The Contradictory Gilded Age: Interview with Kaaren Christopherson on Decorum

Today I have an interview with Kaaren Christopherson about her writing and her debut novel, Decorum (2015,  Kensington), which takes place in the Gilded Age of New York. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I’m looking forward to it soon, but please enjoy the interview and follow to the end for a giveaway link.

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Hi Kaaren and welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! It’s my pleasure to have you here. I love late 19th Century America (the Gilded Age), so I’m quite intrigued by your book, Decorum, though I’m yet to get my hands on it. I’m anxious to learn a little more about it and your writing career. 

Kaaren: Thank you so much for having me here, Erin. I look forward to chatting with you.

Erin: Step right in and have a seat here in my library in the chairs by the window. I’ll bring out tea service and, since the kids and I have been making cookies, some snickerdoodles. I hope you like them. What kind of tea do you prefer? Name your preference and if you take milk and/or sugar.

Kaaren: Ah, I see you have good English black tea. It’s my favorite. I drink gallons of English tea when I’m writing. A cup of that, please, with a good dollop of milk.

Erin: Sounds delightful. I’ve brewed it right up and poured. Let’s start chatting.

Q: Decorum is set in the Gilded Age of New York and features Francesca Lund, a wealthy socialite, and Connor O’Casey, a self-made millionaire who is pursuing her. Can you tell us a little more about your book and your main characters? How you created them? Were they based on real people or imagined?

A: Decorum is about a tycoon (Connor), an heiress (Francesca), a mistress (Blanche), and a gigolo (Edmund) who struggle to find happiness, power, and wealth amid deception, betrayal, bigamy, and murder in Gilded Age New York. All the characters in Decorum come out of my imagination. This choice was deliberate; since I was new to novel-writing I wanted to concentrate on making fictional characters as real and three-dimensional as I could. I was keenly aware that introducing real people, especially well-known historical figures who already appear larger than life, might be difficult if all characters whether fictional or real were to be equally well-developed and balanced. So the first time around, I stayed with characters I invented.

Q: Is this your debut novel? Either way, what inspired you to write it?

A: Yes, this is my first published novel. Many years ago now, I took a wonderful course on writing historical fiction from the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. I had struggled to write stories with historical background up until then, but I would become immobilized by the amount of research and could never get a story to click just right. Through this course, I learned so many practical approaches to writing historical fiction that it freed me up to concentrate on storyline and characters. Consequently, one night Connor O’Casey appeared to me, having an argument with a woman named Blanche. They were dressed in luxurious garb of the 1890s, as if they had been someplace very special. I had no idea who they were, what their relationship was, or why they were arguing. The next person to appear was Francesca—and she was with Connor. I thought, uh oh, I’d better get busy and find out what’s going on! When I sat down at the computer, the words started tumbling out. That was the beginning of Decorum.

Q: The late 19th century in America is a time glamour and glitz, which I love to admire, but also a time of poverty and struggle, especially immigrants. How do you embrace both of these elements in your book?

A: Yes, this is an interesting, complex problem. Clearly, Decorum focuses on the rich—on the people who have “made it” or are desperately trying to. However, Decorum does touch on poverty. Francesca and Vinnie, and to some extent Maggie Jerome, are all involved in charity work. Francesca and Vinnie in particular spent a year living near and working with a settlement house in a poorer section of New York. The settlement movement was just coming into its own in this period, attempting to respond to the enormous wave of immigrants who were coming to America. Francesca herself comes from immigrant stock—her parents, Jurgen and Sonia Lund, were from Norway—so she has a heart for helping these people who were hoping to become new Americans. Connor, on the other hand, came from poverty in Ireland, and would like to put that chapter of his life behind him. It was interesting to me that when he appeared in my imagination, he had already acquired his wealth. However, we catch a glimpse of him standing up for the miners at the Five Star Mine when he was on his way up. I tried to present credible situations where poverty would have touched these privileged characters.

