But of course they were warm and engaging. The first question came from the hostess and was, perhaps inevitably, about my research: How long did it take you to research all that about trains and railway schemes? That was an easy one. And then we were rolling.
But I was relieved that they didn’t shy away from asking real questions. And a meeting like this, with a group of women who are well-read and inquisitive, pushed me to articulate what I am trying to accomplish with my novels. I came away with three main insights.
Ruth brought up that she sometimes forgot she was in Victorian England because the relationships among the characters felt very contemporary. And I suppose they would because, after all, the pain of betrayal, a desire for revenge, loneliness, uncertainty, curiosity about our parents, empathy, loyalty to our friends, and a desire for love are all part of our (my) lived experience. Are these emotions timeless? Some scholars would say not, that there are emotions that emerge and gain traction at particular times in history (Patricia Meyer Spacks historicized boredom, for example, in her book of that title); but I do believe there is a certain universality and timelessness to the big emotions.
This led to another point: the inner life of the characters. In response to one of the questions, I explained that one of my deepest pet peeves is with novels in which secondary characters (that is, characters other than the protagonist) exist only to foil or further the main plot. I call these “narcissistic novels,” as in these, it seems that the whole novelistic world revolves around the protagonist. For me, it’s important that the other characters have lives and concerns of their own that have nothing to do with the protagonist’s desires and needs. So, for example, Elizabeth’s best friend Anne Reynolds’ chief concern is not Elizabeth’s dilemma; it is her brother Philip, who seems on the verge of self-destruction and desperately needs Anne's help. Another point: characters need not only to change over the course of the novel; they should also, at times, deceive the protagonist and the reader. Someone commented that none of the characters (except Lord Shaw) really surprised them; they showed who they were from the beginning. These readers were half-expecting Paul or James or someone to trick or betray Elizabeth. Perhaps at some level, I am uneasy with pulling the rug out from under my heroine; but this is something I need to think about for my next book.
Finally, it’s very important to me that the research is real—and by that, I don’t mean just factually accurate. I mean that when researching, I am not allowed to pick out the historical details that feel “convenient” for creating the conflict or resolution that I’ve already decided will happen. It is important to accept when my research takes me places that I don’t expect, when it doesn’t yield the apocryphal tidbit I was looking for to tie up a plot point, for example, or provide a justification for a chapter I want to include. As a result, my book feels more authentic to me; and often, paradoxically, the unexpected find is exactly the piece I didn’t know I needed—the twist or turn that creates the additional mess I need to get my characters from point A to point B.
The evening drew to a close; the enormous trees, so unlike the stiff Arizona cacti, rustled against the black sky; the patio lanterns that had kept the insects away were burning down; the appetizers were mostly gone. I offered everyone my heartfelt thanks. Every author (particularly every debut author) should have a chance to be the guest star at a book club. It’s terrifically fun and affirming, and I returned home to Arizona feeling yet again that (in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert) I love writing more than I hate failing at writing.