Monday, January 7, 2013

Q&A with novelist Nancy Horan

Nancy Horan
Nancy Horan is the author of the bestselling novel Loving Frank, which features the relationship between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Horan lives on an island in Puget Sound, but lived for many years in Oak Park, Illinois.

Q: How did you come upon Mamah's story, and why did you decide to write it as a novel rather than a biography?

A: I learned of the story while living in Oak Park, IL, which was where Frank Lloyd Wright lived with his wife and children, and opened his architectural practice. Among his clients were Mamah and Edwin Cheney, who had him design a house, which was built on East Avenue in Oak Park. At the time I began the book, I lived about five blocks south of that house, and had often walked past it. When I discovered the little-known chapter of Wright’s life that involved Mamah--they left their respective families to go away together to Europe, creating a huge newspaper scandal at the time--I became obsessed with telling that story.

Little was known about Mamah. I found fiction to be an appropriate way to explore the questions raised by their relationship and the choices they made.

Mamah Cheney
Q: The work-family dilemma was part of Mamah's life a century ago, and still factors into many women's lives today. What has changed since Mamah's time, and what do you think remains the same?

A: Obviously much has changed in terms of women’s opportunities since the early 20th century. Women today can realize their potential in ways that Mamah and her contemporaries only dreamed of. That said, we still struggle with where the right to “realize our personalities” ends and the rights and needs of our children begin.

Q: Loving Frank has become a huge bestseller. Did you expect that, and what is it about Mamah's story that has struck a chord with so many people?

Frank Lloyd Wright
A: When I wrote the book, I did not know if it would even get published, though I had high hopes. I wrote the story from Mamah’s point of view, choosing not to judge her but to tell it as she might have. This approach made some readers uncomfortable, but it sparked intense book club discussions, I’m happy to report. Mamah is a likable character, yet she did something that most women today find as unacceptable as they did then: she left her children for a lover. The difference between 1909 and today is that women can divorce much more easily now and without the same social stigma, they can retain custody or arrange joint custody, and so on. Readers tend to ask, What would I have done then?

Q: T.C. Boyle's novel The Women, published a couple of years after your book, also features Wright and Mamah, although he looks at a broader section of Wright's life than you do. Did you read his book, and if so, what did you think of it?

A: No, I didn’t read the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just completed a book, which will be published in September 2013. It is set in the 19th century and explores the lives and relationship of two extraordinary people. I’m excited about it.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Soon enough I will be tweeting. That seems to be part of the book tour experience these days.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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