An Interview with Carrie Callaghan, author of A LIGHT OF HER OWN


February, 1633

Judith leaned against the small window ledge and looked inside. The frigid twilight air seeped past her cloak into her many layers of tunics and her well-worn bodice, and the painted ledge below her numb fingertips had dulled to the gray of a low sky. Behind the glass the inn’s golden light beckoned, and though it was not yet supper time, drinkers dressed in shades of brown sat at small tables. Her teeth chattered with cold and nerves. She scrutinized the scene for any telling detail, but she saw nothing unusual, to her disappointment.

She wished she could step out of the back garden, around the corner, and through the inn door, but entering would be too risky. Even though the inn was public, anyone who knew her would realize she wasn’t visiting for the ale. Respectable women didn’t socialize in taverns or inns. But an artist showing up the night of a clandestine auction? Someone might recognize her and report her to the Guild, whose leaders would delight in an excuse to ban her. No artist, particularly not an apprentice like herself, could sell outside approved Guild channels. She stamped her feet against the cold and watched.

“A LIGHT OF HER OWN follows two women as they seek space, respect and professional opportunity in a culture that allows them very little of it. Impeccably researched and vibrantly told, Carrie Callaghan’s debut paints a picture worthy of Judith herself.”
— - Chloe Benjamin, bestselling author of The Immortalists

An Interview with Carrie Callaghan

Carrie Callaghan’s debut novel, A LIGHT OF HER OWN, will be released on November 13th, 2018 by Amberjack Publishing. A LIGHT OF HER OWN in a historical novel.

Question - Please describe what the book is about.

Carrie Callaghan - I always flail when describing my own work! It’s about 17th century Dutch painter Judith Leyster, and her efforts to establish her own workshop at the time of Rembrandt. But here’s the publisher’s description, which is much snappier:

In Holland 1633, a woman’s ambition has no place.

Judith is a painter, dodging the law and whispers of murder to try to become the first woman admitted to the Haarlem painters guild. Maria is a Catholic in a country where the faith is banned, hoping to absolve her sins by recovering a lost saint’s relic.

Both women’s destinies will be shaped by their ambitions, running counter to the city’s most powerful men, whose own plans spell disaster. A vivid portrait of a remarkable artist, A Light of Her Own is a richly-woven story of grit and friendship against the backdrop of Rembrandt and an uncompromising religion.

Q - Where did you get the idea?

CC - In 2009 I wandered into an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. There, in a pair of small rooms, I saw 17th century Dutch Golden Age paintings – by a woman. I had never heard of Judith Leyster, and I was so excited to learn about a woman who had managed to find the space and resources to paint seriously at the time of Rembrandt. How had she done that? What obstacles did she face? I couldn’t stop thinking about her. The Gallery was celebrating her 400th anniversary, and I’m so grateful that my restorative walk through the Dutch paintings section led me to her.

Q - What’s the story behind the title?

CC - My brilliant agent, Shannon Hassan, came up with the title while we were brainstorming alternatives. My original, rather clunky, title was THE QUALITY OF LIGHT. Because Judith is a painter, and she’s credited for being the first person to paint a visible light source in her group of painters, I knew that I wanted light to feature in the title.

Q - No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.

CC - In the novel, a woman fishes a little kitten out of the river. How can you not love someone who does that? (Actually, she’ll show you how…)

Q - Tell us about your favorite character.

CC - My heart is split between Judith and Maria. Judith is the girl throwing rocks at the mocking little boys. Maria is the girl writing poetry in her head without ever putting it down on paper. I love Judith’s dedication and fixedness of purpose. Meanwhile, Maria’s constant self-doubt and endless introspection is something that resonates deeply with me.

Q - If you could spend a day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?

CC - Can I spend the day in 17th century Haarlem? Because, for the ticket back in time, I’d spend the day with any of the characters. If I have to pick, the criminal Lechine is probably the one I’d most enjoy following around and getting to know better. He doesn’t show up on the page often, but he’s a complex man, with a difficult childhood and a complicated moral calculus. I’d have a lot to think about after watching him lead and protect his gang of adolescent boys.

Q - Are your character based on real people, or do they come from your imaginations?

CC - Most of the characters (excepting Lachine and a few other secondary characters) are real people, though we have very little information about them. Judith, Maria, Judith’s brother Abraham, the magistrate Paulus van Beresteyn, all the artists … They are historical names for whom I filled in the gaps as best I could.

Q - How long did you take to write this book?

CC - Loosely, I took about a year to research the book, a year to draft it, a year to edit it, and a year to find a publisher for it. Some of this time overlapped the birth of my second child, so there were definitely days off. There were also edits frantically made while the baby was napping, or research done during my lunch break at work.

Q - What kind of research did you do for this book?

