Love and Death and Setting Things Right in Old San Francisco
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Diane Slocum
The Half Wives, Stacia Pelletier, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – In 1883 San Francisco, Henry and Marilyn Plageman lost their little boy and most of their reason for living. Henry’s cause became saving the cemetery where Jack is buried. But he is also irresistibly drawn to Lucy, with whom he sires a daughter, Blue. On the fourteenth anniversary of Jack’s death, and the sixteenth of his birth, Henry is in jail, Marilyn kidnaps an orphan, Blue falls into a cistern, their long-standing traditions fall apart and all are launched on a collision course.
|“I set out to write about how people do and don’t move on from the past, from loss.”|
AUTHORLINK: Why did you choose to write a novel about a couple dealing with the death of their child?
PELLETIER: I didn’t set out in advance to write about the death of a child. I set out to write about how people do and don’t move on from the past, from loss. And I wanted to write about the fate of San Francisco’s notorious city cemetery, which lost its battle with the forces of progress in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I think I also wanted to write about motherhood, which might seem strange, since I’m technically not a mother in the biological sense. I’m a stepmother, and a relatively new one. But I’ve felt the pressure to define myself in relation to motherhood or lack thereof for a long time. When you’re a woman of a certain age, people are constantly asking: Do you have kids? Do you want kids? And if you don’t have them, it starts to become interesting. And what if you had them and lost them? How do you answer then? I’m curious about what the role of mother—or the absence of that role—means for women. And that curiosity led me to wonder about how a mother who has lost her child navigates her sense of identity. Is she still a mother? If she and her husband have grown apart, does she still think of herself as a wife also? Or does she see herself as fundamentally solitary? Do you have to be married to be a wife? Do you have to have a child to be a mother? These sorts of questions are the type that drive my husband batty and that I thrive on.
|“I always knew the novel would take place during a one-day time frame. I was clear on that from early on. Everything else was the problem.”|
AUTHORLINK: Did you always plan on having the story take place on a single day (from 9a.m. to 3 p.m.)? Did the story change much from first draft to published novel?
PELLETIER: I always knew the novel would take place during a one-day time frame. I was clear on that from early on. Everything else was the problem. I’m not great at plot-driven narratives, so keeping things bound to a tight timeframe helped me resist the tendency to wander. I also wanted to convey a sense of urgency and pace that would keep the reader turning pages even if the story itself is moodier and more reflective than a normal page turner. Fair warning: there are no car chases (or horse and buggy chases) in The Half Wives. There’s not even much bodice ripping.
The story changed a fair amount from first draft to published novel, but it didn’t change as much as some of the other things I’ve written. Sometimes things just come together. I was writing the novel from 4:30 to 7 a.m. every morning before heading in to work (my day job is fundraising for Emory University School of Medicine). And I was just crabby enough and sleepy enough during those morning hours to be creative and to churn this one out without too much change needed. I felt desperate to write this novel, and that desperation pushed me through it in a manner that proved helpful in the long run. Though it wasn’t great for the other dimensions of my life, like sanity.
|“I had to do what everyone does … draft and redraft and rearrange and delete and cut and paste and throw a tantrum and take a nap and start all over again.“|
AUTHORLINK: Did you plan on how you would work in the back story or did those elements come to you as you wrote the scenes that took place on May 22?
PELLETIER: Planning how to work in a back story: if novelists could do that up front, and do it well, we’d drink a lot less. I tried to plan, of course, but everything went to pieces once I started digging into the characters. I had to do what everyone does … draft and redraft and rearrange and delete and cut and paste and throw a tantrum and take a nap and start all over again. Remember Annie Dillard’s comparison of the writer to the inchworm? The inchworm is constantly trying to find its way over to the next blade of grass and has a crisis each time it can’t feel where it’s going. That’s the writer, also. And the challenge with back story, at least for me, is that while it’s really the heart of the story—the core emotional component—it’s too easy to let that back story drag down the forward momentum of the book and sabotage it. I’m struggling with that right now in my current work-in-progress, and it doesn’t get any easier.
The story takes place in 1897. What was significant about the day you chose to write about and how did you tie the historical into you story? Were you already planning to write about that period before you learned these facts?
I chose May 22, 1897 because I discovered three amazing and quirky news stories that took place on that day as reported by the San Francisco newspapers, and I used those stories to help launch the parallel tales of Blue and Lucy, Marilyn, and Henry. And yes, I knew I wanted to situate the novel in San Francisco in the late 1890s: I wanted to plant my characters against the backdrop of the fate of the city cemetery in the Outer Richmond or “Outside Lands” district. This cemetery held the poor, the immigrant, and the outcast. Its story caught my attention. The forces of “progress” won out in the end – and I sort of wish they hadn’t.
AUTHORLINK: What did you do for research?
PELLETIER: Reading archival materials, particularly newspapers. I traveled to San Francisco, where I used to live, to explore the Lands End / Sutro Baths / Cliff House areas. I explored digital archives. And I became friends with John Freeman, an amazing local historian who stood by me through all drafts of the novel and helped me make sure that the historical elements in the novel all pass the sniff test for historians.
I remember John yelling at me over email about one paragraph where I had mentioned the wind near Golden Gate Park, and he was telling me that the wind patterns in that part of the city wouldn’t be blowing in the direction I was suggesting; I had it all wrong and needed to make sure that the wind would be bringing in the smells from the right direction. I owe a great deal to him. He’s still mad at me, I think, because the streetcar on the cover of the novel is not the *precise* streetcar that would have been used in 1897. I tried to tell him that my publisher has a limited amount of clip art she can use within her budget, but he was not impressed. John, if you’re reading this, forgive me.
|“My editor encouraged me to help distinguish Blue’s voice from the others—since she is a child . . . . “|
AUTHORLINK: Why did you write Henry, Marilyn and Lucy in second person and Blue in first person?
PELLETIER: My editor encouraged me to help distinguish Blue’s voice from the others—since she is a child, and in some ways she is the future of that novel; she is the reason everyone is pushing for resolution.
I wrote the others in second person because that was the only voice I could find that allowed me to get into the characters’ heads. I also wanted the reader to feel implicated when reading. First person “I” stories, to me, sound like the author is talking. I wanted the reader to feel like the reader was being addressed directly: that the reader is Henry, or Lucy, or Marilyn. This, in turn, causes us—I hope—to imagine what it is to live in their shoes for a while.
AUTHORLINK: What have you written before that helped you write a novel that was not only publishable, but highly regarded?
PELLETIER: My first novel was Accidents of Providence, and I think that helped me start to find my voice as a writer. Before that, I wrote a doctoral dissertation on early modern martyrdom in England. I realized a few years too late that I went to graduate school not to study a particular moment in history but to learn how to do research and to learn how to develop and follow through on an argument. Writing a dissertation also taught me how to sustain work on a long-term independent project and not shoot myself in the head in the process. That has held me in good stead with fiction writing.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
PELLETIER: I’m shifting gears and writing a novel set in the present. It’s about a woman trying to leave a long-term relationship who winds up rescuing a pig named Stanley from slaughter. It combines my interest in psychoanalysis, food, and animals with my curiosity about how we learn to tell the difference between a good relationship and a bad one. Which can be harder than you might think.
|About the Author:|
Stacia Pelletier first novel was short-listed for the Townsend Prize for Fiction. She earned graduate degrees in religion and historical theology from Emory University in Atlanta. She lives in Decatur, Georgia and works at Emory University School of Medicine.
See more information at: http://www.hmhco.com/shop/books/The-Half-Wives/9780547491165.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.
This post was written by Diane Slocum