New Voices: Joy Callaway, David Dyer, Martha Hall Kelly & Stephanie Storey

Myfanwy Cook

Lilac GirlsDebut novelists Joy Callaway, David Dyer, Martha Hall Kelly and Stephanie Storey aspire to create a legacy for the future from past events.

A family trip and the scent of the past combined to inspire Martha Hall Kelly to write Lilac Girls (Ballantine, 2016). She says, “I had never heard of Caroline Ferriday until I read an article in Victoria Magazine published in 1999, “Caroline’s Incredible Lilacs.” The photos showed Caroline’s lovely white clapboard home in Bethlehem, Connecticut, now known as the Bellamy-Ferriday house and her garden, filled with antique roses and specimen lilacs. I carried the article with me until it was worn smooth. With three young children, I had little spare time, but visited a few years later, unaware that trip would lead me to write a novel.”

Kelly explains, “I drove up to Litchfield County one May Sunday, the only visitor that day, so I was able to breathe in the essence of the house, which remained as Caroline left it when she died in 1990. The faded wallpaper. Her canopy bed. Her mother Eliza’s hand sewn crewel draperies. At the tour’s conclusion, the guide paused on the landing outside Caroline’s second-floor bedroom to point out the desk, her typewriter, medals, a photo of Charles DeGaulle all arranged there. She picked up a black and white photograph on the desk, of smiling, middle-aged women huddled together, posed in rows. ‘These were the Polish women Caroline brought to America,’ she said. ‘They were known in Ravensbruck, Hitler’s only all-female concentration camp, as The Rabbits because they were the Nazis’ experimental rabbits’.” The guide’s words stayed with Kelly and, “As I drove the three hours home on the Taconic Parkway,” she says, “the story pestered me. Caroline was a true hero with such an interesting life; a debutante former Broadway actress who galvanized a jaded post-war America, dedicated her life to helping women others forgot. Why had no one celebrated her life?”

From that point onwards, Kelly says, “I devoted all my spare time to research on Caroline, Ravensbruck and World War II, and any afternoon I could get away I spent in the cool root cellar under the old summer kitchen of Caroline’s house, paging through old rose books and letters, absorbed in her life. After trips to Poland, Caroline’s archives in Paris and to Furstenberg, Germany to see Ravensbruck, I finally finished the book one May — just as the lilacs were blooming.”

Oil and MarbleAs with Kelly, Stephanie Storey’s novel, Oil and Marble (Arcade, 2016), came from a chance discovery. Storey explains, “I first learned about the rivalry between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti twenty years ago, in graduate school, when I briefly studied under one of the top Michelangelo specialists in the world.” She discovered “the city of Florence had once hired the two artists to paint frescoes on opposite walls of city hall. This double commission was billed as a battle between the two greatest living artists. For a few months, they worked alongside each other in the same room, but neither completed his fresco. Drawings of both designs remain, but not a single brushstroke survives.”

Storey realised that “for centuries, art historians have regretted this clash of the titans came to nothing. Imagine, they lament, what wonders those two geniuses might have created if they had stayed in that room to compete? How sad the world missed out on such promise.”
However, Storey explains, “The historical record tells us the two openly disliked each other long before the dueling frescoes debacle. Contemporaries reported they had contentious run-ins on the streets. Plus, their personalities, families, beliefs, work ethics, and even appearances were at extreme odds.”

According to Storey, there is “compelling evidence that these two were already well-established antagonists. During the years just prior to the fresco commission, while working side by side in Florence, Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa, while Michelangelo was carving the David just down the street. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Fraser. The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. Mac vs. PC. Great rivalries beget greatness. Seemingly invincible opponents drive us all to grander heights than we could reach on our own. Surely it isn’t a coincidence that the two most iconic works of art in western civilization were created in the same town, at the same moment. Isn’t it only logical that the young Michelangelo pushed the aging Leonardo to paint the Mona Lisa, just as Leonardo drove Michelangelo to carve the David? Those are the questions that first inspired me to dig into this story; Oil and Marble is the result of that search.”

