Summer Blog Blast Tour: Mary Jane Beaufrand
Mary Jane Beaufrand is the author of two young adult novels. Her debut novel, Primavera, is a historical novel set in Renaissance Florence and was one of my favorite books of 2008. Seriously, if you like historical fiction, read this book! She followed that up with this year’s The River, a wonderfully moody, atmospheric novel of contemporary suspense.
Your first book was a historical novel, your second contemporary crime fiction. I have a lot of admiration for authors who are willing to change genres like this and do it well, as you have. How did this come about?
It’s wacky, but I think of Primavera more in terms of art than history. The Botticelli painting was my point of entry, and the painting still feels very much alive to me. Although . . . did I spend months with my head down researching the historical aspects? Yup.
But it seems to me that instead of thinking of deliberately switching genres, I thought in terms of beauty. The beauty of Florence and the central Cascades are completely different, but they both acted on my imagination the same way in creating Primavera and The River.
Did you have any worries about moving from historical to contemporary fiction? What was the most difficult thing about changing genres? The best thing?
When I moved from historical to contemporary fiction, a lot of the worries actually fell away. I was working with real historical figures in Primavera, and even though I did a ton of research, I was constantly afraid that an historian would come up to me and say “Botticelli wasn’t really like that.” And I did have a middle school boy ask me once why I changed the character of Lorenzo de Medici. He’d only heard of the “great patron of the arts” guy. So I had to tell him that Il Magnifico really did all the horrendous things in the book.
Since all the characters in The River came straight from my head I didn’t have to worry about someone second-guessing my interpretations.
And the best thing about writing The River was also the worst thing, which was describing the food. I would get so hungry sitting around, dreaming up menus, that I think I gained ten pounds. Oh! And then I had to run it off . . . which explains a little about Ronnie. (I ain’t zippy like she is, though.)
Does your writing process or approach to writing change when writing historical vs. contemporary fiction?
I do a ton of research when writing historical fiction, and am the type who can bury herself in a library indefinitely, forgetting that at some point I actually need to produce something. When I was writing my thesis in college, I found a really intriguing detail about the life of Vladimir Nabokov that I wanted to pursue, and my advisor had to reel me back. “MJ, I think you’re going to have to leave this one out otherwise we’d never see you again.” Which sucked at the time, because it was an intriguing detail (I don’t remember what it was any more), but he was right. If I’d stuck with it I would’ve been on the seven year plan for sure.
And although I did do some research for The River, what I discovered was so repugnant I had no desire to bury myself the subject matter. But in both cases the reward wasn’t the research itself but the deep writing that came out of it. When given a choice, I’m more interested in the emotions than puttering around in footnotes, although puttering is a lot of fun.
As a writer, what is the appeal of historical fiction to you?
In the case of Primavera, as I mentioned, it started with the art. I love Florence , and you can’t mire yourself in Florence too much without encountering the Pazzi rebellion. And the contrast intrigued me that something so brutal could still happen amidst this wonderful flowering of ideas.
I had written three chapters in the book when it took on a more personal, darker note. I found out that my one Italian friend, Emilio Casaccia, died suddenly in a mountaineering accident. So I gave the hero of Primavera his name and suddenly it wasn’t just an interesting exercise in history anymore, but I felt obligated to finish the book as a memorial to him. I worked through a lot of grief in Primavera.
And something really rewarding happened from it, which is that Emilio’s brother found out about the book. He was still alive and living in Milan. He contacted me through Facebook and asked if I’d send a copy to their mother. She couldn’t read the whole thing since she doesn’t speak English but she seemed really pleased that I’d done this for her son’s memory. I’m glad that I could bring her some measure of comfort.
What are some of your favorite historical novels, including books you read as a teen and more recent works?
I didn’t read historical fiction as a teen, but I did read a lot of classics, like the Brontes and Charles Dickens. It wasn’t until I took Art 101 in college that I started thinking *way* back.
