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Posts Tagged ‘Nancy Horan’

A Conversation between Nancy Horan and Elizabeth Berg

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

The Dream Lover_BergElizabeth Berg is the author of The Dream Lover, a lush historical novel based on the sensuous Parisian life of the nineteenth-century writer, George Sands.

Nancy Horan is the bestselling author of Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky.

NANCY HORAN: I know you were strongly drawn to George Sand’s story but you resisted writing a novel about her at first. What made you jump in and go for it?

ELIZABETH BERG: Well, the real answer, as you may recall, is that you wouldn’t! One day I read a little about George Sand on The Writer’s Almanac, and I got very excited about learning more. I especially wanted to know the “good stuff,” which is to say, deeply personal things about her character as well as her thoughts and feelings, even if those things were largely conjecture. I thought you would be the perfect person to write a novel about her; I so admired the way you provided intimate access into the character of Mamah Cheney in Loving Frank. So I called you to beg you to write about George Sand. I believe when you answered the phone I said, “Nancy! You have to write about George Sand! She’s so interesting!” You had just finished Under the Wide and Starry Sky, and you weren’t ready to begin another huge undertaking. And, of course, I assume you are like most writers and want to pick your own subjects, not have them thrust upon you. At any rate, you said, “You write it!” I told you I couldn’t possibly. But then the idea wouldn’t go away, and so I plunged in, buoyed up by the last words you said to me: “Oh, of course you can write it. It will be fabulous!”

NH: I think creating a voice for a real historical figure, particularly for someone who lived nearly two hundred years ago, is rather tricky. How did you arrive at the voice you used for George Sand? Did you pull expressions from her letters to integrate into the dialogue? Did you stick to language as it was used at the time, or did you feel free to use more contemporary expressions?

EB: You know, it is a tricky thing, and I did try hard to stay away from contemporary expressions, which, when you’re reading historical fiction, can take you right out of the story. In the end, I think the way the language thing worked for me was the way my other books have worked best: the less predetermined—-the less conscious—-things are, the better.

When I was nine years old, my family lived in Texas for a while. It took me about thirty–five seconds to develop a Southern accent, to incorporate “y’all” quite naturally into my speech. I came in one night and told my parents my friend and I had to stop playing because Sherry was “fixing to eat.” My parents exchanged amused glances, and I thought, What? What’s funny?

Anyway, what I mean to say is that things rub off on me. I have a tendency to imitate, to pretend, to dramatize, as I believe many fiction writers do. So when I read (i.e., “listen to”) a lot of a person, as I did when I read George Sand’s thousand–plus–page autobiography, Story of My Life, that person’s ways of thinking and speaking rub off. George Sand entered my subconscious. I began to dream of her; then, I thought, to dream like her. I know that might sound arrogant or at least unlikely. But I believe she captured me, and I was a most willing prisoner.

NH: I find the foreignness of the past attractive territory to explore. Modern lives seem more daunting to portray in a fresh way, since so much is familiar terrain. Do you agree? Can you talk a bit about the different challenges and attractions of portraying modern lives versus historical lives?

EB: I agree that the past is wonderful to explore: evocative—-thrilling, really—-and quite necessary, when you’re writing historical fiction. But I find it much more difficult to write about the past than the present. I move through pages very quickly and easily when I write about modern times. When I’m trying to re–create something from so long ago, the pressure bears down upon me. So much to find out about, and to be responsible for! Clothes, language, the sounds of the streets, what bathrooms were like, how lamb was served, the tone of the newspapers, where one bought soap, the feel of a carriage ride over cobblestones. I spent a long time with my chin in my hands writing this book, wondering if I really should go on with it.

NH: George was considered a scandalous woman for her time. What do you think was particularly unusual about her? Do you think her reputation affected—-helped or hindered—-her career as a writer? How did it feel to write a novel about such a controversial figure?

EB: Henry James described coming up with the idea for a novel as creating a big “to do” around a character. When you write about someone real who was so controversial, the “to do” comes built in. But I am always interested in the backstory—-when someone is described as being scandalous, or out of order, or different, or demanding, especially when that someone is a woman—-and I am full of questions. What made her that way? What kind of vulnerability is behind great strength? What kind of sadness lives inside a person believed to be joyful? Or, conversely, what gaiety is there in someone viewed as being very serious? One of the things I learned in writing this novel is that the esteemed Russian writer Ivan Turgenev loved being silly. He was quite the party animal, as opposed to another of Sand’s close friends, Gustave Flaubert, who was like Eeyore the donkey in his depressive outlook.

