Monday, May 13, 2013

Q&A with writer Johanna Moran

Johanna Moran
Johanna Moran is the author of the novel The Wives of Henry Oades, which is based on the possibly true story of a man in the 1890s who ends up on trial for bigamy. She lives on the west coast of Florida.

Q: You've written that your father first heard about the case of Henry Oades many years ago and tried to convince your mother to write about it, but she didn't have time, and then your mother eventually handed the idea on to you. What fascinated you about Henry's story, and how much of it turns out to be true?

A: I was immediately drawn into the lives of my protagonists. My mother said she would have had Margaret and Nancy going at it tooth and nail; but I envisioned something else entirely.

To start, I considered my own marriage. John is my first husband, but I'm his second wife. I felt I could wear both hats fairly. Each has a lawful and emotional stake.

How much is true? The three main characters come purely from my imagination. The dry abstract was just a jumping-off place. Though the story was published around the world, including in The New York Times, it very well may have been a hoax, written to demonstrate a loophole in the law. 

An historian in New Zealand wrote and said that the writing smacked of Mark Twain, who was a stringer with the L.A. Evening News at the time, the first newspaper to run the story. (The piece had no byline.) I'd like to believe it--the Mark Twain business, I mean, but who knows? It's an interesting twist in a story of twists.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to recreate New Zealand and California in the 1890s?

A: I started this novel a long time ago, before the Internet. So my research was done the old-fashioned way, in libraries. Too, I spent significant time in California and New Zealand, as well as England. I also got to pick the brains of my editors, one of whom grew up in Berkeley, the other, my U.K. editor, in New Zealand.

Q: You tell the story from the perspectives of Henry, Margaret, and Nancy. You've written that you feel more sympathy toward Margaret than toward Nancy. Is it your sense that most readers feel the same way, or not?

A: Many readers don't like Nancy. I was a little surprised at first, not that it hurt my feelings. I didn't set out to tell anyone how to think. I love the conversation this story generates. Happily, I'm often asked to sit in on book clubs via speakerphone or Skype. It's always enlightening, always fun.

Q: What does the story of Henry, Margaret, and Nancy say about the institution of marriage?

A: More than the institution of marriage, this novel speaks to the bonds between women. At critical points in the story, beginning with Margaret's miscarriage on the ship, women are on hand to solace, to grieve alongside. Early in the story, Margaret thinks to herself: "The small transactions between women, particularly mothers, cannot adequately be explained to a man. ....Some will bind women for life."

I tend to agree with her.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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