A delightful day in #WomensHistoryReads! When I first started planning this massive interview project, one of the first people I reached out to was Ariel Lawhon, whose work I love. (Many, many people have heard me tell the story of how I shouted DAMMIT ARIEL in public when I reached a certain reveal toward the end of Flight of Dreams.) Her highly-anticipated latest novel, I Was Anastasia, is out today. Welcome, Ariel, and all best to you on your fabulous new release!
Greer: How would you describe what you write?
Ariel: I’ve always said that I write Literary Historical Mysteries but I’m not sure that this is entirely accurate. Or perhaps I should say that not everyone agrees with this description. Most readers seem to have a different take on my writing and that’s okay. What I do know is that I love to find a person or a moment in history—preferably one at the heart of an unsolved mystery—and build a story around them. Whether it’s a missing judge in 1930s New York (my debut novel The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress), the doomed last flight of the Hindenburg (Flight of Dreams) or the lingering questions about the final days of Anastasia Romanov (my new novel, I Was Anastasia), my goal is to write a book that drops the reader right into the heart of an historical mystery.
Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?
Ariel: That is a great question and don’t really know how to answer it. I’ve always thought of myself as a temporary expert in the subject of my current novel. I immerse myself in that subject, learning everything I possibly can. But—and this is important—the file that holds all of that information gets deleted as soon as I move on to my next book so that I can fill it with new information (think Benedict Cumberbatch’s “mind palace” in Sherlock—except without the…ahem…chemical stimulants). There was a time that I could tell you anything you wanted to know about Tammany Hall and mob activity in early twentieth century New York City. A few years later I could recite facts about Zeppelin aircraft in general and the Hindenburg specifically on demand and with great enthusiasm. And I spent the last few years up to my eyeballs in Romanov history. But I’ve just started another novel so those details are starting to get a bit fuzzy now. To answer your question, I think I am disqualified from being a historian simply because I’ve always imagined historians to be experts in one subject and to retain what they learn for a lifetime. But who knows, maybe my definition is wrong? If I do qualify, please let me know so I can add that to my bio.
Greer: What do you find most challenging or most exciting about researching historical women?
Ariel: Simply put, in terms of the challenge, I want to get it right and that is very, very hard. Especially when you are working with limited information or the information you have comes from a slanted viewpoint. Keep in mind that when women write about women they do so in a very different way than when men write about women and most of the biographies and articles available from the last hundred years or so were written by men. Twice now I’ve written about women who published their own autobiographies and it has been fascinating to compare those books with what has been written about them by men. That said, I love the process of unraveling an historic figure, of discovering who she really was. The women who came before us are identical to the women we know and love today. They are complex and difficult and passionate and inspiring and deeply human. And it is that humanity that I try to put on the page.
Greer: And you're so, so good at it.
Ariel: My question for you: I recently saw the announcement for your next novel, WOMAN NINETY-NINE (Congratulations! It sounds amazing!) and I’m curious why you decided to write this particular book and why now?
Greer: Thank you! My initial inspiration for writing a novel set in an insane asylum was a weird confluence of the Nellie Bly episode of "Drunk History" and the Elvis Costello song "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," but the specific shape it took was very much influenced by our current political and social environment. It's set in 1888 and I've been describing it in all sorts of ways. The flip one is "a 19th-century 'Orange is the New Black.'" But I also think of it as the story of a group of angry, brave women fighting a rigged system, and I wouldn't think of it that way if I hadn't been inspired by women who fit that description today. One of my favorite things about writing historical fiction is that it's never really just about the past.