Writing Real People: Kerri Maher Discusses the Challenges and Rewards


In 1919 a young American woman named Sylvia Beach was searching for a way to meld her love of literature with her love of Paris and create a livelihood. When she befriended the proprietors of a famous French bookstore, her destiny became apparent. Beach turned to one of those proprietors, Adrienne Monnier, for support, advice and, eventually, for love as she embarked on the monumental task of establishing an English-language bookstore on the Left Bank.

The bookstore became a haven for some of the most influential English-language writers. By providing a central place for the expats to congregate and share ideas, Beach’s store shaped the future of literature, but the bookseller did much more. When James Joyce’s groundbreaking novel Ulysses was banned in the United States, Beach decided she would publish the book herself. Her courageous battle against censorship would call on all of her personal and financial resources and take her to the brink of ruin.

This captivating story is the inspiration behind The Paris Bookseller (Berkley, 2022) by acclaimed historical novelist Kerri Maher. Maher once said that no one told her how to research and write a historical novel. Instead, she let herself be led by “instinct and interest.” Those twin prongs guided her in the writing of The Kennedy Debutante about Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, The Girl in White Gloves about Grace Kelly, and now The Paris Bookseller, an engrossing book about Sylvia Beach and the literary lights who mingled in the aisles of Shakespeare and Company.

Maher holds an MFA from Columbia University and founded an award-winning literary journal of short-form YA writing. She has also written a memoir of her writing life entitled This Is Not a Writing Manual. Previously a professor of writing, she now writes full time and lives with her daughter in Massachusetts.

In hindsight, Sylvia Beach was the perfect subject for Maher, who once worked at the Community Bookstore, an independent in Brooklyn “that was a hotbed of literary talent just like Sylvia’s shop” as well as in the rare books conservation department of her university library. Although Maher was introduced to Beach when she first read her autobiography at the age of twenty, Maher didn’t think of the bookseller as a subject for a novel until she had the other two novels under her belt.

“I wrote about Kick Kennedy and Grace Kelly first. Both of these American women found themselves in Europe and did interesting work there,” she said. The idea of American women living and working in Europe appealed to Maher, and writing about Kennedy and Kelly gave Maher the confidence to tackle the founder of Shakespeare and Company.

In telling Beach’s story, Maher also had to write about James and Nora Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and his various wives and lovers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others. With libraries full of books about these writers and their work, the amount of research material would seem to be overwhelming. Fortunately, Maher had two decades of prior reading to rely upon. Much of the material was already inside her head. “Certainly I had to refresh my memory,” she said. “But this era was in the air for me at the right time. This time in literary history and cultural history is really special.”

Maher admits that it was intimidating to write about Beach’s milieu. “I had read Hemingway and Joyce and all these other writers, and as an aspiring writer I revered them. To write about them and put words in their mouths was daunting, to say the least,” she said.

She was grateful for the experience of writing about the Kennedys because she’d already faced the question of whether or not she had the right to conjure the words, thoughts, and feelings of such a well-known clan. However, writing about Joyce and Hemingway raised the angst exponentially. “Because I’m a writer and they are writers, I wanted to do right by them,” she said.

While Maher found inspiration in the work of those writers and in Beach’s autobiography, she was also inspired by the original text that inspired Joyce’s Ulysses, Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey.

“I hope readers will see some of the allusions I made,” she added. “How could the idea of home not be important when writing about the expats of the 1920s?” In Shakespeare and Company, Beach created a home away from home for the writers of the so-called Lost Generation.

One of the challenges, but also one of the rewards, of writing about real people is that the major events are already in place. Those events are immutable, for the most part. “There’s only so much fudging you can do. The historical record is the historical record. The people involved had real thoughts and feelings about these events,” Maher said. “I had to figure out how to maneuver my fictional version of the characters from one real event to another and that’s where the imagination and pleasure happens.”

According to Maher, when writing about a real subject, you can’t just let your imagination run wild. “I have to ask what the characters might have realistically been thinking or doing in this moment. So it tethers you to the historical record in a way that having the freedom to make things up does not.”

While the historical record can act as a tether, it also provides a sense of security because certain elements of structure are already known when writing about real people. “Fictional characters have no scaffolding,” she added.

In addition to the known historical events, real life often holds surprises. Maher was astonished to discover how insulated some of the expatriate writers were. “Many of the American writers formed a colony in Paris but didn’t really integrate themselves into French life. Sylvia was unique in that she became French. Hemingway also did this to some extent. They spoke the language and went to French sporting events. This was part of the reason they were lifelong friends.”

Maher believes that writing about the truth can teach us much about writing fiction. “The things that really happen to real people are both more terrible and more wonderful than we can often imagine.”

To be a young queer woman in Paris in the 1920s and create her own business, find a deep and lasting love, publish James Joyce’s groundbreaking novel, and establish friendships with some of the greatest writers of the 20th century was no ordinary feat. Mahler commented: “Sylvia defied society’s expectations and did the things she believed in, and she did it with great energy and excitement,” adding that “she really lived a full and rich life, a life anybody today would be proud to live.”

Now that Maher has written about these real-life women and the remarkable choices they made and the remarkable things that happened to them, she says she feels much more equipped to write a novel where the stakes are invented.

Another challenge in writing about real people is deciding on the frame of the book. Maher noted that when you’re writing about a real person, you have to find that part of the person’s life that most interests you. “In this case,” she said, “the story I felt was most compelling was the opening of the store and the publishing of Ulysses. It had the most satisfying arc.”

In choosing to publish Ulysses, Beach did not have the approval of all of her patrons. As Maher writes in the book, “The first thing that happened was that Gertrude [Stein] disavowed her. Incredibly, she and Alice traveled all the way from their cozy apartment in the March slush, just to do it in person.”

Maher says that in spite of some minor feuds, the writers who made their pilgrimages to Beach’s bookstore fed each other’s creativity. A community of writers is something that has also been useful in her own writing. She even dedicates her novel to “mes amis,” her friends. “Writers talk about how important finding your virtual water cooler is. Ironically, the pandemic forced a lot of us to find that water cooler,” she said. “I’m fortunate to have an agent who represents a lot of other historical fiction writers. We all get together weekly and chat. It’s like an online water cooler.”

For Maher and most writers, it’s reassuring to know that they aren’t alone. Maher adds that it’s important to be able to exchange work with other writers. “By reading other writers’ drafts and commenting on them you’re always learning all the time. If you’re only reading published work, that makes it more mysterious,” she said. She added that the writers who flocked to Beach’s bookstore were also showing each other their work. “The chapters of Ulysses that were serialized were drafts,” she said. “Those writers were constantly giving and getting feedback through their community.”

Timing in any book release, of course, is crucial. Although Maher wondered why it took so long for her to select Beach for a subject, the release of this book couldn’t be more timely. Ulysses was published in serialized form one hundred years ago, and a documentary is currently underway featuring the six brave women behind the publication of Ulysses, all of whom are characters in The Paris Bookseller. Maher will be featured in the documentary1 and also is appearing at events at the Jefferson Market Courthouse where Ulysses was put on trial in 1921 and which is now a library.

About the contributor: TRISH MACENULTY is the author of four novels, a short story collection, and a memoir. She is currently working on a series of historical novels.

1.Jane Applegate (producer) & Margaux Dupont (director)
The Remarkable Feminists Behind James Joyce. To be released 2022.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 99 (February 2022)

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