CC - The excuse to dive deeply into a moment of human history is one of the main reasons I write historical fiction, so my research is as important a part of the creative process as is the drafting. I relied on the scholarship of art historians for my information on Judith and the techniques of artists of her time, and I’m deeply indebted to Dr. Frima Hofrichter of the Pratt Institute for her consultations and corrections. I read widely about the 17th century and Holland, including the philosophy of the time, local wars (the Thirty Years War), and the Dutch economy. Everything from academic articles to exhibit catalogues to the paintings themselves blended into the creative cauldron. I hope the result is a rich novel with lots of detail.

Q - What did you remove from this book during the editing process?

CC - Three other points of view. I shudder to think of it now, but the novel was originally told from not just the points of view of Maria and Judith, but also Judith’s brother Abraham, the criminal Lachine, and the magistrate Paulus van Beresteyn. (I repurposed – and rewrote – Abraham’s story for this short story, though please note it’s sort of a spoiler for what happens to him in the book.)

Q - Are you a plotter or a pantser?

CC - A pantser who very much wishes she was a plotter, so has pages of discarded outlines paving the way to her final plot.

Q - What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?

CC - Research, for the exploration and inspiration it allows me, and editing, for the control and feeling of magical powers it grants.

Q - What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?

CC - The first draft is always the hardest, since I’m carving a new path through virgin forest. That’s when the self-doubt is the loudest and the writing the sloppiest.

Q - Can you share your writing routine?

CC - I have a full-time day job, a longish commute, two young kids, and a husband. So writing time is scarce, but that also means it’s precious when I do have it. I aim to write (or research) 45 minutes each night after the kids go to bed. It’s amazing how the words add up.

Q - Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?

CC - I sometimes don’t know where a story is going, or I sometimes despise what I’ve written because it feels false. When that happens, I either need to return to my source material or just write through the problem and fix it later. For A Light of Her Own I did a lot of plot brainstorming each morning during the two minutes it took me to walk up the stairs to work in the morning. I’m not sure how, but having that intense two minutes resulted in a lot of solutions, partly because it was a sacred thinking space.

Q - If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

CC - It’s going to be much harder than you expect, but you need each painful rejection and each apparent setback in order to teach you the equanimity and balance that you’ll need. And – Patrick was right all along. If you’re not writing because you enjoy it, you shouldn’t be writing. (That was my husband’s very unwelcome advice, but I’ve now told him dozens of times how correct he was.)

Q - How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

CC - This is my fifth novel-length manuscript. I only seriously tried to get one other published. Maybe some day …

Q - Do you have any writing quirks?

CC - I write my first drafts by hand.

Q - How did you get into writing?

CC - Like so many writers, I started writing stories almost as soon as I could write sentences. But starting in high school, I had ideas about saving the world, so I poured my academic efforts into studying international affairs. However, nearly a month after graduating college, I was bored while standing around in the bookstore where I worked part-time, so I started writing a story to entertain myself. Then I went to graduate school, and again, when I finished grad school I almost immediate started writing novels again. I finished that first one and launched into the next. I haven’t stopped since.

Q - What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

CC - Reading and writing are my passions. I also volunteer as an editor with the Washington Independent Review of Books. But I do have a family and friends, so I love seeing them and doing nerdy things. Like talking about books. I’m also nine years into a long Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and I adore the group storytelling we do through that. It’s so creative.

Q - Apart from novel writing, do you do any other kind(s) of writing?

CC - I write for work, I’ve published short stories, and I write book reviews.

Q - Share something about you most people probably don’t know.

CC - I’m a vegetarian and deeply passionate about preserving our shared, precious global environment.

Q - Which book influenced you the most?

CC - Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety was the first time I read a book and though YES, this is what I want—to read and to write. Historical stories that aren’t about romance, and women’s stories that aren’t about mothers and daughters.

Q - What are you working on right now?

CC - Another historical fiction! This one is about a (real-life) female American journalist who lived in Moscow in the 1930s, and her Russian husband was arrested by the secret police.

Q - What’s your favorite writing advice?

CC - Read widely and deeply. And, put it in a scene.

Q - The book you’re currently reading?

CC -Valiant Gentlemen by Sabrina Murray.

“Nevertheless, she persisted, even back in the Dutch Golden Age. Callaghan has taken as her subject the painter Judith Leyster and transformed the thin historical record into a richly detailed and animated story.”
— Debra Dean, author of Hidden Tapestry and The Madonnas of Leningrad

Carrie Callaghan’s Biography

Carrie Callaghan is a historical fiction author living in Maryland with her family. Her debut novel, A Light of Her Own, about 17th century painter Judith Leyster, is forthcoming from Amberjack Publishing in November 2018. Her short stories have been published in multiple literary journals around the country, and she is a senior editor with the Washington Independent Review of Books. She loves seasons of all kinds, history, and tea.  And books, books, books.

Links to Carrie Callaghan



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