Q: How did you come up with the idea for Under a Gilded Moon?
A: I’ve loved the region where it’s set, the Blue Ridge Mountains, all my life, and although I grew up in the mountains of East Tennessee, I spent many summers in North Carolina. So Under a Gilded Moon got a seed of its start in all those days hiking and tubing and camping in the Blue Ridge.
Also, I was one of the hordes of Downton Abbey fans who mourned when the series came to an end, so in the spirit of that sage advice to writers from Toni Morrison to “write what you want to read,” I was intrigued with the idea of combining the two: extraordinary Gilded Age wealth arriving in stunning but badly depleted Southern Appalachian natural beauty.
But I didn’t want to write just about the uber-wealthy arriving from New York and Boston at Biltmore. I was equally interested in the Appalachian people, and the tensions between the two groups. I so appreciated what fellow writer Fiona Davis said of this book, that it’s “Crawdads meet Crawleys.” With all the intrigue of that clash.
Q: The novel's settings include the Biltmore mansion in Asheville, North Carolina. How important is setting to you in your writing?
A: The Biltmore Estate is absolutely central to the story—and that seems to be a pattern with me, since for my last novel, A Tangled Mercy, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, was at the heart of everything.
If I had to pick a key moment when setting a story at Biltmore began brewing somewhere in the back of my brain, I’d have to name two, and they happened years apart.
One was when I was in my early 20s. I was in graduate school and working one summer near Asheville for Camp Rockmont for Boys in Black Mountain as Head Sailing Instructor on Lake Eden—there’s a job title for you, right?
Truly, I’ve had plenty of ugly, back-breaking grunt-work positions in my life, including lugging heavy pans of deep-dish pizza and pitchers of beer to tipsy middle-aged men who flirt but don’t tip, but this was one of those summer jobs when I secretly wondered every day why they paid me. (I think I can safely admit that now all these years and three kids of my own later without fear they’ll ask for their money back.)
But the son of the camp’s owner was my age and was dating a woman, also my age, who graciously invited all of us who were the camp’s Skill Heads—in my case meaning I knew at least one lesson’s worth more of sailing than the average 10-year-old—to come have pizza at her house.
Cool, I thought. Because I was up for any meal where I didn’t have to compete with a table of always-ravenous adolescent boys just to get a chicken leg of my own.
This was an era in my life when every single thing I owned fit into my 1979 Mercury Zephyr, which my grandfather had dented in all four corners before I bought the car from him for $900, all the money I had.
I think I showed up for pizza that night driving that battered Zephyr, and wearing my standard cut off shorts, also battered and worse for the wear, and me still a little sweaty and a lot sunburned from a day on the lake with fish and algae and unshowered boys.
Not one thing about me was what you would call groomed for a dinner party. Much less dinner at Biltmore Estate. Which is where it turned out we were going.
Because my boss’s son’s girlfriend turned out to be one of two heirs, along with her brother, to the Cecil family. Which meant that one day she would inherit—and here’s where I dropped my Diet Coke—the Biltmore.
It can be hard to chew pizza, I learned, when your jaw has dropped to your chin.
The girlfriend was Dini Cecil and she was as gracious, unassuming and down to earth as I was dumbfounded, sweaty, and sunburned. I couldn’t tell you where on the estate we were: only that I sat slack-jawed looking through a plate-glass window through the back of her house across the fields: a spectacular view of America’s largest private residence in all its French Renaissance, 250-room glory.
Sitting there gawking and watching Dini welcome all of us, her hospitality authentic and kind, despite what had to be our awkwardness—and my smelling strongly of lake water--made me wonder about the man, her ancestor, who’d wanted to build such a house in the 1890s. I knew this much: owner of a rattling ’79 Zephyr or not, I shared his taste for the spot in all the world that he’d picked.
Despite my ratty cut-off shorts and my hair still damp with fish fertilizer, I was identifying in that moment with George Vanderbilt, and why he’d built where he’d built.
The second moment that set this plot in motion was many years later. I was visiting the Biltmore Estate just as a normal paying guest. I’d purchased an extra ticket to see not just the house, but also some of the more obscure parts of the now 8,000 acres (once 125,000 of them).
I took notes that day only because I remember absolutely nothing that I simply hear but do not write down. (Honestly, it’s like my brain sluffs off all information until I have a pen in my hand.)
The tour guide was one of those lovely souls who goes above and beyond, just out of personal interest. He happened to mention that even after most of the land for the estate had been acquired through George’s agent (to keep locals from knowing too early that a Vanderbilt was involved), there were a couple of farmers who held out far beyond the others.
Money was no motivator for these folks—they simply wanted to hold on to their land.
