From History Teacher to History Writer - An Interview with Judith Redline Coopey

Saturday, August 28, 2010
Pennsylvania native, Judith Redline Coopey, made the switch in from history teacher to full-time historical fiction writer in 2004 and published her first book, Redfield Farm: A Novel of the Underground Railroad in August 2010.

“I think characters are vitally important to one’s work,” Coopey says via e-mail. “Ann Redfield, the heroine of Redfield Farm is someone I’d like to know. She’s strong, dependable, vulnerable and human. Like the rest of us. I hope I can create more characters like Ann and set them in Pennsylvania, because that is where my heart lives.”

Although Redfield Farm is Coopey’s first novel, she is no native to the publishing world. She co-authored The World of Owen Gromme, published by Stanton and Lee of Madison, WI, and had articles published in Scholastic Newstime, Wisconsin Trails and Midwest Art Magazine. One of her articles was included in A Wisconsin Sampler, an anthology of Wisconsin Writing.

I had the opportunity to chat with the author via e-mail about her writing, her book and the engaging history of Pennsylvania.

How did you develop the idea for Redfield farm?
I’m a genealogist, and back in the 1970s I was trying to find my connection to the Blackburn family of Bedford County. I had some names and dates, but no one to connect them with. I finally made a breakthrough by locating a distant cousin who had the family Bible, and from them I found out where the homestead was. I contacted the owner, and he met me at the house, which was no longer lived in, and he told me that it was rumored to have been a station on the Underground Railroad. That kind of claim is almost impossible to substantiate, but the thought stuck in my mind. When I decided to write a book, I knew it had to be about the Underground Railroad.

Could you share a little about your writing and research process as you created this novel?
I did extensive research on the Underground Railroad, not just in Pennsylvania, but all over the states where it was active. I also did extensive research on Quakers, because my protagonist, Ann Redfield was a birthright Quaker. I didn’t know until I found my connection in the 70s that I was descended from Quakers. I learned a lot from my research, and I learned that writing happens inside your head, even when you’re not sitting at the keyboard. I thought about my characters and setting and things I expected to happen to them. Then in November 2004 I tried the NaNoWriMo ( National Novel Writing Month) – writing a chapter a day for 30 days – no looking back. Just full speed ahead. I did it on my own, not formally affiliated with NaNoWriMo, but I kept to the guidelines and by the end of November I had a first draft. First drafts are fun to do because they offer a no holds barred opportunity at creativity. But a first draft is really rough, so it took a lot more time – sending it off to my trusted readers, reading it to my writers’ group, letting it stew in a desk drawer and revising, revising, revising.
Who are your favorite writers and how has their writing influenced your own?
I have a long list of favorite writers, but the standouts are John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner. Contemporary favorites are Lee Smith, who writes about southern Appalachia, Faith Sullivan, who writes about Minnesota, Molly Gloss, who writes about Washington State, and Nancy Turner, who writes about Arizona. They’re all women who write about strong women – no fantasy, gratuitous sex or violence – just a good story well told. I like that.
What was the most difficult part of transitioning from a teaching career to a writing career?
It wasn’t difficult at all. I’ve wanted to write all my life, and I have, but not seriously. I’m single minded when it comes to a task, so when I was a teacher, that took up all of my energy. Now that I have the luxury to be able to write, I focus on that to the exclusion of many other distractions. Not my family, though. They still come first. The only thing I miss about teaching is the kids. My high school freshmen kept me young and in touch. It was a joy to introduce them to the wider world.

What was the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I’m still learning and getting writing advice from a variety of sources – writers’ conferences, agents, editors, books on writing, my writers’ group. I can’t single out any one piece of advice, but I try to take it all to heart and sift it through my own experience.

What other writing projects do you have in the works?
The Johnstown Flood book, the quest book about traveling America’s Rivers, a book my dad wrote about his experiences in World War I that I’d like to edit and expand, maybe a story based on the life of one of my great-grandmothers, a woman for whom men were a great disappointment. The list could go on for some time. This is just a few.

For more information on Judith Redline Coopey and her writing, check out her Web site.
Interviewed by: Anne Greenawalt (


Unknown said...

How great to read an interview with someone who has transitioned successfully from one career to another!

It gives hope to many following a similar path!

The impetus to write about the Underground Railroad was exciting to read about.

PM_Poet Writer

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