I think what was unusual about Sand was the way her male and female qualities existed side by side, the way she was fluid about assuming the character of a man or a woman, sometimes simultaneously. Also, she was a mass of contradictions: she advocated strongly for women but didn’t like being around them all that much (with one notable exception). She was called bold but in fact was very shy. Her strongest desire was for love, but she had a pattern of having (or making) relationships disintegrate. In her time and even now, she was both reviled and adulated. She created her own god, renouncing the ideas found in organized religion, yet in her youth she wanted to be a nun.

Her reputation may have helped her as a writer, but I think it was mostly her great talent. And in any case, her reputation changed. In her own small hometown of Nohant, she went from being disapproved of—-even reviled—-to being called “The Good Woman of Nohant,” and she was deeply mourned by everyone from peasants to princes after her death.

As to how it felt writing about her, one phrase will do: challenging but exhilarating.

NH: George’s relationships with women, especially the women in her family, were very complicated. What connections do you see between George’s relationship with her mother, Sophie, and George’s subsequent relationship with her own daughter, Solange? With other people? With the actress Marie Dorval? Chopin? What might these relationships say about George herself?

EB: This is a very complicated question with a simple, two–part answer, as I see it. If you do not get the love you so desperately need early in your life, you search for it ever after. And whatever your experience of love was in those young and vulnerable years, you tend to reenact it in future relationships. Sand’s mother was by turns loving and cruel, or at least indifferent; so Sand was with her own daughter. In Sand’s relationships with men, she tended to go quickly from being passionate to being maternal, because she felt that if men needed her, they would not leave her. For Marie, she served as a man who loved with the intensity and devotion and sensitivity of a woman. I think it takes an enormous amount of insight and hard work to make yourself step out of or away from dangerous patterns that you adopt unconsciously early in life, but it can be done. That George Sand was happy and at peace with herself in her later years (after so many years of experiencing deep depressions and suicidal ideation) attests to that.

NH: Was it daunting to write about another writer? Did you reach any new understandings about the art of writing by studying Sand’s works and her comments on the subject? Do you see yourself any differently, as a writer, now that you’ve written this book?

EB: It wasn’t daunting to write about another writer, but it was daunting to write about someone so fiercely intelligent, and whose prose was so startlingly lucid and precise. I didn’t reach any new understandings about the writing process; rather, I had my own methods validated. Sand did not plot, she was wildly prolific, and she wrote from the heart. I can, as they say, relate to that.

NH: You re–create so wonderfully life in Paris in the 1820s and ’30s, and in the French countryside near Sand’s family’s estate at Nohant. What did you find about these places, this era, that inspired you? Was it liberating to write about an era different from your own?

EB: It was great fun to imagine how the sights and sounds of the city of nineteenth–century Paris would collide with the pastoral life Sand lived at Nohant. My challenge was to present the charms and allure of both lives. Sand loved and needed the intellectual and artistic and political life she had in Paris, but she needed equally the gifts of nature that she found in Nohant.

I was inspired by all the revolutionary goings–on in Paris at that time, and the way that roles of women were challenged, the way that socialism kept trying to assert itself, the way that artists—-writers, musicians, painters, poets—-gathered together in salons for entertainment that was the opposite of virtual reality. Would that we had such salons today! I wanted to be there in those salons, and one of the joys in writing this book is that I was.

As for the scenes of nature, I’m a nature and bird lover myself, so all of that came pretty easily.

NH: What do you hope that your readers will take away from this book, and from George herself? What do you feel is most important about her relevance today?

EB: George Sand’s struggle to become and stay herself, in all her permutations, was of paramount importance, and that idea is still relevant today, whether you’re a man or a woman. How is it that we find our deepest truths? What directions in life serve to move us toward our highest purposes? How do we accommodate and respect changes in ourselves? What do we owe the earth, and each other? How can we focus on appreciating the small gifts we are offered daily, for free, and relieve ourselves of the never–ending quest for more, more, more? How can we honor (and use!) what makes us different from others, rather than be ashamed of it? What is the best way to love and be loved?

All of these questions percolated in me as I wrote about George Sand, and I would be happy to have people who read the book take away the idea that answering such questions is not only our duty but our great pleasure. I would also like readers to consider whether it is true that we owe it to ourselves, and to those we love, to live in truth, even when it’s hard—-perhaps especially when it’s hard. If I could wish for one more thing, it would be that George Sand’s prose would be appreciated again, and that she would be understood as someone who was a bit more than the ruthless cigar–smoking nymphomaniac she is often portrayed as.