I teach writing and use Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. She has a great way with the language of the time. I also loved Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse although that was a difficult read emotionally. The harsh scenes made it a stronger book.
For grown up historical fiction, I was blown away by The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti. Tinti used that kind of 19th-century adventure lit to create a really fresh tale, which I don’t think we see enough of these days. I also loved The Hours by Michael Cunningham for the poetry within the prose.
It’s strange, but I think these days “historical fiction” has almost become shorthand for “historical romance.” Which is fine, but there’s so much more to it. Violence and art, for example😉
I think I’m drawn more to the adventure that an historical setting can provide. In the Renaissance, for one, women didn’t get a lot of say in what happened to them. They either married or became nuns. That was it. And everyone—men and women—had to travel with a dagger because the roads were so dangerous. See? Built-in conflict.
A murder is an important plot point in both your books. Is this just a coincidence or do you enjoy reading (and writing) about crime/intrigue?
That’s interesting that you note that the two books have that thread in common because in my mind they’re completely different. The murders and brutality in Primavera are a matter of historical fact and I pulled them straight from history books. It surprises a lot of readers that I even toned down some of the brutal parts. The Medici weren’t lenient at all.
And in the case of The River, the murder, if you really want to analyze it, is a lot more personal. Once when I was a teenager I was idiot enough to go down the Sandy River in Oregon on an air mattress. Without a life jacket. Doh! Not smart. Of course I fell off and got sucked under. Doesn’t matter how well you swim in times like that—the water carries you where it wants to. Luckily I was with someone (yes, a boy), who was able to get a hold of me and pull me out of the current to a bank.
Ever since then, whenever I’ve had a near miss with death in my own life (and I’m HUGELY allergic to nuts so there’ve been a ton of them), I always dream of drowning. The dead girl in the water is always me.
How did you go about developing the mystery element in The River? Partly I’m curious about the process of creating a fictional mystery–the planning that goes into deciding out how much information to give readers to keep them guessing about the culprits but also make the culprits and their motivation plausible, in a setting that’s vividly described and integral to the crime. And, unlike Primavera’s being based on actual historical events, figuring out everything from scratch.
Oh, gosh. The River took a ton of overhauling. I worked on that project, on and off, for fifteen years. And while I’m pleased at the final result, it’s got very little in common with the story I planned on writing when my family and I drove past Hoodoo Butte all those years ago. I had to pare it down considerably and change the core of the mystery completely. But it’s strange: once I changed the central issue, the rest of it seemed to fall into place.
Which should tell emerging writers a lot about the importance of making your story “organic.” The original issue almost felt grafted on. I want to have this issue (plunk!) in this particular landscape. In the final version, the issue came out of the landscape itself, which made it a much easier book to write, pacing, clues and all.
In a 2008 interview with Becky, you mention a work in progress, The Hush. Will this be your next novel? When can we expect it, and can you give us any more information about it?
I was multitasking for awhile with The Hush, which was historical, about a little-known episode in the life of Harriet Stratemeyer, one of the creators of Nancy Drew, when she was at Wellesley College in 1914. But as I was writing that, I started writing this other project, which I’m calling To Believe in David Bowie, about a group of punks in Portland in the 1980s. The voice of the main character of my David Bowie story seemed to take over, and now I’m hard at work on that. I’ll get back to The Hush when I’m done. No publication date on David Bowie, but when there is, be sure to bust out your “Let’s Dance” CD and perm your hair. Par-tay!
Ooh, both stories sound fascinating! Thanks again to Mary Jane Beaufrand for stopping by, and to the good folks at Little, Brown for making this interview possible. Also on today’s Summer Blog Blast Tour schedule:
Rita Williams-Garcia at A Fuse #8 Production
Jennifer Hubbard at Writing & Ruminating
Charise Mericle Harper at Shelf Elf
Holly Schindler at Little Willow