Launch: Sandra Wagner-Wright’s Ambition, Arrogance, and Pride
INTERVIEW BY DAVID CONNON
Sandra Wagner-Wright writes historical fiction about real people and events. Set in 18th-century Salem, Massachusetts, Ambition, Arrogance & Pride: Families and Rivals in 18th-Century Salem is the first book in her new Salem Stories series.
What is your elevator pitch?
Against the backdrop of French and English rivalries in 18th-century Salem, Massachusetts, Hasket Derby and George Crowninshield founded competing commercial empires. After American independence in 1783, their sons sailed from Salem, going anywhere that offered lucrative trade opportunities: from the West Indies to the Baltic Sea, from Isle de France to Batavia, India, and China. Inspired by true events, this is the story of two rival families who made their fortunes in the new United States of America.
What inspired you to start writing? And how does your occupational background affect your writing?
I have a Ph.D. in history with a specialty in pre-1860 America, and I retired as Professor Emerita from the University of Hawai`i where I taught American and women’s history for over twenty years. Those occupations required academic writing. As a teaching professor, I humanized historical events. We discussed what happened, why it happened, and to whom. I write historical fiction because I want readers to have a more personal sense of the events and people involved in our collective past.
What attracted you to writing historical fiction?
My eyes opened to the magic of history in middle and high school. Through historical fiction, I encountered events happening to real people. As a result, I focused on American history during my undergraduate and graduate education, became a history professor, and wrote various books and articles.
Academic history is rooted in the written record. Historians turn letters and diaries into theories and suppositions. It is true that historical fiction also draws upon the written record, but it allows the writer to breathe life into a subject. Old letters and diaries become an outline to be filled in with color and texture. It’s like the difference between a charcoal sketch and a full-color painting.
I enjoyed Ambition, Arrogance, and Pride. Do you have any personal or family connections to Salem, Massachusetts? Or do you have a seagoing heritage?
I have no personal connection to Salem, Massachusetts, nor do I have a seagoing heritage. I encountered the Crowninshield collection at PEM Phillips Library on a visit to Salem in the 1990s, and it stayed in the back of my mind.
What is the most challenging part of researching, writing, or editing historical fiction?
I am, at heart, a researcher. I want to know how and why events happened, the circumstances that influenced choices the people made, and the material culture of the time. Trying to find pieces of the puzzle is challenging, exhilarating, and often frustrating. But there’s a certain thrill as the project begins taking shape.
Writing is a constant challenge that exposes areas of insufficient knowledge. First and foremost, the characters must emerge from diaries and documents and become living people. Every event leads to new questions. For example:
- When Mary goes to a ball, how does she dress?
- What sort of alcohol do people consume? How much?
- If a woman like Eliza Crowninshield is ambitious, what is the best way for her to reach her goals?
- How do people deal with the constant issues of illness and death?
- What are medical practices in the 18th century?
- What inspires men to travel great distances in leaky wooden ships to disease-ridden destinations?
Editing can be tedious, but it is usually fun. By the time you are ready to edit, the story should be mostly complete. Editing allows you to send your story—in its best possible form—into the world.
How did you pick the title of this novel?
It was very challenging. I boiled down the entire story into a few words that encapsulated the story. The title Ambition, Arrogance, & Pride, reflects the book’s main characters.
In Ambition, Mary was cool to the idea of marriage because a husband might control her. What historical figures provided a model for this mindset?
The theme of controlling husbands is frequent in 18th-century literature from Jane Austen to Mary Wollstonecraft. The husband controlled his wife’s property, though he had to maintain his wife. Legally, children belonged to their father.
The doctrine of coverture subsumed a woman’s rights and obligations to her husband. She could not own property, enter contracts, file a lawsuit, or earn a salary in her own name. An unmarried woman could own property and make contracts, but most women eventually married. For example, a widow with property was seldom unattached for any length of time.
Mary’s mother and father prioritized the family business. To that end, they sought profitable business alliances by marrying off their children to partners who would enrich the family. Can you shed light on mercenary-minded matrons of the time?
In the 18th century, love was not considered an appropriate reason to marry. In fact, it was detrimental. Spouses could only expect friendship and partnership from each other. Marriage was a contractual business arrangement. It was about property and the appropriate linkage of families. The woman most directly involved was essentially a piece of property who passed from her father to her husband, and if widowed, her son often became her guardian.
I would not describe mothers as mercenary so much as practical. Daughters, with neither money nor occupation, could not live independently. A spinster often moved between one or more male relatives and served their respective households. Such was even Jane Austen’s fate.
The emphasis Mary’s parents placed on business connections was common at the time. They also hoped their daughter would become a friend and partner with her husband.
What advice would you give to historical novelists who are tempted to have their characters express a 21st-century belief, attitude, or mindset?
Remain true to the spirit and culture of the historical setting. Bringing in contemporary opinions and language breaks the contract between writer and reader, and it also destroys historical context.
What have you learned about the human experience?
People’s motivations have not changed a great deal over time. People need a sense of security regarding food and shelter. They also need to be part of a community that values their contributions. In addition, people want personal autonomy and a meaningful occupation.
In 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated these aspirations as the Four Freedoms of speech and worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
What is the last good book you read?
I don’t read historical fiction for relaxation because I become distracted by the details rather than keeping my focus on the story. The Perfect Marriage by Jeneva Rose, a psychological thriller, is the most recent book I’ve read for pleasure. The plot held my interest, and the ending was unexpected.