Finally, honestly, I will tell you that I hope readers will finish the last sentence of The Dream Lover and think to themselves, Boy! That was a good read!

Reader’s Guide: UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY by Nancy Horan

Monday, October 6th, 2014

978-0-345-51654-1Have you read the newest book from New York Times bestselling author Nancy Horan? Under the Wide and Starry Sky, her poignant retelling of the improbable love story of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny, is now available in paperback! There is plenty to discuss in this novel that USA Todaycalled “A richly imagined [novel] of love, laughter, pain and sacrifice…”

1. In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2. At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any point in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4. After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and Louis enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5. “Sargent was down again and painted a portrait of me walking about in my own dining-room, in my own velveteen jacket, and twisting as I go my own moustache; at one corner a glimpse of my wife, in an Indian dress, and seated in a chair that was once my grandfather’s,” wrote Louis, in an 1885 letter describing John Singer Sargent’s painting Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife. “It is, I think, excellent, but is too eccentric to be exhibited.” If you can, look  up  Sargent’s  painting (1885; Steve Wynn collection); or just consider Louis’s description above. What do you think of this portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6. Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does Louis do the same?

7. The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them?

8. Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9. In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does—her gardening for example, of which she writes in her diary, “a blossom on my rose tree is like a poem written by my son”—is not that of an artist. Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art to be, and how does it manifest itself and impact those around her? Do you agree with her views?

10. Why do you think Horan chooses “Out of my country and myself I go” as the epigraph for this book?

11. What is Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary legacy? In what ways does reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky change your view of him and his writing?

Reader’s Guide: Q&A with Nancy Horan, author of UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

978-0-345-51654-1Nancy Horan’s newest book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, is now available in paperback! The book tells the improbable love story of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny. Joining her for the Q&A is Lauren Belfer, author of the novels A Fierce Radiance (a Washington Post Best Novel of the Year, an NPR Best Mystery of the Year, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice Book) and City of Light (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Times bestseller).

Lauren Belfer: When I first heard that Under the Wide and Starry Sky was about Robert Louis Stevenson, I thought—perfect, I’ll be spending time with an old friend. Was I ever wrong about that! Under the Wide and Starry Sky captures a Stevenson I never imagined and a story I never knew, a story that’s filled with adventure, anguish, and heartbreak. How did you discover the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne?

Nancy Horan: was visiting the Monterey Bay area and discovered that Stevenson had lived there in 1879. I wondered what the Scottish author of Treasure Island was doing there. I soon learned that he had come to California seeking to marry an American woman he had met in France. Naturally I was curious about the woman. Who was this Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne who so upended Stevenson’s life? I did some initial research about both of them, and when I learned about their amazing life together, I knew I had the concept for my next novel.

LB: Many readers wonder about the line between fact and fiction in “historical fiction.” When letters, journals, and diaries are available, do you quote the actual words of your characters, the way a biographer might? Do you have any personal rules to guide you, when you put real people into scenes and conversations that are imaginary?

NH: My general rule is that because these were real people, I try to get it as right as I can. I feel I owe it to them. I stick to agreed-upon facts as a framework, because it was the historical story that drew me in the first place. The dialogue is invented, except for a few quotes. When I use these lines I put them into the mouths of the people who spoke them. If I quote from a diary or letter, I put it in italics, and if it is more than a couple of sentences, I make note of it in the Afterword. Because Louis was a prolific letter writer and Fanny was a diary keeper, I was sometimes able to write dialogue informed by how the characters were feeling at the time. But people are not always forthcoming in their written correspondence or diaries. Even with the rich resource material available for this book, much interpretation and imagining took place.

Read the rest of their Q&A here, and connect with Nancy on Facebook!

Reader’s Guide: UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY by Nancy Horan

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Horan_Under the Wide and Starry Sky Nancy Horan has had a big week. Her new novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, went on sale January 21st. The Today Show selected it as their Book Club Pick. And she has kicked off a great book tour!

If you and your book club are reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, then we have the discussion questions to get the conversation going.

Discussion Questions:

1. In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2. At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any points in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4. After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and RLS enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5. Take a look at John Singer Sargent’s painting “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” (1885; currently in the Steve Wynn collection). What do you think of his portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6. Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does RLS do the same?

7. The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them?

8. Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9. In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does is not that of an artist. He tells her, “No one should be offended if it is said that he is not an artist. The only person who should be insulted by such an observation is an artist who supports his family with his work.” Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art? Do you agree with her views?

