Thursday, April 27, 2023

Q&A with Shana Abé




Shana Abé is the author of the new historical novel An American Beauty, which is based on the life of philanthropist Arabella Huntington (1851-1924). Abé's other novels include The Second Mrs. Astor. She lives in Colorado.


Q: You write that you initially learned of Arabella Huntington while visiting the Huntington Library, Museum and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena. What intrigued you about her?


A: Arabella was this dynamic, intelligent force of nature who managed to live an astonishing life, with an astonishing rise of fortune, while remaining more or less behind the scenes of the grand social machinations of the Gilded Age.


She was wed to not one, but two of the wealthiest and most powerful men in America, and the fact that those two men were uncle and nephew sort of boggles the mind.


I also thought it fascinating that for years she was openly the mistress of her first husband, Collis Huntington, before marrying him. High society never forgave her for that, but she didn’t care.


I think it’s always intriguing to discover a woman of independent power in history. Belle was certainly that.


Q: What did you see as the right balance between history and fiction as you wrote the book?


A: When writing historical fiction featuring actual people and the actual events of their lives, I think it’s important to adhere as best you can to what they really did, and what they were really like.


Belle worked hard to erase her past from public view, all the minutiae that would sketch out the details of her giant leap from obscurity, but there were still tantalizing clues left behind. And there’s no question that in her later years she was blackmailed by certain people over her history.


The events that take place in An American Beauty follow Belle’s true story as best as I could put the pieces together. Obviously, unless there are historical records (like letters, for instance) that have verbatim dialogue, the conversations are imagined. But even those follow the patterns of true events, and Belle’s known reactions to them.


Honestly, it’s a lot easier to create a character from scratch, allowing them to be wholly a creature of my imagination, than to painstakingly recreate someone like Arabella Huntington or Madeleine Astor (from The Second Mrs. Astor). But I do feel it’s my obligation to portray these women in the most honest way possible, and to remain as faithful as I can to their real-life stories.


Q: How did you research Arabella Huntington's life, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?


A: As I mentioned, Belle did her best to scrub her early years clean of absolute facts. She did an excellent job of it, too.


Looking into her history was so interesting because it became clear at once that not only was she a very skilled liar, she did it with charm and flair for pretty much all her days. She lied about her age, about where she was born, about how many husbands she had. She lied (probably) about the paternity of her son, and had absolutely no reservations about signing her name to these lies, under oath, when necessary.


She even instructed recipients of her personal letters to tear them up after reading them...which obviously not everyone did, as some letters still survive.


Her deceptions were so entrenched that after her death, her second husband had to write to her son to inquire about her true date of birth for the inscription on the mausoleum he was building for her.


Such cleverness and grit!


Q: As you mentioned, your previous book, The Second Mrs. Astor, focuses on Madeleine Force Astor. How would you compare the two women?


A: It’s a great juxtaposition, because both Madeleine and Belle ended up as Gilded Age wives of stupendously wealthy men, and then became stupendously wealthy themselves, but they got there by radically different means.


Madeleine’s upbringing was basically the opposite of Belle’s: she was a sheltered Manhattan debutante from a well-to-do, respectable family, and (up until the moment she met John Jacob Astor) she lived a golden life.


Belle, on the other hand, was born into poverty in the Deep South, and as a teenager survived the Civil War as the main breadwinner for her widowed mother and four siblings by working in an illegal gambling parlor.


Madeleine’s great test in life came via the Titanic, and the ferocious public scrutiny that plagued her both before the sinking and especially after. Belle’s great test was more anchored in her youth, in managing to keep her family safe and fed in dire times, and figuring out how to yank them all out of the misery of penury, by hook or by crook.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I wish I could tell you! All I can really say is it’s another historical fiction idea about a strong, fascinating woman.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Potato chips in sandwiches are delicious!


Seriously, though, check out my website,, for the latest info, FAQs, my bio, and to read excerpts from any of my books, including An American Beauty. Thank you!!!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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