Adventures in Historical Fiction: An Interview with Natalie Wexler
Great news just in from Natalie Wexler, whose novel, A More Obedient Wife, has won a bronze medal in this year’s Independent Publisher Book Awards competition (historical/military fiction category). Congratulations, Natalie!
In honor of this wonderful development, here’s a reprint of an interview with Natalie; the original version appeared in the April 2007 issue of The Practicing Writer.
ADVENTURES IN HISTORICAL FICTION: AN INTERVIEW WITH NATALIE WEXLER
by Erika Dreifus
I met Natalie Wexler in a workshop taught by Sharon Oard Warner at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival several years back. At the time, we were both immersed in the workshop’s focus on “Discovering Your Novel.” I was captivated by Natalie’s work at that early date, and I remained riveted as I read through my copy of her finished book, A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court, this winter.
Natalie Wexler lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children. A former Supreme Court clerk, she was an associate editor of The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800 until its completion in December 2006. She has also written a number of feature articles and essays, and currently teaches workshops on the personal essay at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Recently Natalie responded to a series of questions about her work posed by yours truly.
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Natalie, A More Obedient Wife is a story of two women from early American history–two Hannahs (Iredell and Wilson)–who were married to Supreme Court Justices (two Jameses–Iredell and Wilson). Please tell us a little more about these women: who they were, how their lives intersected, and why you decided to write a novel about them.
NATALIE WEXLER (NW): The two Hannahs were very different. I’ll give you what is known about them historically: Hannah Iredell–in her early 40s when the action of the novel takes place–was intelligent and unusually well-educated for her time, but extremely, possibly even pathologically, shy. When her husband was appointed to the Court, the family moved from their home in Edenton, North Carolina, to the new federal capital–New York at first, and then Philadelphia. It’s clear, from the letters she wrote that have survived, that she found it extremely difficult to participate in the society of what is sometimes called “the republican court.” Although the United States was a republic, the only real governmental model Americans had was monarchy, so they borrowed some of its trappings: levees, tea parties, formal “evenings” held by the wives of the President and various Cabinet members, etc. In addition to feeling pressured to attend these events, Hannah Iredell had the burden of dealing with her mother-in-law, who arrived from England shortly after the Iredells moved to New York and turned out to have a serious drinking problem.
I know much less about Hannah Wilson, because fewer of her letters have survived, and I’ve found only one letter written to her by her husband. (James Iredell, in contrast, wrote to his wife nearly every day that he was away from her–which, because Justices had to travel the country riding circuit–was often.) But it’s clear, from the Gilbert Stuart portrait of her that has survived, and which I’ve used for my cover, that she was quite attractive. She’s also much younger than Hannah Iredell during the period covered by the book–19 in 1793, when we first meet her, and 24 when it ends in 1798. We know from letters (including an amusing one from John Quincy Adams, which is included in the book) that in 1793 James Wilson–then a 51-year-old widower with six children–saw her in church one day when he was riding circuit in Boston and immediately fell madly in love with her. By the time he left town ten days later, he had proposed. When Hannah accepted, shortly thereafter, many observers concluded that the attraction was Wilson’s great wealth–a reasonable conclusion, given that he wasn’t particularly handsome and by all accounts lacked personal charm. But the interesting thing is that, a few years later, when he had a spectacular financial downfall and landed in debtor’s prison, Hannah Wilson stuck by him rather than going home to mother.
The two women’s paths crossed because their husbands were friends. They first met in late 1794, when the Wilsons, riding the Southern circuit together, stayed with the Iredells in Edenton–the Iredells had moved back there the previous year. But in 1798, after Wilson’s financial affairs had worsened, the two women had a more extended period of contact. Wilson had essentially fled to Edenton in late 1797, to avoid another arrest by his creditors, and in early 1798 his wife joined him there. He died in Edenton that August, after which Hannah Wilson–penniless and exhausted from caring for her dying husband–moved in with the Iredells for several months.
I decided to write a novel about these women because I felt drawn to them, and there simply wasn’t enough information available to allow me to write a biographical, nonfiction account of their lives. There were lots of unanswered questions–gaps left by the letters and other documents that have survived–and I wanted to answer them. The only way I could really do that was to invent some of the answers.
