THE SOCIETY INTERVIEWS: Megan Chance on A SPLENDID RUIN

A new novel by Megan Chance is always cause for celebration—and cause for a So19 interview, too. (Read our chat with Megan on a previous novel, The Visitant, here.) Chance is the author of novels including Bone River, an Amazon Book of the Month; A Drop of Ink, an Editors' Choice of the Historical Novel Society; and An Inconvenient Wife, an IndieNext pick. In addition to her historical fiction novels, Chance is the author of the young adult Fianna Trilogy, short stories, and an entry in the recent anthology Stories from Suffragette City. Her novels have been translated into several different languages. Megan is a popular workshop speaker whose speaking credits include the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference among many others. Her latest novel, A Splendid Ruin, appeared in January 2021 and can be purchased on Amazon and Bookshop.org among other platforms. You can find out more about Megan and her work on her website and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. All that said, we're delighted to share our most recent chat with Megan, some fascinating background on A Splendid Ruin, and a brief glimpse of Megan's current work-in-progress.

Q. What was the “seed,” the first glimmer of what became A Splendid Ruin? How did the that initial idea change as you wrote and revised?

During a conversation with my agent she mentioned that she’d never read a novel set during the Great San Francisco Earthquake. I told her that my sister had worked in San Francisco during the 1989 Loma Pieta earthquake, and lived in Oakland, so she traveled on the highway that collapsed. We didn’t hear from her for hours and didn’t know if she’d survived. She did, thankfully. She told me that during the quake, she kept thinking, “I’m going to die and it’s going to hurt.” It was such a powerful thought that it stayed with me all this time. My agent and I started brainstorming.

I’d also put together a list of my favorite topics, which you’ll see repeated in much of my work—art and inspiration and women’s power, or lack of it—and we threw all that into the hopper, but I was just spinning my wheels until I realized that this might be the perfect vehicle for something I’d always wanted to do: a take on Balzac’s Cousin Bette. Once I came up with that, and the horribly disagreeable Bette’s revenge on her equally disagreeable family, the whole thing finally came together. Obviously, I wanted a sympathetic heroine, but there is something compelling about Balzac’s completely cynical view of human nature, and I liked the thought of playing with it.
As for how it changed … well, a lot. The first part, with the family’s gaslighting and betrayal, was pretty straightforward, but how May achieved her revenge went through so many iterations until I landed on the one that had the irony I wanted that I often felt like throwing my computer through a window. Revenge is often not a sympathetic act and there is a fine line between gaining a power you deserve and being a jerk. Finding that balance was difficult. Also, I was determined to make San Francisco itself a character in this book. I wanted the story to be so firmly placed in the city in this particular time that it could not have happened anywhere else, and weaving together all those elements was a challenge.

Q. You write often and so well about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What does setting a novel in that period allow you to explore that you might not be able to probe in a story set earlier or later?

When you’re writing fiction, every possibility is open to you. Developing a plot means limiting those possibilities. Plot means conflict, so you’re looking for the things that keep a character from getting what they want. What is life or death to them—and by that I don’t necessarily mean physical life or death, but instead the things that make their life worth living. What are the emotional stakes, the psychological stakes? Generally, as an author, the questions you’re always asking are: what do they want, why can’t they have it and what will they do to get it?

Often people can’t have what they want because something stands in the way, and that something is almost always a lack of power or the status quo. History gives me the best forces for my characters to overcome, and because history is written by the victors, those forces are real stories that we often don’t know. One religion supplants another. One people conquers another. One gender subjugates another. What we are allowed to know about the past is whatever the winners decide.

Because of that, so much is lost. So I guess the answer to this question is that I’m constantly looking for those lost stories—why do we know these things and not others? Who was allowed to speak and who wasn’t? Who had power and who didn’t?

I’m in the business of writing fiction, and I’m a storyteller—I’m here to entertain. But if, in entertaining, I can give you some glimpse into another time, if I can show you that the world isn’t fair and never has been, if I can tell you something you didn’t know about how the world works and why it is the way it is, and that it hasn’t changed really all that much, and the things you’ve gained can be easily taken away if you don’t pay attention—I guess that’s why these times appeal to me as a setting. I’m looking for eras that resonate with now. I’m looking for a way to show you how to understand a world that isn’t your own, and in doing so hopefully help you to learn something about the world you live in now.