Q: Your character of Connor was Irish. Do you have Irish heritage (asked by someone…me…whose name means Ireland!)? Why did you choose for him to be?

A: Connor chose his background himself! From the beginning he has been a strong character and when he appeared, he was Irish! He’s actually a very good example of how each of Decorum’s characters dictated to me what kinds of people they are. My job was to put them in situations where their ambitions, desires, beliefs, and problems could unfold and I could discover their depths. I’m not Irish, by the way. My background is Norwegian, like Francesca’s.

Q: The elite certainly had their etiquette and social circle “rules” during this time period. I’m assuming you touched on this in your novel, hence, the title Decorum, which of course, means behaving in good taste or something similar. 

A: Goodness. Rules, rules, rules. Yes, this was a time of rules. As people rose socially and acquired enormous amounts of wealth, definitions of acceptable behavior became more and more strict. As I reflect on your statement, I think much of it had to do with self-preservation—you had to behave within certain bounds or meet certain standards to maintain your influence and place in society. Keeping out the riff-raff and the competition drove many people to be ruthless, which is not exactly decorous behavior. The Gilded Age is full of contradictions.

Q: I noticed the etiquette book of Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American Society, an edition from 1881 that was your great-grandmother’s, on your website. It’s so lovely and such a treasure. Can you tell us about this book? How did your edition influence your novel?

A: This was such a wonderful bit of serendipity—or fate? Hmm. I needed to look up something in particular—maybe the meaning of flowers or gemstones or behavior at funerals or something—and I remembered that my mom had her grandmother’s etiquette book, so I asked if I could borrow it, simply intending to use it as a resource. What a goldmine! I was struck immediately by the way the characters in the novel weren’t always behaving “correctly.” In no time, I came up with the idea of beginning each chapter with a quote from the etiquette book that in some way touched on what was happening in the chapter—whether the characters paid any attention to it or not!

Q: I really love when historical fiction novels use historic art for their covers. I’m always thrilled to see museums appreciating these requests. They make books that much more wonderful. Your cover is beautiful and is of a painting of Olivia Peyton Murray Cutting. Can you tell us about the process, and also, I’m now curious who Olivia was and if she had a bearing on your novel?

A: We had reached the stage in the publishing process when work on the cover art was about to begin. I was so very fortunate that just at that time my editor at Kensington Publishing saw this painting of Olivia Peyton Murray Cutting in a Gilded Age exhibit in the Museum of the City of New York. He asked me whether I thought this would be good inspiration for the art department at Kensington to create a new cover. Of course, I said yes! Before I knew it, Kensington had acquired the rights to use the actual painting for the cover. Though she isn’t a character in the story, I feel very fortunate to have her represent the look and feel of the Gilded Age. She’s perfect.

Q: As I mentioned I love the Gilded Age and into the 1920s as well. I’m a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and of course, The Great Gatsby, so your novel intrigued me as it sounds like it slightly fits his themes. Are you a fan? What novels or novelists inspire you or your writing? Do you know of any of other good novels of this dramatic time period you could share with us?

A: I do think there are some common themes with the 1920s. Both the 1890s and 1920s are decades of huge change. Those changes mean that rules of behavior change, attitudes toward wealth and responsibility change. People were struggling with coming from humble backgrounds in both periods. With Decorum’s focus on the 1890s, I read lots of Edith Wharton, not only to inform myself about the Gilded Age, but also to “listen” to the language and vocabulary she used and to get a sense of how she felt about a period she lived through.  Wharton was my biggest influence. Another interesting novel is The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, which shows a woman struggling with the conventions of the time. Though not a novel, I found the diary of Alice James (Henry James’ sister) also to be very revealing about women and their roles and choices. Though Decorum has strong male characters, I gravitated toward stories from the period written by women.

Q: You’ve had a professional career in writing and editing. But what did you learn the most about yourself and your creative writing when penning Decorum?

