Sunday, March 13, 2016

Catherine Quillman on Writing (and Interviewing Andew Wyeth)

Catherine Quillman is a well-known writer, artist, and reporter here in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I met her when we were both writing articles on local history for the Chester County Day newspaper. The former editor inadvertently assigned both of us to write an article on the oldest African-American Social Organization in the state. I’m glad that I yielded to Catherine’s expertise and stepped back so she could write it herself!

Catherine, I’m jealous that you got to interview the late, reclusive painter Andrew Wyeth – not once, but several times. Please, tell us about that experience.

Yes, interviewing Wyeth, or any of his associates such as the biographer, the late Richard Meryman, was definitely the combined highlight of my career at the Philadelphia Inquirer. I would have gladly written a year of obituaries for every encounter or interview I had with Wyeth. I consider him one of our greatest contemporary American painters, but on a personal level, I found him to be the closest I will ever get to a 19th-century painter.

Of course, he wasn’t born in that century but he lived a creative, close-to-nature life that many artists of that era embodied. I was sorry that Wyeth died just as I was researching my book, 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley. He influenced so many artists - it would have been thrilling to get his opinion on the regional art scene.

On the other hand, he might have told me to call his son – that’s Jamie Wyeth, the artist. Wyeth seemed to want to give the impression that he wasn’t an authority on anything beyond his art. That was very different from the 1960s, when Wyeth actually wrote letters to the Daily Local News about historic preservation (at the time, modish buildings with lots of glass were being proposed in West Chester).

I guess this is a long way of saying that Wyeth was difficult to interview mainly because he seemed to really value the opinion of others. He certainly didn’t act like a famous artist. I remember when Bob Williams, an Inquirer photographer, was trying to get Wyeth to pose outside the Brandywine River Museum and nothing looked right. Wyeth didn’t say anything, until Bob finally said something like, “Well, you’re the artist, where do you want to stand?” Wyeth immediately pointed to a nearby sycamore (one his favorite types of trees, btw). 

You and I have both published books with several different publishers. How do the different publishing houses compare?

I have published with several regional publishers that have gone out of business – really a
sign of the times considering printing costs and the diminishing number of independent
book stores. I’m in the process of working out a contract for my second book with
Schiffer Publishing. It’s also regional publisher. In fact, the owners seem to be proud of
their local Chester County roots. (The company headquarters is part of a former dairy
farm in Atglen, Pa. )

In terms of comparing publishers, I think Schiffer publishes an amazing number of books
– I mean hundreds of each quarter. But it’s still a considered a small, regional publisher,
which I believe are more receptive to new or unknown writers. Schiffer is especially
open to a nonfiction book idea if you present the subject as something you love and know

Several of your books are collaborations. How does that process work for you?  Do you write part of
a book, and your co-writer does another? Or do you re-write each other's work?

I don’t think I could ever write a large-scale book with another writer. I have too many solitary writing habits. I also suspect that the end product would be too much like a literary mash-up or sound over edited like a textbook written by HAL 9000. I exaggerate, of course. But I should point out that my co-writer, Sarah Wesley, and I received two grants from the Leeway Foundation that actually required a collaboration.

With our first book, Walking the East End, it made sense that Sarah would come up with the content or framework since she grew up in that neighborhood and began the research years before.

With short “popular” history books, I think the book’s cover and design is very
important. I joke about the NYT’s motto and say we write “all the news that will fit.” But
some of that is sort of true: I wrote sections and used Sarah’s material when the narrative
fit the context. There were times, too, that Sarah shaped my writing, based strictly on
research, since she knew all the personal stories that only a native would know.

You have a new book on Milford Mills. Tell us about that.

Thanks so much for asking! My answers so far remind me of that statement by Alfred
Conan Doyle (I think). To paraphrase, “I would have written a shorter letter if I had more
time.” To keep this short, the book’s title (and subtitle) is revealing: The Story Of
Milford Mills and the Marsh Creek Valley, Chester County, Pennsylvania. An historic account of early milling communities and a hamlet taken by eminent domain to build the Marsh Creek State Park and Reservoir

Speaking of regional interest, the book is so local, I decided to self-publish, I also
published an earlier version back in the 1980s and I now have what could be described as
a waiting list of readers. They have been waiting for decades for the second edition.

Let’s finish up with a process question: how to you write? Do you do it in the same time and place every day?

Great. I used to love to read old copies of The Paris Review mainly because they asked
such questions. For some reason, I never thought I had a process compared to writer
friends and acquaintances (some of whom have become fairly famous) – they live by their word count. Still, I believe that system works well with fiction writing (which I’m
not doing at the moment). But to answer your question: I generally keep a journalist’s
hours - getting started in late morning and letting my writing time be interrupted by
phone calls, etc.

I also believe in having multiple desks or work areas depending on what stage the writing
is in. I may work on my netbook, for instance, in a public space when writing a first
draft. (I like the background sounds - it reminds me of a newsroom.)

My latest habit is uploading my work to Google Drive and then reading it on my tablet.
I’m also an exhibiting artist, so I think seeing the words in a nice clean context makes the
errors stand out that much more. With my tablet, I can open the document in Kindle and
highlight areas that need further work.

Thanks for the interesting questions!

We’ll look forward to your next book. Thank you for your time, Catherine!

Catherine Quillman’s books are listed on her website.

Her Wyeth feature stories can be found here.

You can follow her at Facebook at Catherine C. Quillman, Twitter at

@catquillman, and her favorite social networking site Instagram at


You can purchase her books locally at The Chester County Book Co. and the museum shop of the Chester County Historical Society.

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