Sunday, September 13, 2015

Q&A with Jeanne Mackin

Jeanne Mackin is the author of the new historical novel A Lady of Good Family, which focuses on the life of landscape gardener Beatrix Jones Farrand. Mackin's other books include The Beautiful American and The Sweet By and By. She lives in upstate New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write a novel about Beatrix Jones Farrand?

A: Beatrix seemed to be at a fascinating intersection of so many things: the role of women, women's rights, the changing attitude of the new world towards the old, and of course, garden history. 

Mostly, though, her position as a lady of society, of means, who chose to become a member of the working class truly fascinated me. As a well-born woman of the Gilded Age, and a very beautiful lady at that, she could have chosen a life of ease and privilege. She did not. 

She studied hard, becoming one of the first American women to study botanical sciences and horticulture at a professional level, and she worked hard. As the most famous female gardener of the 19th and much of the 20th century, she “got dirty” as the saying goes, draining ditches, working the soil, helping to plant and maintain many of the gardens she designed.

I wanted to know what made her tick.  And for a novelist, that means lots of speculation mixing in with the known facts.

Q: The novel includes a mixture of real and fictional people. What did you see as the right combination of the real and the fictional?
A: In my historical fiction, this is one of the standards I use: the reader can't prove the story didn't happen as I wrote it. Beatrix was where I wrote she was, when I wrote she was there, in the company of the real people, her mother and aunt and the aunt's husband.

As for the fictional people, Daisy and Amerigo and the others, if they didn't exist, they easily could have.

The combination depends on this: there has to be enough real people for the novel to be truly historical and to intrigue people who would be interested in the particular historical era and events. 

The fictional people are the ones who fill in blank spaces and allow me to do what fictional writers (as opposed to biographers and historians) do: speculate. 

My personal choice so far has been to avoid writing historical fiction in which all the characters are invented. But that is my personal choice.

Q: What research did you do to recreate the time period you write about?

A: I love to read memoirs, collections of letters, diaries. Beatrix didn't write a memoir, but she did write many, many pages for various magazines about gardening, and she kept a travel journal.  

For this time period I also read back issues of Harper's, dating back to the 1850s, to get feel a feel for the times, for the language and culture. I reread most of Edith Wharton's work, as well as Henry James.

Q: How did you choose the novel's structure--someone telling a story about events that happened earlier?

A: The concept of the first-person unreliable narrator is a fiction technique that has always, always entranced me. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, A High Wind in Jamaica...some of my favorite books use this technique of a narrator writing as “I,” telling the story to the reader. 

It adds dimension to the story, because on top of everything else, the reader gets to wonder about how much the narrator actually knows, how much the narrator is inventing (invention on top of invention!) and how the narrator's world view affects the story. 

One reviewer found the narrator of A Lady of Good Family to be smug. It's not the word I would use, but Daisy has survived a husband with gambling problems, the birthing and raising of many children, the fall from great wealth into financial insecurity.

She grew up a little spoiled, more than a little privileged, yet she became an active campaigner for women's rights and the vote.  I think she earned the right to pat her own back a little bit.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Back to Paris, between the wars! My next novel is set in the world of Parisian fashion and is about the tense, almost fatal rivalry between two women fashion designers. The novel looks at the world, and the events leading to World War II, through the prism of fashion. 

I never thought I would write about fashion (I grew up as a tomboy and even now live mostly in jeans and t-shirts) but am coming to understand how very, very important and political fashion was, especially then. 

It wasn't, isn't, at all superficial. I mean, one of the dress styles designed during the war had many huge pockets so that women could grab necessities on their war to the bomb shelter. It doesn't get more basic, more serious, than that!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My perfect evening: a snowstorm outside, a log blazing in the fireplace, a glass of wine...and a great novel. Thank you to everybody now, and everyone who lived before, who made/make stories and fiction so wonderful. Keep reading!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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