Launch: Gail Olmsted’s Landscape of a Marriage
INTERVIEW BY TRACEY WARR
How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
Landscape of a Marriage is the story of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his late brother’s widow Mary. Their ‘marriage of convenience’ evolved into a love story that lasted 44 years and their shared vision transformed the American landscape forever. Olmsted’s goal was to create a ‘beating green heart’ in every urban space and Mary joined him on his quest.
Your story is based on real people and on people in your own family history. Did that present you with challenges?
Yes, most definitely. Because of the family connection on my husband’s side, I wanted to honor Olmsted’s legacy, but at the same time I wanted to accurately portray Mary’s challenges and struggles as she learned to love the driven and ambitious man she married.
This is a shift in era from many of your previous books. How was that shift for you?
I have written four contemporary works. Landscape of a Marriage is my first historical novel. The real challenge for me was the dialogue. I wanted the conversations to feel authentic but I didn’t want it be stilted or too formal. I went back in and added contractions and spoke the dialogue out loud in order to strike a balance for today’s reader.
As far as the story itself, despite the vastly different time period, the challenges Mary faced are remarkably similar to what she might have dealt with today – how to balance her needs with those of her family, how to pursue what she values in order to be fulfilled – as a mother, a wife, and a woman, and the importance she places on friendships to keep her grounded and feeling treasured. In my mind, these themes are universal, timeless, and quite in keeping with the storylines in my contemporary novels.
What research sources did you draw on for this story?
I reviewed many different resources while researching Landscape of a Marriage. There are a number of beautifully written books on Frederick Law Olmsted and that was where I began. I read them all and they provided me with an excellent foundation for my book by helping me to understand quite a bit about the times and Olmsted’s professional accomplishments.
I began with the marriage of Fred and Mary, the births of their children and significant personal and professional milestones along the way, including Fred’s work on such notable projects as Central Park in NYC, Mount Royal in Montreal, the Chicago World’s Fair and the reopening of Niagara Falls. The Olmsteds moved from New York, to Washington, DC, to California and back to New York before dividing their time between Brookline, a Boston suburb, and Deer Isle in Maine. Each location would have an impact on their lives together and needed to be researched carefully to identify exactly how.
From there, I continued my research and Google provided me with access to numerous articles, posts and images that helped me to be able to add to my understanding. Who knew how interesting it could be to learn about the culture, the lifestyles, the clothing, and the hobbies enjoyed during the second half of the 19th century? I remembered very little about the Civil War (except for those all important dates!) but never took the time to imagine what it was like for the soldiers, their mothers, their families. Before committing to landscape architecture as a career, Fred worked for the United Sanitary Commission (the precursor for the American Red Cross) and his efforts revealed a caring, empathetic man who loved his country and who fought to improve conditions for the soldiers. This was a far cry from the critical and driven workaholic persona that frequently is assigned to Olmsted and it helped me understand the man that Mary grew to love.
How did you balance the research with writing the story?
Initially, I found myself switching back and forth between writing and researching. Once I felt I had a good sense of the time period and images of the clothing they would wear and the homes they would inhabit, I started writing. I kept a story board with pictures to keep me focused and in tune with my characters. I was interested in how my characters would spend their time and what types of food they would serve to their guests. I wanted to mention specific books they would be reading and the games they would play with their children. I then started to focus more on researching some of the main events that occurred during the second half of the 19th century in America – the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, women’s suffrage, etc. – to be certain to capture the key points and describe my characters’ reactions and how their lives were impacted.
Which character challenged you the most to write?
I found Fred’s character challenging to write. I wanted to honor his legacy, but I had to keep my focus on how Mary viewed him. The father of modern landscape architecture was a complicated man who loved his family and his country and I wanted to maintain a balance between the celebrated designer and the family man who read to his children and took them on adventures.
What is your writing space like?
I can write just about anywhere, but most of the time, I am sitting at my desk in my home office surrounded by views of my lovely lake, photos of my family and friends, books that I have enjoyed, white boards, my laptop and legal pads, and my two cats – Jackie and Jill, named for the main characters in my first two books.
What was the best investment you ever made in your writing?
Hiring a competent editor and paying them fairly for their skills and expertise. That is money well spent!
What is your next project and how far advanced is it?
I am working on a novel with a legal theme. The main character is a disgraced Assistant State’s Attorney who has to come to terms with her complicated past in order to move on with her life. It is contemporary, so I am once again including cellphones, social media, and text messages as the main forms of communication. The first draft is nearly complete!
What is the last great book you read?
11/22/63 Stephen King is a genius!
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