National Writers Series Q&A with Nancy Horan

In Northern Michigan book news the Traverse City National Writers Series kicks off a partnership with Traverse City Reads, a “One Book, One Community” literacy initiative on October 8, 2014 when they will host an event with Nancy Horan. Her most recent book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky is the 2014 TC Reads selection.

Horan is the author of the blockbuster 2007 bestseller and book club favorite Loving Frank, which chronicles a little-known chapter in the life of legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and his client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Translated into sixteen languages, Loving Frank won the 2009 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction, awarded by the Society of American Historians.

In her much-anticipated second novel Under the Wide and Starry Sky, Horan beautifully depicts the improbable love story of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny.

Horan will appear on stage with guest host Jenie Altruda, the Vice President of Communications and Engagement for the world-renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts.

Altruda had the chance to ask Nancy Horan a few questions prior to her Traverse City visit next week.

For more information about “An Evening in Conversation with Nancy Horan” or to purchase tickets please click here.

JA: You’re well known for your historical fiction. How do you go about choosing the historical figures you characterize in your books? Or did they choose you?

NH: There’s a bit of choosing and a bit of being chosen. With Loving Frank, I learned about a little known chapter in architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. I thought I already knew plenty about Wright because I lived in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lived with his family. When I discovered the story of why he eventually left Oak Park—because he’d fallen in love with a married client, Mamah Cheney—and the extraordinary outcome of that decision, I knew I was hooked. That story shook me and made me write it. So story is key. That’s true of Under the Wide and Starry Sky, as well. Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson lived big. They are both interesting people, but their story together convinced me I wanted to spend five years writing about them

JA: How do you go about balancing fact and fiction when fleshing out the narrative of your novels?

NH: Fact is the skeleton upon which to hang the living, breathing flesh of a story. The fictionalizing begins with that first decision about who will tell the story, and continues on every page. Dialogue and thoughts are invented (with the exception of a few quotes) but are often informed by knowledge gleaned from letters, diaries, or other sources.

under the wide sky

JA: Do you ever feel penned in creatively due to the actual events that happened in the lives of your characters?

NH: I choose to work within the framework of agreed upon historical fact when writing about real people. I don’t find it confining because there are so many unanswered questions to explore—the whys behind and around the facts. I am interested in how the characters were feeling as they moved through their respective journeys. I’m interested in the physical, intellectual, social landscapes they inhabited and how those environments affected them. In other words, there are so many understandings and connections to weave into the book, and so much room to enrich that factual structure with invention, that I don’t feel constrained.

JA: Both of your books depict the lives of well known and mercurial men and the lesser-known but equally strong-willed women who loved them. Which were easier to depict, the female or male characters in your books?

NH: You would think that it would be the inner lives of the male characters, since I am a female writer, but I found the women required deeper exploration. Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Frank Lloyd Wright have written and been written about extensively; the info on the women has been limited.

I always go to primary research sources—letters and diaries and recordings to try to capture the voice. I studied Frank Lloyd Wright’s letters to pick up phrases he used. Stevenson’s letters fill eight volumes, and his voice comes through loud and clear. He is so open in those letters. He articulates with humor and poignancy the ups and downs of his professional and personal life.

There were no letters available between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney. During the writing of Loving Frank, I discovered online that a Swedish art scholar had turned up ten letters written by Mamah to the Swedish feminist for whom she translated. Those letters helped me hear Mamah’s voice for the first time, about a year and a half into the writing process. Fanny Stevenson was a diary keeper. Still, these two women were mysterious and private. They required much more poking around in my own soul to imagine the whys behind their decisions and their emotional states.

JA: Is truth, in fact, stranger than fiction? Are there things that happened in the lives of these real people that would seem over-dramatic or unbelievable in straight fiction?

NH: There were a couple of facts I came across in the life of Fanny Stevenson that I chose not to include. Fanny lost a child named Hervey. Her daughter Belle, with whom she shared many similarities and a sometimes contentious relationship, also lost a child whom she’d named Hervey after her deceased brother. This felt almost too melodramatic and was not central to the main story, so I did not include that information.

After RLS’s death, Fanny eventually returned to the United States, where she lived in San Francisco and took on a personal secretary named Edward Salisbury Field, who was 38 years her junior. There were rumors about their relationship because Field lived and traveled with her until her death. He wrote at that time, “She was the only woman worth dying for.” Six months after Fanny died, her daughter Belle married Ned Field. That is included in the Afterword, but was not part of the plot of the book.  It is rather strange, though.

For more information about “An Evening in Conversation with Nancy Horan” or to purchase tickets please click here.
To learn more about the National Writers Series check out their website, like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.

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