Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Q&A with Katherine A. Sherbrooke




Katherine A. Sherbrooke is the author of the new historical novel The Hidden Life of Aster Kelly. Her other books include Leaving Coy's Hill. She lives south of Boston.


Q: What inspired you to write The Hidden Life of Aster Kelly, and how did you create your characters Aster and Lissy?


A: My mother was a runway model in Hollywood in the 1940s and came home from California divorced and with a toddler—a scandal in those days. Despite moving in circles that included the likes of Cary Grant and Bob Hope, she refused to talk about that time in her life, insisting that she “preferred to think it didn’t exist,” which I found both frightening and endlessly intriguing.


What might have happened and why was she so burdened by it? I invented Aster Kelly and an entirely fictional story as one answer to that creative question.


As for Lissy, she is inspired by wondering what might have been for my eldest sister, Barbara—that little girl from California—had my mother not remarried and had another four children, of which I am the youngest. What if their life had been contained to just the two of them? Who might they have become?


But again, Lissy’s character and story are entirely fictional. I wanted Lissy to also work in a difficult industry that values fame and appearances above all else, sometimes even talent. I decided to make Lissy an aspiring Broadway star in the ’70s, eager to live up to her father’s famous legacy. 


Throughout the novel, both women grapple with the quest for personal authenticity in the face of cultural and sometimes self-imposed expectations.


Q: The writer Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg said of the book that it “delivers when it comes to the characters of Aster and Lissy, a mother and daughter entangled in a web of lies stemming only from the best of intentions.” What do you think of that description, and how would you describe the dynamic between the two?


A: First of all, making characters feel real is my number one goal as a novelist, so I’m grateful that Jeannie thinks I delivered on that!


As for the dynamic between them, I’m fascinated by mother-daughter relationships, particularly by the fact that the daughter, by definition, has little or no view into who her mother was before taking on the parental mantle.


Sure, stories are told, the child absorbs the offered narrative and then typically returns to worrying about her own little world. Her understanding of her mother gets safely tucked away in the small, safe stash of things that are considered constants in her world.

But perceptions are often askew with reality, which offers wonderful opportunities for misunderstandings, sometimes with grave consequences, even when both have good intentions. As for how that plays out for Aster and Lissy, they enjoy an enviably close relationship which makes the stakes very high when secrets from Aster’s past blindside them both.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I try to use primary sources as much as possible in my research. Old issues of Life magazine, as an example, were very helpful for details of everyday life in both timelines.


Lauren Bacall’s memoir, By Myself, provided a rich first-hand account of the goings on behind the scenes of old Hollywood, from the way studios operated to the constant dodge and weave between reality and what audiences wanted to believe about their favorite stars.


One thing I was surprised to learn was how common it was in those days for screen actors to be discovered on Broadway. Also, that movies back then were produced in rapid-fire succession. The studios each had a stable of actors under contract, and some of them starred in as many as six or seven films in one year.


For the ’70s Broadway portion of the story, I found a treasure-trove of details in a documentary called The Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened, about a failed Stephen Sondheim production in the early ’80s. Like Bacall’s memoir, it offered a very personal take on a world normally hidden from view.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Yes, and yes! I knew where Aster’s story was ultimately headed, but there were many changes to how she got there.


I didn’t start writing Lissy’s part of the story until I had completed a rough draft of Aster’s and was flying a bit blind as I felt my way into the complexity of her journey and where she would end up. But once Lissy became a fully formed character, it naturally drove changes for Aster. And when they began to interact with each other on the page, it illuminated for me how much even straightforward conversation with someone we love is laden with the past.


So, every section of dialogue I crafted between them inevitably forced me to tweak something from an earlier section of the book. It’s a wonderful, iterative puzzle, and perhaps my favorite part of the writing process. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a new novel in the works. It’s slow going, which tells me it needs more time to percolate. I have an intriguing premise, I but know less about how it ends than I’d like. I’ve been spending my mornings furiously scribbling in my notebook to try to figure that out.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Readers who also enjoy music and are sad to let a book they love leave their lives should know that there are two original songs on offer that were inspired by my book— “Stay with Me,” and “Resurrection”— both written and recorded by a wonderful up-and-coming musician, Madigan Linnane. Links to both songs will be available on my author website starting in April: www.kasherbrooke.com Come have a listen!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment