Though many of the writers I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing here on Society Nineteen are introduced to me with the book we discuss, others were already favorites by the time we chat for the journal. Megan Chance is one of the latter. I first encountered her work with her 2004 novel, An Inconvenient Wife. Rightly reviewed as “gripping” and “wholly absorbing,” that book sent me to look for Chance’s earlier Susannah Morrow as well as to anticipate the publication of each new book since. Chance excels at embedding issues and themes that illuminate both past and present into compelling narratives, and The Visitant, which appeared this September from Lake Union, exemplifies those strengths. Juxtaposing the otherworldly with the everyday, the passionate with the paranormal, Gothic darkness with Venetian light, and family burdens with individual possibilities, it’s a ghost story, a love story, a psychological coming-of-age story and more. After cutting her literary teeth in historical romance, Megan Chance has authored eight historical novels as well as the young adult Fianna Trilogy. Find out more about the author and her books on her website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. Honored by the Borders Original Voices and IndieBound’s Booksense programs, she lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Society Nineteen is delighted to talk with Megan Chance about history, fiction, the 19th century and more. —SF
So19: Having written about the 19th century in a great variety of books and genres, you’re a woman after So19’s heart. What do you think makes this time period so rich with possibilities for you? Has it always been a passion of yours?
MC: I think it’s more that history itself has always been a passion of mine. I have always, always loved it—some of my favorite books when I was young were The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read them over and over again. I also loved biographies and research books. I have always been fascinated by the way people lived in other times. When I was about thirteen, I started actively searching for more historical fiction, and ended up reading many of the classics, which, regardless of when they’d been written, were historical by the time I got hold of them—The Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes, Le Morte d’Arthur, Great Expectations, Frankenstein… So yes, clearly history has always been an obsession.
I love all periods of history, but it is true that I keep circling back to the 19th century. There are a hundred reasons for that: the steady inroads of science into religion, the industrial revolution, strikes and worker discontent, the growing impatience of women with domestic slavery and intellectual and sexual captivity, dress reform, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Socialism, the birth of psychology, advances in archaeology and anthropology, Decadence, Impressionism, the birth of the modern novel … choose your poison. Many of these things existed in some form or another before, but they all really began to come into their own in the 19th century. It was a time of great turmoil, when all the powers that be were struggling mightily to keep control, and losing on a daily basis. I mean, there are a million things to write about. Everything was changing constantly. There have been many times like that in history, of course, but the difference between those eras and the 19th century is that the 19th century was also really the dawn of modernity, and it’s similar enough to the way we live today that one can find parallels everywhere. When, as a writer, I see such parallels, it means I also see a universality that will appeal to the modern reader, and that’s where stories come from.
So19: Perhaps you could talk a bit about the seeds of this particular story. From what starting point or points did it arise? How did it change or deepen as you worked?
MC: When I’m researching, I also tend to read a lot of contemporaneous fiction. It gives me a feel for the times, for the way people talked and what was important to them culturally and socially. I also glean many small and telling details that often never make it into nonfiction. When I was researching Inamorata, I was reading these ghost stories set in Venice by Vernon Lee, who was a contemporary of Henry James and Edith Wharton. I had also been reading Venetian myth and legends. Venetians are a very superstitious lot—perhaps that comes from living on the water, where everything is a bit hallucinatory anyway—and there are many tales of ghosts, and devils, and spirits playing tricks on the unwary. In reading those, it struck me that Venice would lend itself very well to a ghost story, and that was something I’d never tried before. I decide what to write based on how much it scares or challenges me, and the idea of plunging so absolutely into the paranormal, and into a genre that people are very familiar with—the ghost story—meant I had to have a full grasp of how it was supposed to work, moment by moment, and I was really uncertain that I could pull it off.
Then, of course, I wanted to add a gothic element to it, which complicated things even more. My personal tag-line for the book was: Jane Eyre meets Amore Dure, which was one of the Vernon Lee tales that I really liked.
The book, however, went through many permutations from that point on. I tried to write it as a dual storyline initially—the story of the ghost and how she came to be a ghost, and the story of those in the present (19th century) being haunted by her. I struggled with something like four or five drafts before I realized the story wasn’t working. In complete frustration, I threw everything out but the setting and the character names, and started over. Nerone Basilio did not enter the story until that draft, nor did Samuel’s epilepsy, nor, for that matter, Elena’s history. The story for the ghost was also completely new. It is not unusual for me to do six or seven drafts of a work, but it is unusual for me to throw out every aspect of a story when I’m that far along and start over.
So19: You write so vividly about Venice. Have you ever lived there? If not, what drew you to it, and how do you bring its textures to life so fully?
