Q: What inspired the two of you to write The Fashion Orphans, and how did you create your characters Gabrielle and Lulu?
A: The Fashion Orphans grew from our long friendship—and a long-running conversation about women as they're portrayed in books and by publishing. We talked about how "women of a certain age" (like above 45!) needed more positive representation in novels—when they were on the page, it was often tales of the tragedy of facing life while older. (I say that with tongue firmly planted in cheek and an eye-roll!)
We found a small article about a growing trend in Japan of publishing romantic books about older women. We played with the idea for quite a while, thinking of the various ways we could approach this as a fun project together, and came up with a sister-com (playing on the growing rom-com genre).
Gabrielle and Lulu and The Fashion Orphans brought out our ability to play off and with the differences (and similarities) we have.
M.J. is Manhattan. She's inherited phenomenal taste and knowledge in the area of fashion, jewelry, and art. I'm Brooklyn, with a birthright of John's Bargain Stores and a total lack of schooling in art and literature, but a life-long fascination with family dynamics.
We brought both perspectives to Gabrielle and Lulu (who are half-sisters). Family legacy stories are of interest to both of us, though I concentrate on current-day dark domestic drama and M.J. works in the historical and magical realms.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on Coco Chanel in the book, and what do you see as her legacy today?
A: Even I, the fashion newbie, knew how iconic Chanel was and what a complicated history she had. The woman had to reinvent herself at least twice, most notably at the age of 70 when she returned to fashion after her exile (which came about from her WWII connections).
Chanel's late-life reinvention appealed to Bette, while her purported collaborations with Nazi Germany caused conflict with her daughters. Exploring this brought dramatic tension to the world of The Fashion Orphans.
Coco Chanel's late-life rebirth, her early obstacles, her grit and determination, side-by-side with her luscious designs, made her the perfect fashion person for our story.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between the two sisters and their mother, Bette?
A: How many ways can one parse the word complicated? Knotty?
Bette grew up working-class Jewish in Poughkeepsie, New York, but her heart yearned for an upper-crust Manhattan life. She marries a man who brings her everything—and she adores him—but he dies young, leaving her a tragically young widow with a daughter: Gabrielle.
Her second husband (from Brooklyn and far less monied than she believed) brings Lulu, her second daughter, and not much else. The marriage barely lasts past Lulu's toddler years.
Gabrielle is jealous that her sister has a father; Lulu seethes at how her mother holds Gabrielle's father on a mantle of sainthood.
Fashion, art, and beauty consume Bette. Her children either can't live up to her standards—or believe they don't. She can be chillingly hidden. When she dies, her daughters want to discover who she was—as well as how they grew up to be so different. All three of them yearn for a missing piece of their lives.
Q: How did you collaborate on the novel? What was your writing process like?
A: We'd already written a short nonfiction book (What to Do Before Your Book Launch), so we were (luckily!) confident about our ability to write together. We planned by phone via many sessions and emails and then had a marathon planning and outlining weekend in St. Louis (where we had a joint book event).
We wrote in layers—with one of us working on a chapter and then the other one rewriting it, rinse, repeat, and do it again. The method worked well, meshing our narrative voices and ensuring our strengths could shine.
And as this book had so many fun elements (vintage fashion, exploring Manhattan and Brooklyn—our home towns—jewelry, food, a bakery in Brooklyn where one sister works) the research came as a gift.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm deep into a novel that visits the time of the ‘60s and ‘70s (communes, politics, feminism) and brings the characters through the decades to the present.
I'm exploring the ways parents and their children experience the era so differently, especially when the parents decide to send their children from Boston to a commune in the Vermont countryside so they can grow up in a world of beauty and freedom. No surprise, trouble ensues.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope The Fashion Orphans will provide the sweet spot between escapist fun and the depth of a page-turning story—a pleasurable read!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Randy Susan Meyers.