Monday, July 1, 2013

Q&A with novelist Laura Moriarty

Laura Moriarty, photo by Tracy Rasmussen, Insight Photograph
Laura Moriarty is the author of four novels, The Center of Everything, The Rest of Her Life, While I'm Falling, and, most recently, The Chaperone, a novel featuring the famed 1920s-30s actress Louise Brooks. Moriarty is a professor of creative writing at the University of Kansas; she lives in Lawrence, Kan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of writing a novel based on the life of Louise Brooks, and what was the inspiration for the character of Cora?
A: I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a nonfiction book called Flapper by Joshua Zeitz. After a fascinating introduction, the book is divided into chapters devoted to famous flappers: Zelda Fitzgerald, Clara Bow, etc.

I was pretty hooked by the time I got to the chapter on Louise Brooks. Zeitz wrote that out of all the flappers, she was the most rebellious. She was smart, cultured, talented, self-destructive, funny, and also not always very nice. She was incredibly beautiful, of course, and she was born in Kansas. She grew up not far from where I live now.

When she was 15, in the summer of 1922, she left Wichita to spend the summer in New York City in the company of a chaperone, a 36-year-old housewife who was not her mother. There's little to nothing written about this chaperone - at the end of the summer, she went home to Wichita while Louise catapulted to fame - and that gave me the opportunity to invent a character and tell the story about two very different women in a new environment at a really interesting moment in history.  

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Cora and Louise?

A: Despite Cora's good intentions, it gets antagonistic pretty quickly. In Louise's memoirs, she said she "tolerated [her chaperone's] provincialism because they shared a love of theater," so I used that as a jumping-off point.

I wouldn't say they ever become friends, but Cora isn't as provincial as she seems, and I think both she and Louise are surprised by Cora's compassion one bleak morning in New York. That morning affects Cora more profoundly than Louise, but it makes an impression, however brief, on Louise as well.

Q: Why did you decide to continue the story beyond the summer that Cora served as Louise's chaperone?

A: A number of reasons. I was fascinated by the idea of a character living so long and witnessing all the changes - technological and cultural - of the last century. Also, I really wanted to acknowledge how strong Louise was as an old woman; it didn't seem fair to leave her in the misery of her sad middle age when she had this amazing second act, and that inspired me to want to give one to Cora as well.

Also, if you've read the book, you know Cora's situation back in Wichita seems a bit fragile. I don't think I could have just ended it there and implied 'they lived happily ever after.' I had to see it, write it, to believe it, and I think the reader will too.  Most of my favorite parts of the book are in the third part, after New York.

Q: What did you think of Louise Brooks's autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood?

A: I thought it was brilliant. I love that she wrote it as an old woman. After living that life, after everything that had happened to her, finally writing that and finding that success with her intellect and wit was like a phoenix rising from the flame. She was still sharp and funny, but she seemed a bit more merciful by then, softened a bit.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Honestly, I'm not sure. It'll come.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Elizabeth McGovern has optioned The Chaperone, and Julian Fellowes is writing the screenplay.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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