Q: Why did you choose to focus on New York society figures Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt in your new historical novel?
A: When I began my preliminary research into New York’s Gilded Age, it was immediately apparent to me that the story had to be about Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. They just stood out as the key figures and their rivalry was just too good to resist.
They were complicated women whose values and preoccupations were deceptively frivolous, and I quickly discovered there was much more to these two than meets the eye.
Q: You write of your characters, "On the surface they came across as spoiled, entitled, greedy and superficial. If I wanted to engage the reader, I was going to have to really drill down to find the humanity in these people and find a reason for us to root for them." What did you do to find their humanity?
A: I need to give credit to my editor, Amanda Bergeron for this! She is a brilliant editor with spot-on instincts and the patients of a saint. She really worked with me to keep going deeper and deeper to pull the most that I could from these characters and make them relatable.
I started to think of Caroline Astor as a CEO of a big, powerful corporation which was how she ran society. It was all business for her, the business of exclusivity.
For Alva, we really focused on her childhood, her relationship with her sisters and tried to get to the heart of what made her so headstrong and such a formidable woman.
Q: Do you think there are figures today who compare with Mrs. Astor and Mrs. Vanderbilt?
A: That’s a tough question to answer. We have so many wonderful role models today, especially when it comes to politics. But Mrs. Astor and Alva operated in a completely different arena and frankly, they weren’t always what I’d call positive role models. So, I don’t think you can’t compare someone like Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams to Caroline and Alva.
We have to remember that back in the 1800s, society was all women had. They couldn’t hold jobs, own property, work outside their home or even vote, let alone hold public office. Society was the only place where women like Caroline and Alva could exercise their independence and flex their muscle.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
A: I really hope that readers will be able to escape into the pages of history and experience a glimpse of the opulence and hilarious absurdity of the Gilded Age. I think we could all use a break from reality so I hope this book provides that for readers.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I’m working on a novel about the cosmetic icon Estee Lauder. She was a fascinating and very complicated woman. I’m having a great time with her story. It will be out in 2023.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’ve recently discovered audio books! At the start of the pandemic, I found it next to impossible to sit still, quiet my mind and read. Someone suggested I tried listening to an audio book and I’ve been hooked ever since. If you haven’t tried Libro.Fm yet, I highly recommend them for your audio books. It’s a great way to support indie bookstores!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Ren