Author Q&A: Sugarland by Martha Conway

About the Author
Martha Conway's first novel, 12 BLISS STREET, was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her novel THIEVING FOREST won the North American Book Award for Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in The Iowa Review, The Carolina Quarterly, The Massachusetts Review, Folio, and other journals. She is the recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship, and teaches creative writing at Stanford University's Online Writers Studio and UC Berkeley Extension. Her latest novel is SUGARLAND.

About Sugarland
IN 1921, TALENTED young jazz pianist Eve Riser witnesses the accidental killing of a bootlegger. To cover up the crime, she agrees to deliver money and a letter to a man named Rudy Hardy in Chicago. But when Eve gets to Chicago she discovers that her stepsister Chickie, a popular nightclub singer, is pregnant by a man she won’t name. That night Rudy Hardy is killed before Eve’s eyes in a brutal drive-by shooting, and Chickie disappears.

Eve needs to find Chickie, but she can’t do it alone. Lena Hardy, Rudy’s sister, wants to learn the truth behind her brother’s murder, but she needs Eve’s connections. Together they navigate the back alleys and speakeasies of 1920s Chicago, encountering petty thugs, charismatic bandleaders, and a mysterious nightclub owner called the Walnut who seems to be the key to it all.

As they fight racial barriers trying to discover the truth, Eve and Lena unravel a twisted tale of secret shipments and gangster rivalry. SUGARLAND mixes the excitement of a new kind of music—jazz—with the darker side of Prohibition in a gripping story with “real suspense for anyone who likes a good mystery.” (Kirkus Reviews). Read more and check out an excerpt here:

I downloaded a review copy of Sugarland from Netgalley (read my review here) and I fell in love with the book. Right after I finished, I bought a copy for my mom, then I connected with Martha and invited her to stop by a Q&A. 

Deborah Bailey:  Glad to have you here! I have to tell you I was really pleased to find a historical novel about the Jazz Age. What inspired you to write a book set during that time?

Martha Conway: I'm not a musician, but I love to listen to live music. I'm always jealous of the musicians who get to do this for a living, and I'm in awe of their skills. I've always wanted to write about musicians. Early jazz in particular is exciting to me; you can just feel all these musicians playing, experimenting, having fun. It's a new world of music. And it came about when the American society was radically changing, too, from agrarian to industrial, from horses to cars. I was interested in that juxtaposition.

Deborah:  Your book captured those changes very well. How would you describe what the story is about?

Martha:  A young jazz pianist, Eve Riser,  is caught in a drive-by shooting that kills the bootlegger standing next to her. Helped by Lena Hardy, the bootlegger's sister, Eve recovers only to find that her pregnant sister and nightclub singer Chickie is missing. Navigating the back alleys and speakeasies of 1920s Chicago, Eve and Lena must fight racial barriers in order to save Chickie and learn the truth behind the murder.

Deborah: The main characters were really interesting and complex women. How did you come up with them?

Martha: Eve is based largely on the pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, a tough and warm-hearted and talented woman. She braved the early jazz scene, playing on the circuit and composing her own songs, married several times, moved to France, moved back, and throughout it all she always kept composing and performing no matter what. There's also a little of Earl Hines thrown into Eve's character (especially her background). Lena Hardy, the white nurse who bonds with Eve, took longer for me to create. She is based on all of us who would like to play music but don't. Unlike me, though, Lena has some talent. However, at that time (the 1920s) it was nearly impossible for a white woman to perform professionally.

Deborah: I was pleasantly surprised to find the story being told through Eve's POV. What prompted that choice?

Martha: The first draft was from Lena's point of view, but I always felt Eve was the stronger character, and I also felt closer to her. However, as a white woman, I was hesitant to write from an African American point of view. But I have written from a male point of view, and in many ways that feels harder to me. I didn't want fear to stop me, so I decided to try. In the end, I may have gotten it wrong, but I think it's important as a writer (and a human being) to try to see things from someone else's point of view.

Deborah: What really stood out for me were your vivid descriptions of the music. How did you research the sounds of that period? 

Martha: I read a lot of memoirs and interviews. Especially helpful was Whitney Balliet's "56 Portraits in Jazz." I also had a book, "What to Listen for in Jazz," which came with a c.d. That meant I could listen to a piece of music and read what professionals said about what was going on musically, which I could never have done myself. I used that for many of the descriptions in a modified form.

Deborah: The relationship between the lead characters gave a lot of insight into race relations at that time. What research did you do to be able to  capture the nuances of those relationships?

Martha: There was a big race riot in Chicago right around that time, and I read a lot about it even though it doesn't take place (or is mentioned) in the course of my story. That gave me some insight. But it was also interesting to read about the small amounts of integration that happened at the stock yards among the employees. Again, I read some oral interviews from people who worked there at that time. Events there made it possible, I thought, for a white woman like Lena's aunt to look beyond race when faced with a decision.

Deborah: Often writers like trying out different genres. Do you write in others as well?

Martha: I mostly write historical fiction now. Sugarland is a mystery, but the historical element is very strong.

Deborah: Of course, as a writer I have to ask this question! What's your writing routine?

Martha: I write every weekday morning for two hours or 750 words. I find if I don't have a word limit, I tend to stop after 300 words, but if I push myself to write more of the scene, I almost always find a clue how to proceed for the next day.

Deborah:  That's terrific. While we're on the subject, any tips for aspiring authors?

Martha: Write. Write consistently. Make a writing schedule and keep to it. Even if you can only write a paragraph a day - do that. 

Deborah: Great advice! So, are you working on anything new?

Martha: I am finishing up my next novel, entitled THE FLOATING THEATRE, which is coming out in the Fall of 2017. The story takes place in antebellum America, and is about a socially awkward costume designer who gets a job on a riverboat theatre on the Ohio River and gets caught up in the Underground Railroad. 

Deborah: I'm looking forward to reading that! Thanks so much, Martha. Please share your website and social media links.

Martha: I enjoyed it! Here they are:

Amazon Author Page:
Goodreads Author Page:
Facebook personal page:
Twitter (author):
LinkedIn Public Profile URL:

You can find Sugarland on Amazon here:

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