BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES, by author Jenni L. Walsh, is one of my favorite historical fiction reads this year. It releases next week (November 2) and I’m going out to get it for my daughter who’s going to LOVE it. Full transparency, Jenni is my agent sister, (huzzah, Shannon Hassan!) so I am predisposed to think she is fabulous, but after you read this interview I got to do with her (and her book), I’m positive you’ll agree.
About BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES
Sybil Ludington believes in the legend of fireflies–they appear when you need them most. But it’s not until her family is thrust into the dangers of the Revolutionary War, and into George Washington’s spy ring, that Sybil fully experiences firefly magic for herself–guiding her through the darkness, empowering her to figure out who she’s supposed to be and how strong she really is–as she delivers her imperative message and warns against a British attack.
BY THE LIGHT OF FIREFLIES (Wyatt-Mackenzie, November 2021) is the captivating tale of a young girl’s journey as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a spy, and eventually a war hero, completing a midnight ride that cements her place in history as the “female Paul Revere.”
Jenni L. Walsh Interview
MUF: What a wonderful hero Sybil Ludington is. How did you find her?
JLW: She certainly was! My first publications with Scholastic were nonfiction books in my She Dared series about girls who, at a young age, did daring and heroic feats. I had been putting together a list of young women who could fit the bill and Sybil Ludington quickly went on the list. My publisher and I decided my next books should be fiction, so I didn’t continue the series, but I knew I wanted to tell Sybil’s story. And here I am doing just that.
Piecing Sybil’s Story Together
MUF: Sybil’s story must have been hard to piece together given the scarcity of records about her. What did you find most challenging about creating her character? What was the easiest?
JLW: It’s always a challenge when there’s little information, but it’s also a lot of fun – like a big puzzle. I took whatever I could find out about Sybil, even seemingly little details like being the oldest child, and began to piece it all together to inform Sybil’s character and the storyline. I came across some awesome details relating to Sybil – like how she thwarted an attack against her home by mimicking an army using her many siblings – and some non-Sybil details that I knew I had to work into the story – like how urine was used to help remove stains while laundering clothing during that era. I find, though, that once I have a bunch of potential scenes, facts, and tidbits to include, the story begins to take on a life of its own and everything begins to fall into place. That’s when things become a bit easier, and even more fun.
Paving Her Own Way
MUF: I admit it – I cried at the end of Sybil’s amazing ride (I won’t say too much about it here because spoilers!!!) when her mother comes out to see her. Their relationship is complicated because of traditional women’s roles at the time. What were you hoping to illustrate for readers with this relationship?
JLW: What a wonderful reaction. I’m so glad you enjoyed this thread. Sybil’s character highly values the opinions of her parents. Throughout the novel, she strives for their attention and praise, it often putting her at odds with her sister. Nothing like some sibling rivalry. But as far as Sybil and her mother, I wanted to show that children learn from their parents (we see Sybil idolize her mom in some moments) just as much as adults continue to learn and grow from their children. I like that each generation brings a different perspective, and I love that I could show Sybil wanting to pave her own way.
((Like reading about spies? Check out this MUF archived article on the spies of a different war.))
MUF You’ve said you love fireflies, (I do too!) and that’s why they’re part of your book. What drew you to incorporate them as a magical element?
JLW: Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve found fireflies magical. Perhaps it’s because we get such a short amount of time with them each year. Even as an adult, the first firefly I see of the season stops me in my tracks. I thought they were the perfect element to give the book a bit of a magical realism twist, using them as a device to illustrate Sybil’s growing confidence in herself. They also made the cover pretty dang cool, too.
Writing Historical Fiction
MUF: You primarily write historical fiction, for both children and adults. What draws you to the genre?
JLW: I’m fascinated by real life people and events. There are some remarkable and thought-provoking people who came before us, and I enjoy giving them a voice. I also like highlighting a person or group or moment in time that not a lot of people know about. So far I’ve brought a WWII resistance group, the first croupier in American history, and an American outlaw to life. Next up after Sybil is a Berlin Wall escapee (that one’s coming in 2022)!
MUF: For the MUF readers who are also writers, what’s one piece of craft advice you’d give to someone who wants to write historical fiction?
JLW: Take the time to fall down rabbit holes. Never fail, I’ll be researching one thing and, if I didn’t take my time with it and go off into a research tangent, I never would’ve unearthed a tidbit that fit perfectly into my plot or sparked a whole new aspect of my storyline.
Looking into the Future
MUF: What’s next for fans of Jenni Walsh?
JLW: More writing! Which means I get to do what I love most. I’m in the middle of writing my next adult historical which is coming in November 2022 with HarperCollins. Also at the moment, I’m beginning to send ARCs out into the world for my next middle grade called Over and Out. That one is coming from Scholastic in March 2022. Once I get my adult historical off to my editor, then it’ll be time to start thinking/tinkering with my next middle-grade idea. I try to always have a project underway, even if it’s just researching or brainstorming what I want to do next. Apparently, I get antsy if I don’t have something going on. Please feel free to follow along with me as I share details about each project. I’m @jennilwalsh across all social media!
MUF: Thanks so much, Jenni, and congratulations!
Jenni L. Walsh
Jenni is the author of the nonfiction She Dared series and historical novels Hettie and the London Blitz, I Am Defiance, and By the Light of Fireflies, and Over and Out. She also writes historical novels for adults, including Becoming Bonnie, Side by Side, and A Betting Woman.. To learn more about Jenni and her books, please visit jennilwalsh.com or @jennilwalsh on social media.