Saturday, July 20, 2019

Q&A with Victoria Shorr

Victoria Shorr is the author of the new book Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning. It focuses on Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Joan of Arc. She also has written the novel Backlands. She is the co-founder of the Archer School for Girls in California and the Pine Ridge Girls' School in South Dakota. She lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Midnight, and for linking these three women's lives?  

A: These stories came from three different times and places in my life.  

"Jane Austen at Midnight" came from first listening to Persuasion in my car in Los Angeles. I had read it when I was younger, but when I was younger, happy endings didn't strike me the way they do now. I thought happy endings were the way life worked--then. 

Now, I was moved to tears by the way that Jane Austen pulled everything together for Anne Elliot, righting all wrongs, serving out justice in the most satisfying way possible, and it occurred to me to wonder about her own life. This led me to her darkest hour, when she is essentially broke and homeless. This is the story I tell in Midnight.  

As for Mary Shelley, I was drawn to  her by the unsympathetic treatment she received in several otherwise very good biographies of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. As I read about the 16-year-old girl who was brave enough to run off with the married poet Shelley, I became first moved and then profoundly impressed by her courage and her passion—that passionate courage, that found its perfect expression in Frankenstein, written when she was just 18. 

This is what I seek to dramatize on the Italian terrace, six years later, as she sits waiting for Shelley's boat that may never come, conjuring the strength to confront all they had done together—only alone this time. 

The Joan of Arc segment was written 20 years ago, when after many years of studying primary sources and oft-told tales, I came upon a story that had never been told: of the last week of this young girl's life, when at age 19, she was forced to confront her own life without her saints, and summon a much more profound courage than had been called for even on the battlefield for France. She does it, step by step, as we watch horrified, in "Joan of Arc in Chains." 

Q: What similarities do you see among the three, and what do you see as their legacies today?  

A: The similarities as well as their legacies lie in the kind of private, women's courage they were able to muster, in the face of an unforgiving world. Isak Dinesen calls it “courage de luxe,”  and that's how I came to see it--the kind of unrewarded, unnoticed courage that women recognize from our daily lives.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?  

A: The Joan of Arc story, which required deep research over many years in the New York Public Library, was also the biggest surprise. Most of us, including me then, don't even know that she went to the stake twice. This is the story I felt I had to tell. The other research I did more perfunctorily, reading some of the standard texts, but bringing my own vision and life experience to them. I was, after all, in my 60s when I wrote the Jane Austen and Mary Shelley pieces. We bring quite a lot by then.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?  

A: An appreciation of these three as brave women who, yes, evinced uncommon courage, but the kind that I think the readers will recognize from their own lives. I will hope also that their lives may serve for inspiration. The stories are also a lot of fun!

Q: What are you working on now?  

A: A woman, who has just discovered her husband dead in his tennis clothes, drives up the coast of California, seeking a place to kill herself. This is a meditation about the last part of our lives, when the thrill is gone but obligations remain: does one kill oneself? Or do we continue to stand in the blizzard?
Also, a piece on the poet Elizabeth Bishop, about her life in Brazil, when she fell in love with a woman, and life opened up for her. I too lived in Brazil for many years, and have also written a book of short stories about expatriate life there.

Q: Anything else we should know?  

A: In my other life, I have been involved in founding two girls' schools—one the now-established Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles, and the other, the fledgling Pine Ridge Girls' School, on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. 

We are up the road from the site of the massacre of Wounded Knee, an iconic moment in our history, and we are seeking to redress some of the wrongs done there by educating and empowering a growing stream of young Lakota women in the first college-prep, independent girls' school on a Native reservation in America. 

It's funny—I had my first book, Backlands, about a Brazilian Bonnie and Clyde pair of bandits, published when I was in my early 60s. I had, as one can imagine, fallen in and out of despair many times over, as I faced the possibility that I would never be published, that my work would never quite make it, that, to quote one of the characters in my husband's screenplay, "I didn't get it and I never would." 

But the work itself always kept speaking to me, and I could always hear my heroes—Amelia Earhart, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, George Eliot—whispering, “Failure is impossible” (Earhart's line). So one keeps going, moving, one trusts, toward the light, and occasionally, one gets there. The important thing, as Jean Rhys so memorably put it, is “to feed the lake.”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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