Author Interview — Elizabeth Kelley Buzbee

After a long break, in which I moved continents, became acclimated to a full time job and ploughed on with the business of working to bring my husband back to England (the hoops we had to go through are a topic for another blog post, however), I’m finally at a point where I have time to step back into the blog world.

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My first post back is an interview I conducted a while ago, before all the upheaval, and so at long last I’m delighted to introduce Elizabeth Kelley Buzbee, one of the first writers I made friends with on-line. We met through the writers critique group Critters in the late 1990s and have kept in touch.

Elizabeth Kelley Buzbee A.A.S., R.R.T.-N.P.S., R.C.P. has been writing for several years. In 2001, she self-published a science fiction novel, Little Claw of Azuni through Booksurge Publishing.

After waiting decades for just one novel or TV story to include just one respiratory therapist, she finally grew tired of waiting, and completed Phantom Therapist in 2003.  Due to the fact that she is a registered respiratory therapist, the novel is written with first-hand knowledge of not only the mechanics of the job, but the emotional costs and rewards of that life. She currently teaches respiratory care in East Texas at a community college just north of Houston.

In 2007, Cengage Learning published her textbook, Respiratory Care Clinical Manual on CD Rom. For the last few years, she has served as editor-in-chief of LSC: Kingwood Journal of Undergraduate Research in Respiratory Care, which serves as a vehicle for her research class’ findings. The e-zine is available here.

Last year, Eizabeth launched two books on on Kindle: a child’s story about the first Palm Sunday (Davy the Wild Little Donkey and the Wonderful Thing He Did) which did brisk sales in both USA and UK during Easter season; and a historical novel Indigo Colony. Both of these are through Parrothead Publishing.

indigo colonyCJ: It’s Indigo Colony that I wanted to talk with you about, Elizabeth after reading and enjoying the novel so much. I know this was a labour of love for you; what made you want to write this particular story?

EKB: Basically, this novel is loosely based on my father’s family chronicle; a history of one of America’s oldest and smallest minorities, the San Augustine Minorcans, who came to East British Florida in 1768 to work off indenture-ship contracts to earn a plot of land, as did many other Europeans. Within the first decade, more than 60% of these Greek, Italians, Minorcans and ethnic Greeks from Turkey were dead of starvation, malaria, gross mismanagement and by outright abuse. Then when the first indenture-ship contract times ran out, their employer, Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish investor, refused to free anyone.

It’s a story with as much drama and pathos as anything that happened on the Oregon Trail, or during the early days of the Kentucky settlements, yet, few outside of northern Florida even know the Minorcans lived and died. Some say that “history is written by the victors”, but I say that history is written by the literate.

Don’t laugh. I mean that the servants, slaves and Native Americans in colonial history don’t get much attention, if any, because we only know them as side characters, almost props. Their stories are barely there. Seen only in short details in legal documents, or quick glances in a diary written by an educated upper class person who has only a dim idea of the realities of their stories, we can only image what their lives were like.

CJ: I know you did a great deal of research to make sure the historical details of the story were correct. What did you find the most surprising?

EKB: In about the middle of the book, I included in a scene with a stand of pine trees that stood next to the Castillo de San Marcos. It was an awkward move on my part, because I knew that the Spanish builders of the only castle on the American mainland kept the grounds free of brush that could hide an enemy. This grove of pine trees was important to Antonio Ortagus’ state of mind as he arrived in San Augustine to join the British army, so I included it anyway. A few months later, I came across an old photograph of San Augustine in the mid-1800s. My grove of trees stood right where I’d placed it … even if it was about 100 years late. It sounds silly, but it resonated with me somehow.

Apparently, the major villain of this story,  Dr. Turnbull, has come down in Charleston history as the benign, beloved family doctor of their leading families; a patriot who suffered greatly at the hands of the dastardly English governor of East British Florida, Patrick Tonyn. In fact, we can still find this watered-down version in one of the American medical history books, which talks of his contributions to his community and says nothing of his involvement in what one Floridian historian referred to  as the “killing fields” of New Smyrna, Florida. I read through first-hand legal depositions collected by the East British Florida courts during Turnbull’s trial  and I am dumbfounded by the fact that in his own time, his peers did not believe Turnbull did anything wrong, that 91 sworn witnesses lied. Then, I remember that Tory or Colonial, his southern peers were all slave-owners, people who saw life through what I can only call strange-coloured glasses, that see only the plantation houses, the balls and galas, but not the slave cabins, the field hands nor the butlers and cooks working all night to perfect the afternoon’s amusement.

Another fact that struck me long after I write about them in a sympathetic manner, was that the Turnbull daughters had become godmothers to at least two Ortagus babies, so there was a connection between the actors in my novel and the real people.

CJ: How long did it take you to write Indigo Colony?

EKB: Gosh! A couple of years at least. I’d research and then write a few chapters, then research more and write more. I actually travelled to San Augustine Florida to walk the cobbled streets and see the houses in the Spanish quarter.

CJ: Did you encounter any problems in forming the details just right? If so, what was the most difficult for you?

EKB: Well, you probably remember me begging everyone to tell me how to hang someone on a ship. Then there was the time I went on-line to find out how to fight with a tomahawk. I looked at dozens of books on carriages, clothing and day-to-day details of life in colonial America.

