When I first discovered Rush of Shadows, I believed it would be a remarkable read, and it didn’t disappoint (read the TBAP review). So I thought, why not reach out to Catherine, the author, and learn what she has to say about certain issues that were referenced in the book? I’m glad I did. If there’s one thing you’ll learn about Catherine, it’s that she’s exceedingly honest, not only in her writing, but in her answers. Join us below!
Miranda: Hello Catherine! Delighted to have you visit TBAP. Please tell us a bit about yourself. Coffee or tea?
Catherine: I usually drink a cup in my office sometime during the morning while I’m getting my act together before going to class. I teach high school English, and I like green or zinger herb tea. Teaching is my other calling, along with writing. I love reading great literature with teenagers, watching their minds grow. This fall we started with The Crucible, Equus, King Lear, Pride and Prejudice, and The Things They Carried.
Miranda ~ Rush of Shadows is your first novel. What inspired you to start writing one now, and not before?
Catherine: I did start writing this novel before. Long before. 25 years ago at least. I worked on it about twenty years, finished several years ago, and then it took some time to connect with a publisher. Finding the story was like Moses and the burning bush, that is, the story actually found me, partly through the feeling I had for the Northern California land where it takes place, partly through intriguing scraps of tradition passed down in my husband’s family. “Who am I?” I thought. “Who am I to write this novel?” But there was no avoiding it. I was already embarked on a journey to find the necessary history, imagination, and skill.
Miranda ~ Rush of Shadows is quite unique in its story. What message do you hope to pass across to your readers?
Catherine: The story is not unique, unfortunately. It’s not just about settlers displacing Indians in California. It’s the story of how a materially superior culture crushes another, ignorant of what they’re destroying. This has happened over and over again throughout North America and the world, and is happening in many places right now. Part of the tragedy is that the culture that undergoes genocide is in certain ways clearly superior to the dominant culture and holds some of the secrets to a rich human future that everyone needs, but few people take the trouble to find that out. When will we get tired of repeating this stupid destruction and understand that curiosity and friendliness are better than treating strangers as savages? If there’s a message, it’s that I want people to consider the human qualities which can change the story. Aren’t we all equal? Aren’t we all children of earth, of God, of the Spirit? We know this, but we forget.
Miranda: Your book/writing style is unwaveringly honest. What triggered you to write this story this way?
Catherine: I hope I would not be able to write other than honestly, at least as far as my understanding goes. In the case of the story of which Rush of Shadows is one version, it has been carefully forgotten, and very few people know it today. As Americans, we still believe in Manifest Destiny. We are heroes, and nearly always right. I think it would be better to face up to what really happened in our history. In this book, I wanted to understand all the points of view that made the story come out the way it did: 80% of the California Indian population destroyed in a little more than a decade. This is part of who we are. The only way we can go ahead, honestly, is to face up to our sins, repent, and correct them.
Miranda ~ What should we expect from you in the future? Are you working on any projects now?
Catherine: I’m working on a novel that, like Rush of Shadows, takes place in California, but in the 1960’s, not the 1860’s. It’s about an Eastern college girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock and is banished to California to have the baby and give it up for adoption. I continue to write short stories, mostly about New England, where I grew up. I would like to write about the first American Christian missionaries to India, two of whom were ancestors of mine. I’ve inherited stories and a diary and an early 19th century Bible.
Miranda ~ “…she found in fiction that penetrating experience of other people’s lives that opens a wider world … she credits work as a gardener, cook, cashier, waitress, and school bus driver with teaching her how to live in that wider world.” This is from your bio. Why say so?
Catherine: I felt the narrowness of my upbringing. It was a privileged way of life with the blinders and limited expectations that went with gender restrictions and defense of a dwindling heritage. It was through reading that I first understood something about real-life adventure. Blue-collar work got me a bit of self-reliance and realism and opened my eyes to some of the things other people might be up against.
Miranda ~ In your own opinion, what can writing offer the world? In what way can writers use it to make the world a better place?
Catherine: None of us lives very long or very much. Vicarious experience through reading can stretch our minds and hearts to something closer to the limits of human experience. I know what it’s like to wander the streets of St. Petersburg after killing an old woman with an axe, terrified to be found out, desperate to confess, because I’ve lived through it with Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. If being our brother’s keeper is more than just words, it means understanding another life, feeling it, thinking the thoughts that go with it, as if it were our own. The world will be a better place when people understand more of it. Engaged reading of great writing counts.
Miranda: As a first-time novelist, what advice would you give to another first-timer?
Catherine: Serve the story. The story exists, though still obscure. The power of the universe will give it to you. Listen and you will hear and find your voice. Don’t think about money or fame – or even publication – any more than you have to. Read all you can. Love and admire many writers, but don’t imitate anyone. Share your work with writers who will share theirs with you. What you want is factual feedback about their experience reading your stuff, not praise, blame, or advice.
Thank you, Catherine, for stopping by today!
Catherine Bell grew up in a New England family with a sense of its past as distinguished and its culture superior, as chronicled in many of her short stories. An early reader, she found in fiction that penetrating experience of other people’s lives that opens a wider world. The Winsor School, Harvard, and Stanford prepared her to recognize good writing and thinking. She credits work as a gardener, cook, cashier, waitress, and school bus driver with teaching her how to live in that wider world.
She has also worked as a secretary, freelance writer, and therapist, served as a teacher in the Peace Corps, and taught in inner city schools. She has lived in Paris, Brasilia, Nova Scotia, Northern California, and Washington, D.C. Culture clashes, even within families, are often subjects of her fiction. She has published stories in a number of journals, including Midway Journal, Coal City Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Sixfold, Solstice, and South Carolina Review. Her story, Among the Missing, won The Northern Virginia Review’s 2014 Prose Award.
She researched and wrote Rush of Shadows, her first novel, over a period of twenty years after she married a fourth-generation Californian and fell in love with his home territory, the Coast Range. The bright sunburned hills, dark firs, clear shallow streams, and twisted oaks were splendid, but the old barns and wooden churches and redwood train station didn’t seem old enough. Where was the long past? Where were the Indians? There was only the shadow of a story passed down by her husband’s grandmother late in life. Born in 1869, she grew up playing with Indian children whose parents worked on the ranch her father managed. One day the Army came to remove the Indians and march them to the reservation, and that was that. She was four years old, and she never forgot.
Bell lives with her husband in Washington, D.C. and visits children and grandchildren in California and Australia. As a teacher at Washington International School, she loves reading great books with teenagers.