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Cindy Rankin, author of "Under the Ashes"

The Open Book

Cindy Rankin, author of "Under the Ashes"

Stephen H. Provost

Cindy Rankin sat down to answer questions about her historical novel "Under the Ashes," which focuses on an 11-year-old girl caught in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. "Under the Ashes," released in November 2016 by Albert Whitman & Company, has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, both from review publications and on Amazon, where it has received a 95 percent 5-star rating as of this writing.

The Author

Name, age and occupation:  Cindy Rankin, 67 years old, author. Formerly worked as a freelance newspaper/magazine writer and a substitute teacher.

Where and with whom do you live?  Paso Robles, California (for the past 30 years) with my husband of 43 years, Curt Rankin.

If you could co-write a book with any author, living or dead, whom would you choose?  Ernest Hemingway and Harper Lee leap to mind because their work had a profound impact on me, but co-writing with either of them would be daunting, so I choose Dodie Smith. She became famous for The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but it was her first novel, I Capture the Castle, that continues to fascinate and delight me. I’ve reread it each decade since I was a teen. Working with a multi-talented, entertaining author would be enlightening and fun.

Why do you write? Because I’m curious and have a big imagination. Mostly I can’t stop wondering about things I’m interested in, and asking why and what if questions. I began writing stories in fourth grade. And I was a middle school newspaper reporter who loved to interview people. I worked as a freelance journalist for many years, but fiction has my heart now. I like to begin a story with a character facing a dilemma, then I can’t wait to write and figure out what happens next.

Where do you write? I used to hide in the spare bedroom/office when our children were young. Now they’re grown and I use a laptop so I can write anywhere I want. That’s empowering.

What imaginary land would you choose as your home, and why? The Hobbit’s Shire in Middle-earth. J.R.R. Tolkien created a beautiful, happy, fruitful place. Who wouldn’t want to live there? The neat thing, is we fortunate residents of the Central Coast live in a beautiful, fruitful place. I’m grateful every day to live here.

What do you collect? Postcards. I have a large tin full of postcards from faraway places sent by family and friends. Sometimes I even send them to myself to record a memory of a special place.

Your superhero alter-ego: Wonder Woman.

Historical period you’d like to visit: 1938 to 1948, USA, because I’d like to experience the decade my parents came of age.

Favorite board, card or video game: Clue.

Littlebeth’s resilience and strong, memorable voice make this a vivid account of grace under fire.
— Publishers Weekly, October 3, 2016

The Book

Title, genre and length? Under the Ashes is historical fiction, 232 pages. It’s classified as a middle-grade novel for ages nine to twelve. Yet, I’ve heard from adults as well as children  how this story of a youngster overcoming adversity connects with them so now I say it’s for readers from 9 to 90.

When and where does it take place? The book begins April 8, 1906, in Paso Robles. The feisty eleven-year-old-narrator is being punished for cowgirl antics and derring-do. Eight days later, her family puts her on a train to San Francisco to be refined into a "proper young lady" by her maiden aunt just two days before the Great Quake strikes the city.

How did you come up with the title? After San Francisco’s massive 1906 earthquake, fires immediately sparked and raged for three days. The elite and poor alike were covered with ashes from the inferno. Everyone, regardless of wealth, religion, or nationality, struggled to survive the catastrophe. The young heroine realizes societal differences aren’t important. It’s what’s inside people’s hearts that matter most. She also discovers even under the ashes hope exits for a new beginning.

What inspired you to write it? This book began as a short story over twenty years ago for an anthology from this area. My spirited young heroine, rooted in local history, struck a chord with writer-friends who encouraged me to expand the story into a novel. The narrator and her family remained the same, however the story changed completely. It evolved over years of research and revision. Our own tragic earthquake in Paso Robles on December 22, 2003, when lives were lost and property damaged, gave me a visceral understanding of the fearful impact San Francisco’s 1906 temblor must have had on people there. That deadliest earthquake in U.S. history left more than half the city’s population homeless. I couldn’t help but wonder what if a bold girl from my small hometown found herself in the middle of that calamity.

Is there a sequel in the works? No, because I’m currently working on a contemporary middle-grade novel about the unusual way a boy copes with his father’s deployment to war. Yet, I’m thinking there may be more to explore in the life of my heroine in Under the Ashes. A sequel isn’t out of the question.          

Where, how can you get it? Under the Ashes is available at bookstores, and online booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com.

Describe your book in one word that most people don’t normally use. Boldacious. (Merriam-Webster definition: dialectal, British: brazen, impudent.)

To whom did you dedicate it and why? I dedicated Under the Ashes to my daughter Kate because her self-confidence, intelligence, and strong will as a child amazed me. She definitely inspired the creation of my protagonist. Kate taught me it’s okay to be proud of yourself, a lesson I needed to learn.

An intriguing cast of secondary characters ― including her Presbyterian aunt’s Jewish beau, the opera star Enrico Caruso, and a newly immigrated young Chinese girl ― add diversity to the cast.
— Kirkus Reviews

The Hero

Name, age and occupation: Elizabeth “Littlebeth” Morgan, eleven-years-old, adventurous spirit.

Where and with whom does he/she live? Paso Robles, California, circa 1906, with her Papa, Mama, and little brother Joey. Grandma, a tough old bird, lives around the corner.

Who would play your protagonist in a movie? I envision a combination of a young Jodie Foster and Drew Barrymore.

What real-life person would be your protagonist’s hero, mentor or role model? Martha Jane Canary (Calamity Jane).

What’s his or her celebrity crush? President Teddy Roosevelt .

What’s her biggest fear/phobia? Losing the people she cares about.

What’s his/her favorite quote or motto? “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” —Theodore Roosevelt.

Weapon of choice: intellect.

At the beginning of the book, our hero is …  frustrated that saving her little brother from a rattlesnake did not restore her to the good graces of her family.

Worst habit? Braggadocios.

Best feature? Ingenious.

Incorporates historical cultural references and vivid accounts of the devastating quake and its aftermath…fans of historical fiction will find plenty to like.
— Booklist, November 15, 2016