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Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Interview: Janet Elizabeth Croon

This week, I am happy to be sharing an insightful Q&A with you on behalf of author Janet Elizabeth Croon. I'm delving into the past and getting reacquainted with some history as I learn all about Janet's book - The War Outside My Window.

Firstly, please could you introduce yourself?
My name is Jan Croon and I have been an advanced history teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia, since the 2000-2001 school year. I’ve recently retired for health reasons. I was born in Mobile, Alabama but grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I have two grown daughters who are the lights of my life!
How did you first become interested in writing?
I have always been a voracious reader and taught myself to read before Kindergarten. I read a book on the Civil War in my area of Virginia and felt that an unexplored story had been dropped into my lap. Having grown up in the Chicago area, I was totally unaware of how the war impacted Northern Virginia. The book got me asking questions that I thought were left unanswered, and so I started researching. Because of gaps in the extant historical narrative, it has turned into a work of historical fiction. It’s getting rather large, and I still have research and writing left to do.
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Tell me about The War Outside My Window.
The book is the edited transcription of a set of seven journals written between 1860 and 1865 by LeRoy Wiley Gresham; he was 12 when he began writing and the journals end with his death shortly after the end of the Civil War. LeRoy was the incredibly bright middle child of prominent parents in Macon, Georgia, and lets us in on not only the course of the Civil War, but the political, economic, and social changes in Macon and the South. Tragically, the journals also trace LeRoy’s health issues that culminate in his death. LeRoy read any newspaper he could get his hands on, gave insightful opinions on the issues of the day, and provided insight into the daily life of a privileged but disabled teen in the middle of the 19th century. He also gives us some enlightenment on the role slavery played in his life, one of mutual dependence that might surprise many readers.
What drew you to writing about the past?
As a teacher of history, I have long believed that it is important that we know how our society developed. I was a kid during the Cold War and had a hard time digesting the vast differences between East and West. During my last years of teaching, I would begin the first day of class by looking at the crisis in Syria, which all stems from unsolved problems and unintended consequences of the First World War. In a school with many students from all regions of the world, it was a way to show how the past impacts the present. Now I am “reinventing” myself from a classroom teacher to a writer... which I feel is teaching through a different medium.
Did you find writing the book a challenge?
There were some definite challenges that I had to get through! Some of it was technical; LeRoy’s handwriting is simply beautiful (another argument for teaching cursive in schools), but sometimes his abbreviations were mysterious and some terminology obscure. I had to override my tendency as a teacher to correct misspellings, although I thought it was amusing that he did not spell McClellan’s name right until after Lincoln had fired him for the second time! Occasionally, his pen would not be that good and it wouldn’t write clearly so I would have more difficulty deciphering his writing. Reading aged cherry juice ink is also not easy!  
The hardest part was figuring out his relatives! These were large Southern families – his grandmother had six sons fighting in the Civil War in various regions, not to mention grandsons, sons-in-law, nephews, etc. – and LeRoy wrote the journals knowing who these people were. I had to not only figure it out for myself, but for the reader! For example, who was “Jenks” Jones? Which Aunt Sarah was he referring to (and there were many)? How was Cousin Eliza related to her and to LeRoy? I ended up with an Ancestry.com family tree with 1700 individuals on it, and still could not find all the people I was looking for! I also had to figure out the status of the plantations that the family owned in Houston County, Georgia. It took a while, but with the guidance of some wonderful librarians, I was able to figure out where they were located, what they were called, how many slaves each held, and who the overseers were.
How did you get inspiration?
I got inspiration from LeRoy himself. I really wanted to tell his story. He is an amazingly intellectual young man, but still a teenager who could probably easily identify with the teenagers I have taught! That kept me immersed in transcription or revision, and occasionally I would end up working through the night without realizing it. Making a new discovery, finding a connection, or just simply viewing history through his eyes made it all worthwhile.
What’s your writing process?
I tend to write best at night, and so I would get settled with my laptop, cat by my side, and begin working on the next task, whether it was transcribing from the digitized journal pages that the LOC has online or searching in Ancestry.com for a new person. This work, unlike my other project, is very linear, and LeRoy drove how I approached it because I went along with his work from hopeful beginning to tragic end.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
