This week’s guest interview was done by LPR’s social media coordinator, George Clack.
Ned Tillman, LPR’s newest board member, is an environmental scientist and author. For 27 years Ned, who lives in Columbia, headed various environmental and energy firms, and he has served on many advisory councils for local governments on sustainability issues.
He’s published two works of nonfiction, The Chesapeake Bay Watershed and Saving the Places We Love: Paths to Environmental Stewardship, and the Young Adult novel The Big Melt. His books engage readers in caring about our past, our impact on our planet, and how to deal with the moral challenges we face today.
His latest work is the novel Good Endeavour. Drawing upon in-depth research, Ned documents dramatic moments in America’s history through the story of one Maryland farm and the families who lived there. Readers will learn about wars, the abolition of slavery, the struggle for women’s rights, the rise of industry with the labor conflicts and environmental destruction it produced, the Great Depression, and the activism of the 1960s and ‘70s. “My goal was to humanize our composite ancestors and to bring life to the stories of the past,” he says. Our conversation follows.
What brought you to the board of the Little Patuxent Review?
I have been to LPR launches in the past and have read a number of issues. I was intrigued about how literary journals operated and how they were responding to the times. When asked to join the board, I realized that I might be able to help in this process, having faced similar challenges in the book publishing world.
You’ve been a board member long enough to attend one launch reading. What are your impressions of the magazine? Any favorite pieces in that winter 2023 issue?
Instead of trying to pick out what might interest me, based on the titles, I chose to read the most recent issue straight through from the front – not my normal approach. I found that the whole issue flowed with a sense of warmth, as if the editor was taking care of my literary self. Later, I realized that I was unable to discern which piece I would like based just on the titles and understood that I found them all engaging based on their own merits. I like a journal that I can trust to feed me fodder that I can absorb.
Your first two books were works of nonfiction and your last two have been novels, the latest a historical novel titled Good Endeavour: A Maryland Family’s Turbulent History 1695-2002. What adjustments did you find yourself making in the switch from writing nonfiction to fiction?
In retrospect, I found nonfiction to be much easier to write. The subjects of those two books, the natural history of the Chesapeake Watershed, and the history of the conservation, restoration, and environmental movements were topics I knew well, had spent a career pursuing, and enjoyed researching. Both books received acclaim.
I feel that fiction is much more challenging and requires much more research – the facts have to be right on. But fiction also gives you more license to drill down into the essence of people’s feeling and struggles. I enjoyed the challenge of creating plausible settings, breathing life into composite characters, and watching how they respond to the issues they faced.
I found that I needed more help from my Alpha and Beta readers to assess how readers might react to my stories and the lead character’s voices and decisions.
What was the seed for Good Endeavour? I understand that the novel is based in part on your family’s stories. How did you know you wanted to turn the stories into a novel?
When the family lost the family homestead, I felt an obligation to pick up the pieces. I collected many of the family stories, studied diaries, read letters, examined photos, and decided to honor my ancestors by writing about them and saving what I knew for future generations. I quickly realized the limitations of nonfiction, especially the farther back in time I went. I realized that to tell the human stories about what happened on the home front and between the wars, I would be best served by making composite characters that pulled together many real things that happened during any single era.
In writing historical fiction, how much was based on your research and how much on your imagination? To cite one of many examples from the novel, a character in 1696 prefers to go to the port of Joppa Towne only on days after storms or with a westerly breeze to avoid the foul smells of the harbor. Where did that authentic detail come from?
It was clearly a mix of research and imagination. I relied on informed imagination, the farther back in time I went. I chose a farming family and Good Endeavour for the setting because I had so much history and nature steeped in my veins. I can still remember the smells from the hayloft, the ponds, the manure pile, the diesel and gasoline engines, and the kitchen, root cellar, and the clay floor basement.
I also recall walking along flood plains, the banks and wetlands of the Bay, and sewage spills in this country and abroad. I learned that a change in the direction of the wind brought biting insects from the swamps and either the smells of the sea or of the marsh. All this came back while writing these stories and it all felt so natural to have childhood experiences flood over me.
I learned that a change in the direction of the wind brought biting insects from the swamps and either the smells of the sea or of the marsh.
You’ve gone the self-publishing route for your books. What’s the most satisfying aspect of that method and the most frustrating?
My first two books, The Chesapeake Watershed and Saving the Places We Love, were published by a regional press. I really enjoyed working with them. Unfortunately, they only do nonfiction works. My third book, a very timely, inspirational piece called The Big Melt, was intended to inspire young adults to get more active in fighting climate challenges. The time to publish for big publishing houses seemed way too long (18 months) for the timeliness of the novel. I was able to get the piece published in about three months and then I was out on the speaking circuit. The most frustrating issue with both approaches is the lack of sales or marketing help. Self-publishing offers the author a great deal of control over the final product.
I found the best experience to have been with my latest historical novel, Good Endeavour. I had excellent free-lance, editorial help all along the way and a number of excellent Alpha and Beta reviewers.
Any thoughts on where you’d like the Little Patuxent Review to be five years into the future?
I hope to see this journal become available to a much wider array of readers in a variety of formats. I hope it will deal with a variety of issues and remain true to its values.
the writer Ned Tillman