Portland author Joyce Cherry Cresswell’s debut novel wins state award
interview by Sheila G. Miller
Joyce Cherry Cresswell is proof that sometimes a story just has to be told. After years of hearing family lore about her great-grandmother’s time as a doctor in the Civil War, she set out to research and write a historical fiction version of the woman’s life.
The book, A Great Length of Time, earned the Oregon Book Award’s Ken Kesey Award for Fiction in September, quite a feat for a debut novel that she self-published.
Cresswell retired seven years ago after time working at a nonprofit, as a stay-at-home mom, and as an attorney. When she retired, it was time to start writing. “I always sort of dared myself to write and I’d never gotten around to doing it,” she said. “I decided once I’d retired, there were no more excuses.” Her love for history, and historical fiction especially, led her to look at the family story and “start poking around.”
Your book is fiction, but it springs from at least a kernel of truth?
My mother’s mother was an orphan, and in 1906 she was adopted out of an orphanage by two women in Oakland, California. One of those two women had been a doctor in the Civil War. It’s her story I’m telling. I don’t know a lot about her actual experiences, but she was relatively well-known—there were several biographies written about her but they’re very formal, there’s not much to tell about her personal life so it’s hard to know exactly what occurred. So the basic character of the book is the same. After that, it’s my imagination.
It may be your imagination, but you clearly did a lot of research.
The research was just a blast. With the internet, you can really find anything. You want to know what the weather was on June 11, 1864, and you can read the newspaper reports on the actual rainstorm while sitting in your kitchen.
Google is digitizing documents, and they’re currently working through a lot of old documents and old newspapers and old books, so you can download anything you need from that era. I have the obstetrics textbook that my great-grandmother was taught with in medical school. I knew I had to have an amputation scene in my book, so I have downloaded from the internet the actual Army surgical field guides used by both the North and the Confederates. The actual manuals. It’s just fabulous—you can get anything!
Why did you decide to self-publish the book?
I looked for a publisher for about six months—not really hard, but pretty rigorously—and my research was telling me that publishers are looking for someone who has a lot of books in them, who will have four or five really good books in a lifetime. I knew I didn’t have that in me—I was already past 60 and I didn’t know if I was going to be attractive to agents. At the same time, my elderly mother really wanted a copy and I really wanted to put a copy in her hands. I found a company called Indigo—they’re these really cool, young people who have graduated from Portland State University’s master’s program in publishing and created a consulting company. You buy services on an al a carte basis. They were really fabulous for this intermediary role for someone who wanted a good, professional product. If I thought I was going to spend my career as a fiction writer or as a nonfiction writer, I probably would still try to go the traditional route. But there are really good writers out there who have turned to self-publishing.
Are you writing anything new?
I would like to do another book. I’m in the process—I have an outline in the back of my head. It would be historical fiction about a family during the Depression. I think about it and chew on it and I read stuff about the Depression, but I’m taking my time.