My guest today brings her professional skills to her historical fiction. Please help me welcome Sheila Myers to the interview seat! Let’s take a look at her bio and then we’ll get to know her better.
Sheila Myers is a Professor at Cayuga Community College in Upstate NY where she teaches aquatic science, ecology and coordinates the Honors Study program.
Myers began writing a trilogy on the family of the robber baron, Dr. Thomas C. Durant, after spending time at one of the Adirondack Great Camps built by his son William, on Raquette Lake, NY. She has published a trilogy: Imaginary Brightness (2015); Castles in the Air (2016); and The Night is Done (2017). The Night is Done won the Adirondack Center for Writing Best Book of Fiction (2017) and a starred Kirkus Review (2020). Using her skills as a scientist, Myers’ curiosity has taken her to numerous libraries and museums in the United States and England, tracking down new information about the infamous Gilded Age family. Her research journey is chronicled on the website http://wwdurantstory.com
Betty: When did you become a writer?
Sheila: Several years ago
Betty: How long did you work on your writing skills before you became published?
Sheila: I have been working on my writing skills as I go. You never stop learning, right? I did not get a degree in writing but instead have honed my craft through practice. I’ve written over seven novels. A few are out on submission and a few still sit on my computer laptop. In addition, I have attended several workshops on craft and the industry.
Betty: What authors or stories do you feel influenced your writing style?
Shelia: Ernest Hemingway at first but then I realized how stilted his language is if you don’t have the finesse. I really enjoy anything by Ann Patchett.
Betty: What prompted you to start writing?
Sheila: I have been writing in journals for years and always wanted to write a novel. One day at my book club meeting a friend said, why don’t you just start writing then? So I did. I spent one summer writing every day until I had a 65k word novel – it was my first novel titled Ephemeral Summer, a contemporary coming of age story with ecological themes. I didn’t tell anyone I wrote it and I self-published it in 2014.
Betty: What do you most enjoy writing? Why?
Shelia: I enjoy the flow. When I sit down to write and the world melts around me and I lose track of time I have had a good day.
Betty: How did you learn to write? A mentor, classes, conferences, craft books, or something else?
Shelia: I have attended a lot of craft workshops both online and in person (pre-Covid days). Writer’s Digest Conferences, Historical Novel Society Conference, Iowa Writers Workshops (online), Mystery Writers Association Conference, and Women Fiction Writers Association webinars.
Betty: What do you wish you knew before you started writing/publishing?
Shelia: Not to listen to everyone’s advice to the point of confusion because many times you find contradictory advice about writing. You need to find your own voice.
Betty: What other authors inspired you (either directly or through their writing) to try your hand at writing?
Shelia: Ann Patchett, Geraldine Brooks.
Betty: What inspired you to write the book you’re sharing with us today?
Shelia: The Durant Family Saga is about a famous New York family that pioneered the Adirondack Wilderness. While I was writing the first book in the trilogy I discovered that the patriarch “Doc Durant” was a main character in the TV series Hell on Wheels. I hadn’t realized until I started researching his life how instrumental he was in developing the Transcontinental Railroad. The Durant family saga is comparable to a soap opera. I could not make up their life stories if I tried. There is bankruptcy, divorce, affairs, lawsuits over inheritance, jealousy, greed, and tyranny. It is a Gilded Age TV series like the modern day TV show Dallas. I’m pitching the story to agents now for a TV series calling it Downton Abbey meets Hell on Wheels for a possible sequel to Hell on Wheels.
It’s 1931, William West Durant and his sister Ella, heirs to a bygone fortune, are in the last decade of their lives and contemplating their legacy. William returns to visit the estate he once possessed in the Adirondacks to speak with the current owner, copper magnate Harold Hochschild, who is writing a history of the region and wants to include a biography of William. Simultaneously, Ella is visiting with an old family friend and former lover, Poultney Bigelow, journalist with Harper’s Magazine, who talks her into telling her own story.
