Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Mary Sharratt

A few years ago (that is, before The Vanishing Point was published), Linda Rigel interviewed Mary Sharratt for Literary Mama.

Part of their discussion:

LR: [Y]our novels are historical. How did you choose the time and setting, and how do you approach research?

MS: Historical fiction is one of the most exciting things happening in today's writing scene. In recent years the historical novel has transcended the constraints of genre and hit the literary mainstream with cutting edge work by writers like Madison Smartt Bell (All Souls Rising), and even Philip Roth's alternate history, The Plot Against America. Historical fiction has also become a literary frontier, allowing innovative writers an opportunity to explore aspects of history that textbooks often ignore such as black history and women's history.

For The Real Minerva, I chose the form of a historical novel set in the 1920s to present three heroines struggling against the kind of overwhelming social strictures many contemporary women would have a hard time imagining. The Real Minerva poses a question: can you leave your past behind and become someone wholly different? What if you are a woman living on the fringes of society in a claustrophobic small town? I wanted to take the great Twenties myth of the Self-Made Man, a la The Great Gatsby, and recast it through a female lens. How would my three heroines attempt to re-invent themselves?

The 1920s were such a pivotal period in history, especially for women. The age of Victorian repressiveness was officially over. Women had won the right to vote. A new generation of women raised their hemlines, bobbed their hair, and earned their living outside the home. Yet despite living in the midst of a sexual revolution of sorts, birth control was extremely difficult to obtain, especially for unmarried and rural women. Unwed mothers and their illegitimate children were shunned by respectable society, as were women who had the temerity to run away from bad marriages, such as my character Cora.

In my first novel, Summit Avenue, I chose the period of 1911-1919 to document my heroine's journey from innocence and naiveté to self-knowledge. A young German immigrant, she falls profoundly in love with another woman. Living in this historical time period, however, she has no word or label to name her experience. Only the dark fairy tales she translates can help her make sense of her situation. Obviously this plot would not have worked in a contemporary setting.

One of the most compulsively pleasurable aspects of writing historical fiction is doing the research. For The Real Minerva, I started by reading two great novels of the period: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. I also steeped myself in Willa Cather, whose novels illuminate the lives of midwestern women. Careful readers will see that some of the details in The Real Minerva reference the harsh realities presented in Cather's My Antonia, such as mean-spirited relatives wanting to drown a bastard baby in the rain barrel. In portraying rural life, I also drew on my mother's and grandmother's stories of farm life in the early twentieth century. My mother recounted in graphic detail how my grandmother used to butcher chickens and then wash them with Dreft soap.

For insights into popular culture of the day, I researched Emile Coue, the first self-improvement guru of the twentieth century and the man who coined the phrase, "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better." Old photographs helped shine some light on a lost era. The Minnesota Historical Society's photographic archive is a goldmine. A photo of a small town creamery and soda pop factory, housed in a former brewery, became the model for Laurence Hamilton's business. I also found great photographs of Twenties farm machinery and of migrant workers riding across the country on the top of boxcars.

A friend explained in great depth how to load and shoot a Winchester rifle. I also visited a lot of antique shops, because I like to see and touch exactly the sort of physical objects my characters would have around them.

Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue