Launch: Sarah Angleton’s Paradise on the Pike


Sarah Angleton has degrees in literature and creative writing and zoology and is thrilled to have finally found a way to use them together. She is the author of four historical novels and one humor collection, and if she had access to a time machine, the first place she’d visit would be the 1904 World’s Fair. For now, she can be found in Missouri. Her latest novel is Paradise on the Pike.

What prompted you to dive into historical fiction?

The first novel I wrote, Smoke Rose to Heaven, grew out of a historical conspiracy theory that I stumbled across while working on some personal research. I was already writing at the time and historical fiction has always been a favorite genre. I didn’t actually set out to write it myself, but when an intriguing story presents itself, it’s hard to resist.

The novel is set to release right at the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair). What drew you to this specific event and time in history?

I grew up in Central Illinois within easy reach of the City of St. Louis. Summers meant Cardinals baseball games where “Meet Me in St. Louis” is still sung by the crowd before every game. As a kid I enjoyed all the many exciting offerings of Forest Park (where the Fair was held) including a large, free public zoo, world-class art museum, and live outdoor professional theater where the musical Meet Me in St. Louis is included among the productions every few years. Though it left a frustratingly small physical imprint on the city, the 1904 World’s Fair had and still has a profound impact on the identity of St. Louis. I initially approached the story of this novel through research into the history of zoological gardens, but when that research led me to the grounds of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, I could not have been more thrilled.

What can you share about the main character, Max? Is he a real person? Inspired by anyone?

While the novel includes several historical figures, Max is not one of them. He is a fictional representative of his time—a young German immigrant in a city heavily influenced by a large population of German immigrants.

What do you hope comes across in your story in general or in your portrayal of Max? What impresses you about him as a character? Does he inspire you as a writer?

Emerging from a constrained life under the thumb of an abusive father on an isolated farm in the German countryside into the bustle of a thriving city anticipating the grandeur of the largest World’s Fair in history, Max lives in a state of tension between his old life and his new, and between the concept of exploitation and the illusion of freedom. Max was a challenging, complex character to write, but his complicated baggage and messy emotions provided an avenue by which to explore similar tensions in a zoological garden playing with innovative enclosure designs to provide captive animals more freedom, in the exhibiting of lifestyles and humans from various corners of the world, and in the impermanence of the very structures of an Ivory City designed to both celebrate the future and disappear from it.

What is something that surprised you while researching for the novel?

I always imagined the 1904 World’s Fair as a place of wonder and whimsy, the Ivory City where nothing was impossible. While in many ways it was that, what I hadn’t realized was how much it was designed to highlight progress by placing humanity on a continuum. In addition to being the largest World’s Fair in history up to that time, the Exposition has also been called the largest human zoo in history. Thousands of indigenous peoples from around the world came to the Fair to live on the grounds in simulated villages and exhibits to be gawked at by fairgoers, disturbingly similar to the way exotic animals were presented at Hagenbeck’s Zoo. The history of the Fair is a tangle of beautiful ingenuity and harsh ugliness.

Are there any museum exhibits or landmarks today where a reader could visit the world you’ve recreated and learn more? Were you able to visit them yourself? Was where Max worked a real place?

Because I live in the St. Louis area, the setting of this novel is in my backyard. That proved convenient for research, as the Missouri Historical Society and the 1904 World’s Fair Society maintain impressive archival collections and a great deal of knowledge. Forest Park does contain a few remnants of the Fair, including the building that now houses the St. Louis Art Museum, originally the Palace of Liberal Arts, and the large walk-through flight cage in the St. Louis Zoo that was originally part of the Fair. Visitors can also still find the Grand Basin, renovated in 2003 to include fountains similar to those present in 1904. Hagenbeck’s Animal Paradise, where Max works, was a real concession on the Pike. Unfortunately, like so much of the Fair, it exists today only in pictures and written recollections.

The Missouri History Museum sits at what was the main entrance to the fairgrounds and contains a permanent 1904 World’s Fair exhibit recently renovated and re-opened at the end of April this year in celebration of the 120th anniversary of the Fair. In addition to hundreds of artifacts, the new exhibit includes a scale model of the entire fairgrounds. It is well worth a visit for anyone interested in the 1904 World’s Fair.

What advice would you give aspiring authors?

My best advice is to be persistent. Writing, publishing, and marketing a book is difficult no matter what road you take through the process. You will face criticism and rejection and be forced to develop new skills along the way to success, but persistence is the key.

Is this novel a stand-alone? What are you working on next?

This one is a standalone. I’m currently swimming through research for a new historical novel that will center on the medical field, but the story hasn’t taken on enough shape to talk about it just yet.

What was the last good book you read? 

I’ve read so many good books recently, but my favorite two are The Phoenix Crown by Kate Quinn and Janie Chang and Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt.

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