A: Wow. Great question. Probably the biggest influence, if you can call it that, on the writing process is that I need a routine if I expect to get any writing done. In terms of creative process (as opposed to the mechanics of working), there’s such a contrast with business writing. My focus is on getting out of a character’s way so that he or she can tell me what he or she wants to tell me. Funnily enough, when writing or editing a piece outside my novel-writing life, I find myself often asking the question, What’s the real story here; what are we trying to say or trying to tell people? So the influence goes both ways.

 Q: How much research did you do for the novel? How long did it take you? What was one of the most interesting things you found during research?

A: It’s hard to estimate how much research I did, since I kept researching throughout the writing process. If I can summarize, early on I read several “survey” books about Victorian American and the Gilded Age that gave overviews of most aspects of life—social, industrial, political, transportation, and so on—to give me a good general backdrop against which to set the story. Then I let the writing lead me to specifics that I had to look up. So, for example, even though I had a general knowledge about socializing in restaurants in the 1890s, when several characters go to the Café Savarin, an actual restaurant in New York, this prompted me to research that restaurant specifically and look for descriptions and menus.

Q: You love to travel. Tell us about somewhere you’ve been you loved and then tell us somewhere that’s on your bucket list.

A: I have enjoyed visiting so many places, but I’m a die-hard Anglophile. I’ve been going back and forth to England since student teaching there as an undergrad and I still have friends there. My bucket list—goodness! I’d love to take a European river cruise. I’d love to visit St. Petersburg and the Hermitage. Turkey intrigues me. There are many, many places on the American continent I’d like to visit. Too many places, too little time!

Q: I’m in Ohio, and you were a Michigan native. Do you miss the Midwest or feel fully satisfied in the city?

A: My family is still in Michigan, so I get back to Michigan several times a year. I have the best of both worlds—interesting history, art, and culture in metropolitan Washington, DC, and the recreation and relaxation in Michigan. Michigan also has great history, art, and culture—the Detroit Institute of Arts and Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, as well as the forts at Mackinac are among my favorites.

Q: Your job sounds amazing, I’ve done a lot of work with non-profits myself, but your life sounds very full. How do you fit in your novel writing time?

A: I have to admit that writing Decorum was a very slow process. Letting the story unfold was challenging certainly, but just as important for me was figuring out how to handle an often unwieldy amount of material and turning it into a book. Writing took place on nights, weekends, and holidays. I haven’t moved to writing novels full time as yet, so it’s still pretty much nights, weekends, and holidays.

Q: What else are you working on or plan to work on next?

A: I’m about 10,000–15,000 words into a story that takes place in pre-Revolutionary War Alexandria, Virginia. (Decorum was about 140,000, if that gives you an idea). The process is pretty much as I’ve described—broad background research combined with specific research as the story unfolds.

Q: If you could choose a woman in history to write a book about, whom would it be and why?

A: I don’t have anyone specific in mind, but I think I would like to tackle writing about a woman from the world of art—either an artist herself or someone who had a great influence on art and how she negotiated her way through a male-dominated world.

Erin: Thank you so very much for being here Kaaren. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. I wish you all the best with your book, and future endeavors. I look forward to reading Decorum.  Let’s have another cookie before we say good-bye….

Kaaren: Thanks for having me, Erin, and for asking such great questions. Does that teapot have another cup in it?

Erin: My teapot always has another cup!

02_DecorumDecorum: A Novel

by Kaaren Christopherson

Publication Date: March 31, 2015
Kensington Publishing Corp.
Foramts: eBook, Paperback, Audio
Pages: 425

Genre: Historical Fiction/Romance

Kaaren Christopherson’s brilliantly observed novel captures the glamour and grit of one of the world’s most dazzling cities during one of its most tumultuous eras–as seen through the eyes of a singularly captivating heroine…

In 1890s New York, beautiful, wealthy Francesca Lund is an intriguing prospect for worthy suitors and fortune hunters alike. Recently orphaned, she copes by working with the poor in the city’s settlement movement. But a young woman of means can’t shun society for long, and Francesca’s long-standing acquaintance with dashing Edmund Tracey eventually leads to engagement. Yet her sheltered upbringing doesn’t blind her to the indiscretions of the well-to-do…

Among the fashionable circle that gathers around her there are mistresses, scandals, and gentlemen of ruthless ambition. And there is Connor O’Casey–an entirely new kind of New Yorker. A self-made millionaire of Irish stock, Connor wants more than riches. He wants to create a legacy in the form of a luxury Madison Avenue hotel–and he wants Francesca by his side as he does it. In a quest that will take her from impeccable Manhattan salons to the wild Canadian Rockies, Francesca must choose not only between two vastly different men, but between convention and her own emerging self-reliance.