MC: I’m glad you think I do! No, I have never been there. My critique partner visited there a few years ago, and told me that it was “my city,” and that I needed to write about it. At the time, I happened to be reading a collection of Byron’s letters from the year or so he lived in Venice, which was a weird sort of serendipity—I try to pay attention to those sorts of coincidences. I decided to do a little research on Venice and see what I could find. I knew already that Venice was one of the obligatory stops on the Grand Tour. What I didn’t know was how many people wrote about their impressions of the city, or sketched them, or wrote poetry about them. I found many, many memoirs, including ones by William Dean Howells, who was the American ambassador there for a time, and Effie Ruskin. And then, of course there were Byron’s impressions. I found myself hooked rather firmly. There was just so much, and the best part were the travel guides I found online that listed everything worth seeing, as well as prices and maps and recommendations for hotels, etc. etc. It was a historical writer’s dream. Not only that, but Venice hasn’t changed substantially in at least 200 years. The views from the Salute are the same views you’ll see now. The palazzos are still there, the churches, the campos … this was such a change from writing about America, where there is almost no city that hasn’t changed radically. America is always remaking itself; it’s only been very recently that we’ve considered the historical value of buildings. Venice is so old and unchanged that it was remarkable.
When I’m researching, I’m looking not just for the usual—what people saw, what was in the shops, how transportation works, etc.—but also for emotional cues. How did people feel about what they saw? What did things smell like? What did they hear? I’ve done enough research on the 19th century that I can read between the lines a bit and understand what people aren’t really saying. Beyond that, you have to have a good imagination. When you read that the canals were the dumping ground for waste and sewage, you try to imagine not only what that would look like, but what it would smell like, and when it would smell the worst. The tides cleaned out the canals to a point, but what would it be like at low tide, with the mudflats of the shallow lagoon just beyond? In their memoirs, people mentioned often how disorienting the sounds were in Venice, because the city was so labyrinthine, and full of water and stone. I try to bind these details to what’s going on in the story emotionally. It’s those small things that help make a setting feel real. I loved writing about Venice. It did feel like my city.
So19: I loved the way The Visitant reinvented classic Gothic elements, from ghosts, secrets, suicides, repressed desire, and violence to that beloved narrative opening in which a young woman with inner wounds arrives at a house that is grand, crumbling and pretty darn scary. Was working within the Gothic framework a deliberate choice on your part, or a more intuitive development of the writing process?
MC: I cut my teeth on those old gothic romances from the seventies—Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, Anya Seton, Mary Stewart, and Norah Lofts, and I have wanted to write a gothic for years. When I decided to write a ghost story, I deliberately looked for ways to play within the gothic framework. I also wanted to turn it on its head a bit, because those gothics were always mysteries, and seldom about paranormal forces. Usually, when I’m writing any kind of paranormal aspect, I like to ground it in reality. I did that less here, because I really did want to try my hand at something that was psychologically fraught, and I wanted it to be something no one could really understand or necessarily fix. No one can really fix a ghost. No one even knows if they exist. Many, many people don’t believe in them. In the book the questions were always: How can this possibly be true? How can the characters come to terms with something so unreal? How is it possible for them to explain and rationalize this? I wanted the story to be an experience that brought the characters closer together, while at the same time being one that was impossible to explain to anyone who wasn’t there. I also wanted it to force them to change.
So19: As its cover affirms, The Visitant is a ghost story—and, I might add, a compelling one. But it’s also a love story, one that is powerfully rooted in forces such as sexuality.
MC: I’ve always loved stories that were deeply romantic (in the broadest sense of the term), and I tend to gravitate toward them—unapologetically. I don’t understand why so many writers seem to shy away from it, or why reviewers dismiss it. Love and sex are a big part of life for everyone, and if, as a writer, you sweep them under the carpet or pretend they don’t exist, it means you’re sweeping aside some powerful motivational forces, ones that have dominated and ruled society from the very beginning. Most of us are seeking love, forged by it, burned by it, recovering from it … the list goes on and on. But in America, in particular, we don’t seem to have much respect for it.
More importantly, sex has always been used to control people—particularly women, but men too—and I think it’s important to address it honestly. Sex was as important in the 19th century as it is today, and in many of the same ways. At that time, women were thought to exist on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder. All their blood was going to their uterus, and not their brains, so if a woman looked to any pursuit other than domestic, she was actively endangering her unborn children. Every component of a woman’s life—creativity, intellectualism, athleticism, sex—was rigorously controlled, thanks to that nasty little bit of social science. I wrote about this in greater detail in my novel, An Inconvenient Wife, but more broadly, it seems to me that society is still in the business of controlling women. This has to do with fear, of course, because the truth is that women have a great deal of power, and much of that power comes from their sexuality. It frightens everyone. It frightens young girls because no one teaches them what to do with it. It frightens men because they’re in thrall to it. It frightens women because the world has shamed them into compliance. We’re only allowed to use our sexuality in socially acceptable ways, such as gyrating in a Robin Thicke video or posing nude with a boa constrictor. We’re allowed to be titillating, as long as we’re titillating in a way that doesn’t actually threaten anyone. Women cannot possibly know their whole selves, and what they’re capable of, until they embrace what is, at its very least, a crucial part of who they are.
The way society controls women is just so insidious. It creeps into almost every aspect of our culture. As long as men and women keep confusing sex and love with guilt and repression, I’ll keep writing about it.
