New Voices: Jason Hewitt, Vanessa Lafaye, Mary Lawrence & Amy Stewart
by Myfanwy Cook
Debut novelists Jason Hewitt, Vanessa Lafaye, Mary Lawrence and Amy Stewart discuss the research and coincidences that inspired them.
Vanessa Lafaye, author of Summertime (Orion, 2015; also Sourcebooks, 2015, as Under a Dark Summer Sky) believes that “life is sometimes more dramatic than fiction.” The inspiration for her novel came at “a low moment in my life,” she relates. “I had not written anything for quite a while, for two reasons: I was discouraged by lack of success with other books, and debilitated by cancer treatment. All this changed on a visit to my family in Florida in 2010 when I opened the morning paper to find a long feature article about an horrific lynching in Greenwood in 1935. The accompanying photo captured my imagination: a black man stands looking up at a body hanging from a tree, his face blank of all emotion. Only the legs of the corpse are visible. I started to wonder who the observer was, why he was there. When I returned to the UK and started my research, it led by accident to the story of the Labor Day hurricane and the veterans on Islamorada. Although I grew up in Florida, I was ignorant of the events. Once I learned about them, I felt compelled to dramatise them.”
As Lafaye’s research progressed, she says, “I was drawn into one of the most scandalous episodes of the period – not just of Florida, but of the US as a whole. And I found myself thinking, ‘How is it possible that I didn’t know about this?’ I talked to other Floridians and found the same degree of ignorance. The story was so dramatic, yet I could find no works on fiction about it. I began to picture what life was like in a small town where the colour of your skin was everything, where the government was prepared to risk the most vulnerable people in the face of the most intense storm in history. I started to imagine what it must have been like to experience that storm with only the most basic protection.”
Lafaye sums up: “A series of coincidences and random chances led to me writing the book, and discovering one of the darkest episodes in Florida’s past – and mine.” In a similar manner, Amy Stewart stumbled across her inspiration for Girl Waits with Gun (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) when she was least expecting it. As she explains, she was “researching a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman” for her most recent non-fiction book, The Drunken Botanist.
“I turned up an article in the New York Times from 1915 about a man of the same name who ran his car into a horse-drawn carriage driven by three sisters, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp. I never did figure out if this was my gin smuggler, but I couldn’t stop digging into the story of the Kopps.
“I quickly realized that the three of them led incredible lives. I was amazed that nothing had been written about them. I reconstructed their life stories from scratch. A lot of people write historical fiction about well-known figures from another era, but it’s a very different challenge to pluck someone from obscurity and put the facts together for the first time.
“Since then, I’ve collected hundreds of newspaper articles from digitized papers available online, and from good old microfilm in library basements. I went around to courthouses to pull birth certificates, property deeds, and criminal records. And I’ve been to Paterson and Hackensack [in New Jersey] to visit the places where the major events took place. I toured the jail where Sheriff Heath lived and worked. I found site where the Kopp house in Wyckoff once stood, and the cemetery where they are buried, as well as the locations of significant events, such as the intersection where the girl waited with the gun. I even tracked down family members who had stories about them.
“One night, early in the research,” Stewart says, “I started to wonder what Constance’s mother thought about what happened to them. Later that night, I found a newspaper profile in which Constance answered that exact question. Being able to ask my character a question and get a 100-year-old answer in her own words is bizarre and delightful.” Stewart went on to discover that “even after six non-fiction books,” this was the most emotional and rewarding piece of research that she had ever carried out.
“Wandering through the stacks of libraries” is one of the favorite pastimes of Mary Lawrence, author of The Alchemist’s Daughter (Kensington, 2015). “About 20 years ago I came across a book about alchemy,” which intrigued her, she writes, and she “started imagining how their science was influenced by their spiritual beliefs and their limited background in empirical method.” Lawrence is also “an avid reader of Tudor and Elizabethan history and fiction,” and “drawn to the rich language of the period, the clever humor and observations of writers back then,” she says. “Many novels set in the 1500s concentrate on court intrigue. I wanted to know what the citizens living under Henry VIII thought of their ill-tempered king and how they navigated his strange and brutal policies. In many ways their existence echoes our own: the common man trying to survive under a government controlled by the elite few.”
Lawrence’s “other interest is in medicine and plants,” she states. “Suddenly my protagonist appeared. A girl who lived in Tudor London, whose father was an alchemist and whose mother was the white witch of the neighborhood. Bianca is the amalgamation of her parents’ influence.” Her novel, she says, “went through twenty years of reimagining and rewriting. Originally it was a coming-of-age story. It landed me an agent and some interest, but it never sold. Bianca languished in a purgatory of endless rejections.” She lost faith in her original project, but “the concept of Bianca and her world was solid” and so she transformed her work into a mystery, and “after twenty years of rehashing, Bianca became a sleuth and the manuscript sold to the second editor who read it.”
Jason Hewitt’s inspiration, like Mary Lawrence’s, was unearthed as a result of visiting a library. As he explains: “There’s a quote by Stephen Fry outside the British Library in London. ‘An original idea,’ he says. ‘That can’t be too hard. The library must be full of them.’ And the idea for The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster UK, 2014; Little Brown US, 2015) was indeed found in a library.
“When I first started thinking about the story, all I knew was that I wanted to write a World War Two novel with a difference, and one where I could pitch the opposing sides against each other in an unusual way. Then, in a library, this time in Wimbledon, I stumbled across a book about the events surrounding the mystery of the German invasion of Britain and whether any German troops ever did land on the east coast. In truth it is unlikely, but German bodies were occasionally washed up onto the shore, usually from shot-down planes or torpedoed boats. Of course, the fear amongst the locals was that one day someone would be washed up who was not actually dead. On a beach in Suffolk called Shingle Street, German chocolate wrappers were in fact found that were suspiciously dry and not in any way tampered by the sea, causing a local panic. On reading about this everything clicked into place and I realized, with a sudden burst of excitement, that I finally had both my setting and my story. The house, Greyfriars, where my German soldier takes shelter, came from my love of gothic horror. It is a house that is haunted but not in a traditional sense. I then needed to put someone else in it with him – the most unlikely person for my German to be ‘trapped’ with. From that Lydia, my eleven-year-old runaway evacuee, was born.
“Similarly with the other story lines I tried to unearth elements of the war that I knew very little of. My view was that if they were new and interesting to me, they might be new and interesting to other readers as well. The sub-plot set in Norway around the battle for Narvik is just one example, and was something I unexpectedly stumbled across when researching a previous story.
“The Dynamite Room, then, is a war novel but with many of the typical war elements taken out – all the bombs and blasts – and reduces the global conflict to a single domestic setting and two very different individuals thrust together by circumstance. It is not a novel about war itself, but what war does to people, regardless of which side you are on.”
Coincidentally, each of the debut novelists featured has, by unleashing the untold stories stacked on library shelves and through their own research, been able to capture the human condition in different historical periods and to inform, shock and engage their readers.
About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK admires the creativity of debut novelists and their different approaches to transforming historical fact into historical fiction. Email (email@example.com) or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook) about debut novelists who you have enjoyed reading.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 73, August 2015