Chatting with Jodi Lew-Smith on American History, Flax, and Constructing Plot and Characters

Today, I am chatting with Jodi Lew-Smith, author of her debut novel, The Clever Mill Horse, which showcases American History, the history of flax and the flax-mill, and societal issues. We talk about how she writes, makes time to write, and since she lives with over 100 apple trees, who from history she’d choose to apple pick with her. And nope, it wasn’t George Washington!

Hi, welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! You’ve just released The Clever Mill Horse this year, as your debut work. What’s that been like for you?

Jodi: It’s been challenging in every possible way and a dream come true. Mostly it’s wonderful to at last talk about my book with readers.  So thank you for asking!

Erin: I appreciate you stopping by during your busy blog tour. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! Come in and let’s put on the tea pot. What type of tea do you enjoy? Or perhaps you’d like another drink? I’ll be having some new gingerbread tea, since it’s that time of year.

Jodi: Is there another drink besides tea? I think it says somewhere in The Clever Mill Horse that tea cures all ills—and I stand by that statement. In my house we order bulk teas from the Upton Tea Company and the arrival of a new box is a day of celebration. I generally take mine black and pretty basic, but gingerbread does sound quite festive. . . I’d love some.

Erin:  Wonderful! I’ll set up the drinks on the coffee table. Have a seat in my comfy library….one of those comfy reading chair over there…and we’ll chat. I’m interested in asking you about your writing.

Q: You have a job that is, of course, considered scientific. Have you always used the right side of your brain too, or was it calling to let the creative out?! When did you first nab the writing bug?

A: I think I’ve always had the writing bug. I majored in English in college and dabbled in writing,  but I wasn’t really ready— I had a strong gut feeling that I was too young, that I had to live more before I had anything to say. Science was the backup option and I’ve always found it fun. I’m grateful that I was able to do that while I was “living more” and was able to find a niche that I continue to enjoy, but I don’t have the same passion for it that I have for writing. I sure do like plants, though.

Q:  You must also have a love for history. What inspiration did you have to write about a time when the flax-mill might have been used if the cotton mill wouldn’t have been more productive (or maybe it was the cotton was easier to mill….)? Are you interested in the history of inventions?

A: No! I kicked myself many times for finding a @$^!#*#^% machine to write about! I do love history, however, and I love agriculture, and somehow the flax engine emerged in my mind and refused to leave.  I’m drawn to flax as a plant because it’s useful in so many ways and also amazingly beautiful both in flower and as a golden field of stalks. I think the machine that made it easier to mill into linen was a natural extension of that.

Q: Why was it an important turning point in American history that the cotton mill was able to produce cloth faster than a flax-mill? Can you explain how this impacted life and commerce?

A: The flax plant grows best in cooler climates—such as the Northeastern states of America—whereas the cotton plant requires heat, such as is found in the South. At the time of the book, farm people in the North grew flax to make their summer clothing from linen, while people in the South used cotton for that purpose. The fact that the cotton gin made it cheap and easy to process cotton meant the cotton textile industry was starting to mushroom, which (apparently) required an increased slave labor force. If flax had become equally cheap and easy to produce—via a machine such as the one in The Clever Mill Horse—this might have introduced competition for cotton that would have depressed the commodity price and lessened the impetus to import more slaves. Which might also, theoretically, have lessened the tensions that led to the Civil War.

As it was, cotton continued to get cheaper while linen (from flax) continued to remain difficult to grow and process, until eventually people in the North ceased growing it and bought cotton instead. But if the machine had been invented, imagine the magnificent fields of flax we might have seen!

Erin Comments: It’s so interesting. I was speaking to my mom about your book over Thanksgiving. Then, she was telling me how my grandmother had some fabric made from flax and she found out that many farmers in the area I grew up (and her family farmed) in Polk, Ohio, grew flax!! I love finding all these connections. Now, I ‘m curious why they quit growing flax.

Q: Your book also forged past a plot about a flax-mill invention, and into many societal issues, such as racism between settlers and Native Americans, domestic violence, rape, and more. How did you have such a strong handle on these issues in order to write about them with such depth of feeling?

A: You ask tough questions, Erin! I’m not sure I know the answer to this but I think it lies somewhere within my love for our country. As do many people, I have a deep and abiding passion for America that doesn’t quite rest easy with the societal issues you mention. It’s all mixed up together into a colorful and spicy blend that’s impossible to separate. Which means I had to write about all of it if I wanted to write about any of it. I hope that begins to answer your question?

Q: You have some great characters in your book. Which character was your favorite and which one was the hardest to write? Why?

A: I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say Ella was my favorite, however I’m awfully fond of Jenny, Janet, and Zeke. I’m also fond of Pete but he was BY FAR the hardest one to write. I wrote and re-wrote his dialogue many times over, and I’m certain it’s still not right.

Q: Do you write with an outline, since you have so many twists, turns, and plot points, or did you employ a tactic many use, and write as your mind led you? After you state which, tell us why and how it worked for you?

A: The plotter v. pantser question!  The short answer is that early on I tried to be a pantser (i.e. write by the seat of your pants—no outline) and it went horribly wrong. I wrote many thousands of words that went mostly nowhere. By that experiment I learned that I am most definitely a plotter—I need an outline. That said, I make certain to remain unwedded to the outline in cases where the story takes itself somewhere else. I think of the outline as a map that shows you where you’re going but doesn’t show you which route to take or what any of it actually LOOKS like. That you have to discover along the way.  