Now, I grew up in East Tennessee, as I mentioned, and while most of our town was middle-class suburbia, the far side of our mountain was inhabited by proud, fiercely independent mountain folk who’d been there for generations, who still tended moonshine stills, had a gun at the ready to deal with trespassers, and mistrusted much of what “civilization” had brought to the region.
I felt like I’d personally known, and gone to middle school with, the type of folks who’d have turned down all George Vanderbilt’s money—and maybe turned a shotgun muzzle on him in the process.
So I think in that moment on the tour, I was identifying with the mountain people. Their pride. Their ferocious determination that wouldn’t allow those with wealth simply to show up, take over the land and call all the shots.
Q: What did you see as the right blend of the fictional and the historical as you worked on the book?
A: Great question. I think you have to feel your way with each historical novel. For me, the actual historical events and people give bones to the story that become its skeleton.
So, for example, even though many of the main characters are fictional, the spirit of the times and the events are straight from history—and often history that is little known, like the lynchings of Italians in New Orleans or the beginnings of the American eugenics movement and its role in ultimately aiding the Third Reich.
When you can write about anything and anyone in the world, that can be just too overwhelming. Starting with an actual place, some actual people, some real events…that keeps you grounded in reality.
Your imagination still gets to play with ideas of What If this person from New York society actually met that one, and What If they both ended up in the same place, and What If one of them would stop at nothing to lead American society toward his own chilling vision for it?
So often truth really is stranger, as they say, than fiction. Honestly, the discipline of working within the bounds of history, what actually happened, what people were actually obsessing about, how people actually behaved, can be constricting and freeing both.
For example, one villain I’d love to have killed off couldn’t die because in real life he lived on and wrote a book that actually influenced Adolf Hitler. But not being able to kill him off as I might’ve liked was probably more true to life. Bad guys in the real world don’t always get their comeuppance exactly when we’d like them to. Sometimes they come back to wreak more havoc before they’re finally seen for what they are.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: In the midst of such a stressful time all over the world right now as we navigate the pandemic, I hope for one thing that the novel is an escape—in the best and least brainless sense of that word—into the mystery of the story and the beauty of the mountains.
I hope readers can travel to a gorgeous part of the world during a pivotal time in history and get lost for a while both in the grandeur of an American castle, but also admire the ingenuity of a banjo made from a gourd and puzzle over who killed the kind and gentle journalist.
I also hope readers are as struck as I was by the parallels between the 1890s and our cultural conversations and tensions today, whether on race or income inequality or women’s empowerment or education.
It can be instructive when, rather than listen to one more political debate or argue with a relative on social media, we can sit back, enter into an earlier era, and be reminded that these struggles and tensions are not new—and learn from what our predecessors did well and generously—or not.
Bottom line, though: although there are history lessons here for all of us, and lessons on how to make boot laces from squirrel or what to serve in seven courses at a table for 40 (just in case any of those needs come up in your life), I hope the novel is mainly a fun and intriguing journey. Especially in this time of limited travel.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Ah, thanks for asking! I’ve wanted to try my hand at a series, and I wanted it to be in a coastal setting with elements of mystery and suspense, but also just the fun and the depth of the interplay of a small town and the loves and betrayals and secrets and dreams of a group of characters over time.
I adore the novels of Louise Penny and their setting in rural Quebec. I wanted that same distinct sense of four seasons. So I toyed with a number of Southern coastal towns I love, but ended up with a fictional town based loosely on Kennebunkport, Maine, one of my favorite New England towns. My husband and I lived for years in Boston, and got up north to “Down East” Maine every chance we could.
Similar to the Maisie Dobbs novels, there’s a strong female protagonist at the heart of the stories, but this one, Amie Stilwell, discovers what she needs to know by listening well—and, of course, nosing about—and through her love of books and art.
The first one begins in 1950, just as nations are still recovering from World War II, but before the revolutions of the 1960s. I’m reading a number of books right now on the ‘50s, including one by David Halberstam, and it’s a decade with such important cultural tensions and struggles and growth—as well as, of course, great music, volatile politics, and really gorgeous cars.
The town itself I want to feel like coming home. I hope it will be a place and a group of characters that readers feel a part of, and want to come back to over and over.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Thank you for the invitation to chat! I love to hear from readers, and after years of doing my own website—which looked just as DIY as it was—my new webmistress has done a brilliant job of giving all sorts of historical and “behind the scenes” background to my books, as well as recipes and suggestions for book clubs—all credit to her.
So I’d invite readers and book clubs to take a journey through the beautiful work she’s done (joyjordanlake.com), or to contact me on social media any time. Anyone who loves books is generally, I’ve found, a fast friend just waiting to be met.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb