Monday, June 3, 2024

Q&A with Mariah Fredericks




Mariah Fredericks is the author of the new novel The Wharton Plot, which focuses on the writer Edith Wharton. Fredericks' other books include The Lindbergh Nanny. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write The Wharton Plot, and why did you decide to focus on novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937)?


A: I was originally fascinated by the murder of the novelist David Graham Phillips. He was shot on January 23, 1911, and the killing led to statewide legislation that a permit was required for any weapon small enough to be concealed. That law was eventually used to convict subway shooter Bernie Goetz.


The murder seemed very evocative of the end of the Gilded Age, which made me think of Gilded Age New York’s greatest chronicler, Edith Wharton. And when I saw that she was not only in the city around the time of the murder but she was having a personal crisis which required her to break with much of her past, it seemed an ideal pairing.


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


A: This is the story of two writers, three if you count Henry James, who has a supporting role.


I read the relevant novels for Wharton and for David Graham Phillips, the murder victim. I read the major bios for both—Phillips has two—focusing heavily on the time of the murder and just before. Wharton’s letters were very useful. Newspaper accounts of the murder gave me the writings of the murderer—also very useful.


I had never realized that Wharton went through such a major personal crisis. In the span of a few years, she leaves her husband, her publisher, and her country—all around the time she turns 50.


These would be bold moves at any stage of life, but that she refused to settle for an unhappy, unsatisfied middle age, I find very inspiring.


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


A: I had to fictionalize one key aspect of the murder; originally the killer committed suicide directly afterwards. Well, that’s not going to work for a mystery.


Obviously, with Edith Wharton as your detective, you’re in the realm of fiction. But the events of both writers’ lives, the tone of their work, the details of their worldviews—there, I tried to be as accurate as possible.


The Wallings’s marital problems, the failure of Henry James’s recent book, the connection between Senator De Pew and the Vanderbilts, Edith’s affair is all real. Almost everyone in the book is a real person.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book said, “Fredericks' elegantly written narrative gives a lively look at an author way ahead of her time.” What do you think of that description?


A: Elegant is certainly nice for a novel about Edith Wharton. I’m not enough of a scholar to say whether artistically, Wharton was way ahead of her time. To me, her genius is how accurately and insightfully she depicts her time, especially the private, emotional landscape.


As a person, she insisted on a level of independence and influence that was unheard of for most women of her day. Part of that is her wealth and status. But she also had incredible drive, a will to do and create, and the intellect to back it all up.


She was an exceptionally gifted, strong-willed, and highly disciplined person. In her insistence on living to her fullest potential, she is very modern.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a novel about the 1920 murder of bridge expert and womanizer Joseph Elwell, who was found shot through the head in his New York townhouse. All the doors and windows were locked and S.S. Van Dyne used the case as inspiration for his Philo Vance locked room mystery.


The reporter who solves the case, Morris Markey, was also found in his home, shot through the head, shortly after writing about Elwell. And his sleuthing partner, Zelda Fitzgerald, also died in a locked room. So it’s a locked room mystery that explores the traps of celebrity, addiction, and regret.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My son is a foot taller than I am, my French bulldog is much shorter, and I have a lot of books.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mariah Fredericks.

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