If someone had told me in high school that one day I'd write an historical novel, I would have rolled my eyes. The novel part would have been enticing, but historical? History was the Treaty of Ghent and the Seven Years War. History class was a forty-minute squirm from which I would emerge unscathed by insight. Down the hall in English Lit, though, there were stories to be had, and it was stories I craved. Huck Finn was throwing around pig's blood, faking his own death to escape his rotten Pap. Jane Eyre was finding her way back across the moors to Rochester. Hearts were breaking and healing left and right.
It's not surprising, then, that all these years later, it was story that pulled me into writing a novel set in the past. Loving Frank is about a forbidden love affair between two people who lived a hundred years ago — Frank Lloyd Wright and his married client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. The affair set off a colossal newspaper scandal when the lovers ran off to Europe together. Questions of the heart — Mamah's heart — interested me the most. Who was she? And how could she leave her children, no matter how charming and clever Wright was, or how profound her desire to realize her potential?
I had certain facts about Mamah's life to go on — she'd earned a master's degree from University of Michigan, spoke several languages, and had a wonderful laugh, but much had to be constructed from the outside in because it appeared none of her letters or personal papers survived. What did exist were her translations of the essays of a Swedish feminist for whom she worked, Ellen Key, and I read those translations closely.
In the abundance of literature on Wright, I searched for mentions of Mamah. I went to the Getty Archive in L.A. to read through Wright's personal correspondence, listening for his conversational voice. After a while, the search became a fever: I spent my days wandering around in that narrow band of history from 1907 to 1914, emailing train experts, reading microfilm of old newspapers, and savoring almost everything I bumped into, including the ads.
I knew that Mamah's time with Wright had been a journey that started in Oak Park, and continued on to Boulder, Berlin, Paris, Sweden, Italy and Canada, and ultimately to Wisconsin. In trying to comprehend the far away places she'd inhabited, the important and the useless entered my brain in equal measure. Take Berlin, for example. I learned that in summer, local women wore collarless, open-necked "pneumonia blouses" and white cotton gloves with all the fingers cut off, except the thumb. Kaiser Wilhelm took an ice cold bath every morning and sometimes changed uniforms six or seven times in a day. Mail zipped around Berlin in pneumatic tubes. In the cafes, Modernist artists and poets argued they held within their hands the power to change the world into a better place, despite the rumbling threat of war. Some imagined that they were anointed ones who continued the creative work God had left unfinished on the seventh day.
By then I realized that I was researching more than writing. So this was the big secret historians keep to themselves: historical research is wildly seductive and fun. There's a thrill in the process of digging, then piecing together details like a puzzle. The steeping method is a truly inefficient way to get your history, though. You wake up some mornings feeling as pickled as a sailor in port. You've lost days. Weeks.
From time to time I despaired that I had drifted too far from the task of penetrating the inner lives of my characters. Or had I? In discussing his research for Burr, Gore Vidal wrote: "...the past is a different country with different air and full of people not like us but like themselves." When I tried to breathe the air surrounding Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, I sensed it was heady, indeed. Major movements were being born in those days — Modernism, Feminism, and a host of other "isms" that swirled around both of my protagonists. What was I to do but chase those ideas until my brain burned?
Some days, I just surfed the web. It was on one such day in 2001 that I came upon a reference to an article by a Scandanavian scholar about a cache of ten letters she had found in the Ellen Key collection at the Swedish Royal Library. They were written by Mamah Borthwick Cheney. There was an additional letter from Frank Lloyd Wright to Key. Within a week, I had copies of the letters in my hands. And while they were mostly about the business of translating, the letters revealed the turmoil inside Mamah's soul during her two-year sojourn. What was most satisfying was that I had chanced upon Mamah's actual voice, and it was very close to the voice I had imagined.
The letters brought me back to what I knew in high school, and what had motivated me to write the novel in the first place: that the truths of the human heart are timeless and universal, and the rightful pursuit of the novelist. The understandings I bring to the story as a mother, wife, friend, and working woman far outweigh the importance of setting the proper model of teapot whistling on Mamah's stove. Yet the historical details I ingested during research, even if they weren't used, could not be discounted. They were profoundly important in understanding who my characters were. I believe those characters were shaped, as we are today, by such external influences as the wars they witnessed, the people their newspapers made into heroes, the social stations they held, the houses they inhabited. The goal in writing an historical novel is not to show everything you know about the period you're portraying, but to let it inform you so that, hopefully, your character's inner life emerges organically from the whole steaming brew of genes, and place, and moment in time.
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Nancy Horan, a former journalist and longtime resident of Oak Park, Illinois, now lives and writes on an island in Puget Sound.
Books mentioned in this post