WomensHistoryReads interview: Juliette Fay

If you love reading about the early days of Hollywood, the behind-the-scenes combination of grit and glamour, you will absolutely love Juliette Fay’s latest, City of Flickering Light, just released today! I was lucky enough to read an early copy and absolutely devoured it. Her book The Tumbling Turner Sisters is one of my favorite takes on vaudeville. Turner fans will enjoy seeing a certain character’s return in this book.

So today seemed like the right day to introduce you to Juliette and her new novel! Fans of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us will especially love its intelligent, sympathetic take on the constant compromises, surprises and tragedies that accompany the quest for fame.

Welcome, Juliette!

Juliette Fay

Juliette Fay

Greer: What’s the last book that blew you away?

Juliette: I just loved A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler. It’s about Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont who rose from half-starved teenager to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in the country. Along the way she aimed her keen mind and can-do personality at social causes like poverty and women's suffrage, and found true love. A fascinating story, carefully researched, and beautifully written.

I went to hear the author speak and she talked about how Alva had always been portrayed as aggressive, demanding, and bossy, and at first Fowler wrote the whole story with that perspective. Then she started thinking about how many men from history could be described in just the same way, but were considered great leaders with big ideas and admirably high standards. Fowler rewrote the entire book with the same angle on Alva. I love that she was able to see through what would have been considered terribly un-well-behaved at the time, to the bright, passionate, shrewd woman whose efforts impacted so many for the better.

Greer: Yes! It was a fabulous book and Fowler speaks about that issue so eloquently. Next question for you: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Juliette: I do not consider myself a historian, and this is the very thing that kept me from writing historical fiction for a long time, despite the fact that I love to read it. I kept thinking, “Don’t you have to have some sort of degree, or at least to have paid a little more attention in history class than I did?”

 Then I was between book ideas for a couple of months in 2013, which was really freaking me out, and I suddenly remembered that my great grandfather had been in vaudeville, and wouldn’t it be great to write a novel about that! It gave me the inspiration and courage to start researching. After a couple of months, when I felt I had a solid command of the facts I was able to start writing the story.

So while I’m still not a historian, I found I really love learning all this crazy stuff, whether it’s historical facts, medical conditions, fashion, food, politics, language and jargon, old jokes to pepper the dialogue of my Jewish comedians in the book about vaudeville (The Tumbling Turner Sisters), or crazy stunts to give my silent film actors in my latest book, City of Flickering Light. And because I’m still a little insecure about it, I’m fanatical about getting the facts right. 

Greer: Your dedication shows! You’re so good at working those details in. Last question: What book, movie or TV show would your readers probably be surprised to find out you love?

Juliette: I’m a huge fan of historical shows, of course—The Crown, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Victoria, Poldark. I also love shows with interesting structures, like This Is Us, where the timeframe is bouncing all over the place. 

But my guilty pleasure is Roswell, New Mexico. There, I’ve said it. 

If you believe the conspiracy theories, Roswell, NM is the site of a crashed alien ship and a vast government cover-up. The show is based on the premise that three little alien kids emerged from that crash with no knowledge of where they came from and what they’re capable of. Now in their late twenties, they’re still desperately trying to pass as humans so the government won’t spirit them away and do experiments on them. 

I think what I like about it is that it’s just pure emotion. Of course, they’ve each fallen in love with humans, which is complicated—there’s a whole Romeo-and-Juliet thing going on with “us” and “them.” It’s all angst and heartache and unexpected couplings. You have to suspend disbelief hard and just go with it. No real nutritional value, but who doesn’t love a hot fudge sundae once in a while!

Greer: Reciprocal confession: I was a huge fan of the original “Roswell” in the ‘90s. Such a sundae.

Juliette: Question for you: In your latest book, Woman 99 (which I cannot wait to get my hands on, as I completely loved Girl in Disguise), what was the most interesting piece of information you dug up in your research, whether you actually used it in the book or not?

Greer: There’s so much that doesn’t make it into the book, right? We always find more than we can use. For Woman 99 specifically, the asylum setting was my biggest research challenge — it had to be realistic and accurate to the period without being completely depressing and exhausting for the reader. So I didn’t go deep on some of the uglier “treatments,” though I worked in a passing mention of the one I found most shocking: the utterly quack-y idea that there was a link between dental health and mental health. The idea that pulling a depressed patient’s teeth out would somehow help them seems ridiculous to us now, but it was a real thing that happened. And here’s the extra-creepy part: Dr. Henry Cotton, who did a lot of this “focal infection therapy” in the early 1900s, believed so strongly that infections of the teeth spread to the mind that he removed his wife’s and children’s teeth just in case. Ew! Truth is creepier than fiction!


Read more at JulietteFay.com.