Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Q&A with Susanne Dunlap



Susanne Dunlap is the author of the new historical novel The Adored One: A Novel of Lillian Lorraine & Florenz Ziegfeld. Her other books include the historical novel The Portraitist. She lives in Biddeford, Maine.


Q: What inspired you to write The Adored One?


A: That’s always such a hard question to answer! I think I stumbled on [actress and singer] Lillian Lorraine [1892-1955] when I was considering writing something about [theatrical producer] Florenz Ziegfeld [1869-1932]. She was someone I’d never heard of, and yet she played a really important role in Ziegfeld’s life.


Plus, the whole “me too” element—she was so young.


I had also written another novel that took place in early New York City, and I love that era and wanted to stay in it for a while.

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


A: I started with an actual biography of Lillian, written by a descendant of her companion. It was a great starting point, with tons of information. From there I did research into the people that were important to her, as would be logical.


What was so fun about this research was how many visual resources I could find. Not just photographs of Lillian, but the actual sheet music from the songs she sang, and pictures of the theaters and so on. And I could play the songs—which was a lot of fun.


There was a huge element of fashion, which I’ve always been interested in, and as a former advertising copywriter, I found the way Lillian was marketed absolutely fascinating!


What surprised me was how everyone assumed Lillian was an airhead, how her looks were thought to be her only “talent.” Yet there’s only so far you can get on looks alone, so I was curious about that.


In reading her biography, I teased out a theme of loyalty to her friends, and clinging to her sense of self. She was a very generous and forgiving person. 


The other things that surprised me were what happened on Broadway in the summer, before air conditioning, the rooftop theaters, and that so many people lived in hotels, not apartment buildings. 

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Lillian Lorraine and Florenz Ziegfeld?


A: He was smitten and wanted to own her, ambitious to be the source of her success. Ziegfeld was an artist, completely dedicated to creating his vision on a stage, and Lillian fit into that vision in a way that no other actress/singer did at that time.


In her turn, although she was somewhat naive, she was tough and worldly, having been made to grow up fast, and I think she knew what he was doing. She resisted it, maybe in some way tormenting him. I think they had a little bit of a love-hate relationship.

Q: The writer Mitchell James Kaplan said of the book, “Talented, beautiful, fiercely independent, flighty… there aren’t enough adjectives to describe the intensely sympathetic and heartbreakingly reckless Lillian Lorraine.” What do you think of that description?


A: LOL! I think it’s pretty accurate. Especially the part about “heartbreakingly reckless.” She did things she must have on some level realized were crazy, that she was shooting herself in the foot, but I think they arose from her desperate search for her own sense of self. She was so strong, so resilient, and yet at the same time weak.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve just started a new project that is a long way from being ready to go, because it has multiple timelines. It’s inspired in part by where I now live, in a converted textile mill.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: No matter how many books you’ve written and published, it never gets easier! It also never loses its thrill. 


And I hope readers come to love Lillian the way I did.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Susanne Dunlap.

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