Midnight WatchAlthough David Dyer’s The Midnight Watch (St. Martin’s, 2016) has no historical link with Storey’s, it does share the common ground of being inspired by the quest to answer unanswered questions.

Dyer has been fascinated by the Titanic disaster, he says, “since as a very young child I watched the classic Titanic film A Night to Remember and was enthralled by the size and beauty of the ship, and by the way it sank: the water flowing inexorably from one watertight compartment to the next deep in the ship’s hull, while on the upper decks people drank cocktails, played cards and listened to the band. Even as a youngster I think I registered the symbolic implications of this – that in life things can seem all happy and pleasant on the surface, but be chaotic and desperate down below.”

Later, Dyer says, “I became interested in a specific aspect of the Titanic disaster, the ‘Californian incident.’ I had always known that as the Titanic lay sinking, the steamship Californian had seen her distress rockets and not come to the rescue, but I had never been able to find out why. When I began working in London as a maritime lawyer, I became a little obsessed with the question and started to think about writing a book. I carried out research in London, Liverpool, New York, Boston and – ultimately – at the Titanic wreck site itself. My inspiration was my curiosity. Why didn’t the Californian respond to the rockets? What was it like for her captain and crew to live with the guilt of all those deaths? What happened on that ship?”

Dyer goes on, “I began to realize that the story of ‘male chivalry’ on the Titanic was a bit of a myth. Sure, some first class men did stand back, but more than fifty of them got into the lifeboats. At the same time, more than fifty children died, all of them from third class. What happened to those children that night? Why were they left to die, not only by the Californian, but by the people on their own ship?”

Fifth Avenue Artists SocietyInvestigating the past and its consequences are at the heart of both Dyer’s novel and Joy Callaway’s The Fifth Avenue Artists Society (Harper, 2016). When telling people about “the real-life family inspiration” behind her novel, people often comment that Callaway appears “too young to care about ancestry.”

However, Callaway states, “I am not that young, but I did get to thinking about why our family stories have always captivated me. My mom and I are both fascinated, probably thanks to my grandmother and her own passion for genealogy. I asked my Gran about it, and she told me that she treasured the stories and the history because it was a way to hold on to her own parents, who both passed away before their time. Though I never knew them, I feel as though I did because of her anecdotes, many of which involve Gran’s grandmother and her artist siblings — Virginia the writer, Anne the milliner, and Alevia the concert pianist — who lived in Gilded Age Bronx, New York.”

Callaway notes, “It was through Gran’s family that my interest in ancestry was piqued.” She became fascinated by “Miss Luella Honey Ballard, a Southern cook who rode her exercise bike in a dress; by Doc Wilkerson, the only doctor in Boone County, and by Ruth Snyder, a witty storyteller who hid thousands of dollars under the rugs for safekeeping.”

Callaway admits she’s enthralled by these legacies in and of themselves, “But it’s the mirror of my ancestors’ lives in my own and that of my parents and grandparents that keeps drawing me back. I once read an article suggesting that DNA contains memories, and I believe it. There are too many gardeners, artists, and writers on my maternal side and too many medical professionals and electrical tinkerers on my father’s side to overlook the possibility that our passions stem from our past. Some would stop there, satisfied with the idea that their life’s work was in a sense predestined, but I can’t quit digging. I owe it to myself and to those before me to know their lives as best I can, because only in their shadow can I fully appreciate my own life and understand the legacy I’m destined to leave.”

Whether as a result of DNA or just the desire to leave a legacy, Callaway, Dyer, Kelly and Storey have all left their imprint on historical fiction.

About the contributor: MYFANWY COOK admires the ingenuity of debut novelists and their ability to share new stories to entertain readers of historical fiction. Please email (myfanwyc@btinternet.com) or tweet (twitter.com/MyfanwyCook) about debut novelists you recommend.

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Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 76, May 2016


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