Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Interview with Jennie Fields, author of The Age of Desire

Today, Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Jennie Fields to our little corner of the net to discuss her latest release, The Age of Desire. 

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Jennie Fields
Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Jennie. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Age of Desire.
The Age of Desire is a biographical novel based on the life of Edith Wharton, the American writer who wrote The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, among many other books.  (She wrote forty books in her lifetime!)  It’s about what happened when at age forty-five, and in a sexless, loveless marriage, she met a young journalist with an unsavory reputation, and embarked on a wild and life-changing affair with him.

What inspired you to write this story? What drew you to Edith Wharton?
Edith Wharton has been my favorite author for years.  Her writing is so modern, so audacious, so wise. The idea of a woman so accomplished, so brilliant, having a sexual awakening as late as forty-five is a story that really enthralled me.

What research went into the novel and what proved the most intriguing discovery over the course of your inquiries?  
I put years of research into the book.  And Edith left a lot behind to research.  She wrote about six letters a day on average and many of them still exist.  She kept a “love diary” which recorded her feelings during her affair.  She wrote scads of letters to her lover, Fullerton, and though she begged him to burn them, being something of a cad, he didn’t.  But the most thrilling discovery happened about a month after I chose Anna Bahlmann as my secondary character.  Anna was in Edith’s life for years, but Edith’s biographers barely mentioned her.  I researched her, imagining they must have been very close.  One night I woke in the night and put her name into a search engine and to my surprise, Christies was auctioning off 135 letters from Edith to Anna that had been stowed away for a hundred years!  I called and begged them to look at the letters before the auction and was thrilled when they kindly agreed.  Everything I imagined about Edith and Anna’s closeness was true. And yet, Anna was still a servant, there to support Edith.  The relationship fascinated me.

Edith Wharton
The story takes readers to many different locals: Paris, England, Kansas City and Lenox. How did you approach depicting of atmosphere of each city?  
What an interesting question!  Well, I tried to paint the colors and feel of the different locales with details.  The elegance of Paris with the description of the phenomenal apartment Edith rented from George Vanderbilt, the naturalness of Lenox with the smell of the pines, descriptions of Edith’s exquisite gardens.  I want my readers to see, feel, touch and smell the settings.

Obviously the book is about Edith, but do you see yourself in any of your characters and is there one of them you wish you were more like? 
I see myself in Edith only in the fact that she’s a writer, struggling to tell stories that matter. If I had a choice, I would like to be as confident as Edith, and as kind as Anna.  That combination would be a very special person!

Friendship between women is complex by its very nature. What did you want to show readers in making Anna a central component of the story?
I think friendship between women is complex in general, but when you add the complexity that Anna is both a friend and a servant, then things become interesting.  Edith loved Anna, but she was also her boss, always had the last say, and really wasn’t required to worry about her feelings.  Sometimes she did, other times it didn’t suit her.  Edith was a famously imperious woman.  She did not suffer fools lightly.  Anna was a very bright and dear woman or Edith wouldn’t have kept her around as long as she did.  But it couldn’t have been easy to work for Edith.  Still, Anna was sometimes like a mother figure to Edith, whose own mother was not an easy woman.  And Anna once told someone that the only thing that was important in her life was making Edith’s life easier.  A very motherly thing to say.

Original manuscript page
from The House of Mirth
Sexuality is another topic of your work. As an author, did you find this subject matter intimating in any way and why did you feel it such an important part of Edith's story? 
 Along with a story about female friendship, this book is really about a sexual awakening.  So I knew I needed to write about it.  It’s fascinating how naïve Edith was about sex before meeting Fullerton.  She wrote, “I don’t know what happy women know” in her diary, and she was -- it’s made clear by the context -- speaking about sex.  So her awakening at such a late age was a riveting thing.  Still, it could have been intimidating to write about, except, happily, I had a guide.  Most people don’t realize this, but Edith wrote erotica, and it’s pretty x-rated stuff.  It helped me understand how she viewed sex and orgasm once she’d experienced it.  It gave me the courage to write openly about her sexuality.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
I’d love to meet Edith alone and ask her a thousand questions.  I’d love to spend a weekend at the Mount and watch her be a hostess.  I’d love just a moment to swim in her world!  What a life she led.  And how brilliant she was.  She let nothing stop her.  She tried things no author of her era had ever tried.  For instance, in The Custom of the Country, her protagonist is so odious, so unlikable, and yet one can’t stop turning the pages.  How did she do that?  What was her thought as she began?  And is her protagonist’s name, Undine Spragg, a symbol standing for U.S.?  I’ve always wanted to ask that!  How did Edith view her use of language?  How did she know to write so simply, much more like writers of today than writers of her era?

