Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Q&A with Shelley Noble




Shelley Noble is the author of the new historical novel The Tiffany Girls. Her many other novels include Summer Island. She is a former professor, professional dancer, and choreographer, and she lives in New Jersey.


Q: What inspired you to write a historical novel about the women who worked for glass designer Louis Tiffany at the turn of the 20th century?


A: Actually it was serendipitous. I was researching early 20th century psychiatry and psychology for a Gilded Age mystery about a band of particularly murderous psychoanalysts, when a totally unrelated article about an art exhibit and book about the famous glass art of Louis C. Tiffany appeared in the feed.


Of course I clicked on it. How could I resist? And what I learned about the virtually anonymous women who created and made those famous lamps, windows, and all the other stained glass items, known as Tiffany Glass, compelled me to bring their story to new life.


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


A: Most of this book was researched and written during the pandemic. So the places I would normally visit, The Neustadt Collection at the Queen’s Museum, The Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida, the Driehaus in Chicago, or the Historical Society in Manhattan were out of reach.


Fortunately many of them have excellent websites, and with the New York Adventure club virtual classes, I was able to glean much about the life and times and work of these largely unrecognized women.


The first thing that surprised me was how many artisans it took to make a single lamp or stained glass window. Designers, copyists, glass selectors, cutters, metal workers. A large window could require thousands of hand cut pieces of glass.


In addition to the men’s departments, Tiffany employed an entire department of about 40 women, who were paid as well as their male counterparts. Though unlike the men, only single women were allowed to work for the company and would immediately be let go upon becoming engaged or married. This was standard practice in business at the time. Everything about their lives was fascinating.

Q: The novel includes historical and fictional characters--what did you see as the right balance?


A: I decided almost immediately that I would base the emotional, private story around fictional characters, the “girls.” The real characters, Tiffany, Clara Wolcott, Agnes, Alice, etc. would supplement as anchors, especially Tiffany as the driving force behind the work, and Clara Wolcott as creator of his iconic pieces and manager of the women’s division.


Q: How unusual were the "Tiffany girls" when it came to women in the workplace during that period?


A: An interesting question. The turn of the 20th century saw the rise of the “Modern Woman.” Young women began to see wider horizons, wanted higher education, careers.


At the same time there was a rise of new opportunities. Women looked outside the careers usually considered acceptable, teaching or nursing, and became sales girls, telephone girls, typists (though they were known as typewriters, or typewriter girls, at the time).


Though the Tiffany Girls, being artists and craftsmen, went even further to establish the new domains afforded to women. You might even say they broke the glass ceiling of their time.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on the story of Daisy Harriman and her fight to build the first women’s only club in Manhattan, a place for not only socializing but for education and social change.


The story centers around a young female architecture student and three very real people, Daisy, Elsie de Wolfe, a popular actress of the time, and Stanford White, the famous architect, who had to fight Victorian mores, and the male patriarchy of politics and pulpit to create a club of their own.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I, and my historical fiction colleagues, do a huge amount of research in order to present our stories in the most realistic terms. Sometimes we massage minor things a bit to fit into our timeline, which we try to explain in the author’s notes at the back of the book.


It is fiction, but I personally believe that the actual history should be an integral part of the character’s lives. It’s as important as any character and is possibly the most important character of all.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Shelley Noble.

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