Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Q&A with Julie Gerstenblatt




Julie Gerstenblatt is the author of the new historical novel Daughters of Nantucket. A former middle school English teacher, she lives in Rhode Island.


Q: What inspired you to focus on Nantucket's Great Fire of 1846 in your new novel?


A: My family and I have been going to Nantucket since the summer of 1978, when I was 8 years old. It's absolutely my favorite place on earth.


I consider myself a bit of an expert, therefore, about where to stay when you visit, what to do, and where to get the best lobster roll...but I didn't know anything about the Great Fire of 1846 until I read about it in Nathaniel Philbrick's history of Nantucket called Away Off Shore


He writes two paragraphs about the fire, and that's it. But it was enough to fire up my imagination, so to speak, and make me want to know more. So that's where my research began, in the fall of 2018, and I knew that, whatever else I came up with to surround it, the fire would be central to the story.


Also, on a side note, I've always been drawn to films with a central disaster, like Titanic and The Perfect Storm, because they have real-life drama and high stakes built in, but never really considered myself an action-adventure writer OR a writer of historical fiction, so this was all very new and exciting territory.


If you are going to spend several years writing a novel, you better love your premise - and with the Great Fire, I knew I had something juicy and interesting to sink my teeth into. It helped, also, that it's a little-known event that I could bring to life for others. 


Q: Your characters include both historical and fictional figures. What did you see as the best balance between history and fiction as you worked on the novel?


A: It's so hard to write about real people from history, because you want to honor their life and legacy but also you need them to feel like true, flawed, interesting humans in your fictional story.


Maria Mitchell (pronounced "Mariah") was a real person who actually lived on Nantucket with her family; my other main characters are fictitious.


And Maria has this legendary presence on Nantucket. Her influence on the island was - and still is - tremendous. Her portrait hangs in the front hall of the Nantucket Atheneum and there is a Maria Mitchell Association with archives, a museum, and an observatory in her name. She's an intimidating figure.


Because of this, I thought about using a false name for her, or making a character that was very-much-like-Maria-but-not-Maria, for fear of upsetting history and offending in some way the historians who preserve Maria's legacy and care about her being portrayed in a certain, fixed way.


But I decided to honor Maria in my own way, as novelists have done for centuries, by imagining how this person may have inhabited the world. I did a lot of research about Maria Mitchell and read a lot about her life.


But in the end, as I did with all of my research, I had to put aside the strict truth and let the story lead the way. I write fiction to entertain, and by setting that fiction in an historical time and place, I hope also to teach people a bit -- but entertainment is my first priority.


In the end, I love my version of Maria, and I love how she inhabits her world in the novel, interacting with fully fictitious folks.


Q: As noted, the novel is set on Nantucket--how important is setting in your writing?


A: Setting is really important, because the time and place help inform the characters' beliefs, actions, and everyday lives. There is a lot of world-building needed in historical fiction to really create that place and present it to a contemporary reader.


In many ways, downtown Nantucket looks a lot like it did in the 1840s in terms of street names, layout, and the general architectural plan and footprint, so it was really fun to drop my characters onto Main Street and know that, for anyone who has visited Nantucket over the last 30 or 40 years, they will instantly feel a connection to the setting.


Luckily, the town no longer smells like whale oil. And since my title is Daughters of Nantucket, with the setting right there in the title, there's a need to really make Nantucket in 1846 feel like a central character.


Q: The writer Nancy Thayer said that the book “Brings us Nantucket’s whaling days in compelling, breath-taking, life. Artfully weaves in modern issues and challenges in this gorgeously written novel, leaving us wiser and more optimistic for our own times.” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, I absolutely love it! Thank you, Nancy Thayer! As you probably know, Nancy has lived on Nantucket for many years and has written many wonderful novels set on the island. So her support of me and my debut novel is truly special.


Also, I really did hope that readers might see/think about connections to modern-day life in America as they read my novel, so I am happy that Nancy highlighted that theme in particular.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a second and then a third book in the "Nantucket" series. (And when I say "working on," I mean "thinking a lot about but not actually writing anything while I shop for dresses to wear on my book tour.")


These are stand-alone novels and they do not need to be read together or in order. However, the second book begins on Nantucket five years after the fire, and revolves around Eliza Macy’s best friend, Nell Starbuck.


Nell is about to embark on a global shopping spree via clipper ship with her merchant husband Peter and their 20-year-old daughter Winifred. Their travels take them to San Francisco at the height of the gold rush and then to China, where calamity ensues.


Several characters from book one will make an appearance - and one of my favorite characters from book one will play a pivotal role in this second tale.


The third book will tell the story of two sisters from Nantucket who go off on a European tour in the 1860s.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I just redid my website and I would love for readers to visit and check it out! In particular, there is a fun video of me giving a tour of downtown, and highlighting some of the places both real and imagined in the novel.


There are no spoilers, so you can watch it before you read the book to help get a sense of place (and meet me!) and then maybe view it again after you are done.


Fun fact: My son is studying film production at USC; I made him shoot and edit this film for me last summer while we were on our family vacation. I could never have made something that professional looking without his help.


Fun fact #2: While filming it, someone walking by told me that they loved my books....and I realized a bit too late that they thought I was Elin Hilderbrand.


I hope you enjoy Daughters of Nantucket!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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