Friday, May 28, 2021

Mariah Fredericks

Mariah Fredericks was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives today with her family. She is a graduate of Vassar College with a BA in history.

Fredericks's new novel, Death of a Showman, is her third Jane Prescott mystery.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The titles for the Jane Prescott series usually come pretty easily. Death of a Showman was always Death of a Showman, except for a brief time when it was Death of an American Showman. First, there’s the helpful echo of The Greatest Showman, and who doesn’t love Hugh Jackman. It immediately suggests a time of American ebullience and bravado, with a slight whiff of chicanery. Even fraud. The title tells us the showman is killed. Why? Was the entertainment not good enough? What was all the razzle dazzle hiding? You think of the Wizard of Oz: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! The little con artist pretending to be a great and powerful being.

Or it can also make you think of the desperation of performing. People who wear themselves out to keep the feet moving and the big smile on their face.

There are several characters you might call showmen in the book, but only two impresarios in the mold of a Barnum or Ziegfeld. Readers familiar with the series will know one of them is possibly Leo Hirschfeld, Jane’s old boyfriend, who’s determined to take over Broadway. So the final thing the title does for series readers is give a frisson of Ooh, is she going to kill off the old flame? And about that, I will say nothing.

What's in a name?

I’m a little limited in my name choice because I’m working in a specific time and place: 1910s New York. I can’t remember now how I came to choose Jane Prescott, except there’s a romantic intelligence about the name Jane and something sharp and forthright about Prescott. I made the mistake of thinking “Behan” was pronounced BeHAN, rather than Be-un, so reporter Michael Behan’s name is a little less cheerful and adventurous than I hoped. Leo is Leo Hirschfeld because I have a huge Hirschfeld portrait of Balanchine on my wall and I combed the original names of the Marx Brothers for ideas.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Very. She would not be surprised by the focus on theater. I was a theater geek, so if anything, she would be shocked that I was writing novels and not plays. But I was a very sarcastic, misanthrophic kid. Highly averse to emotional risk. People, including Jane, our intrepid heroine, make mistakes throughout this book. But there’s a scene where an actress sings the show’s big torch song. Jane describes it
Just as she had in her comedy, she made a mockery of our pretense to chilly virtue, even dignity, and yet, made us feel better for wanting, loving—even hopelessly. The song made…one…feel proud of every time you had let your heart rule your head and if you had never done so, well, the more fool you, you weren’t fully alive.
My teenage reader self would have no patience with that!

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are infinitely easier. With a series, they’re like homecoming weekend. What’s everyone been up to? Are there new faces? What’s happening in New York in that year? Later on, you have to tinker to set up the clues leading up to the body landing on the ground so that you’re playing fair with the reader.

There are two scenes in the endings that are often challenging. One is the reveal/confession scene. It’s the “who and why” of the murder, so it has to resonate and feel real. Not only do you have to make it believable that a murderer would confess to a lady’s maid, you have to make it believable that a murderer would even admit to themselves that they’ve killed someone. That scene gets a lot of “rinses” which is how I think of rewrites.

I somehow got into the habit of ending the books with a big public event. The Triangle Fire or the 1912 suffragette march. Crowd scenes, spectacle, lots of people united in a single moment—I find those events hard to describe. How would an individual who doesn’t fully process this as a moment in history experience it? I like placing Jane in a moment of history with each book, so I keep doing it.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Both my family and my therapist have noted that Jane and I have some things in common. But I feel a sympathy with most of the main characters of the series. I can feel into both Louise Tyler’s apprehension of social demands and Leo Hirschfeld’s ebullient, creative drive that borders on selfishness. I share reporter Michael Behan’s dislike of ideological pedantry—give me severed heads in barrels any day. But I hope I also have his ability to admit when he’s wrong. I think in all the books, there’s been only one character for whom I have absolutely no liking and it was a strain to create their mindset.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Theater, obviously. Not just for the subject of this book, but for the way a playwright creates tension and drama simply from what one person says to another. The thrill when a character like Richard III takes the audience into his confidence, making them co-conspirators. I think that’s partly why I’ve always written first person. There are songs and music I associate with characters and scenes in the books; some of them are too embarrassing to say what they are. But Thomas Newman’s score for Little Women puts me firmly in Jane’s world. And the city of New York itself.
Visit Mariah Fredericks's website.

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My Book, The Movie: Death of an American Beauty.

The Page 69 Test: Death of an American Beauty.

--Marshal Zeringue