Today we have guests! Anne Pace (of The Lesbian Review Chat fame) was kind enough to interview Kim Taylor Blakemore, and me (!) about Kim’s new book, The Companion, which I was privileged to narrate.
Anne: Kim, this story is set in mid-nineteenth century New England. I appreciated how detailed and immersive it was without feeling academic. Were you already well versed in the history of that era? How much research did writing this book entail?
Kim: Thank you for that. I make it a point to not inundate with a lot of extraneous details. One of the best compliments I received on the book was from Kevin Canty (The Underworld, Into the Great Wide Open). He was the fiction judge for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards, and he noted the research in the book only appeared “out of the corner of one’s eye”. My aim in historicals is for the reader to feel dropped into the milieu. I try to use a few telling details and allow the reader to fill in the rest.
I am a big fan of the 19th century. It was a century of tremendous changes in technology and industrialization and was characterized – particularly in the Northeast – by huge movements, such as the Second Great Awakening, Abolition, Suffrage, Spiritualism, and Transcendentalism. Then of course, there is the West, with its multitude of stories! I also am focused on women’s experiences, particularly the day to day life – and that is found in diaries and letters, household objects and clothing. Any place I travel, I make sure to not only visit historical societies, but also historical homes because I love to walk through past lives.
But to the question of researching this novel. After I determined the setting and time of the book (rural, gothic, and the time between sentence and execution less than a year), my wife and I travelled to Massachusetts and New Hampshire to get the “lay of the land”, the topography and distances and feel of small villages. We also spent time at the Amoskeag Mill Museum in Manchester, which is a marvelous exhibit. All the buildings are extant, so the sheer size and scale were impressive and surprising. We had a personal tour of Perkins School for the Blind (and I was able to touch the largest tactile globe in the world and know Laura Bridgman and Annie Sullivan studied the same globe). In 2018, I was awarded a Regional Arts & Culture Council grant to return to New Hampshire when the book was nearly complete, and at this point, I visited the State Library (original reports from the prison warden for 1855 – hello!), the State Archive (murderess Letitia Blaisdell’s trial records – another hello!), met and traveled around with a local historian in Keene, talked to docents at Sturbridge Village about money and banking and all things 19th century village life, and double-checked that I hadn’t made glaring mistakes. I read a lot of primary sources on how to run a household, on travelling peddlers, on fashions. The research was continuous.
Anne: Ann, this story takes place in your home state. How much closer to it did it make you feel?
Ann: I love the fact that it not only takes place in my home state, but also in the county where I grew up. My hometown appears in the book. I had the opportunity to travel to NH the week before I did the recording and I took an afternoon and drove myself all around the various small towns, even stopping at one of the old mills. I deliberately took the back roads and searched for houses that were built before 1850. Often people will have the date of an older house posted above the front door or on the corner. I also listened to the accents of the older people I know- those with the stronger NH accent.
Anne: Kim, what motivated your choice to tell the story in the first person?
Kim: I used to be a theatre actress, and when I write, I hear the voice of the narrator. I’ll voice what I’ve written to get a sense of them and their particular patterns. Lucy’s voice was really strong and sly, and I thought her own words would lend themselves best. Plus, she’s unreliable, a liar you want to believe, and that can be pulled off easily in first person.
If I’m not certain whether 1st or 3rd person is the best, I will rewrite the opening scenes in both forms, and then also in past and present tense to see which has the right rhythm and heart. Which captures the narrator’s voice. The book I just finished and am in developmental edits on, AFTER ALICE FELL (January 2021, Lake Union), is also 1st person but present tense. It’s more of a thriller with a faster pace, and I wanted reveals and surprises to hit the reader right when they hit the main character. And the book I’m just starting now? I’m toying with 3rd person because it might be in 2-3 points of view.
Anne: Ann, there are many strong female characters in this book. How do you prepare to give each one her distinctive voice?
Ann: I always read the book the first time through as much for pleasure as possible- how a regular reader will discover the book. That helps inform my characterizations because I develop a picture of each character’s arc in my head. This gives me a good understanding of the personality of each. Eugenie is strong in ways that are different from Lucy and both are different from Rebecca and Cook and Aurora. The warden has her own special place because her setting is so different. Then I read the book again, mapping out each major character arc and thinking about specific lines and how they might sound. That helps me create the voice of each character. With this book, the director and I discussed what sort of accents to use (strong, light, educated, etc.) and how much emphasis to give. We decided to take a lighter hand on that, because the New England accent can be distracting. In fact, we redid the first chapter because we started out with a stronger accent than made for easy listening.
Anne: Kim, two female characters in this story develop an intimate relationship. It doesn’t seem to faze Lucy at all even though she had been with men before. Was this a choice to have it happen like this, almost as a non-issue?
Kim: I don’t think it’s an issue to Lucy. She loves who she loves, whether man or woman, and whether it’s a good or bad decision. One of the characteristics I love about her is her underlying vulnerability and naiveté. As the story unfolded, it naturally moved into this relationship. And to me, what they see in each other is their isolation and otherness. And both recognize each other’s fierceness. So, it’s as if it’s them against the world.
