In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Jennie Fields’s fascinating novel about Edith Wharton , The Age of Desire is now out in paperback. Rich in period detail and colorful characters, The Age of Desire concerns itself with a scandalous affair which threatens here relationship with one of the closest people in her life. Here is what Jennie had to say about reading, writing, and the tenet she always adheres to when writing.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
My fourth and most recent novel is The Age of Desire, based on the life of my favorite novelist, Edith Wharton, who’s wild mid- life love affair with Morton Fullerton changed her view of the world and her writing forever.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six years old. Books have always been a life-saving escape for me. (The name of your blog, Linus’ Blanket rings a real note of truth!) By writing, I was able to go beyond just reading and actually create the stories into which I wanted to escape. By fifth grade, I wrote a 365 page novel. It’s somewhere in my basement. I’m afraid to look at it. I majored in writing in college, and I received my MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
Since then, I’ve published many short stories and as I said, four novels. All of them have a similar theme: women struggling between a sense of duty and the permission to seek one’s own joy. I think it’s a universal issue for women in particular.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I write in the afternoons. It’s the time I’m most creative. I always have to walk my puppy, Violet Jane until she’s absolutely exhausted first so she lets me write for a few hours without needing anything. I walk her about five miles a day. I make a cup of tea – this is my very favorite indulgence. I love Lady Grey by Twinings. And I enjoy a piece of really good chocolate. If you haven’t tried Lindt Sea Salt Dark Chocolate set aside time to swoon! (When the sea salt crystals assert themselves over the bittersweet chocolate, you will be hooked.) And then I read for a while. The reason I read first is to put myself in the mindset of a reader, not an editor. I’m less self-critical when I read first. When I was writing about Edith, I always read a passage from one of her books. I find her so insightful, endlessly inspiring.
My writing room was built as a sleeping porch off the back of our 1930’s stone bungalow in Nashville, Tennessee. Imagine how hot it used to be in the South in summers before air conditioning! To counteract Nashville’s prodigious heat, my writing room was built with windows on three sides –twelve windows and a glass door to a deck. When someone opened every window on steamy nights back in the thirties and during World War II, this cross-draft set-up would have provided desperately needed relief to someone trying to sleep. It’s a huge room. You could have put a bed for every member of the family out there. These days, the house is surrounded by big shade trees and a bamboo grove so it’s very green all around. And God bless air conditioning! I settle into my comfy chair, a MacBook Pro on my lap. True to the spirit of my room, Violet sleeps at my feet on the ottoman. Birds whistle in the branches. In mid-summer, a red-orange trumpet vine blossoms on the deck and hummingbirds hover all around drinking the nectar. It’s pretty heavenly. I covered the only wall of the room that isn’t windows with bookcases and filled them with my favorite books. I walk into my writing room, and I’m ready to write.
What is the one tenet you always follow when writing a novel?
To love my characters equally: the good, the bad and the ugly. To tell each of their stories fairly and with heart.
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
For years, I worked full-time as a creative director at a big New York advertising agency. My hours were insane, I traveled constantly and I was a single mom. Back then, I wrote when I could. I wrote most of my first novel Lily Beach at lunchtime. Then, as the years went by, the economy tightened up, they fired half our staff, and we didn’t even have time to stop working for lunch. So I wrote between eleven p.m. and one-thirty a.m., after my daughter was in bed, and I’d worked out and showered. Now, I write full-time and I never take for granted the ease of my life. I do errands in the morning, write in the afternoons, and enjoy my evenings. Life is good!
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t have the easiest childhood. There was a lot of tension in my house. So losing myself in a book was a wonderful thing for me. As I said earlier, I started to write because then I could actually create the book I wanted to escape into. The first time I wrote the words ‘Chapter One,’ I was six years old. I had just read a book called Twig about a poor little girl that lived in a tenement and found a world of enchantment in the weedy garden behind her building. I did my best to imitate that story with my own twists.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
In The Age of Desire, my favorite character was Anna Bahlmann, Edith Wharton’s governess, then her literary secretary. From my research about her, from the letters I read that she wrote to her nieces and nephews, and from Edith’s letters to her, I gleaned she was an extraordinary person. An orphan who’d managed to support herself in a world that made it extremely hard for single women without money. She was selfless, kind and compassionate. She played a very complex role in Edith’s life. Both servant and mother-figure. Because Edith’s biographers have for the most part totally ignored her, I was thrilled to show the world how special she was.
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I did a great deal of research for The Age of Desire. I discovered early on that biographers make errors, so much of the research I did was primary research. In the case of Edith Wharton, she wrote approximately six letters a day, and a lot of people saved those letters. Many are at the Beinecke Library at Yale. She also left a very detailed diary of her love affair which is at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. And Morton Fullerton kept her love letters to him which are now in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. The real coup for me was that after I’d chosen Anna Bahlmann as my secondary character, a cache of one hundred and thirty-five letters from Edith to Anna came up for auction at Christies. They’d been stashed away for a hundred years! Christies allowed me to read the letters, so I was blessed to have information about their friendship that no one had had before.
I’m writing about another strong, fascinating woman who was world famous in the 1890’s, but that no one knows about today. I’m not sharing her name yet, but I’m having a wonderful time researching and writing about her.
Giveaway: I have one finished copy of The Age Of Desire to giveaway to readers with a US address. If you’re interested in reading the book, please fill out this brief form. I will pick a winner at random on Wednesday, June 26. Your email address will be discarded if you do not win. I do not share or retain any personal information. No purchase necessary and void where prohibited. Only selected winner(s) will be contacted by email. Thanks and good luck!