I am pleased to welcome a special guest to Great War 100 Reads. Laurie Loewenstein’s novel, Unmentionables, was reviewed here earlier this month. Laurie has kindly agreed to answer some questions about her work.
Why did you write this book?
Laurie Loewenstein: As it is with most writers, I had several ideas for characters and stories rolling around in my head for some time. Foremost, I wanted to write a novel with an outspoken woman at its center. Serendipitously, I stumbled upon an account of the early life of author and dress reformer, Nina Wilcox Putnam. Born in 1888, she was at one time a nationally known magazine writer and humorist. Putnam contracted TB as a young woman and cured herself by sleeping in a tent on a rooftop in NYC and by adopting unrestrictive dress. Nina’s story provided the impetus to create my fictional character of Marian.
Another theme I wanted to explore in fiction was how generational history, distorted by time and memory, can continue to impact family members many generations later. As a touchstone, I was inspired by persistent rumors that President Warren G. Harding had African-American ancestors. The rumor may have begun, his biographer, Francis Russell posited, when his great-great-grandfather caught a neighboring homesteader raiding his corncrib and ran the man off. In retaliation, the neighbor circulated rumors that the Hardings were of mixed race. Russell wrote, “Later generations would not be able to say for certain whether the rumor was true or false but its shadow would darken their lives and follow them to their graves … To be ‘part nigger’ in Blooming Grove meant to be flawed, meant to never to be wholly admitted or admissible to the herd. … and it left an ineradicable mark on him.” My character, Deuce, is modeled, in part, on Harding.
The historical details in Unmentionables seem very real … from a small Midwestern town to Chicago to Picardy, France. How did you achieve this authenticity?
LL: Initially, I read a number of historical works on the time period, 1917-18, and the locations. Building on that, I took advantage of the wealth of digitized information now available on the internet including old newspapers, silent film clips, and recordings from Victrola records. For the Illinois scenes, I drew on visits to my grandparent’s town in western Illinois and my own childhood in Ohio. The descriptions of Picardy, an area of France that was sporadically occupied by the Germans during World War I, came largely from accounts by two groups of American women who volunteered to help French citizens: the American Committee for Devastated France, headed by Anne Morgan, and the Smith College Relief Unit.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
LL: Because my life more closely mirrors that of young Helen, who came of age in a time of change when roles and opportunities for women were changing as mine were in the 1970s, I would say Marian. Marian charges into the first part of the book very sure of herself and her opinions. Later events make her re-think many of her most closely held beliefs. We all need shaking up now and then. Stepping into her shoes could prove enlightening.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work that they don’t ask?
LL: The linotype was a revolutionary printing technology developed in the late 19th century that cast molten lead into individual letters as the operator typed out a newspaper article. While writing Unmentionables I became obsessed with this fascinating machine and spent a lot of time researching it and watching old videos of the linotype in action. In the end, the linotype only appears briefly in the novel. I am always hoping someone will ask me more about it.
Where will your next book take us?
LL: My current project is set in 1935, during the height of the dustbowl days in Oklahoma. It was the same drought that brought the Dirty Thirties to Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Thank you for joining me today, Laurie, to share some of your inspirations for Unmentionables. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to many more.