Q. May Kimble is a fascinating character for so many reasons. Among other things, she’s a daughter whose mother and father are both mysteries in some way, she’s an artist in the very first tentative stages of figuring out how to value and share her gift, and she’s a woman who truly belongs to no one world as the story opens. How do you go about imagining this kind of complex protagonist? For example, do you flesh her out in your mind before you begin writing, or let her take shape as you draft the story?

It’s both. I go into the story with an idea of who May is—who she has to be to fit the plot I’ve worked out in my head, and then I realize after about 200 pages that I haven’t done nearly enough exploring about who she is, or I write some line that surprises the hell out of me, and I have to decide if I’m going to keep it and throw everything I know about May out of whack, or if I’m going to toss it and try to forget it ever happened. (Spoiler: I almost always decide to keep it, because it usually raises a story question that I’m interested in exploring. Where do such things come from? I have no idea. My subconscious is very creative.) 

Generally, any problem I have developing a character derives from my decision at the start to not really think about her backstory in great detail, but to see what comes to me. You would think I’d have learned by now that never works, because there always comes a point when I realize I can’t move forward until I figure out who that character is and where she comes from, what she wants, what she dreams about, and how she expects to go about getting it.

May was difficult because, as you say, she was raised to believe she was between two worlds, and she was in a holding pattern. She did not realize her gift was a gift or even what it was or what could be done with it. She had no real goals because she was waiting. I was starting from a place of: “everything’s fallen apart and I have to start over and all I’ve ever been taught to want is this rich father, and he’s not coming so now what?” All she knows to want is a family and security, and when she finally gets it, she’s so overwhelmed that she completely misses the signs that they’re using her. Finding the balance of May—na├»ve but not stupid, passive until she has the resources to take action, talented but with no goal until she begins to understand where her talent can take her, and with no real dream but security because her world has been so limited—required a lot of layering and re-layering and writing and rewriting.

Fortunately, I really like editing, and for me it’s where the real writing happens. My process is very unwieldy, but I’m always ready to go back in and revise, and I just have to be ready to say: well, this draft didn’t work, so now let’s try this. With every draft, I get closer to what the story and the character has to be.

Q. How did you research the catastrophically altered San Francisco just after the 1906 earthquake? The details May observes as she moves through the aftermath are so vivid, convincing and, sometimes, surprising.

Research is really where the plot of the story begins for me; it’s where I begin to see what’s possible historically. So much of the information on the 1906 earthquake and fires was in newspapers. That day’s combined edition of the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle/Call had reporters on the ground as it happened, reporting moment by moment—which meant that misinformation too was getting reported and corrected moment by moment. Sites like the Museum of the City of San Francisco online and the Bancroft/Berkeley Library online Collections have literally EVERYTHING you might ever want or need, including pictures and newspaper articles, and an interactive map tracing the progress of the fire, etc. But always what’s most helpful are eyewitness records, and the emotions that people are feeling as their world crumbles around them. One of the best was Three Fearful Days, which is a collection of eyewitness memoirs collected by Malcolm Barker. Beyond that, there was The Refugees Cookbook, which was published by refugees and which gave directions for cooking the food available during the relief effort. I also read several memoirs, several contemporaneous books about San Francisco before, during and after the fire, a great many newspaper articles, and I looked at hundreds of photographs. As far as summaries of the earthquake and fire, some of the best I read on the subject were A Crack in the World by Simon Winchester, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 by Philip Fradkin, and San Francisco is Burning by Dennis Smith.

Q. San Francisco’s Chinatown figures into the story’s overlapping mysteries and speaks to the way those with power can literally and figuratively dispossess those “others” who have helped build their wealth. Was this a part of your vision of the story from the start? Why and how did it feel important?

Chinatown kept sneaking up on me. Having done a lot of research on the west coast in the 19th century for other books, I wasn’t at all surprised to read more about the prejudice against the Chinese and the Japanese in San Francisco during this period. I knew all about the Chinese Exclusion act, which severely limited Chinese immigration, and I was well aware of how Seattle, for example, had effectively banished as many Asians as possible in the late 1880s. But what I wasn’t really aware of before I started researching San Francisco was just how much of the city’s economy depended upon the Chinese, or how Chinatown was situated on some of the most valuable land in San Francisco and how eagerly the power and money coveted it.

