Friday, June 02, 2006

As I mentioned yesterday, I was completely captivated by my friend Mary Sharratt's brilliant new novel, The Vanishing Point, which Mary describes as "a literary novel of dark suspense set in 17th century Maryland. It tells the intertwined the stories of two sisters, one lost and the other searching." Besides weaving a gripping story, Mary captures the details of the time period in a way that stirs the senses and sparks an immediate connection between the reader and the characters (as well as the world they inhabit).

I asked Mary a few questions about the book and her creative process:

--What was your inspiration for The Vanishing Point?

Many years ago, as a tourist in Philadelphia, I visited a tiny row house where two 18th century seamstresses once lived and plied their trade. I felt immediately drawn into their world. It was inspirational for me to learn that even in this era, when nearly every factor of the dominant religion and economy herded women into marriage and domesticity, some women still succeeded in carving out independent, masterless lives, ruled by neither father nor husband.
This sparked the idea of using fiction to explore women’s lives in Early America.

--How did you conduct your research?

I researched the material extensively over a period that stretched for roughly ten years. Standout texts included Antonia Fraser's The Weaker Vessel and David Hackett Fischer's monumental Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America.

However, my most inspiring sources weren't books but living history museums. I recall visiting Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, and seeing a demonstration on spinning. I learned that even women of the wealthy elite would spend most of their “leisure” hours spinning, just to keep their families clothed. The re-enactors at these museums are steeped in their historical world. They don’t deal only in dry facts or dates but in an entire way of life. On a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I spent a day talking to various re-enactors about everything from tanning leather to the medical treatment for consumption—it was believed that cantering around on horseback was the best cure for weak lungs.

While I was living in Germany, I studied alternative medicine, particularly phytotherapy (plant/herbal medicine) and the history of medicine. This background knowledge has gone into the book. Many of the herbs mentioned in the book are ones I grow in my own garden and have used on myself, albeit in a different way than portrayed in the book.

--I love the way you explore female desire in the novel. Could you speak a bit about your decision to endow your 17th century characters with honest lustiness?

I'm glad you enjoyed May's lustiness. I certainly had a fun time writing about it.

My inspiration for her character was triggered by the following question: What would happen to a late 17th century woman who was determined to carve out her own destiny and who demanded the same liberties, both social and sexual, as a man?

People in the 17th century were much more frank about sexuality than people in the 19th century or even the early 20th century. Unlike the Victorians, people in the 17th century not only believed in the existence of female orgasm, but eminent physicians thought that it was absolutely essential for a woman to climax in order to conceive a baby. Thus, if a man wanted a family, it behoved him to make sure that his wife enjoyed herself in bed.

Of course, the dark side of 17th century sexuality was the terrible double standard. Whereas New England Puritan society at least attempted to enforce the same moral code on both men and women, in the Chesapeake, free men could do largely what they wanted, while adulteresses and unmarried women who bore bastards were punished by whipping and public humiliation. If a woman had sexual relations with an African slave and bore a child as a result, she and the child were forced to become slaves.

Yet despite these constraints, some women succeeded in freely exercising their sexuality outside marriage. The frequent jokes about cuckolds in Restoration comedies give us a picture of upper class women enjoying adulterous romps while using their marital status as a safety net for any resulting pregnancies.

Perhaps my favorite sexually liberated 17th century woman was Nell Gwyn. Although illiterate, she rose from poverty to being Charles II's celebrated mistress and was every inch the commander of her own destiny. Although she earned her living by acting (a highly disreputable profession in that era) and high-class prostitution, she was never ashamed about what she was. When her coach driver attacked a man for calling her a whore, Nell reportedly broke up the fight by saying, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about."

--What words of advice would you offer an aspiring writer?

Writing is a long, hard apprenticeship. I wrote for over ten years in complete obscurity before my first novel was published. You have to love the craft and have faith in the process. Read as much as you can. The great writers out there are our best teachers. You also need to develop a healthy sense of belligerence. When I showed early chapters of The Vanishing Point to the agent I was with at that time, she advised me to scrap it and write something else. Instead of following her advice, I kept working on the manuscript and found a different agent.

--Could you give us a glimpse into your Living History Tour?

To launch The Vanishing Point, I will be doing a Living History Book Tour from June 9-June 28, appearing in authentic 17th century costume at living history museums and bookstores in Maryland, Virginia, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and my native Minnesota. One free book per bookstore event will be raffled to audience members who show up in period garb.

The complete dates and venues are here

I'm very excited about the tour and so are some of my hosts. David Unowsky of Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis is renting a costume for the occasion!

--What are you working on now?

My current work-in-progress is a literary ghost story called The Art of Memory. Inspired by the 19th century English gothic novel and pre-Raphaelite paintings, the book is set in and around Manchester, England during the Industrial Revolution and the present day. The theme is that the past never dies—the souls lost in the tumult of historical progress and change keep haunting and exerting their influence on contemporary lives.

--Oooh, I can't wait to read it, Mary! Thank you so much for your wonderful answers. I wish I could entice you to bring your Living History Book Tour to California--it sounds fabulous!

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