ED: What’s your advice for anyone contemplating (or in the process of) writing a novel based on the life of a “real person”?
NW: First of all, choose someone who’s dead– preferably long dead. Personally, I wouldn’t have felt as free to invent if I had been writing about people who were living, or whose children or even grandchildren were living. But even if you don’t have compunctions about that, there are potential legal problems that could arise if you’re fictionalizing the lives of people who are still around.
Beyond that, I’d say it’s important to learn as much as you can about the real person you’re writing about, but at the same time you shouldn’t feel too bound by what you’ve learned. That is, you want to get at the essential character of the person, if you can, but you also have to bear in mind that a novel needs a plot, and a good amount of significant detail, neither of which may be provided by the historical record. And obviously, you’ll also need to omit detail that just clutters up the narrative (for example, I eliminated a few siblings of some of my characters–there were just too many to keep track of).
I’ll also say that in some ways I found it helpful to be writing about real people. I constructed elaborate timelines, based on the historical record, for each of my two couples. I used long sheets of paper, which I’d roll out and consult whenever I was stuck wondering what was going to happen next. On the other hand, I found myself up against certain constraints as well. For instance, my two main characters–the two Hannahs–don’t meet until halfway through the book, and the reader doesn’t even hear from Hannah Wilson until about a third of the way through. But that was the way events happened to unfold: the most eventful part of Hannah Iredell’s life (at least for purposes of the novel) was from 1790 to 1793, and the most eventful part of Hannah Wilson’s life didn’t begin until 1793.
ED: Please tell us about some of your favorite research discoveries from your work on this novel.
NW: I immensely enjoyed doing research in two books that were published in the early 19th century–The American Frugal Housewife and The Family Nurse. Both were written by Lydia Maria Child, who was an interesting person in her own right (she was an ardent abolitionist, and also the author of the poem, “Over the River and Through the Woods”). Based on some hints in the letters about Hannah Iredell’s character, I decided to make her something of an expert on household hints and home remedies, and I borrowed extensively from Mrs. Child’s books. Some of the herbal home remedies have come back into fashion, like senna as a laxative (I found some in an herbal tea at my local supermarket). Others were just downright weird, like the cure for “Dropsy in the Head,” thought to be brought on by “unnaturally forcing the intellect of children.” The recommended cure was to shave the child’s head and apply “a poultice of onions slightly stewed in vinegar,” while bathing the feet in “warm water with mustard in it.” I actually had Hannah Iredell subject one of her children to this treatment.
ED: Throughout the novel, which relies on diary and letter forms, the language seems particularly authentic for the late 18th-century setting. I’m struck by how many nouns are capitalized (“My true World, my very universe, is left behind in Edenton–a poor thing, as the Bard once wrote, but mine own.”). Please tell us a bit about that stylistic aspect of the text, and any challenges that came up for you as a 21st-century writer employing it.
NW: Actually, I was surprised by how easily I was able to assume an 18th-century voice. At first, I started writing the novel in the third person because I didn’t think I could sound like an authentic 18th-century person, but then I tried writing in the first person and found that I could do it well enough to satisfy a 21st-century reader. (Of course, I don’t know if I’d be able to fool a real 18th-century person, but fortunately there aren’t any of those around.) It must be a result of having spent countless hours reading 18th-century letters, even before I started doing research for the novel, as an editor of a documentary history of the first ten years of the Supreme Court (which is where I first came across the story of the Iredells and the Wilsons).
I think adopting the style of the era was immensely helpful in transporting myself to that particular place and time, and in conjuring up the people I was writing about. As for the capitalization, I’ve long been fascinated, in reading 18th-century letters, by what people chose to capitalize. You would think that they’d capitalize only the important words, but for some people it appears to have been more or less random. And some people used capitalization much less than others. (I won’t even broach the subject of spelling, which was a real free-for-all–but I decided to use standard modern spelling, so as not to distract the reader too much.) I decided to use a more or less random system of capitalization for Hannah Iredell, because I thought it made her voice seem more archaic and I conceived of her as the more old-fashioned, backward-looking of my two main characters. Hannah Wilson’s capitalization is more in line with our modern system (i.e., it’s just used for proper nouns and the first words of sentences), because I saw her as the more modern of the two. It was an easy way to help distinguish the two voices.
