Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Q&A with Gill Paul




Gill Paul is the author of the new historical novel The Manhattan Girls: A Novel of Dorothy Parker's Circle. Her other books include The Collector's Daughter. She lives in London.


Q: Why did you choose to focus on the writer Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) and three of her friends in your new novel?


A: I’ve been a Dorothy Parker fan since my teens. I can’t believe it’s a hundred years since she was quipping away at the Algonquin Round Table because her humor is still fresh and relevant today.


It was a male-dominated, misogynist environment and I always hoped that Dorothy had some close female friends in the 1920s, when she was fragile and needed them most. And then I read in Marion Meade’s excellent biography that she formed a bridge group with Jane Grant, Winifred Lenihan, and Peggy Leech.


Dorothy was the most famous of the four when the group started in 1921 but over the next few years they all achieved great things in their careers, and there was an interesting story to tell about each. How could I resist?


Q: How much did you know about each of the women before beginning the novel, and how did you research their lives?


A: I knew a fair bit about Dottie but not the others, and the research process was different for each of them.


There are several biographies of Dottie, and she is often mentioned in books on the period, while her short stories and poems are a wonderful window into the era.


Jane Grant wrote a memoir entitled Ross, the New Yorker and Me, which covered her background, the way she met her husband, and what happened in the years I cover in my novel. That was invaluable, as I could hear her no-nonsense Kansas voice coming across in the pages.


Peggy Leech wrote three novels in the 1920s and I managed to get hold of copies. She’s very insightful about human nature and relationships, and there’s a warmth about her writing that I loved, so that informed my portrait of her.


With Winifred, I knew only the bare facts of her life, and what I could glean from reviews of her performances on Broadway. I guessed from the surname that her family was Irish, and I talked to an actress friend about what might have motivated her to give up the limelight after her triumph in Saint Joan. So there’s a lot of guesswork in Winifred’s character, but it’s informed guessing that fits the facts.


Q: The author Liz Trenow said of the novel, “The story slips seamlessly between fact and fiction, evoking [the characters'] world so wonderfully...” What did you see as the right balance between fiction and history in the book?


A: My goal was to present a picture of the four women that felt emotionally authentic, so I selected events that seemed to illuminate their characters.


A lot of biographical information is left out, and I sometimes moved dates or invented scenes to fit the narrative, because writing historical fiction involves shoehorning facts into a novel structure with a beginning, middle and end.


All the dialogue and their thoughts are invented, of course. It’s my creative response to the four of them rather than a factual retelling but I hope it captures some truths about the real women.


Q: How would you describe the dynamics between these women and the men of the Algonquin circle?


A: When writing historical novels, it’s important to judge characters by the standards of their era, not the standards of ours – but even based on 1920s morality, I think the Algonquin men behaved badly. Charlie MacArthur and Bob Benchley were unrepentant serial womanizers and it’s hard to find anything positive to say about Alec Woollcott.


The difference between then and now is that the women accepted their behavior and didn’t call it out the way we would today.


Jane kept house for Harold, Hawley, and Alec, despite being a campaigner for women’s rights. Winifred would almost certainly have let theatre critics flirt with her, as in the scene where I have George Kaufman stroking her knee. And Dorothy put up with Charlie’s infidelities and Eddie’s abusiveness. Of the four, only Peggy challenged the men of their acquaintance.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve delivered another novel, which will come out in summer 2023. I won’t announce the subject until later this year, but it’s set in New York, Paris, and London in the 1920s and 1930s, and it’s about two indomitable, trailblazing women.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: There’s going to be a virtual launch for The Manhattan Girls on Aug. 17 at which I will be joined by Hazel Gaynor, Heather Webb, and Jenny Ashcroft to talk about all things 1920s. You can sign up for it here: https://us06web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_7UOb_8BRRke65WMJhBScHw

I tried to learn the Charleston for this launch and, if I can make the technology work, I will premiere the video of me dancing. If you miss it, it will pop up later on my Tiktok account GillPaulAuthor. Should give everyone a good laugh, since I am no dancer!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Gill Paul.

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