For me, it was limitations of space. There are two letters from his parents in the book, acting as foreshadowing and then aftermath and there are so many more that I wish we could have included! For example, we know from a few of the letters that LeRoy’s mother suffered a miscarriage about the time that LeRoy had his leg accident when he was 8. However, no other mention is made anywhere of this. We also felt that two and a half years of daily weather temperature readings three times a day took up space and could be cut, leaving LeRoy’s generalizations about weather unless the temperatures were unusual that day.  
There are also striking incidents that we did find room for. The Gresham family were staunch Presbyterians and entertained the father and grandfather-in-law of future president Woodrow Wilson. I also discovered that LeRoy’s interest in railroads came from his Uncle LeRoy (his mother’s oldest brother) and that Abraham Lincoln began his railroad trek to inauguration in a train with the engine named after this uncle! Some of my initial footnoting was too lengthy, and fortunately, Ted was able to use his expertise in cutting this down so the book was not too overwhelming.
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What do you love most about writing?
With this book, it is bringing a very significant primary source to life for people who are conversant in the Civil War and readers who are not but want to be; this book will appeal to those who want to read a non-fiction story of another era. I would tell my students that primary sources like this are the closest that we can get to “being there.” (And my love for reaching back as far as one can had them calling my pre-Smart phone cell “the Artifact!”) Reading this book will bring the antebellum and wartime South to life, and hint at the coming Reconstruction era. I find this truly exciting!
Which authors inspire you?
Jane Austen (I’ve read ALL of her novels several times) and Leo Tolstoy (I can’t count the number of times I’ve read Anna Karenina and I’ve read War and Peace twice). Both of them allow the reader to become immersed in their era, and if you read their work, you will find out what the challenges for English women at the beginning of the 19th century were, and discover what some of the inherent weaknesses of Russian upper-class society were that later contributed to the Russian Revolution a century or so later.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Tell the truth, or as Austen would say, “Write what you know.” This may mean a lot of research, organization, and attention to detail. But if you can accomplish those things, your writing will not only inform the reader but pull the reader into the story.
What are you currently working on?
I have been working on a story that I feel almost fell into my lap, although not as obviously as LeRoy’s journals did. It tells the story of western Fairfax County, which was occupied in one way or another for the entirety of the Civil War. It includes people such as Jeb Stuart, John Mosby, and local civilians who worked with them against the Union. The frustration with it is that the “heroine” left no written account of her own involvement, although she lived into the 1920s.  
While it is historical fiction, I am approaching it as if Austen or Tolstoy were looking over my shoulder. I am researching both in reading and in going to the actual places (where they still exist – the field where the Battle of Chantilly took place is gone now) where the events took place. It’s important, as I feel it is a way to get the people of the Washington, DC region to see what happened here 150+ years ago. Sometimes historical interest is not formed through academic writing but through a well-tailored tale. Diana Gabaldon has done this with her Outlander series, to give a modern example.
What are you reading at the moment?
I need to take a break from the Civil War on occasion, and with my background in the 20th century and Soviet history, I have picked up a book called 1917: Lenin, Wilson, and The Birth of the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman. I loved teaching students not only about the events but the personalities behind them and how these people came to have their viewpoints. I’m curious about these “contemporaries.”
What’s your all-time favourite fiction book?
Jane Austen’s Persuasion. It was her last and her most complex novel.
What’s your all-time favourite non-fiction book?
I totally enjoyed the three-volume series on Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. As I wrote earlier, learning about the backgrounds of both Roosevelt and Wilson helped my students understand the two main paradigms of American foreign policy in the 20th century and how other presidents would lean in one direction or another as the situations demanded.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
I would like to be able to publish my next project, which like LeRoy’s journals, will have something for Civil War buffs and those who like detailed historical fiction. I would also like to bring LeRoy’s journals into the educational market, as I think it can be a very effective and multidisciplinary way to teach multiple levels (middle, high, undergraduate) about the Civil War.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
I am a former military spouse and have travelled a great deal and lived in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down; I went to Azerbaijan in 2002 but with a democracy education program, not the Air Force. I have been a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan since I was eight, and love to knit, quilt, cross-stitch, and cook. My daughters, even though they do not live locally, are still an important part of my daily life thanks to the ease of social media.
The War Outside My Window is available to buy now.

What do you think? Are you interested in reading the book? Let me know in the comments below!

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