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News & Features » January 2014 » Kaylie Jones Interviews Laurie Loewenstein, author of Unmentionables

Kaylie Jones Interviews Laurie Loewenstein, author of Unmentionables

To celebrate the release of Unmentionables (now available wherever books are sold), Laurie Loewenstein’s debut novel and the inaugural book in our new Kaylie Jones Books imprint, we asked Kaylie Jones to ask Laurie a few questions about her writing process, her incorporation of research into a work of historical fiction, and how Unmentionables came to be.

What was the original seed that started you off on the writing of this historical novel?

I was wandering through the library stacks one day looking up something about women’s clothing at the turn of the century for an earlier novel project I was working on, when I found a book about a dress reformer called Nina Wilcox Putnam. From 1915 to 1940 she was a well-known writer for women’s magazines (she also wrote the original screenplay for The Mummy). She was a big advocate for dress reform and designed this caftan cut form one piece of cloth that required minimal sewing and offered maximum mobility. She also was convinced that she’d cured herself of tuberculosis by wearing these loose garments and sleeping in a tent on the roof of her apartment building in NYC. As the same time I was reading The River of Doubt, a nonfiction book about the last seven years of Theodore Roosevelt’s life. The former president was a militarist, firmly stood against isolationism, and wanted to fight in WWI, though he was too old. His sons went instead and his youngest and favorite, Quentin, was killed in battle. Roosevelt was overcome with grief and felt responsible for his son’s death. These two books started me thinking about activists—people like Roosevelt and Nina Wilcox Putnam—who were out there making speeches and advocating for reform, and what happens to such people when their words inflame others into taking actions that ultimately cause their deaths.

The historical details in the novel feel very organic and natural to the setting and story development. How did you know how much historical detail to include, and what to discard?

When I was a kid my parents and I visited many historic sites around the country, including Schoenbrunn Village (a Moravian settlement in Ohio, the site of a terrible massacre); Kentucky statesman Henry Clay’s elegant plantation home in Lexington; and Williamsburg, VA.  As we’d walk through the sites, I’d imagine myself living there and the places and people felt alive and real to me. As a child I was already fascinated by history and projecting myself into those situations. Writing the novel, I put myself back in 1917 and 18 and recreated the spaces, as any writer would who was describing a setting through the five senses. The research helped me put myself in that time and place, so then when I was actually writing the scene, I had a good sense of how things smelled and tasted and sounded, and used those elements to make the scene come alive for the reader. Sometimes it is tempting when you’ve done a great deal of research to include everything in a scene, so as not to waste the time and energy you’ve spent; however, I learned to cull the material so that the details would emerge organically, rather than in a forced manner. You need to have your writing open and airy enough so that readers can bring their own imaginations to the scene, as I did with those log cabins and mansions of my childhood.

What as a writer do think gives you the most trouble?

It’s taken me a long time to learn that creating the characters and then throwing them into an extraordinary situation, such as a train wreck or a family death, is not enough to create tension. Conflict has to spring from the character’s own internal turmoil and resistance to change. The characters don’t grow just by experiencing traumatic events; they have to reflect upon, and react to, the events in some way that changes their internal landscape, which then changes their perception of the world, and ultimately changes their actions.

What is your next project?

I’m working on a murder mystery set in the 1930s Dust Bowl, in a small Oklahoma town. As was very common at the time, the Sheriff and his wife live in an apartment that includes the town’s only jail cell. The Sheriff is up for reelection and has only a week to solve the case. Several suspects are arrested and spend time in the jail cell, being cared for by the Sheriff’s wife, who quietly contributes to the final unmasking of the true killer.

Posted: Jan 8, 2014

Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: , , , , ,