New Voices: Mary Calvi, Gina Marie Guadagnino, Lana Kortchik & Kris Waldherr
Mary Calvi, Gina Marie Guadagnino, Lana Kortchik & Kris Waldherr take readers on a journey into past mysteries and relationships
Kris Waldherr’s name is associated with her work as a visual artist and creator of The Goddess Tarot. She describes her first novel, The Lost History of Dreams (Atria, 2019), as “a Victorian Gothic reworking of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice featuring a post-mortem photographer and a Byronesque poet who happens to be his cousin. It’s also a love story about the power of forgiveness, and a ghost story about how those who love us never truly leave.”
Inspiration for a novel can come from many sources. In Waldherr’s case, she says, “The genesis of The Lost History of Dreams was spurred by a dream I had several years ago. In it, I witnessed a young woman arguing with a gentleman over an inheritance in a shabby room lit only by a fireplace. Both were dressed in mid-Victorian clothing. When I woke, I had no idea what the dream was about, or who the couple might have been.
“I wrote the dream down in an attempt to figure out who the people were, and why they were so distressed with each other, feeling as though I’d happened onto another reality. This dream eventually became a pivotal scene in my novel when Robert, my photographer protagonist, first encounters his grief-stricken cousin Isabelle.”
As she continued to write, she says, “Robert and Isabelle’s story collided with my interest in Victorian mourning rituals, and then expanded to include a nested story involving the poet’s ill-fated marriage. But dreams can only take you so far when it comes to historical fiction. There’s also research—and in my case, travel too.”
Waldherr’s next step in the process of writing The Lost History of Dreams was to consult books: “about the history of daguerreotypes, post-mortem photography and Victorian mourning traditions, as well as biographies of the Romantic poets, such as Byron and Shelley.”
Also, she continues, “I traveled twice to England, where I walked the paths trod by Robert and Isabelle in London and Shropshire. For the poet’s story, I traveled to Herne Bay, Paris, and nearby Sèvres. Another research trip took me to Rochester, New York to the George Eastman Museum to gain a greater understanding of daguerreotype plate formats and antique cameras. At one point I considered taking a course on daguerreotype creation there, but was unable to; instead I relied on the Eastman Museum’s wonderful photographic processes video series to understand the chemistry and mechanics of Robert’s occupation. All of this helped me create a world on the page that previously only existed in a dream.”
In The Story of Us (HarperCollins UK, 2019), Lana Kortchik conjures up a different world from Waldherr’s Victorian setting: that of Russia during the Second World War. Kortchik’s story is: “a tale of war and betrayal, of love and forgiveness. It is September 1941, and Hitler’s Army Group South has occupied Kiev. A young Soviet girl named Natasha falls in love with Mark, a Hungarian soldier of Russian descent. With everything stacked against them and nothing to hope for, Mark and Natasha are forced to keep secrets from everyone around them, every day fighting for their love and survival.”
For Kortchik, she reveals, “The story of Natasha and her family is very close to my heart. Like most Russians, I grew up hearing about the war from my grandparents. These stories are in our blood, like our love for Pushkin and our penchant for drinking tea with every meal. My grandparents were too young to fight in the war but old enough to remember the hunger and the fear for everyone they loved, especially their fathers, faraway at the Eastern Front and inching their way towards Berlin.
“I had lived in Kiev for three years as a child and fallen in love with its cobbled streets and golden domes; I knew that was where I wanted to base my story. One of the first short stories I’ve ever written was about a couple in love, trapped on opposite sides of the most brutal conflict the world had ever known. It was inspired by an article I came across many years ago, about a famous Soviet actress who had survived the war thanks to the kindness of a German soldier, who twice a day, for the duration of the occupation, fed the local children. When the short story was published in a magazine, people reached out to me, asking questions. They wanted to know how long the occupation of Ukraine had lasted and what life had been like for the ordinary Soviets. I realised there was more to the story than I first thought, and two years later it became a novel.”
