The relationship between Edith and Anna is very complex. Did you always plan on making their troubled friendship central to the book, or did it grow out of your research?
J.F. It wasn’t until three months into the writing of the book that I decided to add a secondary protagonist, someone who could view Edith objectively. Anna Bahlmann seemed the perfect character as she was with Edith on and off since her days as Edith’s governess until the year Anna died in 1916. To have kept Anna with her so long, I assumed they must be very close, but biographers had hardly mentioned her.
Then after I’d already written many chapters of the book, a miracle occurred. Over 100 letters form Edith to Anna which has been moldering in an attic came up for auction at Christies! Everything I supposed about their relationship was true. They were loving and close since Edith’s childhood, and she trusted Anna with a great deal. I grew more and more intrigued with this shadowy figure.
Anna supports Edith’s writing as a typist, early reader, and -in a way-editor. Did Edith every include Anna in her Acknowledgements?
Though she never acknowledged Anna publicly as far as I know, in letters directly to Anna, she thanked her. In fact, in one letter early in Edith’s writing career, she sent Anna the check she received for a story saying, “The story is so associated in my mind with the hours that we spent in writing it out together, & I owe its opportune presentment & speedy acceptance largely to the fact that you were here to get it written out at a time when I could not have done so, that I have a peculiar feeling about your having just this special cheque & I no other as a souvenir of our work together.”
The book follows Edith’s sexual awakening. What was it like writing sex scenes for such a well-known writer?
Not many people know this, but when Edith died, among her effects, her literary executor found some pornography that she’d penned. There was nothing shy about this work. It was bold, shocking, and also, of course, exquisitely written. While I did not use any of the language of this piece ( named Beatrice Palmato, for those who are curious- and yes, it’s on the internet) it did instruct me as to how she viewed sex and passion, and gave me insight into what excited her.
Paris figures heavily into the book. What did the city mean to Edith? What’s your relationship to Paris and did it figure into the writing of the book?
Edith adored Paris. It was everything that New York wasn’t: culturally oriented, worldly, beautiful. She found New York society closed and stifling. She blossomed when she finally moved to France full-time, and her devotion to France is clear in how she helped the women of France during World War I with her workrooms and charities. (France awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor for her work during the war.) She had loved Paris as a child, and even more as an adult. And of course, she fell in love with Morton while in Paris. That would forever insure a place for Paris in her heart.
There was a period where I did not like Paris. I found it jostling and sad. But about the time I began the book, I also began a new relationship to Paris, and fell in love with it all over again.
What’s your writing regimen?
Generally, I walk in the mornings and do errands. I write in the afternoons. Usually I read starting at 1 or 2 p.mp. ( While I was working on THE AGE OF DESIRE I always read something by Edith). Then, with a strong cup of tea I get down to work by three. I write in my writing room, a large old sleeping porch with windows on three sides overlooking my backyard. I sit in a comfortable chair with an ottoman, my MacBook Pro on my lap. I rarely write more than three hours at a time, usually less. But it’s extraordinary what three dedicated hours can generate as far as pages. If I get five good pages a day, I’m thrilled. But not every day can be a successful day. I always take weekends off–perhaps a holdover from my years in advertising. My brain needs time to recharge!
Jennie Fields is working on a new biographical novel about a women who was world-famous in the 1890’s but that few people know about today. She was one of the richest women in the world. And I sure am looking forward to reading it.