CJ: I enjoyed the story, as heart-rending as it was at times, and was completely invested in the characters. Besides Antonio and Catalina, both of whom I adored, who did you enjoy writing most and why?

EKB: I loved writing about the governors’ wife, Anne Tonyn, because there is so little known about her that I could make up her personality and her actions. That was fun. At the time of this book’s creation, the historians I spoke to didn’t even have a name for her. I called her Anne.

All we know is that she was pregnant when she arrived with Patrick Tonyn and that she was looked down on by the local gentry because she was not “one of us,” she was “common,” and Patrick Tonyn who obviously married beneath himself was looked on with amused distaste for doing so.

She was notorious in San Augustine for running up bills that she didn’t pay, so I decided that Anne would become the governor’s secret supplier for his militia. All made up; no historical foundation, but it fit the storyline.

I also enjoyed developing Drew’s character. I started off with only the vague idea that Turnbull’s teenage nephew would befriend little Antonio Ortagus, his body servant and that the class differences between them as they grow would become a major problem, but I never expected Drew’s personality to grow in complexity as it did. Drew ended up being a character who almost wrote himself. I love that when it happens, you know?

CJ: Oh I do know! Reaper, one of the characters in The Lost Weaver took on a life of his own, after starting out as a minor antagonist for Kestrel. By the end of that novel, he had become a very complex anti-hero and he even has plans to be a POV character in the third book of the trilogy.

Elizabeth, what, if anything, would you like readers of Indigo Colony to take away from the novel?

EKB: I want people to know that the American-Minorcan story is similar in many ways to the Native Americans’ and the African Americans’ experience. After a decade of exploitation by a sophisticated and ruthless gentry who operated openly without government intervention; their contracts voided and threatened with actual slavery, what happened to my ancestors two hundred years ago cries out to be shared. At the very least, I would like to see Andrew Turnbull’s official biography corrected.

Also … without being too melodramatic, I have to say that the hand of God moved sometimes with only a single finger nudging someone in a tiny direction, another in a different direction. I believe God worked His miracle by using other people’s motivations and actions to deliver my ancestors from certain slavery. Illiterate Catholic peasants were saved by the unilateral actions of an Irish Protestant governor after unsuccessfully petitioning him twice before. Why? Why the third time? It’s like a fairy tale.

What were the chances that the historical Dr. Turnbull would make such as powerful enemy of the new governor? Why did his wife snub the governor’s lady? Why did Turnbull decide he had to personally petition the colonial office in London to get Tonyn fired, leaving his property to his nephew and lawyers to defend a few months later?

Who would have guessed that Tory spies would send a warning that South Carolina patriots were looking to arm the Turnbull peasants for an uprising? Is that what made the governor realize that he had — right at his fingertips — a couple of hundred potential Tory solders, if only he listened to the peasants’ complaints about Turnbull’s brutality?

Then, when all was said and done, instead of sending them to war as he seemed to intend when he freed them, the governor realized that the Minorcans were most important to him as fishers, and farmers to keep his city fed. Everything fell into place.

CJ: What are you working on at the moment?

EKB: I released Phantom Therapist on Kindle. I have an idea about a story about dog-medium who solves crimes, but in spite of the help of the dogs who tend to pay attention to the wrong things. It will be a humorous murder mystery set in Houston. She will be next-door neighbour of the protagonist from my novel, Phantom Therapist.

CJ: Elizabeth, you’ve been writing for years. What advice would you give to a writer just beginning that journey?

EKB: Write. Write and write. Paraphrasing Ray Bradbury, one must get those millions of crappy words down on paper, so that you finally reach the good stuff shoved way back into your brain’s attic. Oh! Then burn the crappy words; better yet, go back and rewrite them if the plot still worked in spite of the words.

Rewriting is critical. I never serve up raw words. That’s why I hate instant messaging. I write a chapter, read and rewrite and finally go back and (in the case of Indigo Colony) re-read the whole novel to purge about 20%-25% of excess. So much of what fledgling writers compose is self-indulgent verbage (verbatim garbage) … and that’s okay, if you are willing to leave it on the cutting room floor before showing it to someone else. When what you purged whimpers out and refuses to die, then keep it on file for another story, or if it’s compelling enough, go ahead enlarge it to build another tale around it.

There’s a game I play to give a troublesome character all those little details of movement or stance so necessary for fleshing out. I decide what actor will play this part in the movie. Not all my characters have been cast yet, but I will say that Russell Crowe would make an outstanding governor Tonyn.

To write dialogue that is to the point and stays on track, I compose the words first for both parties. Finally, I go back to insert the action.

CJ: Oh! I write the dialogue without tags or beats first too; writing the conversation as it happens helps me so much. Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does that involve?

EKB: I compose on the computer. When the creative juices are flowing, I wake up an hour early, read what I put down the day before and fix the problems. I tend to write individual scenes. Unlike a lot of my friends, I never make maps, and rarely written outlines. I write sequentially; starting at chapter one and end with the last chapter. When I get stuck, I walk the dog.

As a dyslexic, I have found that if I enlarge the print and even change the font from time to time, I find errors.

CJ: Thank you so much for talking to me, Elizabeth. I’ve enjoyed learning more about you and about Indigo Colony. I would not hesitate to recommend the novel to anyone reading this blog. It has everything: drama, action, heartbreak, redemption, as well as being a historically accurate, mostly true story.

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