Rules Of Decorum

A gentleman should not be presented to a lady without her permission being previously asked and granted. This formality is not necessary between men alone; but, still, you should not present any one, even at his own request, to another, unless you are quite well assured that the acquaintance will be agreeable to the latter.

If you wish to avoid the company of any one that has been properly introduced, satisfy your own mind that your reasons are correct; and then let no inducement cause you to shrink from treating him with respect, at the same time shunning his company. No gentleman will thus be able either to blame or mistake you.

The mode in which the avowal of love should be made, must of course, depend upon circumstances. It would be impossible to indicate the style in which the matter should be told… Let it, however, be taken as a rule that an interview is best; but let it be remembered that all rules have exceptions…

AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOKS-A-MILLION | HUDSON BOOKSELLERS | INDIEBOUND | WAL-MART

Praise

“A story of discovery, entitlement and love.” – Northern Virginia Magazine

“Remarkable in its similarities to the work of Edith Wharton. The reader feels drawn into a world of glamour, glitz, and supreme hypocrisy. Everything is permissible as long as one does not get caught. It is a drama of manners and the stakes are high—one misstep could mean social oblivion…[Decorum] will appeal to a wide range of readers, particularly those who enjoy period novels such as Age of Innocence and The Portrait of a Lady.” – The Historical Novel Society

“Beautiful heiress Francesca Lund must figure out how to assert her ideas within the confines of 1890’s New York high society.” – Library Journal

“Reminiscent of Washington Square but with a more modern heroine, Decorum illuminates the dark world beneath New York society. Christopherson incorporates a clever mystery and populates the novel with a large cast of characters.” – RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars

About the Author

03_Kaaren ChristophersonKaaren Christopherson is the author of Decorum—a novel about Gilded Age New York—that began taking form in 1999 during a course on writing historical fiction.

From that moment, Connor O’Casey (who had been rattling around in her brain for months) finally appeared one night and said, “All right, woman. Here I am. What are you going to do about my story?”

So she began to put his words on paper, and he hasn’t kept quiet since. Soon Francesca, Blanche, Tracey, Vinnie, and the rest of the characters began arguing, gossiping, loving, and forming themselves into Kaaren’s first novel.

Kaaren has had a professional career writing and editing for over 30 years and is a senior editor for an international development nonprofit organization in Washington, DC.

She has written fiction since her school days, story poems, children’s books, historical fiction, and time travel, and continues to be active in writer’s groups and writing workshops. In addition to her career as a writer, Kaaren was the owner of a decorative painting business. She loves to travel and prowl through historical sites, galleries, and museums. She is active in several churches in DC and in her local Northern Virginia community, where she shares her home with feline brothers, Archie and Sammy.

A Michigan native, Kaaren received her BA in history and art and her MA in educational administration from Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.

For more information visit Kaaren Christopherson’s website. You can also find her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Giveaway

To win a Paperback or AudioBook of Decorum please enter the giveaway via the GLEAM form below:

Direct Link: https://gleam.io/gDKYt/decorum-blog-tour

Rules

– Giveaway starts at 12:01 a.m. EST on January 11th and ends at 11:59 p.m. EST on January 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open internationally.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/decorumblogtourtwo/

Hasht ags: #DecorumBlogTour #HistoricalFiction #Giveaway

Twitter Tags: @hfvbt

03B_Decorum_Blog Tour #3 Banner_FINAL

 

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