Art in Historical Fiction Interview Series featuring Maryanne O’Hara

Stephanie Renee dos Santos

cascade_tpb coverWelcome to week six of our series. It’s my pleasure to introduce Maryanne O’Hara, author of Cascade. When Desdemona Hart Spaulding, a promising Paris-trained Boston artist marries hastily in 1935, she settles in Cascade, a no-longer-fashionable theater town. Here she finds herself struggling for her dreams as she cares for her ailing father. Internal strife plagues her as she tries to pursue her artistic career, and as she becomes infatuated with a fellow artist, Jacob Solomon. The town is short-listed to be flooded to provide water for the growing needs of nearby Boston, and she’s hired to paint images of her potentially doomed residence, while she’s drowning in her marriage and own life decisions. She’s required to make difficult choices between her duties and desires, ones that will have unexpected consequences and life-altering outcomes. This novel is a real page-turner, tension on every page, with a protagonist one can’t help but deeply empathize with, to love.

What are the costs and risks to pursue one’s artistic ambitions?

Stephanie Renée dos Santos: Why did you choose to make your protagonist in Cascade an American female painter in the 1930’s?

Maryanne O’Hara: I was originally interested in writing a short story about artists who painted for Roosevelt’s New Deal arts projects during the Depression. Then I saw a wonderful exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts: A Studio of Her Own, Women Artists in Boston, 1870-1940.” I realized I wanted to write about the particular struggles of the female artist.

SRDS: What compelled you to include and focus on art and artists in your historical novel?

MO: I’ve always been fascinated by the human impulse to create art. And I’m fascinated, too, by what cultures deem worth saving. I liked the idea of using a doomed town threatened with extinction as background for a story about an artist trying to create lasting works of art. I hoped that this juxtaposition would give readers a lot to think about.

Woman Ironing Picasso

Woman Ironing, by Pablo Picasso (Guggenheim, NY) which Dez refers to early on.

SRDS: What drew you to your specific visual art medium, art work, and characters?

MO: I never really decided that Dez would be a painter. She just kind of was one, from the start. The way Dez paints and thinks about painting is the way I write, so it was easy to substitute one art form for the other. I think that all creative expression comes forth from the same well.

SRDS: How did you go about incorporating art and artists into the book? 

James Lechay painting

Barrels on the Beach, by James Lechay, a Provincetown artist who worked for the WPA in the 1930s, and whom O’Hara interviewed.

MO: I did a lot of research. Early on, I interviewed three artists who had painted for the New Deal (WPA) projects. I watched hours of newsreels. I read old newspapers and magazines. I read oral histories. I observed painters at work. The 1930s were a time when painters were making the transition from the set-in-stone methods of formal training to more avant-garde techniques, so to be accurate and get specific details right, I read theoretical and “how to” art books published before 1935.

SRDS: Do you have any message you were trying to convey by including art and artists in the novel?

MO: The Boston Globe said it best, in its yearly Sunday magazine round-up of the “Best of the New” when they wrote: “O’Hara shapes her protagonist’s story to pose questions like: If art is not lastingly valuable, what is?”  

Beata Beatrix, Rossetti

Beata Beatrix by Dante Rossetti (Tate, London), which makes a couple of appearances in Cascade.

SRDS: What story lines do you see as unexplored in this niche of art in fiction?

MO: Oh, the great thing about literature is that someone can always find a new perspective!

SRDS: What do you think readers can gain by reading stories with art tie-ins?

MO: Oh, so much! When you’re reading a novel about one thing, but along the way learn about something else, it’s such a bonus. People have told me they enjoyed and learned from the Shakespeare bits in Cascade; they enjoyed learning about the government art programs of the 1930s.

SRDS: Why does fiction with art and artists matter?

MO: The contemplation of art enriches fiction, I think. And to quote Alice Walker: “If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for.”

SRDS: Are you working on a new historical novel with an art and artist(s) thread?   

MO: I have three main characters, and they are all tangentially involved in the art world, but that’s all I can really say at the moment.

SRDS: Any further thoughts on art in fiction you’d like to share or expand on?

MO: I am a fan of any literature that includes other art forms, like music’s role in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, for example. I love when the arts intersect, period. Recently, in Boston, the Copley Society of Art and the Boston Symphony Orchestra hosted a joint exhibit inspired by Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The evening included a show of paintings inspired by the music’s ten movements (which were, in turn, inspired by paintings), and then we all enjoyed a captivating performance of the piece, performed by the BSO.

MaryanneOHaraAuthorPicAbout the author: Maryanne O’Hara is the author of Cascade, a 2013 Massachusetts Center for the Book “Must Read” and MA Book Award fiction finalist, and a “pick” at People Magazine, The Boston Globe, Slate Magazine, Library Journal, and more. She was the longtime associate fiction editor at Ploughshares, and has had short fiction published in periodicals like The North American Review, Five Points, Redbook, and in several anthologies. A graduate of Emerson College’s MFA program, where she won the Graduate Dean’s Award, she has been a recipient of grants from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and her story collection has been a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and the Iowa Short Fiction Award. A citizen of both the United States and Ireland, she currently lives by a river near Boston.

 Cascade was just chosen as the Boston Globe’s 2014 Summer Book Club read! Join the online discussion about the novel:

For more information about Maryanne’s work:  watch the book trailer,

Join us next Saturday July 12th for an interview with Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude & Camille

Interview posting schedule: May 31st Susan Vreeland, June 7th Mary F. Burns, June 14th Michael Dean, June 21st Donna Morin Russo, June 28th Alana White, July 5th Maryanne O’Hara, July 12th Stephanie Cowell, July 19th Cathy Marie Buchanan, July 26th Alicia Foster

mini  Steph Professional  photoAbout the contributor: Stephanie Renée dos Santos is a fiction and freelance writer and leads writing & yoga workshops. She writes features for the Historical Novel Society. Currently, she is working on her first art-related historical novel, CUT FROM THE EARTH. A story of Portuguese tile and its surprising makers – The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 — and the wisdom of nature and the power of love to guide and heal. & Join Facebook group “Love of Art in Fiction

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