When the earthquake happened, and Chinatown was razed—and, not coincidentally, it was the area of the city that got the least help in fighting the fire—it was, of course, the perfect opportunity for the city to do what it had wanted to do for years, which was move Chinatown to some less desirable part of the city. What they didn’t expect was for the Chinese to fight back—or for them to engage China in the fight, or for the white landlords in Chinatown, who were making a lot of money on Chinese renters to join in, or for the Six Companies (the Chinese conglomerates who ran Chinese business and were, to one extent or another, in bed with the corruption in city government) to decide to flex their muscles.

I loved this. And I hadn’t known it. I had no idea that the powers that be tried to steal Chinatown from the Chinese, nor that the Chinese used their own considerable economic power to keep it. It felt important that other people know it too—again, it was a lost story buried by those in power. Also, it was such a “me” thing in terms of what I love thematically, which is the role irony plays in history, society and culture. God, Nature and Fate, or whatever you want to call it, has a keen sense of humor.

I loved it, but I didn’t know exactly how to use it. Almost all the domestic workers in San Francisco were Chinese, and I had Shin as a character and knew I wanted her to be central to the plot. It took me drafts and drafts before I understood how to make all of it work with Chinatown in the resolution. In fact, it wasn’t until after the book was turned in that I completely figured it out, and told my agent and my editor that I wanted to rewrite the third part. Again, my subconscious is the real power behind the throne here.

Q. Blessington, the mental institution that figures into the story, is nightmarish in itself and also works so well as a reflection of the powerlessness women deemed unruly or strange faced every day even when they weren’t confined. Is it based on a real facility and/or documented practices of the period?

Blessington is not a real facility, but an amalgamation of many such facilities. Nothing that happened at Blessington was a figment of my imagination, and everything that happened to May was something I’d read in a memoir or report. There were far worse things, but the book was already too depressing, and I cut several other incidents.

I first researched asylums for women when I was writing An Inconvenient Wife, and all I can say is that Psychology owes a great deal to women and the disenfranchised. I was, and remain, horrified at the kinds of practices that were carried out in the name of research. These women were not thought of as human. Some of the case studies made my flesh crawl.

While it is true that asylums were places for the truly insane, it is also true that they were places where the inconvenient were placed to put them out of the way. Patients in asylums had no one to speak for them, and conflicts of interest abounded. While there were plenty of laws on the books, and regulations dictating their administration, it was far too easy to ignore those who had no one to turn to and no one watching out for them. I don’t think things are very much different today, unfortunately.

Q. Tell us a little about the Stories from Suffragette City anthology in which you participated. It’s such a great collection!

This was great fun to work on, and MJ Rose and Fiona Davis were lovely to work with. When MJ first came to me with the idea, I was so enthusiastic—there was no way I could refuse such a project. The only restriction was the length and that the story had to take place on the day of the parade. After that, they vetted the ideas to make sure no one was doing the same thing, but we were pretty much left to our own devices.

I’d written my young adult Fianna trilogy (The Shadows, The Web, The Veil) about Celtic magic in New York City among the Irish Immigrants, and I really wanted to explore tenement life a little more here. Also, I’d discovered this intriguing little bit of New York history about an early pneumatic subway. The Beach Pneumatic Subway ran for three years for one block, so it was more a fun attraction than anything useful. It was closed and bricked up and it just became one more of New York’s abandoned places. It took hold of my imagination, though I couldn’t think of what to do with it for a novel. It was perfect as a setting for a short story.

I also loved the opportunity to explore a deeply emotional and intense female friendship and the impact it had on one young woman’s life. I don’t see enough of that in fiction. I was honored to be part of the collection. So many great stories, so many great authors, and such a great subject!

Q. What are you working on now?

I’ve just sold a new book to Lake Union Publishing (publisher of A Splendid Ruin). The working title is A Lesson in Containment, though that is going to change, but remember when I said I was drawn to eras that limit possibilities for people who aren’t in power? Recently a friend of mine suggested that the 1950s were similar to the 19th century when it came to women’s power, and I was extremely intrigued by that idea. Ergo....yes, this next book is set in the 1950s in Seattle at a reform school for troubled rich girls (based on a real location), from the point of view of the home economics teacher who has deep and troubling secrets of her own. It’s a bit of a dangerous suspense/mystery, a bit of what I hope will be a stylish and emotional story that’s both filled with twists and turns and also an exploration of the consequences of the mistakes young women make when they’re kept ignorant in the name of societal expectation.

Right now it’s scheduled for October 2022, though these things change. I’m really excited about it.


San Francisco, looking toward Sacramento Street, April 1906
Arnold Genthe