From the 1.5 million copy bestselling author of Lilac Girls comes Sunflower Sisters, the incredible story of three very different women set during the American Civil War: Georgeanna Woolsey, a Union nurse who pushes the boundaries of society; Jemma, a young enslaved girl given a choice between family and freedom; and Anne-May Wilson, a southern plantation mistress who follows her ambitions when her husband leaves to enlist.
Publishing on 30 March, this is bound to become a favourite among historical fiction readers. Martha Hall Kelly has established herself as one of the best in epic historical fiction, a writer with a keen eye and passion for research. Lilac Girls was the story of Caroline Ferriday, an American philanthropist who helped young girls released from Ravensbruck concentration camp. In her research of Caroline's family, she discovered Caroline had preserved her Woolsey ancestry: letters, photos and memorabilia. From this, the story of Georgeanna Woolsey was formed, one of Caroline's inspirational ancestors.
Inspired by true accounts, Sunflower Sisters is a rich and sweeping story of remarkable women, while vividly capturing a war-torn America grappling with nationalism and unspeakable cruelty.
It's a powerful and moving page-turner for readers everywhere.
Praise for Martha Hall Kelly
'Sunflower Sisters weaves an exquisite tapestry of women determined to defy the moulds the world has made for them.' - New York Times bestselling author Lisa Wingate
'Kelly's vivid prose, stunning historical research, and heartfelt, compelling characters make this a gripping, page-turning read.' New York Times bestselling author Allison Pataki
'Kelly's gift is bringing to life and to light the untold stories of women and families far away from the war front.' – Booklist
Author: Martha Hall Kelly
Penguin Random House Australia
Question: What originally inspired the idea of Sunflower Sisters?
Martha Hall Kelly: When I started the research for my first novel Lilac Girls, I found boxes of Civil War letters to and from the Woolsey sisters, Caroline Ferriday's great aunts. So even before Lilac Girls was published, I was already thinking up plotlines for a novel about them.
Question: How did you develop your approach to the American Civil War?
Martha Hall Kelly: I started that format with Lilac Girls and kept it for Lost Roses, so it seemed fitting to use it for the last book in these three about Caroline's family.
Question: What did you learn, about yourself, whilst writing Sunflower Sisters?
Martha Hall Kelly: I didn't think I would love the Civil War era as much as I did. In school in the U.S. we learn about the battles and the dates of the major events but digging into the story from a female perspective was so interesting. Just reading all one hundred of the Woolsey letters was somewhat mind blowing. 1861 had always seemed like the far distant past but the Woolsey women came alive in a very modern way through their letters.
Question: Why did you choose the Ferriday family to base your work upon?
Martha Hall Kelly: I really felt this was a family we needed to know about in this day and age. Women who had all the comforts they needed but chose to sacrifice so much for what they believed in, the end of slavery and equality of all people. Much the same way Caroline Ferriday from Lilac Girls led her life. She learned it all from her Woolsey ancestors.
Question: How much of your inspiration comes from real life and real people?
Martha Hall Kelly: I love having true stories to base my novels on. It gives them a framework, a starting place. I like reading historical fiction based on real people"it feels more authentic--and like to write the type of books I'd like to read.
Question: What's the main message you hope readers take from Sunflower Sisters?
Martha Hall Kelly: That people make mistakes in life and they can be rectified if you atone. And to provide an intimate look at the divide in our country that unfortunately hasn't changed much. I think it helps to look at it through the eyes of the people who lived it, especially the enslaved characters.
Question: What research did you do, prior to writing Sunflower Sisters?
Martha Hall Kelly: Luckily, I lived in Atlanta, the heart of the American south, while I was first researching and got to visit so many former plantations. That was very helpful to see the cabins where the enslaved lived and really dig in, to the experience of both the enslaved and the plantation owners, who were so indifferent to the suffering they caused.
Question: What advice do you have for aspiring writers or artists?
Martha Hall Kelly: To write about what you really care about from a deep emotion level, since that is the experience readers are looking for. And to read good craft books. I love The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman and anything Sol Stein or Donald Maass write about writing craft.
Question: What or who inspired your love of reading/writing?
Martha Hall Kelly: My mother read to us at the dinner table after dinner. Charlotte's Web, so many times. I think because she loved it so much. That book has it all. Intrigue. Suspense. E.B. White is amazing. My mother died twenty years ago, but I think she'd be "pleased as punch", as she'd say, that I'm an author, for books were her oxygen.
Question: What's next, for you?
Martha Hall Kelly: After Sunflower Sisters I'm going back to the Lilac Girls world, to Ravensbruck for a Cold War novel. This time two survivors, one American and one French search for the horrible doctor who abused them. It has been so much fun to write. Love the fifties! And I feel like I've been Nazi hunting myself, doing the research for it.
And then after that, a completely different book, a contemporary thriller set in my actual Connecticut hometown. That has been fun to write, too, but VERY scary. Been leaving the lights on most nights!
Interview by Gwen van Montfort