Take the Time To Make Your Work Sing, Nancy Horan Advises

March 29, 2008
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Loving Frank

by Nancy Horan
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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Nancy Horan

Author of Loving Frank

by Ellen Birkett Morris

April 2008

Blending history and fiction, Nancy Horan’s LOVING FRANK offers an intimate portrait of the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright and an interesting look at the times in which he lived.

The story is told from the perspective of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, with whom Frank Lloyd Wright engaged in a lengthy and scandalous affair.

Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her husband Edwin Cheney commissioned Wright to design a house for their family on East Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois in 1903. In 1909 the lovers traveled to Europe. They later settled at Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's estate in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The book portrays the period 1907 to 1914, during which the Wright/Cheney affair took place.

“The story was waiting to be told . . .”
—HORAN

Horan was living in Oak Park, on the same street as the house that Wright built for the Cheney family, when she learned bits and pieces of the story. The scandal had been forgotten over the years. Horan learned that an opera and a play had covered this chapter of Wright’s life, but no novel had written.

“The story was waiting to be told, and I came to see that the person I wanted to tell it was Mamah Cheney,” said Horan.

Horan decided the sweep of the story required that it be told as a novel.

 

“How do you know if you can write a novel unless you try it?”
—HORAN

“I hadn’t been writing fiction very long, and certainly had never attempted a novel. But the more I researched, the more I came to see their story as a classical tragedy” said Horan. “How do you know if you can write a novel unless you try it? It was a big, daunting experiment, but once the idea for the book took hold, it wouldn’t let go.”

One of her greatest challenges was settling on a point of view. It took Horan more than a year to finally decide it should be Mamah who tells the story.

 

"Viewing Wright through Mamah’s eyes brought him to human scale . . ."
—HORAN

 

 

“That made the portrayal of Frank Lloyd Wright more manageable. . . How do you go into the head of that particular legend? I was able to portray him as Mamah saw him, until the end of the book, when he takes up the narrative thread. At that point, I was ready to inhabit him for a while. Viewing Wright through Mamah’s eyes brought him to human scale,” explained Horan.

The result is a compelling story that paints a vivid portrait of both its main characters and the times in which they lived.

Horan achieved this by constructing a timeline of Cheney’s life and researching the corresponding social history, including women’s access to a university education, the state of the women’s movement, attitudes about marriage, children and work and the battle for suffrage.

“The other part of constructing her inner life involved examining her actual, sometimes startling, choices. I imagined her going through those decisions, and I guessed at the emotions she must have felt as a mother, wife, friend, sister, and lover,” said Horan.

 

“I read about the places Mamah and Frank visited and lived during the seven-year period . . . ”
—HORAN

Her extensive research included reading biographies, Wright’s autobiography, and newspapers and books from the period. She read the books Cheney translated for Ellen Key, a Swedish feminist, as well as novels written by a professor with whom Cheney studied.

“I read about the places Mamah and Frank visited and lived during the seven-year period that I covered in the book. It was a fascinating time, when Modernism was just emerging in the arts. So there were movements to read about, and of course, scholarly volumes about Wright’s work,” noted Horan.

While she was writing, an album of photos of Taliesin (taken in 1911 by an unknown photographer) surfaced on eBay and was purchased by a group of people for the Wisconsin Historical Society.

 

“. . .those letters were invaluable for helping me understand where she was at certain points. . .”
—HORAN

 

“I went to Madison to have a look at it, then wove the album into the novel, and put Mamah behind the camera. I also came upon an article on the web by a scholar who indicated she had found a cache of ten letters written by Mamah to Ellen Key that were stored in the Swedish Royal Library. I was under the impression no correspondence of Mamah’s remained, so those letters were invaluable for helping me understand where she was at certain points, and, to a limited degree, who she was and how she was feeling.”

Horan’s background proved useful also. She majored in literature at University of Illinois and worked as a teacher and in the corporate world before becoming a feature writer for newspapers and magazines. Ten years ago, she took some fiction writing classes through the University of Chicago and decided to pursue her dream.

 

“Journalism can be great preparation for writing fiction.”
—HORAN

 

“Journalism can be great preparation for writing fiction. It helps you recognize a story that other people might overlook, and it requires research and precise language to get the story right. Good journalists carve away the non-essential; they produce clean, elegant sentences,” observed Horan.

After working on the novel for four years, she found encouragement by joining a writer’s group. “Sheer tenacity had kept me going for that long on my own, but I was wavering. Suddenly, there were weekly meetings and deadlines. It was wonderful,” said Horan.

After an agent rejected her first draft, Horan completely rewrote the book.

 

“That rejection, while painful, was necessary and useful.”
—HORAN

 

“That rejection, while painful, was necessary and useful. But you can’t change what you’re doing every time someone criticizes your work. The more you write, the more confidence you will have in yourself to disregard criticism that is wrongheaded.”

Over the seven year period of writing the book, Horan sent it to three agents who rejected it.

Novelist Elizabeth Berg, a member of Horan’s writing group, recommended her to Lisa Bankoff, an agent with International Creative Management (ICM), who read the book and agreed to take it on.

“I have found the best advice for dealing with your agent is to tell the truth about what you want,” said Horan.

 

“I think we did three rounds of editing.”
—HORAN

 

She worked with Editor Susanna Porter at Ballantine to craft the book.

“She was positive about the book from the start, though she certainly worked to make it better. She was sensitive to pacing, awkward word usage, inconsistent character behavior, and host of other things. I think we did three rounds of editing. Ultimately, Susanna was very respectful of the work, and I respected her for that,” said Horan.

 

“Write the best book you are capable of writing; take the time to make it sing.”
—HORAN

 

Her advice to new writers?

“Write the best book you are capable of writing; take the time to make it sing. Write the book you want to write, not just what you think will sell. Go to conferences and classes to learn and be inspired and drink beer with other people as crazy as you are. Finish the darn thing. Focus on the business end when you have produced something wonderful, something that makes you proud. Your enthusiasm will be catching. Talk it up, send it out, and pursue every connection you have.”

 

  With LOVING FRANK getting positive notice, Horan is now in the early stages of writing another historical novel.
About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris