Thursday, October 1, 2015

THE BEAUTIFUL AMERICAN: Q&A with Jeanne Mackin

“Achingly beautiful and utterly mesmerizing.” 
—JENNIFER ROBSON, AUTHOR OF SOMEWHERE IN FRANCE

“From Poughkeepsie to Paris, from the razzmatazz of the twenties to the turmoil of World War Two and the perfume factories of Grasse, Mackin draws you into the world of expatriate artists and photographers and tells a story of love, betrayal, survival and friendship…an engaging and unforgettable novel” 
—RENEE ROSEN, AUTHOR OF DOLL FACE


THE BOOK
As recovery from World War II begins, expat American Nora Tours travels from her home in southern France to London in search of her missing sixteen-year-old daughter. There, she unexpectedly meets up with an old acquaintance, famous model-turned-photographer Lee Miller. Neither has emerged from the war unscathed. Nora is racked with the fear that her efforts to survive under the Vichy regime may have cost her daughter’s life. Lee suffers from what she witnessed as a war correspondent photographing the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.

Nora and Lee knew each other in the heady days of late 1920’s Paris, when Nora was giddy with love for her childhood sweetheart, Lee became the celebrated mistress of the artist Man Ray, and Lee’s magnetic beauty drew them all into the glamorous lives of famous artists and their wealthy patrons. But Lee fails to realize that her friendship with Nora is even older, that it goes back to their days as children in Poughkeepsie, New York, when a devastating trauma marked Lee forever. Will Nora’s reunion with Lee give them a chance to forgive past betrayals, and break years of silence?

A novel of freedom and frailty, desire and daring, The Beautiful American portrays the extraordinary relationship between two passionate, unconventional woman.

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: June 3, 2014 NAL/Penguin Group
Formats: eBook, Paperback, Audio
352 Pages

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Q&A WITH JEANNE MACKIN
What is your favorite scene in The Beautiful American?
There’s a moment, close to the end of the book, where everything seemed to come together for both me, as the author, and my main character, Nora. Nora grows up in a small town in New York State and becomes friends with the very famous and beautiful Lee Miller (The Beautiful American of the title). They are very different women and Nora lives a bit in Lee’s shadow. But when Nora choses to live on her own terms, moving away from Poughkeepsie to France, having a child out of wedlock, staying in France when war comes instead of returning to the United States, she risks everything. And almost loses everything, including her own life. During the war she does lose her child. But then there is this moment, when a friend thinks he has found her daughter and Nora is walking down a stony trail in southern France to the place where she thinks her daughter is, and everything turns…from sadness to hope, from deprivation to new possibilities, from loss to love. Even the writing changes in that moment, becomes almost like a dance with words for the beat. It’s a moment full of sun and expectation. That moment, for me, is the heart of the novel. And of course, I won’t tell you how it ends.

What appeals to you most about your chosen genre? 
I’ve been reading historical fiction since I was child, and now write it for the same reasons. It transports me. To different times, different places. When I read or write historical fiction it is as if I’m living a whole new life. Not that my real life is bad. It isn’t. It’s quite wonderful, in fact, aside from the ticks in the garden and really high property taxes! But as pleasant as my life is, the possibility of living more life times, at least for part of the day, is just too good to resist. I’ve ‘lived’ in twelth century France, nineteenth century Pennsylvania, and have daydreamed other novels set in tenth century Ireland and seventeenth century England.

What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
A few reviewers have actually complained that I do too much research. I get so involved in creating/recreating the lives my characters would actually have lived – what they would eat for breakfast, wear, how they would spend their spare time, feel about certain issues. I want the ‘atmosphere’ to be as full and accurate as possible so that the reader can feel she is living the book, not just reading it. I suppose in some future time, if I came back again as a historical novelist, I would be creating a holodeck where the book happens all around you, not just on the page.

But that same fascination with research and detail also got me what I think is my finest compliment. When I was giving a reading from The Beautiful American someone asked me about research. I said that while I had traveled in Paris and southern France several times and knew the places, much of the research for the novel had been done in a library, because we could no longer travel to Paris as it was in 1932, between the wars. And someone in the audience shouted out, “Oh yes, we can. You just took us there.” That was a fabulous moment for me!

What has been your greatest challenge as a writer? Have you been able to overcome it? 
 I despair easily. I wake up sometimes and think, oh, why bother. This book isn’t working. This scene isn’t working. I don’t know what happens next. Maybe I should just go play with my cat. Probably most writers have moments like that but I seem to have them quite frequently. That’s when I have to get very strict with myself. I think of my writing as a promise I make to myself, and I have to keep it. Just sit down, and do it. I taught creative writing and that was what I told my students as well. If you really want to write a book, just sit down and do it. Don’t think about, don’t talk about it, write it. And if you don’t really want to write, want it with all your heart, all your skill, all your commitment and passion, go find something you really do want to do.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I still don’t have moments of despair. Probably once a week. Funny how the fear and despair disappear once I sit down at my work desk and start putting those words on the page.

What are you working on now? 
I just published another novel, A Lady of Good Family, and am working to get it out in front of readers. I have readings and presentations coming up in various places (you can check my website for information) and some blogging to do for it as well. A Lady of Good Family is a novel about Beatrix Jones Farrand, the Gilded Age niece of Edith Wharton who became the first professional female landscape gardener in this country. She defied a lot of convention to become the woman she wanted to become, and her era fascinates me. All those very rich families contrasting with the very poor working class, the pampered and privileged women who often had no more rights than their children or servants, that sense of a new era beginning, and what were we going to do with all that wonderful modernity?

I’m also working on a new novel, for next publication next year. It’s set in Paris again, between the war (perhaps my favorite time period) and it is about the rivalry between two very famous women.

Some quickies!
Favorite place — A pine forest in the Alps
Favorite smell — Rosemary, just picked in the garden
Favorite dish — Spaghetti carbonara
Favorite color — Soft, muted green
My best trait — Loyalty


THE AUTHOR
Jeanne Mackin’s novel, The Beautiful American (New American Library), based on the life of photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller, received the 2014 CNY award for fiction. Her other novels include A Lady of Good Family, about gilded age personality Beatrix Farrand, The Sweet By and By, about nineteenth century spiritualist Maggie Fox, Dreams of Empire set in Napoleonic Egypt, The Queen’s War, about Eleanor of Aquitaine, and The Frenchwoman, set in revolutionary France and the Pennsylvania wilderness.

Jeanne Mackin is also the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers (Cornell University publications) and co-editor of The Book of Love (W.W. Norton.) She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and a keynote speaker for The Dickens Fellowship. Her work in journalism won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, in Washington, D.C. She has taught or conducted workshops in Pennsylvania, Hawaii and at Goddard College in Vermont.

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