We can’t wait to hear what you think! Join the conversation with us on our Facebook page or with Nancy Horan.

Giveaway Opportunity: VIENNA NOCTURNE by Vivien Shotwell

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Shotwell_ViennaNocturne “You don’t have to be an opera buff to fall deep into Vienna Nocturne. Vivien Shotwell catapults you straight into the eighteenth century with abundant, vivid detail. I found Anna Storace’s journey from prodigy to prima donna an irresistible tale.”—Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky

In the tradition of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone comes a sweeping historical love story and a portrait of an age. Vienna Nocturne is a deeply moving debut novel that brings to life two extraordinary figures—a thirty-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a young English soprano, Anna Storace, who was his muse—in prose as spirited, timeless, and touching as Mozart’s greatest compositions.

In late-eighteenth-century London, a young girl takes her first singing lessons with a mysterious castrato in exile. Her life is forever changed. Having learned everything he can teach her, Anna leaves behind all the security and familiarity of home and journeys to Naples and Venice to struggle and triumph in Italy’s greatest opera houses. Only sixteen, she finds herself in an intoxicating world of theaters, nobility, and vice, overwhelmed by her newfound freedom and fame. Her first bitter experience of love and heartbreak inevitably follows.

Within a few years, Anna is invited to sing in Vienna, the City of Music, by the emperor himself. There, in a teasing game of theft and play, Anna first meets Mozart, a young virtuoso pianist and striving, prodigiously talented composer. They are matched in intellect and talent, and an immediate and undeniable charge occurs between the two, despite both being married to others.

As her star rises in Vienna and her personal life deteriorates, Anna experiences an ultimate crisis. During this trying time, her only light is Mozart: his energy, his determination for her, and his art. She, in turn, becomes his hope and inspiration, and his joy, as he writes for her some of his most exquisite and enduring arias—music that will live on as his masterworks.

Rich in historical detail and beautifully wrought by Vivien Shotwell, an author who is herself an opera singer, Vienna Nocturne is a dramatic tour de force of a woman’s struggle to find love and fame in an eighteenth-century world that controls and limits her at every turn.

Enter below for a chance to win!

Jane’s Bookshelf: Historical Fiction as a Window to the Past

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

I’ve been thinking about historical fiction lately. It seems to me that when I was growing up, there were three kinds of historical novels. First were the classics that might have been written contemporaneously to the time they depicted but were historical to a late 20th century reader, whether it was Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE or Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE. Then there were the books that explored life in ancient cultures like Mary Renault’s THE KING MUST DIE or Irving Stone’s THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY. And of course, there were portraits of kings and queens of yore in the novels of Jean Plaidy and Margaret George, among others. Today, the classics remain and writers still write these kinds of novels: just this past year saw the publications of THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller, BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel, and LIONHEART by Sharon Kay Penman, for example.

ParisWife_hc We’ve also seen the flowering of a different kind of historical fiction. Books like LOVING FRANK by Nancy Horan, THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain, and THE 19TH WIFE by David Ebershoff start with the story of real women who have extraordinary men in their lives, whether it be Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, or Brigham Young. And yet in the hands of these storytellers, you don’t feel you are reading lives recreated in fiction, but rather that you are meeting women whose stories enlighten our understanding of these men and their lives. That these stories are based on real people’s lives makes the reading experience that much more vivid, and gives us a deep understanding of the human condition, of love and betrayal.

It’s not just women romantically involved with famous men whose lives have made for great historical novels. Melanie Benjamin created an indelible, fresh portrait of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s novels, in ALICE I HAVE BEEN. Her latest novel THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB brings to life AutobiographyMrsTomThumbLavinia Warren Bump, who became a worldwide celebrity after marrying General Tom Thumb. Benjamin portrays 19th century America so vividly I often felt I was reading a painting. Sometimes I think that this new era of historical fiction began with two novels that married imaginary characters and real people: GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE by Susan Vreeland and GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING by Tracy Chevalier. Both have Vermeer as the historical figure at their centers; one created the lives touched by an invented painting while the other imagined the life of his servant. I love both—I tried and failed to acquire Tracy Chevalier, but was lucky enough to become first Susan Vreeland’s paperback editor and now work with her from the start of every book.

I’ve found the way novelists intertwine what actually happened with their own fictional worlds adds nuance to a book club discussion. I’ve always loved history and fiction—so historical fiction is perfect for me. I’d love to hear about some of your favorites, I know I’ll want to add them to my T.B.R. pile! Let me know what they are in the comments section below or on Twitter at @JaneatRandom.

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