Q: What did you learn most about the process of writing a novel now that you’ve written your debut? What do you feel is the biggest success you had and what will help you grow for when you write the sequel?

A: I think the question you just asked above regarding “to outline or not to outline”  is one thing I learned best in the course of writing my first book. I hadn’t worked out my own process yet. The other major piece was simply the long and arduous process of finding my own voice for fiction. I’ve done so much writing in other arenas—from scientific papers to poetry—that it took me a number of tries to find the voice that felt right for me. Not a character voice, but more a style, a way of crafting scenes and characters that felt most my own.

Q: With another career, and a family, how did you allocate time to be dedicated to writing your book? How long did it take and how did you keep on track?

A: It was hard and it took a long time. (Ten years!) At first I could only steal an hour at a time, usually after my kids were in bed. But I’m a morning person so I need daytime hours to have a prayer of doing good work. As my kids grew I was able to carve out little blocks of hours for writing, and over time those have grown to a few days a week. I don’t follow the writer’s rule of writing every day because it would make me grumpy with my family and I’m not willing to do that. But having such limited time actually helps me because I can’t procrastinate. Use it or lose it. And it’s the same with my other career—I have limited time so I do my best to use it well.  It helps that I’m a chronic multi-tasker! I stay on track because I’m stubborn and writing is something that’s not optional for me. I can’t  NOT do it. (How’s that for a double negative that says what a positive cannot?)

Q: If you could have one person from history come and help you to pick apples from your home orchard, who would it be? Also, what would you hope to talk about?

A: Another tough question! For some reason the person who comes to mind is Ulysses S. Grant. I read a recent biography that left me fascinated with the enigma of a man who was failing at everyday life—could hardly feed his family before the war—but then had the confidence and strategic vision to step in and take command of a massive operation. I’d want to ask him where that spine came from. (But you can be certain a man that humble is unlikely to tell me!)

Q: Since we just celebrated Thanksgiving, what was your favorite food from any feast you attended or made? What were you most thankful for this year?

A: Pecan pie. It’s a turkey-day treat once a year and what I save room for. Mostly I am thankful every day for the people in my small-town community. We are one another’s accumulated wealth.

Q: I know you are working on a sequel to The Clever Mill Horse, correct? What else do you hope to write in the future?

A: Correct! I’m working on the second book in what I expect to be a five-book series that will cover roughly the next ten years. After that I have no idea what I’ll actually write, but I have a long list of ideas for things I might write!

Q: Where can readers connect with you?

A: I send a monthly newsletter with articles on historical topics that I think are fun. I’m also happy to get emails at

Erin: Thank you so very much for coming by and talking about your writing and your work today, Jodi! I wish you all the best success in the future with your writing!

Jodi:  A huge thank you right back for hosting this interview and for writing such personal and thoughtful questions—you really made me think hard to answer them! I very much hope our paths cross again some time. Best of luck to you as well.

Erin: Sure, happy to hear or host you here anytime!

The Clever Mill Horse, Synopsis~

01_The Clever Mill Horse CoverPublication Date: August 15, 2014
Caspian Press
Formats: eBook, Paperback
Pages: 424

Genre: Historical Fiction

A young woman’s gift could weave together the fabric of a nation…

1810, upstate New York. 21-year-old Ella Kenyon is happiest gliding through the thick woods around her small frontier town, knife in hand, her sharp eyes tracking game. A gift for engineering is in her blood, but she would gladly trade it for more time in the forest. If only her grandfather’s dying wish hadn’t trapped her into a fight she never wanted.

Six years ago, Ella’s grandfather made her vow to finish his life’s work: a flax-milling machine that has the potential to rescue her mother, brother, and sister from the brutality of life with her drunkard father. The copious linen it yields could save her struggling town, subjugate the growing grip of southern cotton. Or it could be Ella’s downfall. If she’s not quick enough, not clever enough to succeed, more than her own life rests in the balance…

Praise for The Clever Mill Horse

“Jodi Lew-Smith’s The Clever Mill Horse is that rarest of all contemporary novels: an authentically old-fashioned adventure story, in all the best senses. Full of drama, humor, plot surprises, and, best of all, memorable characters, The Clever Mill Horse had me hooked from page one. Best of all, there’s a sequel coming. I can’t wait.” – Howard Frank Mosher, author of Where the Rivers Flow North

“In this delightful debut novel set in the early 19th century, a young woman fights to patent her flax-milling machine. . .An assured, cleverly plotted piece of historical fiction with an irrepressible female protagonist.” – Kirkus Reviews

“. . .intricately plotted and exceedingly well paced. . . filled with danger, science, and suspense, the story rings true with historical and natural detail. . . a complete and finely polished first novel.” – Foreword Reviews

Buy the Book~

Google Play

Author Jodi Lew-Smith~

02_Jodi Lew-Smith AuthorJodi Lew-Smith lives on a farm in northern Vermont with her patient husband, three wonderfully impatient children, a bevy of pets and farm animals, and 250 exceedingly patient apple trees which, if they could talk, would suggest that she stop writing and start pruning. Luckily they’re pretty quiet.

With a doctorate in plant genetics, she also lives a double life as a vegetable breeder at High Mowing Seeds. She is grateful for the chance to do so many things in one lifetime, and only wishes she could do them all better. Maybe in the next life she’ll be able to make up her mind.

For more about Jodi and about the lives and world of the characters in the novel, visit her website or blog. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Goodreads.

Tour Schedule:

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