The Mount. Image by David Dashiell
What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
Well, firstly, I hope they’ll be intrigued enough to pick up and read Edith Wharton.  Not just The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, her masterpieces, but also The Custom of the Country, The Reef, The Mother’s Recompense, Summer.  Once you love Edith Wharton, there’s so much to explore. 

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings? 
I’m working on another biographical novel about a woman born in the 19th Century who lived through the early part of the 20th Century.  She was a feminist before her time, an art collector, one of the first to discover impressionism and bring it to the United States, and a powerful, fascinating character with an interesting love story. Her life mirrors the rise of the city of Chicago.  But I’m not sharing her name yet!

Thanks so much, Erin.  These have been wonderful, unique questions that were a delight to answer.

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About the Author: Born in the heart of the heart of the country – Chicago — Jennie Fields decided to become a writer at the age of six and produced her first (365 page!) novel when she was eleven. She received her MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop and published her first short stories while spending a postgraduate year at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. But needing to feed her family in the era just post-Mad Men, she became an early female copywriter at an advertising agency, soon rising to creative director and moving to New York. In her 32-year advertising career, she wrote and produced many well-known and award-winning commercials. People even now can embarrass her by telling her they grew up dancing to one of her McDonalds’ jingles. Still, fiction was her great love. Writing during her lunch hour and after her daughter’s bedtime she penned her first novel, Lily Beach, which was published by Atheneum in 1993 to much acclaim. Since then, she’s written three more novels including Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and The Middle Ages. Her latest, The Age of Desire, is a biographical novel based on the life of the author dearest to her heart, Edith Wharton. An Editor’s Choice of the New York Times Book Review, it describes Wharton’s mid-life love affair with a younger, manipulative man. Why the affinity to Wharton? Because she wrote about people attempting to break society’s expectations for them – which is something Fields has been yearning to do all her life. For more information, please visit Jennie’s website. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Book: For fans of The Paris Wife, a sparkling glimpse into the life of Edith Wharton and the scandalous love affair that threatened her closest friendship. They say that behind every great man is a great woman. Behind Edith Wharton, there was Anna Bahlmann—her governess turned literary secretary and confidante. At the age of forty-five, despite her growing fame, Edith remains unfulfilled in a lonely, sexless marriage. Against all the rules of Gilded Age society, she falls in love with Morton Fullerton, a dashing young journalist. But their scandalous affair threatens everything in Edith’s life—especially her abiding ties to Anna. At a moment of regained popularity for Wharton, Jennie Fields brilliantly interweaves Wharton’s real letters and diary entries with her fascinating, untold love story. Told through the points of view of both Edith and Anna, The Age of Desire transports readers to the golden days of Wharton’s turn-of-the century world and—like the recent bestsellerThe Chaperone—effortlessly re-creates the life of an unforgettable woman.

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Check out all the stops on Jennie Fields' The Age of Desire Virtual Book Tour


Monday, July 29
Feature & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Wednesday, July 31
Review at Peeking Between the Pages
Giveaway at vvb32 reads
Monday, August 5
Review at Carole’s Ramblings & Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell
Tuesday, August 6
Review at A Bookish Affair
Interview at From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, August 7
Review at West Metro Mommy
Guest Post & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Thursday, August 8
Review at Book-alicious Mama
Friday, August 9
Review at vvb32 reads
Guest Post at Historical Tapestry
Monday, August 12
Review at Carpe Librum
Wednesday, August 14
Review at My Reader’s Block
Review & Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Friday, August 16
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Monday, August 19
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, August 20
Review at The Cottage Bookshelf
Interview & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, August 21
Review at Book Addict Katie
Review & Interview at A Bookish Libraria
Thursday, August 22
Review at Amused by Books
Review at Just One More Chapter
Friday, August 23
Review at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Monday, August 26
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time
Review at Books, Belles and Beaux
Tuesday, August 27
Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict
Guest Post at Books, Belles and Beaux
Wednesday, August 28
Review at The Lit Bitch
Review at WTF Are You Reading?
Thursday, August 29
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Friday, August 30
Review at A Novel Review
Review & Giveaway at Books in the Burbs


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