What was your inspiration for writing A Certain Age?
Growing up, we didn’t have much extra money—my father was a civil engineer, my mother a homemaker—but both parents were passionate operagoers and they basically steeped me in Verdi and Wagner from an early and completely inappropriate age. At five, I was entertaining dinner guests with a melodramatic rendition of Desdemona’s death scene, and I was crushing on Plácido Domingo as Des Grieux when my friends were into David Cassidy. (Although I think I just dated myself there.) So the idea of star-crossed love is sort of imprinted in my DNA, and one of my favourite moments in the entire canon arrives at the end of Richard Strauss’s marvellous masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier. I won’t reveal the spoiler for those who aren’t familiar with the work, but it’s just a singular act of grace performed by an extraordinary woman, and the more I thought about this opera and its themes – love and loss, class, youth versus age, romanticism versus realism—the more I thought that Manhattan in the 1920s would suit this story and this character beautifully. And luckily my editor was happy to go along with it!
All of your novels have been set in the first half of the twentieth century. What is it that draws you to write about this period?
As a storyteller, I’m drawn to conflict—it’s the fuel that drives the narrative along. And conflict arises out of change, and the transformation that took place in the first half of the twentieth century is probably unparalleled in written history. All the ingredients start falling into the pot as the century turns—scientific advancement, powerful artistic movements, economic and social unrest—and then the First World War just throws the whole mixture into a terrible oven and out comes the modern era. The culture changes irrevocably. There is massive cultural friction as this new world rises up from the old one, giving us the extraordinary electricity of the Jazz Age. Then on top of that we’re plunged into economic depression and then another cataclysmic war. You could write forever about this period and still not get close to making sense of it all.
Tell us about the research you do for your books.
Here’s my grand theory of historical fiction: I’m not here to teach you history. There’s some marvellous narrative nonfiction out there that will tell you everything you need to know about dates and battles and events and how it all fits together. My job is to describe what it’s like to be alive, what it means to be a human being navigating a lifetime during a period of cultural change, so I absorb old films and old books and diaries. I want to know how people talked and thought, the everyday details of their lives. When I do need historical facts I’ll look them up as I go, but I aim to weave these into dialogue and plot. I don’t give history lessons, because what person imagines herself in a historical setting as she’s living her life? Nobody! I’m not telling you what the Jazz Age was like; I’m showing you.
At the heart of A Certain Age is a very bittersweet love triangle. As such, did you find this hard to tie up satisfactorily?
Actually, this was the easiest part! I really started from the end, because that was the moment that captured me in Strauss’s opera—the tricky part was navigating the path to that ending, because you have to make each character sympathetic in order for the reader to care, to feel that bittersweet tug. And while all three characters travel through a terrible sea in this book, I think Theresa Marshall’s journey to redemption is the hardest and most moving, so writing those final scenes was—for me—one of those golden moments, where I felt I had done exactly what I wanted to do and brought all the ships to some kind of shore.
The nineteen-twenties was a period of great change both in America and Europe. What do you think were the most important things to come out of this decade, particularly for women?
When I think of the Twenties, I’m often reminded of my grandmother, who was a child of the British Empire and grew up in Kobe, Japan, before moving to Calcutta (where she met my grandfather) and finally to London after India’s independence. She used to say that this was a marvellous time to be a woman—we were taking jobs and contemplating careers and feeling our strength, we had the vote and the automobile and the freedom from chaperones, and if you look at the films of the period, they are absolutely chock full of vibrant, dashing, confident women who were nonetheless feminine and glorying in that femininity. And then—my grandmother says—after the war we FELL ASLEEP (I can still hear her indignant voice saying that) and we DIDN’T WAKE UP AGAIN until the Sixties! So while baby boomers love to think that they invented the sexual revolution, it really wasn’t so. And I would add that in America, the enactment of Prohibition at the start of the decade served in many ways to fire that hurtling toward freedom. Suddenly men and women were drinking together in clandestine establishments, flouting the law, and as we all know, once you start flouting one little law it becomes much easier to flout others!
You have a magical way of weaving in characters from your other novels into all your books, was this something you set out to do from the beginning? Or was it something that happened quite organically?
It was absolutely organic! My second book, A Hundred Summers, bore no relationship at all to my debut, Overseas, but in writing it I discovered I had a real affinity for America’s Eastern coast during the period between the wars. In particular, I loved the family I had created—the Schuylers, named deliberately to evoke old New York—because first of all, this fictional clan seemed to be producing some really interesting, assertive women, and secondly…well, the older the family, the more skeletons in the closet! So when I sat down to write The Secret Life of Violet Grant, I decided to incorporate the Schuylers back into the narrative, and while writing that book I realized I had to write about Vivian’s two sisters as well. And there you go. Family epic. That’s how it happens.
Further to the last question, Theresa’s story is left quite open ended – will we see her again do you think?
Oh, we certainly will! She turns up again in the book I’m writing now—out next summer—and I have a whole novel planned around the outcome of Theresa’s story in A Certain Age. She’s the kind of character who transforms every scene she walks into, and you can’t waste a character like that!
Can you tell us about your next novel?
It’s called Cocoa Beach, and it picks up the story of Sophie’s sister Virginia, who’s on a train to Florida at the end of A Certain Age, tracking down her missing husband, whom she first met as an ambulance driver during the war. The narrative alternates between the First World War and Florida in the 1920s, involving bootleggers and a ruined citrus plantation. It’s got a real Gothic flavour, which I’ve been wanting to try for some time!