ED: You’ve published this book on your own. Tell us how you came to decide to self-publish it.
NW: Frankly, self-publishing wasn’t my first choice. I had an agent, but was unable to find a publisher. Once my agent gave up, after about 20 rejections, I tried to find a publisher on my own (I’d been advised it would be very difficult to find another agent at that point, because the manuscript had already been sent to most of the major publishing houses), but soon realized that wasn’t going to work. I was only trying small publishing houses, but even many of those won’t look at unagented manuscripts.
At first I was hesitant to self-publish, because it seemed like an admission of defeat, but ultimately I decided it made more sense than just letting the manuscript gather dust in a drawer. I wanted my friends and family to be able to read it in a manageable format, and there were certain markets I felt I could target–people interested in Supreme Court history, and people who live in or visit Edenton (where you can actually tour the James Iredell House). And I hoped that I might be able to reach some segment of the general public as well, though I knew it would be difficult.
ED: What made you choose Lulu.com among all the other Print on Demand (POD) companies?
NW: The main reason was that Lulu would allow me to keep the price low–or so I thought. With POD, the price really goes up with the number of pages. So, if your book is only 200 pages or so, your price can be competitive with books published by regular publishers, but my book is about 450 pages. I looked at some other companies and found that the minimum price for my book would be something close to $30. That struck me as way too high for a paperback novel by a first-time novelist. I wanted to keep the price under $20 if I could. Lulu allowed me to take no royalties, which helped to keep the price low–although, with the 40% mark-up that most retailers demand, the retail price would still be just over $20 ($21.08, to be exact). But–at least at the time I agreed to the contract–the book was for sale on the Lulu website for the wholesale price, $13.56. Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, Lulu unilaterally decided to charge the retail price on its Web site, so the only way for me to keep the price under $20 is for me to sell it myself–or lose money on every retail sale.
ED: What surprised you most about the publishing process?
NW: I suppose the biggest shock for me was that getting an agent didn’t automatically lead to getting published. That may sound naive, but I knew many good writers who’d had a hard time finding an agent, and I had one more or less fall into my lap. I wasn’t even looking for an agent yet, because I hadn’t finished the novel, but the sister of a friend of mine–who is one of the best-known agents in New York–heard about the novel and signed me up on the basis of 30 pages. She has a reputation for being pretty critical, but she apparently just fell in love with my novel. So I assumed that if she had that kind of reaction, it wouldn’t be that hard to find just ONE publisher who felt the same way. Alas, I was wrong.
ED: How did you locate the book’s cover image (Gilbert Stuart’s Mrs. Thomas Bartlett [Hannah Gray Wilson])? How did you acquire permission to use it?
NW: Locating the portrait of Hannah Wilson was easy–it had already been reproduced in one of the volumes of the documentary history of the Supreme Court that I had helped to edit. (The vast majority of the letters and other documents I incorporated into the novel had been collected and copied by the staff of the documentary history project before I joined it, so I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.)
Obtaining permission to use the portrait wasn’t particularly difficult either. I knew that the original was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, so I contacted them. I had to pay $130, get their approval of the cover design, and send them two complimentary copies of the book. But it was well worth it–I’m very pleased with the cover, and I feel really lucky that such a beautiful portrait of one of my characters existed.
ED: What advice do you have for anyone else considering self-publishing/using Lulu?
NW: I think you need to go into self-publishing with realistic expectations. I think it works best for nonfiction, actually–books that are useful and that people will seek out for their usefulness, with or without the imprimatur of a “real” publisher. Fiction is a harder sell even when you don’t self-publish, and I think many people assume that if you couldn’t find a publisher for your novel, it can’t be any good. It’s extremely difficult to get a self-published book reviewed anywhere. And of course, you can’t even get it into the vast majority of book stores across the country.
That having been said, if you can think of a few likely target audiences–as I could–it might well be worth it. I’m hoping the book will be for sale at the Supreme Court gift shop, for example, and at a couple of shops in Edenton that cater to people who come there for the historical buildings. And even if your book comes nowhere near the New York Times bestseller list, I can tell you that it’s incredibly gratifying to get enthusiastic feedback from even a few people.
Editor’s Note: Download a preview excerpt from Natalie Wexler’s novel here.
(c) Copyright 2007 Erika Dreifus