About the Author
Jeanne Mackin’s novel, The Beautiful American (New American Library), based on the life of photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller, received the 2014 CNY award for fiction. Her other novels include A Lady of Good Family, about gilded age personality Beatrix Farrand, The Sweet By and By, about nineteenth century spiritualist Maggie Fox, Dreams of Empire set in Napoleonic Egypt, The Queen’s War, about Eleanor of Aquitaine, and The Frenchwoman, set in revolutionary France and the Pennsylvania wilderness.
Jeanne Mackin is also the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers (Cornell University publications) and co-editor of The Book of Love (W.W. Norton.) She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and a keynote speaker for The Dickens Fellowship. Her work in journalism won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, in Washington, D.C. She has taught or conducted workshops in Pennsylvania, Hawaii and at Goddard College in Vermont.
1. How did you get started as an author? What or whom inspired you?
The earlier novelists I read started me on this path! It’s all their fault! Seriously, I grew up reading Anya Seton, Daphne de Maurier, Mary Stewart, the great story tellers in the genre of historical fiction. I loved stories about other times and other places, loved the kind of writing that felt like sinking in a big, soft arm chair when you read it and as you experienced their stories. I wanted to join their ranks.
2. How many books have you written and in what genres?
I’ve written six historical novels, three mysteries (under a different name) and one book of nonfiction, and herbs and gardening. I was also editor for the W.W. Norton Book of Love, a large collection of poetry and stories and other writings about…yes…love. There’s information about them at www.jeannemackin.com
3. What writing projects are you currently working on? What can you tell us about these projects?
I just published a new novel, A Lady of Good Family, about an American Gilded Age woman who refuses to follow convention and simply do what her society expects her to do: get married and become a lady who spends her mornings in her dressing room, her afternoon paying visits, and her evenings hosting dinner parties or going to the opera. It’s based on the real life of Beatrix Farrand who, early in life, decided she wanted to make beautiful and inspiring landscapes, and she became the most famous woman landscape designer of her time and place.
Now, I’m working on a novel that takes me back to Paris before World War II, about a rivalry between two fashion designers. It fascinates me, how the fashion world became a kind of microcosm, reflecting the politics and events going on in Europe.
4. What does your writing process look like?
It’s very, very messy. Creativity for me means bringing order out of chaos. My planned outline for the novel gets messy, my thoughts get messy, my desk becomes pitiful with wads of paper and spread-eagled books and notes I can’t even decipher. And eventually, if I persist, out of the chaos comes a story. I like to write as early in the morning as possible, and I hate, absolutely hate, to be interrupted. I can be really mean when I’m interrupted. Ask my husband.
5. Where is your favorite place to write?
I’ve learned to be flexible about this. When I began writing fiction I could only work at my desk, in my workroom. Now, I sometimes write with friends in a café, or in my local library, or even on the sofa with my laptop, as described, on my lap. Beginning the day’s writing for me is like forcing open a door that doesn’t always want to open and that door, I’ve learned, can be just about any where. Sometimes I even write in my car…when it’s parked! If I could write anywhere in the world, it would be in the central reading room of the Bodleian library at Oxford. Oh, to be surrounded by all that history!
6. How important are the names in your novels? How do you choose names for your characters? Do you have any name resources you would suggest?
The names must be representative of the time in which the characters live, must have the sound of the times, so I read novels written in that time period and look for appropriate names. Song lyrics of the time often have great examples of names as well as histories of the time period. You can bet that after 1928, when Amelia Earhart made her famous flight, lots of baby girls were named after her. Names can be serious or funny, pretty or hard sounding. That has to be considered as well.
7. What authors/novels that you enjoy would you recommend?
Jeannette Winterson. Her novel, The Passion, is a masterpiece. Mary Lee Settle. Marion Meade. F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Mitford sisters. P.G. Wodehouse. So many wonderful writers and novelists. The point is to find your own favorites and the only way to do that is to read, read, read.
8. Where is your favorite place to read and why?
My cat and I fight over this. We compete for the best seat in the house, which is the window-end of an old love seat covered with an antique kilim. It’s in my living room and my husband and I usually drink tea there in the afternoon, and I always have a pile of books on the little table. When I have insomnia, sometimes I even sleep there, next to my pile of books and with the cat snoring away at the other end of the love seat.
9. What period of history interests you the most?
That keeps changing. Right now, it’s the twentieth century. I’ve developed a taste for what used to be called modern, the early twentieth century when so many things changed so very quickly and irrevocably. I still love medieval Europe, that sense of mystery and to our thinking superstition that made everything both marvelous and frightening. I would like, sometime soon,to write a novel set in New York City immediately after our war for independence. I’ve already done some of the research for it and was stunned to discover how clichéd and wrong our perceptions, our common take, are on that time and place.
10. If you could choose someone famous to star in one of your books made to a movie, who would you choose and for which character?
I would love to see Anne Hathaway play Nora Tours, from the Beautiful American. Anne can be very girl-next-door and she can also be incredibly beautiful. There is a sensitivity and spirituality in her face that makes me think she would make a very credible Nora, on film. Nora is strong, but also very vulnerable. Anne, a perfect role for you!
11. What inspired the idea for the story for The Beautiful American?
I wanted to write a story set in the twentieth century, I wanted to write a story about World War II, I wanted to write about a strong and fascinating woman artist. Lee Miller, the Vogue model turned photographer, turned up and said, “This is about me!” And then Nora, her friend, turned up in my imagination. My characters talk to me in my head and Nora began telling me this story about Lee. I knew immediately that there was a terrible problem between Lee and Nora, some old history that had to be resolved, and that was what the novel became.
12. What other hobbies do you enjoy when you are not writing?
I belly-dance. The music is absolutely gorgeous and it’s so weird and wonderful, shimmying with a hip scarf making all that jangling noise. I started it because it was the silliest thing I could think of, at a time in my life when I was desperate for some silly fun. But it quickly became not at all silly, it became an art form that celebrates the beauty of the body, and the magic that comes from moving your body to music. I live so much in my head, in my imagination. Dancing is a way of reminding me to be in my body, and to be in the world. I travel for the same reason. Historical fiction is a wonderful way to travel, but sometimes I just have to get on that plane and land somewhere else for a while.
Check out my review for THE BEAUTIFUL AMERICAN.
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