Saturday, November 5, 2022

Q&A with Hugh Brewster


Brewster and illustrator Laurie McGaw with a Lucile gown.



Hugh Brewster is the author of the middle grade picture book biography Unsinkable Lucile: How a Farm Girl Became the Queen of Fashion and Survived the Titanic. His other books include Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage. He lives in Toronto.


Q: What inspired you to write this picture book biography of the fashion designer Lucile?


A: I have a long history with books about the Titanic, starting with Robert Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic, which I edited and compiled in 1987.


Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon has always fascinated me as one of the ship’s most captivating characters. She also hails from my hometown of Guelph, Ontario, and in 2016 I guest curated a museum show about her life for the Guelph Civic Museum.


Laurie McGaw, an award-winning illustrator whom I’ve worked with on several books, now lives in Guelph. When she suggested to me that we should collaborate on another book, I said, “I know. Let’s do Lucile!”


Q: How did you research her life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Noted fashion historian Randy Bryan Bigham has been an invaluable historical advisor, and his book, Lucile: Her Life By Design, is a priceless resource. He carefully reviewed Laurie’s sketches and roughs for the book to ensure that they were accurate in every detail.


I never cease to be surprised at how innovative a figure Lucile was in the history of fashion, responsible for creating the world’s first fashion models and fashion shows, designing theater and movie costumes, and even branding a perfume –– well ahead of her time.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “Dubbed ‘Unsinkable’ by Brewster for the same reasons Molly Brown was—rising from relatively humble origins to stylish celebrity and then surviving the sinking of the Titanic—Lucy...not only became a celebrated belle epoque dressmaker in France, Great Britain, and the United States, but is credited with inventing both tinted undergarments to go with her filmier tea dresses and high-society gowns and also runway-style fashion shows with live models.” What do you think of that description, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: It’s a good summary and I’m always grateful for a positive review from Kirkus, who also hailed the book as “stylish and significant.” The title was chosen to make sure that Lucile was not confused with another famous red-haired icon, Lucille Ball. And, of course, Lucile truly was “unsinkable” in the way that she overcame so many daunting challenges in her life.


Q: What do you think Laurie McGaw's illustrations add to the book?


A: Laurie’s remarkable illustrations illuminate the story and make it engaging for readers of all ages. They are highly accurate yet bring an accessibility that period photos and drawings alone cannot do, though we have used them in a complementary way,


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m also a playwright and am workshopping a play called Splash Boys which I hope to have produced by a professional company. And I have several other scripts underway.


But I’m confident that I will return to writing books on historical themes before long. Finding the “story” in history is my motto and doing the research and then writing an appealing narrative is something that is deeply satisfying to me.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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