Posts Tagged Melissa Jones
One of my favorite books of 2010 was Emily Hudson by Melissa Jones. She’s been kind enough to answer some questions.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to write a book based on Henry James’ relationship with his cousin?
Melissa Jones: I have always been interested in Henry James’ work – particularly his attitude to his heroines. I did already know of Minny Temple’s reputation as James’ muse, but when I read Lyndall Gordon’s biography, she came alive for me – not as a tragic sacrificial image but somebody of immense life and energy who had the misfortune to die young.
Steele: Henry James has written some strong and memorable female characters. Why do you think he was successful in writing women?
Jones: He was successful because he was a great writer. I think he was also very much in the thrall of women – but at the same time wary. The distinctive way he evokes and then punishes women in his fiction seems sinister to me and denotes a kind of obsessive/carnivorous interest.
Steele: What attracted you to writing historical fiction?
Jones: It was Minny Temple’s story – I tried not to think of it as historical fiction or I would have lost my nerve. But I have always been a tremendous fan of the nineteenth century novel: the plots are so gripping and the period was one of immense change.
Steele: How did your writing process differ from your previous works of fiction?
Jones: I read the biography and at first thought of adapting it for the screen. But then the idea began to change from a straight translation of a true story and took on its own life. The inspiration was James and Minny Temple, but the themes are both contemporary and historical, I think. Once it was established in my mind I tried to write as I had the other books.
Steele: What was the greatest challenge in writing a work of historical fiction?
Jones: To avoid pastiche while feeling true. I wanted it to be believable but not overly concerned with style and of showing off research. The story was the most important thing.
Steele: What type of research did you do before writing the novel?
Jones: Having read so many nineteenth century novels (some in themselves, historical for their time) I felt I had a solid grounding in the way the world worked and how people spoke and behaved. I backed this up with online research and trips to the Cambridge University library – but a lot of that came up while I was in the process of writing. The book is a work of the imagination primarily.
Steele: Some novels of historical fiction contain too many extemporaneous details. How did you edit what to include and what not to include in order to fully develop the characters and to allow the story to move along at a reasonable pace?
Jones: I agree that ‘period detail’ can often do nothing but show the author’s knowledge: so I tried to follow the example of actual nineteenth century novels and concentrate on the story. Once the parameters were established I focused on the plot and characters and hoped that the reader would ‘see’ it as I did. No character ever sees themselves as part of history – they are just living their lives and that is what I wanted for Emily.
Steele: What do you like best about your character of Emily Hudson?
Jones: Her courage. Not only to be forthright and to battle her illness, but to learn from her mistakes.
Steele: What characteristics of Emily’s do you feel are most unique?
Jones: Her irreverence. I read Minny Temple’s letters and I think people always think the inhabitants of the past were somehow different from us and all terribly proper – she wasn’t at all. That was why she got in such trouble, obviously, but it is a very refreshing and I think moving part of Emily that she is so determined to be ‘true.’ Today it is also easy to be confined by convention.
Steele: It’s interesting that you include a close relationship between Emily and her doctor that she sees about her consumption. What interests you about TB back then?
Jones: TB was not only a brutal killer but a shameful condition – seen as a stain to those who bore it. Little was known about how it was contracted, or how to cure it, except with rest. For Emily it is a kind of hidden badge of her ‘otherness’. I am also interested in it because I think it was a huge part of the nineteenth century psyche – that terror of imminent death. (The same was true of the cholera and influenza epidemics.)
Steele: Emily is such a strong feminist for her time and nearly any time. What type of challenges would a woman like Emily have faced in upper-class England or Boston in the mid-19th century?
Jones: I think the main challenge was of self-determination without money. While that is also a great challenge today, many women can make their way in the world unimpeded by such obvious disapproval. I don’t think Emily would see herself as a feminist – she just couldn’t help but be herself, and that was also to do with her upbringing.
Steele: I liked that Emily Hudson is historical fiction but doesn’t read like a classic. How did you keep the tone contemporary while still adding plenty of historical elements to the story?
Jones: I wanted the narrative voice to be a bit more modern than the voices in the letters – that was part of the reason why I used both, so the reader could have that ‘looking over the shoulder of the heroine’ feeling. I also felt that a character rarely sees themselves as others see them so it was useful to show the letters in contrast to the scenes. I do not know really ‘how’ I did it (!)
Steele: What inspires you to write?
Jones: I am compelled to write as all writers are, I think.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan [Knopf]
–Egan writes with impressive attention to detail and possesses the ability to craft a unique, humorous and riveting portrait of two people invested in the challenging and ever-changing music industry.
The Dissemblers by Liza Campbell [Permanent Press]
–Through lyrical prose and stimulating descriptions, Campbell deftly transports the reader to Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico. She propels us inside an artist’s mind and twists a complex morality tale.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender [Doubleday]
–Bender writes exquisitely. The fairy-tale magic realism propelling this novel is charming and irresistible.
