Interlocking Lives

UWEC writing prof pens sweeping debut novel

Marie Anthony, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

ON THE RAIL WITH A TALE. Local writer and UW-Eau Claire creative writing professor Molly Patterson’s debut novel Rebellion takes place in China during the 1900s and the Boxer Rebellion.
ON THE RAIL WITH A TALE. Local writer and UW-Eau Claire creative writing professor Molly Patterson’s debut novel Rebellion takes place in China during the 1900s and the Boxer Rebellion.

She’s very different – the woman in the photo of faded navies and greys. She’s soft, yet strong, and elegant. She’s a far cry from the feisty woman I know. To me, she’s always been keener on denim and fishing caps than white, lace gowns and prefers carrying a hunting rifle to a handbag. She’s my grandmother. I love her dearly, but every time I catch a glimpse of her wedding photo, I realize that there are hidden facets to this woman that I have never known. I don’t really know her as well as I thought.

Perhaps that’s what intrigues me about Hazel, one of the key characters in Molly Patterson’s debut novel, Rebellion. “I didn’t really know much about my grandmother or what made her tick,” Patterson says. Hazel is a creation of who she imagines her grandmother was.

Hazel is one of four women (our main characters) in Rebellion. The core of the story takes place in China during the 1900s and the Boxer Rebellion (China’s revolt against European powers). During that time, many foreigners were killed, mostly missionaries. This is where Addie – a young missionary – is introduced. It’s her abduction and disappearance that form the heart of the novel. Then we meet Louisa (Addie’s sister and Hazel’s mother), and Juanlan; a young Chinese woman with a story of her own. The four women are linked together by blood and the threads of life. I think Michele Filgate, writer and contributing editor at Literary Hub, best captures the book when she says: “Rebellion is an epic, electric novel about the large and small ways defiance can transform a person.”

The words of Patterson’s novel flow so effortlessly. I assumed the writing process was just as smooth for Molly. But, she shares that, “Writing is a process of discovery.” She began writing with Addie’s character clearly in her mind, but after Addie came, there was a “silence.” Molly found herself not knowing who else was to come and what more would happen. Slowly, over the course of years, the others – Hazel, Louisa, and Juanlan – made themselves known. Patterson reveals that she “steals” mannerisms and settings as she creates, but “All of these worlds – in a way – are unfamiliar to me,” she says.

When she came from Washington, D.C., to Eau Claire to teach creative writing at UW-Eau Claire, Molly found nothing unfamiliar about the Midwest. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Carleton College in Minnesota, so she was used to the culture and the frigid winters. She did spend two years abroad, teaching English in China from 2004 to 2006. Molly confessed that her initial interest in Chinese developed out of a crush. “I started taking Chinese classes in college, I think, because a boy I liked was into it,” she shares. “But I fell in love with the language because it is so vastly different from the English language. As someone who loves language, I find that fascinating.”

Molly is drawn to China not only because of the language, but because it is ever changing. “China is a magnificent blend of cultures, and they’re very open to Western influences. Everything changes very quickly there,” she says.

China is also where Patterson began to write creatively. She’d always wanted to be a writer growing up, so she started writing short fiction. When she came back to the States, she got her Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, and she took a job waiting tables rather than one that would rob her of time with the pen. When she decided to write a novel, Molly had to train herself to be a different kind of writer. “I had to be less meticulous with my beginning drafts,” she tells me. “I just had to let myself write and throw most of it away as the story developed. There are entire chapters of Rebellion that didn’t make it into the book.”

Since Rebellion’s release, Molly has dedicated much of her time to marketing and publicity. She’s currently working on essays and blog posts that showcase her book. “The publishing process is strange,” Molly says. “There’s so much of it beyond my control. You also have to do the hard work (of marketing your book), and sometimes – even with hard work – the good may not always follow.”

Over the past 14 months, Molly has had time to work on her next book, which she says will be a work of historical fiction (like Rebellion), but – structurally – will be very different. She’d like to keep pushing herself to do different things through her writing and publish every five to seven years. “I’ll never be one of those authors who publish yearly,” she admits. “It’s important to me that I publish a few really good books that I stand behind.”

I feel honored to have met Molly Patterson. It’s exceedingly rare that a story grabs me within the first few chapters. Molly was able to capture me in her first 17 words. I knew then that I wanted to share this book with as many people as I could; in the best way that I could. I’ve spent hours trying to find the right way to describe this novel, but I can’t do it. There are some things that cannot be adequately described. You simply have to experience them.

Molly Patterson’s novel, Rebellion, was published by HarperCollins in early August. It is available at major online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.