West. In 1848, the US had just won the war with Mexico, acquiring California just in time for John Sutter to discover gold in the American River. When the news spread, people from all of the world swarmed to the West. California wasn’t even Unionized yet, because the government couldn’t decide if it should be a slave state or free, so there was no law, no order. There was no government postal system, no banks, no railroad. And because nothing was regulated, inflation was ridiculous. One egg could set a miner back a whole dollar, which is equal to about $32 today. In Poverty Creek, one of my female characters charges $8 for a slice of pie. That was a real thing. And the men paid. Women could make a fortune—a literal fortune—just by baking.
Most of the outrageous things that happen in my books were inspired by true events. I couldn’t make that stuff up. And that’s why I needed three books to fit everything in.
Q: The boomtown your characters eventually settle in is called Prosperity. Real or fictional?
A: Fictional, though heavily influenced by where I grew up.
Q: This series took eight years to write. Why so long?
A: In 2010, I wrote a novel with the same premise as the Liberty Hill series, only it was the whole story condensed into 300 pages. Lucius, Evelyn, and May Westerly (introduced in Poverty Creek) were the main characters, and Evelyn—though still her spitfire self—was a mute. When the manuscript was finished, I sent it to a writer friend, who I’m quite certain didn’t make it passed the first chapter. He essentially told me that the idea was great, but I packed way too much information into the first few pages. He encouraged me to expound. So I did. Those first few pages became Liberty Hill.
I wrote Liberty in three months, though I had spent the previous two years researching. I used the first chapter in my manuscript as an outline, and instead of making Evelyn a mute, I developed a new character, Josephine, who added a certain preternatural element to the story.
My husband and I were living in Africa at the time, and I was determined to publish as soon as we returned to the US. But shortly after we came home, my parents were killed in a car accident. I decided to move forward with publication, thinking it would be a good distraction from my grief. And for a very, very short time, it was. But when I sat down to write the sequel, Poverty Creek, I had significant writer’s block. I couldn’t bring myself to touch the story I had started when my parents were alive. They had loved Liberty Hill, and they would never know how the story ended. So for a few years, I thought about ditching the whole thing. But I couldn’t. I owed an ending to my story, my parents’ memory, and everyone who had loved the first book. Mostly, I owed it to myself.
In 2017, I made the decision to finish the entire series in one fell swoop. I had just written a collection of short stories of which I was very proud, and that helped. My confidence was bolstered. Also, my husband and I were talking about having another baby, but I couldn’t imagine growing our family until I had finished my books. I set a goal to have the series written before we had our next child. And a year later, I’ve succeeded, with a final product that’s far better than what I originally imagined.
Q: Do you feel like losing your parents was an experience that influenced your writing and/or story?
A: The whole “orphan” storyline is a popular one. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it immediately lends a character endearing traits like bravery, determination, and resilience. If they survive, we know it’s because they have a strong will. I wanted my readers to pick this up about my main characters, Lucius Flynn and Evelyn Brennan, from the very beginning.
When I wrote Liberty, I didn’t know much about loss, but both Lucius and Evelyn had lost a parent in their past. After my parents were killed, I made some revisions based on my own knowledge of what it felt like to be orphaned. I suddenly understood my characters better—especially Evelyn.
In Poverty Creek and Devil’s Grotto, my characters experience significant hardship and tragedy, and I feel like my intimate relationship with grief helped me convey their histories, actions, and emotions in believable ways.
Q: The whole series is very character-driven. Can you tell us a little about how you invent your characters?
A: Characters inevitably develop beyond the original concept, which is one of the most rewarding aspects of writing fiction. My initial process varies. Sometimes I’ll build a character around a name, or I’ll have an image of what they look like. I’ve actually built a few characters around actors I’d cast if the story was a screenplay, like Sam Elliot, Robin Wright, Eddie Redmayne, and Hugh Jackman. Others were inspired by real people I read about while researching the Gold Rush. Nell Watson (introduced in Poverty Creek) is loosely based on Lola Montez, a famous dancer and courtesan. Tommy Jenks (also from Poverty Creek) was inspired by a young Argonaut named William Swain, whose story affected me deeply. One character, Father Wolfgang Johansson, was both named for and inspired by my father. And most of my female characters were developed out of a desire to see strong, admirable women rise to positions of power and independence despite crippling loss, difficult circumstances, and a culture dominated by men.
Q: Do you have a favorite character?
A: I won’t create a character I’m not emotionally invested in, whether it’s love, hate, or something in between. That said, there are some I enjoy spending time with more than others, and for different reasons. I love the transitions my main characters make throughout the series, and the people they become. But I think it’s the supporting cast that really makes the story shine.
Overall, Adele Whitfield was probably my favorite character to write, because she had so much depth. And the deeper I got, the more I fell in love with her. She just never stopped surprising me. I wanted to be her, and be her best friend.
Q: It’s been five years since Liberty Hill was released. Do you recommend readers reread it before moving on to Poverty Creek and Devil’s Grotto?
A: Readers will be lost if they jump into Poverty Creek without reading Liberty Hill. The story picks up right where the other left off. That said, I tried to work reminders of what happened in Liberty throughout the subsequent books, so for those who remember the first book well enough, they should be able to reenter the series without a hitch.
Q: With so much outstanding fiction on the market, what’s different about the Liberty Hill series and why should people read it?
A: I don’t think epic love stories will ever go out of style, and that’s what this series is: an epic love story. It’s the one we want to hear over and over, in every way, shape, and form. The adventure with high stakes, the painfully anticipated romances, the beautiful tragedies. And it has a dynamite cast. The characters are people we relate to, in a time and place we can only imagine. It’s a western—complete with smoking guns, bar fights, scantily clad women, and handsome cowboys—but on a broader scale, it’s a story about the pursuit of dreams, and the struggle we all face to become our best selves.