So19: Going from the pleasures of the flesh to the pains thereof: Elena’s attempts to heal but also restrain her patient, Samuel Farber, really speak to the limitations of even the most enlightened and well-intentioned health and mental health treatments of the 19th century. The tools she has at her disposal are so limited, and so problematic in different ways.
MC: What’s so interesting to me about this period are the huge gains in science and medicine. It was believed that we would understand the brain by the end of the 19th century—that we would have it completely mapped out—and we are still so far away from that. Medical science was growing by leaps and bounds, and refuting all these long-held ideas that were primarily based on Biblical time charts. But at the same time there were also these deeply precious moralistic beliefs about various ills and diseases—epilepsy was considered by many to be caused by licentiousness, and there were still those who labeled it madness or demon possession.
It strikes me that nothing much has changed. We understand a great deal more about the brain than they did, but we are still caught up in this moralistic thinking about so much—alcoholism still, drug and sexual addiction, obesity … We still believe on some deep-in level that living a good, moral life will affect your physiology. It’s incredible really.
We also still—as they did—put far too much credence in social science: today’s biological determinism, for example, is not much different than believing that women and minorities were on the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder, or believing in Lombroso’s theory of anthropological criminality, where it was thought that criminal tendencies were inherited, and one could tell whether someone was born a criminal based on his/her physical defects. These beliefs still linger in weird ways today.
I really enjoy presenting these kinds of juxtapositions in fiction, and drawing parallels to the same kind of thinking in the 21st century. We think we are so enlightened and wise, but we are really not very removed from the past.
So19: I was struck by the way the three main characters struggle not just with their own private “ghosts” but also a sense of obligation to their families. You’ve framed those (real or perceived) debts in very 19th century terms, but for me the core issues—what we owe our families, how their wounds and needs shapes our lives, and what happens when we forge identities that violate family expectations—still feel so much a part of our lives today. Is that a fair reading? Was it a theme you were conscious of tackling from the start?
MC: I think that’s a fair reading. I’m not sure I was conscious of tackling it from the start, except that I love writing about how people find themselves, and the decision and consequences that get in the way.
Your family, of course, is crucial to this whole growing-up thing, because it shapes who you are, for good or for ill. It is very, very difficult to escape from those expectations to become the person you want to be, and the person you want to be is also limited by your self-concept, which is formed very early, and primarily by the family. I have three sisters, and we were all labeled early in our lives: the pretty one, the smart one, the athletic one, the space cadet. We have all gone on to forge our own identities, but those early labels were extremely hard to unlearn, and still, when we are together, we all fall back into those ways of behaving. I think no one ever manages to break free of their family, and while loving someone means that you have obligations and responsibilities to them, at the same time you have to find a way to discover your own identity and build your own life. That is one thing that has not changed at all through history, though the opportunities for self-realization/actualization have obviously become greater, especially for women.
In The Visitant, all the characters are struggling with the reality of their obligations to their families, and I liked playing with the idea what it took something otherworldly to force them to accept the consequences of their decisions and to remake themselves.
So19: You currently publish novels for young adults as well as fiction for actual adults. (Old adults, I nearly said.) How do you divide your working time between very different kinds of projects? How much “crossover” do you perceive between your work in the two genres—does a story in one inspire thoughts about the other, for example?
MC: I had this strange experience lately where I was editing The Visitant and the last book of my young adult trilogy (The Veil, Book 3 of the Fianna trilogy) back to back, and it was a bit disconcerting to see how much I work with the same kinds of themes over and over again. So yes, I think there’s crossover there; I very definitely have a vision about the world that infuses everything I do. There have been times when one kind of project inspires ideas for the other, and vice versa. Certainly a bit of research can inform both a young adult plot and an adult one. The Fianna books are concerned with the Irish immigrants in America, and I can see one day writing an adult story about immigrants. My adult historical, Bone River, informed a young adult book I just finished.
But generally the young adult books are something I approach quite differently. I love the melodrama and big emotions, and the everything-at-stake aspect of young adult fiction. It’s actually very fun to write, and while they deal with serious themes, I’m allowed a lot more leeway with them than I think I get in adult fiction. The young adult audience is more willing to suspend disbelief and throw themselves in for a pell-mell ride. Adults you have to convince, but young adult readers get bored when there’s too much thinking and rationalizing in the narrative. The writing in the young adult books has to be simpler and cleaner and more direct. It also has to be faster paced. You’re allowed the cliff-hangers and angst that sometimes you can’t get away with in adult fiction. I usually work on a young adult project when I’m researching the next adult book, writing in the morning and then researching in the afternoon. I never write adult fiction and young adult fiction at the same time. I want to focus on each one solely and completely, because it’s important to me that I don’t sacrifice one for the other.
So19: I can’t end without asking what you’re working on now…and hoping it’s another book set in the 19th century.
MC: Yes indeed! Another one set in the 19th century, at Lake Geneva, Switzerland. It is currently scheduled for a January 2017 release. But I won’t tell you anything else about it, because I’m only on the second draft. Several more to go, and no doubt everything will change.
|Watercolor of Venice by John Singer Sargent,
courtesy of www.johnsingersargent.org