William recounts the height of his glory, after his father’s death in 1885 when he takes control of the Adirondack railroad assets, travels the world in his yacht and dines with future kings. However, his fortune takes a turn during the Financial Panic of 1893 amid accusations of adultery and cruelty.
Ella’s tale begins when she returned from living abroad to launch a lawsuit against her brother for her fair share of the Durant inheritance. The court provides a stage for the siblings to tear each other’s reputation apart: William for his devious business practices and failure to steward the Durant land holdings, and Ella for her unconventional lifestyle. Based on actual events, and historic figures, The Night is Done is a Gilded Age tale about the life altering power of revenge, greed, and passion.
Eagle’s Nest, Adirondacks 1931
I came upon him, standing in my garden overlooking the lake. His silhouette reminded me of a young tree without its leaves, tall and lean, bowed in places from the wind. He was staring into the distance at the frothy white caps, or perhaps the two loons bobbing up and down on top of them.
I thought he might be lost, or maybe a father of one of the workmen or servants. I called to him, he turned toward me and I walked closer to ask what or who he was looking for. As I approached he swept his arms to encompass the acres of woods and cabins of Eagle’s Nest and said, “I used to own all this.”
It was William West Durant.
Stunned, I lost my sense of propriety and forgot to reach for his hand in greeting. He extended his and I took it in mine. Finally I said, “Forgive me, I was expecting you tomorrow.”
He eyed me quizzically and a frightened look came over him. “I hired a cab at the station. I may have gotten my dates mixed up. That happens sometimes. Your caretaker said he would tell you I arrived.”
“And that he did,” I said, although I never was told; I’d been taking my morning walk and hadn’t spoken to any of my staff. “It’s quite likely I got the date down wrong myself,” I said to allay his embarrassment.
I led William to the porch of the building he had constructed long ago, the one my father acquired in 1904 along with the land and passed on to me and my siblings. We each sat down on the porch, quietly contemplating what to say next. Finally, he turned to me.
“I understand you want to learn more about me and the homes I built here in the Adirondacks.”
I nodded. “I’m writing a history of the region and speaking with you was at the top of my list.”
“Yes. Indeed.” Pleased to hear this, he crossed one long leg over the other and settled back in his chair. It came to me that this was a man entirely comfortable with his surroundings. There was no awkwardness or doubt over his position with me. Although, he had no airs about him.
He coughed and his shoulders shook.
“Are you cold?” I asked.
“Slightly,” he admitted.
“Well let’s go inside then. I have coffee waiting. Will you join me?”
He smiled appreciatively and followed me into the great house.
We went into my library and I observed him out of the corner of my eye as he sipped his coffee, restraining myself from peppering him with the many questions I had. He was wearing a beige suit made of fine linen from another era, the lapel of his jacket too large to be modern. I noticed the frayed cuffs on his well-tailored pants. Even so, he had once had impeccable taste in clothing.
I was reminded of a recent visit to a camp nearby that was on the auction block. The owners had passed away and their descendants wanted nothing to do with it. Knowing the previous owners’ propensity to hire local carpenters to build hand-crafted furniture, I thought I might be able to pick up a few pieces for the guest rooms at Eagle’s Nest. When we entered the camp, probably built in the 1890s, furniture was strewn about the main parlor for viewers, dust clinging to everything like old memories. My eye was drawn to an armoire in the corner. It was a handsome piece made of maple, and stately in an unadorned fashion; a piece that would serve its purpose with pride no matter what situation or arrangement it found itself flung into. The façade was unscathed by time. Even with the slight dings and scratches to its exterior, it remained dignified.
I cleared my throat. “Would you mind if I retrieve my notes? There are many things I want to ask you but my memory will work much better if I can read my notes.”
His shoulders relaxed. “Of course,” he said. He knew what I wanted from him because he had been asked so many times before: A personal account of how he went from one of the wealthiest land owners in the region to a clerk in a hotel.
Thanks for stopping in today, Sheila! Your book sounds like a fascinating read and I hope many will read it. Any takers?
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