Living Out Loud: Nancy Horan Reveals the Women Overlooked by History

The real women in her bestselling novels “Under the Wide and Starry Sky” and “Loving Frank” led lives of struggle and scandal. How does Nancy Horan turn fact into fiction?

  • September 9, 2015
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

Nancy Horan - Image

 

Nancy Horan is the best kind of time traveler: The kind who comes back with great stories to tell.

By delving into the letters, diaries, and life’s work of two women best known for the men they stood beside, Horan’s two widely read novels Loving Frank (2007) and Under the Wide and Starry Sky (2014) have brought these women to the fore as whole historical characters in their own right. Horan’s first book, from the point of view of Frank Lloyd Wright’s doomed paramour Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney, struck a chord in the marketplace and became a New York Times bestseller. The latter novel gave similar voice to Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, American-born wife of famed Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson.

Cheney was Wright’s controversial muse — the married woman who became his romantic partner despite the scandal it provoked in their native Oak Park, Illinois, in 1907, and for whom he built his aesthetically challenging estate home at Taliesin. A feminist who translated the works of Swedish suffragist Ellen Key, Cheney not only sacrificed her family to be with Wright, but eventually herself.

For Osbourne, her love affair and eventual marriage to Stevenson not only helped preserve the sickly author and urged him on in writing some of his best-known tales, but took her to the far corners of the globe, where she painted and wrote her own works.

A career as an Illinois journalist readied Horan for her forays into historical fiction. She had been a newspaper writer, offering up freelance feature pieces for the Chicago Tribune and other outlets, while studying fiction writing.

“In journalism, your goal is to get the story right,” she says, “and so I think that carried over to the kind of fiction I ended up writing, which is based on real, agreed-upon historical information. And also, just all those years of trying to shape good sentences — certainly trying to be concise, but also being descriptive. When you’re doing a feature story, you’re communicating the atmosphere of the situation.”

A presenter at Bedtime Stories Seattle, Humanities Washington’s annual fundraising gala, Horan aims to evoke the atmosphere of 1964 with a reading from a new story. In keeping with the gala’s theme “A Hard Day’s Night,” Horan says her piece focuses on events surrounding release of the Beatles film of the same name.

 

Humanities Washington: What led from your desire to write about Frank Lloyd Wright’s family story to writing that of Robert Louis Stevenson?

Nancy Horan: The first story I learned about while living in Oak Park, Illinois, and I didn’t know anything about this particular chapter in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. Very few people in town even know about that story, so that just engaged me. By being interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, I found Mamah Cheney. I didn’t set out to find a woman who was an early feminist — I happened upon her, and she became as interesting to me as he did, because both of them made enormous, life-changing decisions by pursuing their relationship. It had profound impacts on his life, and certainly on his work. So my first experience was in discovering this story, and piecing it together, and I found I really liked the process of writing a historical novel. I had no idea that’s what I was doing when I started. I just thought, this is a really riveting story, and my Lord, how it ends! It was a great tragedy that played out in the Midwestern prairie landscape. Then when the next one came along, I thought, well what do I like about this? Yes, I like the research, love it — it’s kind of a puzzle to me, finding out why people did what they did. In both cases, by reading a biography before I did my own deep research, I could see the arc of the story. That was important, because there’s tons of information in a person’s life, but are these engaging characters? Turns out, these are people who lived out loud. What I discovered is there’s all kind of stuff that’s left unsaid, and you have to understand and research deeply and then make your best guess, just like biographers.

 

Even straightforward biographies will often have moments when the authors have to project themselves into their subject’s way of thinking.

Nancy Horan: There are a lot of ways to do historical fiction. Gosh, I just read this short story by Zadie Smith — she has September 11 as the fateful day, and she has three characters, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, taking a car to get out of town. So she’s taking historical characters and inventing a wildly entertaining narrative, trying to stay true to the kind of character they had. Totally a work of the imagination, but still knowing the characters of those people. I’m kind of on the other end of the spectrum. My interest really is in getting it as close to the agreed-upon historical facts as I can, and I love that, because there is still so much to learn, so much to understand, and these truths come bubbling up that you don’t expect.

 

What were your impressions of these two women? They seemed capable of adventurous and fulfilling lives even without their famous partners.

I think had they been really retiring, sort of submissive characters, I would not have chosen to write about them. But these women had quite different personalities. I mean, Mamah left her children. That’s one of the remaining taboos we have. We simply don’t approve of that, that a mother leaves her children for a lover. And imagine what it was like in the 19th century. So to tell this story from her point of view as my first novel, I thought, am I going to really lose some readers here? And yet I decided to do it, and it was a good decision. She was living during a time when divorce was scandalous and the opportunities for a woman to be independent was very limited. And she was highly educated for a woman of her time, so she was uncomfortable living inside the situation she found herself in. I tried to walk in her shoes, but I really tried not to judge her, because then that leaves the judgment to the reader. To my surprise, that makes for good discussions — especially in a book club, where some people hate her and some people admire her. Fanny had gotten a bad rap from a couple of biographers, who blamed her for all of Stevenson’s ills. That was a case where going to the primary sources, looking at what she really did, looking at her letters, I just thought, we wouldn’t know Stevenson’s work if she hadn’t kept him alive. And Fanny and he discovered he sort of recovered from his long ailments when he was at sea, so for two years they traveled around the South Seas, and she was seasick every day. Just try to imagine living like that. Then I started to think about the women who came across the Oregon Trail — pioneer women who were tough as nails, who made the best out of really daunting circumstances. And Fanny was one of those. She was strong enough to survive those circumstances.

 

Most of us who suffer a violent family loss might choose to rid ourselves of the place where it happened. So why did Wright rebuild Taliesin, not once but twice?

Part of that was they had built it as their place. He built it for Mamah. So he did change it after that fire — he expanded it and made it different, but it always had meaning for him as the place that he had built for her. And he was an architect — part of his very approach to life was to build. It was also built on the land of his family, so he was a part of that land, and had been since he was a kid.

See Nancy Horan

What: Bedtime Stories Seattle 2015

When: 7 p.m. Oct. 2

Where: Fairmont Olympic Hotel, Seattle

What’s your approach to writing about periods you never lived through? What research goes into it?

I look at slang. I got a book that included the kind of slang people used in Indiana in Fanny’s day, written by a contemporary writer in the 1860s, probably, and I saw a couple of phrases there that I could put into Fanny’s mouth — maybe three- or four-word expressions that were common then. But also, I might look for a wedding announcement of Mamah Cheney to her husband Edwin, and find out what she was wearing, and find out what a wedding looked like in those days. But more than that, I could look at the rest of the newspaper and see what the ads were for, and see what were the issues in those days. I found a world in which they were living. And then in terms of Stevenson, I read everything I could get my hands on that he wrote. That was a great joy for me, just to become acquainted with his whole body of work. He was misunderstood as just a writer of boys’ adventure books — he was a travel writer, he wrote poetry, eventually he wrote music. In the same way, I tried to look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, and try to understand what his work was fully about, his organizing through architecture. And then I had the opportunity to describe it through eyes of a layperson — and that was Mamah. Mamah left behind the least imprint in terms of the amount of evidence about who she was. There was more opportunity to invent who she was based on what I knew about her. Then of course, the other element is travel — when I research, I go to the places where they were. That’s so useful, to be able to look from a certain angle and see the landscapes they saw.

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