One of the fun challenges of a major month-long project like these #WomensHistoryReads interviews is figuring out what order to post them in. So many great authors! So many great answers! But when I found out yesterday that Laurel Davis Huber's THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER was awarded the 2017 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction, I knew it was time to move her interview to the front of the line and share. Congratulations, Laurel!
Greer: Tell us about a woman from the past who inspired your writing.
Laurel: It was my sixth birthday, January 28, 1957. My mother and I were in the kitchen making a birthday cake when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Chaplin, my first grade teacher, who stood at the door. She had a gift in her hands. (You might think, Whoa, teacher’s pet! And you might be partly right, but the truth was simply that the Chaplins were neighbors and friends of my parents.) Anyway, the gift was an alphabet book, Beginning With A. There were short poems inside, each named for a child. A is for Alexander, J is for Josephine, O is for Oliver, etc. But it was the drawings that were truly entrancing: each child surrounded by a different, gorgeous frame of diamonds and bows and the most exquisite geometric designs. I loved the book, and I held on to it.
More than half a century later, when I was having trouble making headway with a novel (can you imagine?), I procrastinated by reaching for my beloved Beginning With A. For the first time, I paid attention to the name of the author/illustrator—Pamela Bianco. Just to procrastinate further, I Googled her name. Quickly I discovered she had been a world-famous child prodigy artist. Fascinated, I kept Googling. One thing led to another, and I found out her mother was Margery Williams, author of the children’s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit. I was hooked. And thus one novel was set aside and a new one began—The Velveteen Daughter. So as it turned out, the woman who inspired my writing was my first-grade teacher. Which does make things come full circle, doesn’t it?
Greer: A lovely circle! Next up: what’s the last book that blew you away?
Laurel: Interesting, the phrase “blew me away.” While a vivid metaphor, it also makes me realize how while The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish most certainly did blow me away, it also did quite the opposite—it ensnared me, pulling me into its depths. I was so happily mired in this beautiful story that I did not want it to end. The novel, an intricately wrought literary thriller, begins with the discovery of 17th century papers found hidden under a London staircase. The story concerns Ester, a young Jewish woman living in Amsterdam in the late 1600’s who becomes a scribe for a blind rabbi. The fact that, as a woman, she is even literate, let alone proficient in Greek and Latin, is a wonder. Her heart yearns for knowledge, for the chance to converse with the great (male) philosophers of her time, especially the exiled Spinoza. Ester’s literacy—and her lack of a dowry—makes marriage a difficult proposition. Her tribulations, and the fierce intellectual burning that fuels her quest for the freedom to think, to express herself, combined with a compelling and emotional plot, make for an exceptional read. Toward the end of her life, Ester wants her diary to be burned. These are her words:
"Let the pages burn, for such be the fate of the soul, that all our striving be dust, and none in the bright living world ever know truly what once lived and died in another heart.”
Until now, my favorite literary thriller was Possession by A. S. Byatt. I still love that novel, but The Weight of Ink has toppled it from its throne.
Greer: Your description is mouth-watering -- now I'm dying to read The Weight of Ink. What unsung woman from history would you most like to read a book about, and who should write it?
Laurel: My “unsung woman from the past” would actually be four women – the women who shaped Benedict Arnold. (What can I say - Arnold is one of my obsessions.) We tend to forget that until he wasn’t, Arnold was a brave patriot, a beloved leader of his troops, and an honorable man. Arnold grew up without a male role model at home. He was deeply ashamed of his father, the town drunk. But he had great love and respect for his mother, and these feelings continued with the other women who helped to shape his life: his sister (who ran his household when he was widowed with children), and his two wives. His second wife, Peggy Shippen, just nineteen when she married Arnold, was both beautiful and highly intelligent. It is very likely that she was a large factor in Arnold’s decision to turn traitor. The story of Arnold’s women is a very colorful one. I’m afraid I’d have to choose myself to write it – it’s the book I set aside in answer #1!
Greer: And is that your next book? When will we see more from you?
Laurel: Actually, my next book is a stark departure from historical fiction. It is contemporary, with elements of magical realism. While the story revolves around a woman, her family, and a dog (the dog being extremely important), the cast of characters also includes Queen Victoria, Odysseus, Cleopatra, and Little Bo Peep.
Enough said, I think!
I am aiming for an early 2019 publication date, but who knows.
Greer: Can't wait to see how that cast of characters comes together.
Laurel: And your question: Do you ever think about writing outside your genre? I am, naturally, a huge fan of stories about great unknown women from the past, but are there other kinds of stories that gnaw at your brain?
Greer: The writer's mind is a vast, unconquerable landscape. For years and years I wrote nothing but contemporary, and ended up accidentally writing historical fiction when I got the idea for THE MAGICIAN'S LIE. Then for several years after that, every single idea that came to me was a historical fiction idea, most with that strong element of uncovering women's stories from the past, as you mentioned. But now a new (but also old?) gnawing has begun. Other, non-historical ideas are popping up. I don't know when I'll have the time or energy to pursue them, but I'm definitely keeping track.
Find out more about Laurel Davis Huber and her prize-winning book The Velveteen Daughter at her website, laureldavishuber.com.