Monday, October 6, 2014

Q&A with author Laurie Loewenstein

Laurie Loewenstein is the author of the novel Unmentionables, which takes place in Illinois and France during World War I. A fifth-generation Midwesterner, she is now based in Laurel, Maryland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Unmentionables, and for your characters Marian, Helen and Deuce?

A: Incidents in the lives of Theodore Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding, two men who could not be more different, rolled around in my mind for several years as I developed what became Unmentionables. 

Reading The River of Doubt by Candice Millard, I was struck by the possibility of Roosevelt’s shouldering the blame for the death of his son, Quentin, in World War I. Roosevelt’s strident pro-war sentiment influenced his youngest son to join up. It is possible that remorse about Quentin contributed to Roosevelt’s own death, only six months later, at age 60.

I was compelled to explore what happens when zealots must later contend with the consequences of their words. Marian, the outspoken dress reform advocate and protagonist in Unmentionables, grew from this seed.

Re-reading Francis Russell’s biography of Harding, The Shadow of Blooming Grove, opened another path for me -- how generational history, distorted by time and memory and which may or may not be true, continues to impact family members many generations later.

In the case of the Harding family, persistent rumors that they were of mixed race began when Harding’s great-great-grandfather caught a neighboring homesteader raiding his corncrib and ran the man off. In retaliation, the neighbor circulated rumors that the Hardings were of mixed race.

Russell wrote, “Later generations [of Hardings] would not be able to say for certain whether the rumor was true or false but its shadow would darken their lives and follow them to their graves … To be ‘part nigger’ in Blooming Grove meant to be flawed, meant to never to be wholly admitted or admissible to the herd. … and it left an ineradicable mark on [Harding].” My character, Deuce, is modeled, in part, on Harding.

Coming of age in the early 1970s, women and men of my generation grappled with changing attitudes about women, our identities, and our opportunities.

So, too, does Helen, a young woman of 1917, who experiences the early freedoms of female dress reform and education in a country that is on the cusp of granting women the right to vote. When she is hired as one of the first female streetcar conductors in Chicago, she struggles with the double-edged sword of wider opportunities and resentment from the old guard. Helen, in part, reflects my own experiences.

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate Illinois and France in 1917-18?
A: Decades ago, when I earned a master’s degree in history, all of my primary research was culled from long hours at the microfilm machines in the basement of the university library.

A significant amount of historical research these days can be done online with on digitized archives, including the Library of Congress’s American Memory. As I type this, I am listening to "Stars and Stripes Forever" performed for the gramophone by Imperial Marimba Band in 1917 and available on the site.

For the Illinois setting, I relied on newspapers, photographs, motion pictures and documents from the period as well as my own memories of visiting my maternal grandparents who were natives of Western Illinois. The town of the novel is based, in part, on my mother’s hometown of Macomb, Illinois.

When my protagonist goes to France to aid civilian refugees during World War I, I drew on a number of books, accounts and films about the war to recreate the setting. Of special help were the extensive digital archives of two relief organizations founded and staffed by American women: Anne Morgan’s Committee for Devastated France and the Smith College Relief Unit.

Q: Did you know how the book would end when you started writing, or did you change things around as you went along?
A: My method of plotting involves multiple sheets of tattered poster-sized newsprint covered with scribbles, erasures and crossings-out. That said, I did have an idea of how I wanted all the characters to end up -- the bulls-eye toward which I aimed my arrows – but did not always  know how I was going to get them there.

Q: How did you choose the book’s title?
A: Because Marian is a dress reform advocate rallying against the 25 pounds of clothing, mostly undergarments or, as they were sometimes called, “unmentionables,” that word came to mind.

In addition, as a fifth-generation Midwesterner, I have found that there are often incidents, relationships and attitudes that are known to everyone in small towns but are never acknowledged or mentioned outright. Unmentionables is ultimately a novel about the true nature of community.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another non-fiction book, this one The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, planted the seed for my current project, a novel set during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and involving a sheriff, his wife, a blind movie theater owner and a murder.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My writing has been deeply influenced by Midwestern writers, most particularly William Maxwell, Marilynne Robinson, Ray Bradbury, Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. A column written by Richard Longworth, a longtime editor and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, did a marvelous job, I think, of defining Midwestern literature.

He writes, “There's something almost mystical about most Midwestern writing today, as opposed to the sensuality of Southern literature or the realism of California. So much Midwestern literature, both by those who left and those who stayed, seems to be about a sort of Brigadoon, a place in our memory that we went to some trouble to escape but never really left, and now can't find again.”

He goes on to discuss Robinson’s novels, which, he says, are “hushed books, about vivid lives lived quietly. There is a powerful link between past and present in them: their Midwesterners know that what they plant in the spring will be harvested in the fall.”

As I struggled to write Unmentionables, my writing teacher, Kaylie Jones, urged me to step beyond my tendency toward “quiet writing.”  But perhaps it’s in my blood.

As Longworth states, “Like the Midwest itself, [Midwestern literature] is a subtle literature, not much given to high drama, about people who live quiet lives, seeking meaning as individuals in a landscape that goes to some effort to discourage individualism.” 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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