Solar by Ian McEwan [Nan A. Talese]
–crazy story told with McEwan’s brilliant style [simultaneously amusing and uncomfortable] about a physicist working with alternative energy sources including wind power and solar
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black [Random House]
–exquisitely crafted, eclectic collection of short stories
City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris [Little, Brown and Company]
–Ferraris illuminates the varying levels of religious devotion and the status of women in Saudi Arabia from several viewpoints. It contains plenty of twists and thought-provoking cultural situations.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart [Random House]
–Shteyngart brilliantly describes a dystopian future with fantastically elaborate detail through emails, IM exchanges and diary entries.
This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper [Plume]
–Tropper has quickly become one of my favorite writers for his sensitive and often hilarious insight on relationships.
Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet [Permanent Press]
–beautifully crafted a complex, layered story about the abuse of a household servant in Kuwait. Moving from character to character and each individual story, Hobbet provides a rich background about life in Kuwait and the complex structure of the Middle East where class divisions remain strong, Americans and British are simultaneously despised and coveted, arcane laws and customs remain in place, yet Kuwait, compared to other Arab nations appears modern.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow [Algonquin Books]
–provocative and creative coming-of-age in the 1980s story. Blue-eyed, mocha-skinned Rachel is the daughter of a black GI-father and a Danish mother. The sole survivor of a Chicago rooftop tragedy, the 12-year-old ends up at her boozing and opinionated grandmother’s house in Portland, Ore.
Emily Hudson by Melissa Jones [Pamela Dorman Books]
–Jones has created a rousing feminist character in Emily. She’s outspoken and likely to shun conventionality. Emily’s a bit ahead of her time. Women are supposed to be married off by a certain age and then be relegated to the kitchen and drawing room, only to come out for parties and entertaining. And to be an artist at this time? It’s rather unusual and Emily certainly meets those who doubt her talents and capability to make it out there on her own, including her dear cousin William.
How to Survive a Natural Disaster by Margaret Hawkins [Permanent Press]
–astute family drama filled with betrayal, envy, lies, discord, tragedy and forgiveness. It packs a real punch and will stay with you for days after you finish its last page.
The Wolves of Andoverr by Kathleen Kent [Reagan Arthur]
–I really liked this novel for a number of reasons. It provides a detailed, rich description of daily life in 17th century Massachusetts. Smallpox travels through the town and I’m fascinated by infectious disease and how it’s contained. Kent takes the reader to England for its civil war. And the wolves? There are two kinds of wolves in this novel and they are sneaky and vicious.
An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin [Grand Central]
–Martin delves into the complicated New York art world and particularly into the life of art dealer Lucy Yeager. Like an Edith Wharton novel, this glitzy, posh scene has its nuanced participants and sinister underbelly.
Something Redby Jennifer Gilmore [Scribner]
–Gilmore instills equal parts cheerfulness and solemnity throughout this meditative second novel. It’s a superb reflection on the connection between external events and our psyches.
Title: Emily Hudson
Author: Melissa Jones
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books (September 2, 2010)
Category: historical fiction
The perils of being a free-spirited, intellectually curious woman during the Civil War are at the heart of this historical fiction novel, based on an event in the life of Henry James. After being expelled from boarding school for her improperly close friendship with a schoolmate, Augusta, and being accused of not fitting in, Emily Hudson finds herself at the mercy of her mother’s brother in Newport. Emily lost her entire family to consumption and her uncle feels overly burdened by having her in his care. He’d like her married off as soon as possible but Emily has other ideas. She wants to travel. She wants to be an artist. She plays piano and sketches and paints when she can. While her other cousins are off at war, William, who’s rather weak and sickly, remains behind in Newport. Soon Emily and William spend their days talking about literature and travel and have become the closest allies. When a relationship falls through for Emily, William decides to take her abroad under his guardianship. Emily had longed to visit England and be part of European society and away from her puritanical uncle but she soon finds that William is as controlling. If Emily is every going to be free and truly content, she must make her own plans.
I wish you would not describe me and pinpoint me so continually. Besides, in my belief, a person is always essentially themselves. That cannot be changed or altered.
Author Melissa Jones has created a rousing feminist character in Emily. She’s outspoken and likely to shun conventionality. Emily’s a bit ahead of her time. Women are supposed to be married off by a certain age and then be relegated to the kitchen and drawing room, only to come out for parties and entertaining. And to be an artist at this time? It’s rather unusual and Emily certainly meets those who doubt her talents and capability to make it out there on her own, including her dear cousin William. Throughout her elegant prose, Jones makes it quite clear that William suffers an awful jealousy of his cousin’s fiery persona and independent nature. He tries to control her through an allowance but Emily refuses to be constricted by proper society and her cousin’s simplistic wishes for her.
Above all she was tired of fighting and struggling, struggling with her own nature—her own being.
Outstanding research and scintillating physical descriptions makes Emily Hudson a truly stand-out work of historical fiction. Through memorable settings and eloquent details, Jones turns 18th century Boston and British society into beguiling additional characters. Emily Hudson is a charming story about one woman’s search for her true self and everlasting happiness without sacrificing her ideals.