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An Interview with Elizabeth Carroll

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As a kid, Elizabeth Carroll always loved stories and spent as much time daydreaming as she did playing Barbie with her sister. Because her imaginary friends hung around even when there was nothing more to say, she decided to try her hand at writing and has found great delight and purpose for all the little people in her head. She has published a young adult fantasy series, a historical women’s fiction novel, and several short stories. Currently, she has a children’s novel in the works as well as a historical mystery series.

Carroll has been mentored by such talents as Philip Gerard and Clyde Edgerton, and she belongs to WIP, a small, cozy, very talented circle of writers, which includes Samantha Bryant, Jason Feingold, Rebecca White, Dawn R. Taylor, and Alicyn Grace. When she’s not writing, she teaches high school English and pursues other creative interests such as jigsaw puzzles, painting, and gardening.

Currently, Carroll lives in North Carolina with a menagerie of characters, including her husband and son, two dogs, four cats, and a hermit crab. You can follow her antics on her website or on Instagram at @booksbybeth72.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

My dad has been the biggest influence on my life as a writer. He used to tell me stories at bedtime when I was a little girl. He made them up, usually using some of my stuffed animals as characters, but he also incorporated me in the stories, so that was fun. I always looked forward to the next adventure, and I believe that is what stoked my imagination. That plus playing DragonQuest (a D&D type of game), which my dad is still big on, really ignited the creative person inside me. I loved making up the characters. That was always my favorite part, but the adventures were fun, too. I really learned about storytelling and building suspense and tension through those games and my dad’s storytelling, which has been helpful as a writer.

I was also an early reader, and going to the library was like Disney World to me. All those books and choices! And because my parents were both big on education (my dad was a teacher for 35 years, and my mama absolutely supported learning in the house), I always had a book to read. I would walk out of the library with 10 books, and even before the two-week reading period was up, I had finished with all of the books and ready for more. And Scholastic book fairs? Don’t even get me started! That was the most exciting day of the school year, period. The tragedy was that I would take home my little catalog with 20 books circled, and my Mama would say, “You can have five.” Ahhh! The hours I spent considering which five books I would get every year! I don’t think Einstein put that much thought into his theory!

I am not a genre-specific writer because I am not a genre-specific reader. I read a little bit of everything, so that’s what I write. Some of the authors that influenced me as a young girl were V. C. Andrews and Louisa May Alcott and John Jakes. I also am a huge fan of Rick Riordan (I love mythology! His Apollo series has been my favorite.), Dean Koontz (his Odd Thomas series was perfection as far as I’m concerned), Maeve Binchy, Billie Letts, Toni Morrison, Dennis McKiernan, Ray Bradbury, and of course Stephen King. Recently, I have enjoyed books by Holly Jackson, Lucy Foley, Louise Rennison (an absolute scream!), and Simon James Green. So, you see, a little bit of everything depending on my mood, and that’s also how I write.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

Ellie and her siblings first came to me (honestly) in a dream. It was near the end of my sophomore year of college, and I remember waking up and having this vision of this young girl (19-20 years of age) standing in the middle of a dirt road. She was dressed in nought but her bloomers and corset with a shawl around her shoulders. With her were three younger kids. The two youngest were twins, both with fairer hair and brown eyes. The boy wore glasses and carried a book, and his sister carried a slate on which she had drawn in chalk a chipmunk. The third was a dark-haired boy around the age of 12, but he was small for his age. He had three fish in his hands that he’d caught himself, and his bare feet and legs were muddy up to the knees. In the distance behind the characters was this run-down shack.

I knew instantly their personalities and their individual struggles. However, as is my process, I ignored them for a while, but they stayed with me. I knew two things for sure: first, it was a period piece, the late 1800s, and second, Ellie’s story was one of survival. When I could not shake the characters, I knew I had to tell the story, so I started writing it as soon as I got home for summer break.

