Friday, March 29, 2013

More on Christina Schwarz's "The Edge of the Earth," Including Author Response and Tour Cities.

I should say up front here that I am not a journalist. I know this because 1) I didn’t go to journalism school and 2) a journalist doesn’t send a blog post to an author for feedback before it’s live. While I’m not saying that I always check in with the author, I will tell you that several years ago I wrote something offhand about a book that I thought was relatively mild, and the author sent a very angry note to me. You can imagine how he responded to an actual critic if he or she didn’t think his work was the bee’s knees. And here’s an aside—why are bee’s knees good? I’d have to take a time machine to the 1920s to find out.

But I did ask for reflection on yesterday’s post from Christina Schwarz, and she had a few interesting things to say about The Edge of the Earth, the writing process, research, and background, that I thought it would be interesting to reprint a bit of it here.

Regarding my reflection of The Edge of the Earth as one of women’s choices.

Schwarz: I think your idea of focusing on how choices determine particular paths is a good one. It's something everyone can connect to his or her own life, although, as you say, such choices were particularly irrevocable for women long ago--both because divorce was more difficult and because places were so much farther away then. I did think a lot about my own grandmother's family when I was writing this--her parents left Belgium in the early 1900s and never saw their own parents again. What must it have felt like to make such a break? As for Trudy's marriage--I did want to make clear that her attraction to Oskar was rooted in his promise to expand her world. I like that the expansion is not entirely positive (as in the train journey and her disillusionment in San Francisco), but that she still wouldn't choose the alternative (going back). And I really like the irony in the idea that at first her new world confines her even more than did her old world. Regarding my connecting the book to Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures.

I wasn't really aware of Chevalier's book until after I'd finished The Edge of the Earth and was trying to come up with a better title for my book and started key-word-searching some of its elements for ideas. I read a few pages, because I was terrified that there might be too much similarity. Of course, they're very different books, but certainly I think people who liked that book (or like Chevalier generally) would like The Edge of the Earth. Trudy and her work were influenced by a few interesting sources, however. One is Jeanne Villepreux-Power, whose story I stumbled on while researching early marine biology. Born in France in 1794, she was a shoemaker's daughter who apparently went to Paris to seek her fortune and became a dressmaker's apprentice. Somehow she ended up designing a wedding gown for a princess, which drew the attention of a successful English merchant, who married her and took her to live with him in Sicily. There, without any training, she became interested in natural history, described the flora and fauna of the island, began studying sea creatures, particularly some species of the nautilus, and made some serious contributions to science through her observations and speculation. She's credited with inventing the glass aquarium to further her work.

Another is the Pacific Biological Laboratories in Steinbeck's Cannery Row. I'd already had the idea for Trudy's business before I read it, but I was thrilled to see that a real version of what I'd been imagining existed and I learned some things from Steinbeck's account about what the specimens might be and how they'd be gathered and preserved and stored. Finally--for the local angle--I also sort of had my great aunt in mind. She was long after Trudy's time, of course, but she taught biology at Milwaukee Girls Trade and Technical High School. She was very much a naturalist and I remember her showing me how to draw plants (I think her degree was in botany.) By the way, Trudy's recognition that species exist in ecosystems isn't only useful thematically, it's also plausible historically. I do my best not to be anachronistic, especially regarding the way people think.

Regarding the philosophical question of upsetting ecosystems (natural or cultural) in the interest of studying them.

Schwarz: Obviously, Oskar is a villain in the end, but I did consider making more ambiguous the issue of when it's acceptable to intrude in order to learn. As you say, Trudy also takes creatures from their home and kills them. Most of my research for Helen centered on Juana Maria (the woman who inspired Island of the Blue Dolphins), who died in 1853, seven weeks after she was brought to the mainland (probably of dysentery); and Ishi, the last "wild Indian," who emerged in 1911 and died in 1916 of tuberculosis; and on the extinct Esselen tribe who painted a wall in a cave in Big Sur with white hands. Robertson Jeffers wrote a poem about the painting.

I have read Madwoman in the Attic, but very long ago. I was aware that at the turn of the century women were beginning to see that they might have lives not entirely dependent on men and that they might seek fulfillment in ways other than having children. This was the period when Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening and when Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. I guess I thought of the lighthouse and the cave more as places outside of the conventional world, in which women could set up their environment and run their lives much as they pleased--in other words, "rooms of their own."

Don't forgot, The Edge of the Earth goes on sale next Tuesday, April 2, and our launch event is Tuesday, April 9, 7 pm. Our friends at Books & Company are also hosting an event on Wednesday, April 10, also at 7 pm.

And here are more stops on the tour:

Friday, April 5, 7 pm
Newtonville Books, 10 Langley Road in Newton, Massachusetts

Monday, April 8, 12 noon:
Fairfield Public Library, 1080 Old Post Road in Fairfield, Connecticut

Monday, April 8, 7 pm:
R.J. Julia, 768 Post Road in Madison, Connecticut

Thursday, April 11, 12 noon:
The Book Stall, 811 Elm Street in Winnetka, Illinois

Thursday, April 11, 7 pm:
Lake Villa Public Library, 1001 E. Grand Ave. in Lake Villa, Illinois
sponsored by Lake Forest Bookshop

Monday, April 15, 7 pm:
Unity Temple, 707 W. 47th St in Kansas City, Missouri

sponsored by Rainy Day Books Wednesday, April 17, 1 pm:
Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way NE in Lake Forest Park, Washington

Wednesday, April 17, 7 pm:
University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE in Seattle, Washington

Thursday, April 18 7 pm:
Books Inc., 855 El Camino Real #74 at Town and Country Village in Palo Alto, California

There's more coming after that on Schwarz's home turf of Southern California. Visit the website for details.

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