Gina Marie Guadagnino’s novel The Parting Glass (Atria, 2019) has its roots in her love of New York. As she explains, “In January of 2010, I moved away from New York and almost immediately regretted it. Pining for the city that had been my home for a decade, I began writing a short story about a townhouse on Washington Square. Having attended NYU and subsequently worked at the university, I had spent a great deal of my time scurrying to and from classes by cutting through Washington Mews, and it was this memory that became central to the story I was writing. The sound of my boot heels ringing out on the cobblestones felt like home to me in a way that my new environs did not, and the story began to take shape as I imagined who, amongst the original inhabitants of Washington
Square North, would have had occasion to cut through the Mews as I had.
“The story began to crystallize around the servants living their lives in the back alleys of Greenwich Village, and, as I spent most of my time in the Mews heading to classes at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House, I seemed to naturally gravitate toward the Irish immigrants who made up much of the servant class in 19th-century New York. The story, which I quickly realized was turning into a novel, became a love song to the city that I missed, and its melting-pot history, to which my ancestors had contributed. I specifically wanted to focus on the lives of women (particularly women whose experiences have been historically marginalized) and the ways in which they overcame or worked around the societal expectations that kept them from their desires.
“About halfway through the first draft of what would become The Parting Glass, I moved back to New York and found deeper inspiration to complete my novel in coming home. The Parting Glass stands as a paean to my longing for the city, to my love for its hardscrabble heritage, and to my respect for all the tenacious women who came before me.”
Mary Calvi’s novel Dear George, Dear Mary: A Novel of George Washington’s First Love (St. Martin’s Press, 2019) tells the story surrounding the “Mystery Woman of George Washington’s Love Letter.”
As Calvi writes, “I let my eyes move slowly as I read the word “love” written in a most elegant cursive. My fingers gently held the jagged edges of a letter on linen paper—gently because it was dated 1758. The author of the romantic passages before me was Colonel George Washington.
“On a large wooden table inside Harvard University’s Houghton Library was the multi-page letter that I had removed from a legal sized manila folder retrieved for me from a back-storage unit. This love letter to a woman, who was not Martha, reveals a passionate man. ‘Tis true, I profess myself a Votary to Love—,’ writes Washington as he seemed to unleash his heart on these papers. Historians have long believed George was in love with the woman to whom he wrote, his close friend’s wife, Sarah ‘Sally’ Fairfax. I strongly believe differently. And I have my reasons. What if the subject of this letter turned out to be another woman altogether?
“Washington wrote, ‘I feel the force of her amiable beauties in the recollection of a thousand tender passages…’” Calvi points out: “The letter itself yields one clue at the very start; George was not writing about his soon-to-be-betrothed. We know her as Martha. George refers to her in the letter as Mrs. Custis, who was a widow of eight months with two children when George met her. While the letter was clearly written to Sally, it is my belief that it is not about Sally. Only months before George wrote this letter, a New York heiress whom Washington courted and, some believe as I do, he loved, married another man. Washington goes on to scribe in his letter to Sally, this: ‘the World has no business to know the object of my Love…’”
Calvi continues: “In the winter of 1758, Mary Eliza Philipse of New York married a British commander, after waiting nearly two years for George Washington to return for her. Washington was stationed in Virginia, while serving as a colonel in His Majesty’s Army. His continued requests for leave were denied by the very British commanders wanting to seize Miss Philipse’s surrender. One of them did.
“It appears no matter how hard Washington tried, he would not be permitted to leave his post, giving room to another to move in on his girl. In the end, he seems to try to come to terms with the outcome when in the letter to ‘Sally’, he writes this: ‘There is a Destiny, which has the Sovereign control of our Actions—not to be resisted by the strongest efforts of Human Nature.’”
Calvi, Guadagnino, Kortchik and Waldherr have invited readers into their worlds of love and mystery, which are tangled by time and destiny but unravelled in their novels.
About the contributor: Myfanwy Cook is an Associate Fellow at two British Universities and a creative writing workshop designer. Please do email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you discover any debut novels you would like to see brought to the attention of other readers.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 88 (May 2019)