I believe the tiny grain of sand was planted years before. V.C. Andrews’ Heaven series was my favorite of all the books written under that name. The struggle for the family to stay together really spoke to me. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, there is the story of love and loss with the sisters, and the amount of research and attention to detail that John Jakes used in his North and South trilogy taught me the importance of such. When it came time to write Ellie’s story, I realized how much those three writers had influenced my own writing.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The Swinging Doors was actually suggested by one of my mentors, Clyde Edgerton. The manuscript was originally my college thesis (I have an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington), and I was struggling to come up with a title, which are a challenge for me anyway; in fact, I don’t usually name my manuscripts until they are ready for publication because it takes me that long to figure out a proper title. Clyde pointed out the significance of the swinging doors: Ellie works in a saloon, so the doors have a literal meaning, but they also symbolize the struggle to escape. On one side of the doors is the harsh reality she is faced with every day—the rowdies, the drinkers, the men looking for a good time—while on the other side is this promise of escape from that kind of life—people coming and going as they please and women are treated gently and men have gentlemanly airs about them. Ellie is able to witness both through the swinging doors, so that became the title.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

I love listening to music when I am writing. In fact, one of the first things I do is create a playlist for whatever novel I am working on, and as I work, I add songs as I go. I find music helps me create characterization, tension, mood, conflict, even setting, so I am all about having my own personal soundtrack for each story I am writing. (Currently, I have about nine different playlists!)

The Swinging Doors is a period piece, so if the soundtrack is staying true to the time period, then Scott Joplin is a must. Additionally, “Yankee Doodle,” “When Johnny Comes Marchin’ Home Again,” and “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me” would be featured as well as “Camptown Races,” “Amazing Grace,” “Greensleeves,” and “Oh Susanna.”

However, if we were to put a modern twist on the soundtrack (like in A Knight’s Tale), then some songs I would recommend would be Tommy Page’s “Under the Rainbow” and “Whenever You Close Your Eyes,” Celine Dion’s “Water from the Moon,” Bob Dylan’s “Emotionally Yours,” Hot Chocolate’s “It Started with a Kiss,” Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love” and “My Hands,” Phil Collins’ “Find a Way to My Heart,” Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind,” Debbie Gibson’s “No More Rhyme,” Jewel’s “Satisfied,” and Meatloaf’s “Life is a Lemon and I Want My Money Back” perfectly captures the essence of Tommy’s anger, so that could be a fun inclusion.

What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?

I love researching my novels! Sometimes I spend too much time researching, but it’s all about the details and whether the reader believes them or not. While I was working on The Swinging Doors, I looked at so many books and articles, there’s just not enough room to list them all. However, three that I found especially helpful were The Great American Bars and Saloons by Kathy Weiser, Storyville by Lois Battle (about the Red-Light District in New Orleans), and Saloons of the Old West by Richard Erdoes. I’m fascinated with history anyway, and I so enjoyed disappearing into these pages and being transported back in time to see the good, the bad, and the ugly with regards to saloons, life in the late 19th century, and prostitution in this country. It’s really a wonder my search engine has not gotten me in trouble with the government!

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

Even though The Swinging Doors is Ellie’s story, it is told from the perspectives of multiple characters: her brother Tommy; Fred, who owns her contract; Chip, who has been in love with Ellie for years; newcomer Troy Bailey; and Captain Jake Bartlett, who is acquainted with Ellie’s mother. I always envisioned Ellie as the Maypole and everyone else dancing around her, filling in little strips of ribbon as they go to tell the story, to bring the truth of Ellie’s life to the surface. I think this is how we impact each other. We can’t always see our own truths. Sometimes it takes a person close to us to point out what we are trying so hard to deny. Sometimes it takes a stranger to see us for who we really are.

I would hope that readers would see the resiliency of the human spirit within themselves, that no matter what life throws at us, we are able to survive and hopefully have people in our corner to help us.

Many reviewers of the book have commented on their appreciation of the research of the time period, which delights me. This book was 25 years in the making, from its conception to its publication, and one reason for the length of time was that I wanted to get the details just right. I wanted to immerse the reader in the late 19th century in this fictional town of Alamaney, Arkansas, and that involved fine-tooth combing everything from the town itself to the saloon to the shack Ellie and her siblings live in. Then there was the fashion of the time period for both men and women, the modes of transportation, the food and beverage, the music, and of course the business of sex. I hope that the reader is able to feel fully submersed in this novel and come away with an appreciation for the power of love and redemption because they are both within our grasp, no matter the circumstances of our own lives.

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