Also, Boston Marriages were fairly common in New England in the mid-1800s, and intimacy (non-sexual) between women friends was common. You can read letters between women who are long married with full family lives, but the nature of their discourse is so passionate, as if they were lovers carrying on a torrid affair. The language of the time was more florid. Also, in the novel, I made sure to set the book prior to the Civil War, prior to Havelock Ellis and his book “Sexual Inversion”, so the relationship between Eugenie and Lucy wouldn’t be as forbidden, nor necessarily questioned. Though the danger of it is there, when Delphine threatens to tell on them later in the novel.
Anne: Ann, how did you adjust your narration to reflect tone of this story?
Ann: This was one of the areas where the director and I had some great discussion. We ended up with a tonal change between chapters in the past and chapters in the present (prison). The difference is meant to be slight, but should be enough to alert the listener to the change in setting. Lucy is more worn and tired in her prison setting and thus the narration is flatter and less energetic. In the flashbacks where she is happy we used a brighter tone. In the flashbacks where life was more difficult, we took it back down a bit.
Anne: Kim, is your book doing well in the mainstream (non-LGBTQAI) market?
Kim: Yes – the book is doing well in Historical Mystery and Women’s Historical Fiction categories. It’s a fairly literary novel, so I expect a longer steadier climb. I am super pleased to see it holding the top spot in LGBT Historical Fiction and LGBT Mystery – at least as of today – we know how that changes – but it’s held those since it released, and I am so appreciative of the people reading it and supporting the work. The more sales of books with LGBT characters by mainstream publishers, the more, I think, we will see.
Anne: Kim, Capital punishment is an issue in this book with characters voicing their opinion against it, a fairly new idea at the time. However, New-Hampshire only abolished in 2019. Was this fact part of your decision to set the story in that state?
Kim: There were huge debates over capital punishment in New Hampshire at the time (1840s and 50s), with much debate in the State House about abolishing execution. The laws changed then so only homicide or treason were deemed capital crimes, and the last hanging was Howard Long in 1939. Also, Dorothea Dix travelled and spoke vigorously against the death penalty (she is also well-known for her work in exposing the treatment of the insane at asylums). It was a hotly debated issue at the time.
Anne: Kim, how strong (if strong at all) was the pull to give Lucy a happy ending?
Kim: I can’t tell you how many schemes I made up to get her out of that prison! And the further I wrote into the story, the more desperate I was to have her win. I even took the train from Portland to Seattle to meet my editor and tell her all the ways it would be possible. But she urged me to stay to the truth of her tale, to the time period, and the consequences of all Lucy’s actions. She was right; my yearned for endings were either cynical or implausible. Endings should have an inevitability about them, shouldn’t they? They need to be earned – whether good or bad – and the text and storylines prior point to that inevitable ending. Anything else would be a cheat. And I, unlike Lucy, don’t cheat. 🙂
Ann: I literally cried reading the ending, even though I had read it multiple times already.
Anne: Ann, this is not your first audiobook narration. How did the recording and production process differ from your previous recordings?
Ann: This is the first book I have done in a studio and thus not been responsible for the editing process. I was also fortunate enough to have an experienced director so I didn’t have to argue only with myself over how a character might say a particular line, I could discuss with another knowledgeable person. The acting is my favorite part of audiobook production so I was delighted to be able to just act and leave the directing and engineering to someone else. Brilliance Audio was very supportive and wonderful. They have a great staff and a really nice and comfortable studio.
Also, I normally have to do my own research on word pronunciations. In this case the director took the time to send me a pronunciation list. Although since some of the words were NH place names (Ashuelot) or NH phrases (ayuh) he actually struggled with a couple of them. In this way it was very nice that I grew up in the area- I speak like a native and don’t trip over Ashuelot or give Monadnock the wrong vowel sounds.
We did have a funny incident. I had never known that “victuals” is pronounced “vittles”. I thought “vittles” was a slang for “victuals” (vik’-shew-als). I read “vik-shew-als”. The director stopped me and I misheard his correction and said “vitals” instead of “vittles”. We went along and the next morning all three of us realized what I had done- it had been nagging all of us all night. We made the correction.
Anne: How involved was the author, Kim Taylor Blakemore, in the creation of this audio? Did you discuss at length before and during your recording session?
Ann: I asked Kim multiple questions before we did the recording. I wanted an idea of how she saw the characters beyond what was on the page. I even texted her at one point in the middle of the recording because we had a question.
Before we started, I also asked her whether/who Lucy had actually killed, but she wouldn’t tell me. I have some strong opinions on that, however.
Anne: Ann, would you like to collaborate again with this author and this studio?
I would absolutely narrate again for Kim, I love her books. I usually tend toward romance in my pleasure reading, but her books are so compelling I don’t mind the lack of a happy ending. I read Bowery Girl several years ago and was so moved by it I recommended it to a friend of mine who teaches high school. Kim writes such interesting characters that they provide a rewarding exercise as an actor. There is so much to work with, so much depth. And the emotions in the story make for some enjoyable acting. Brilliance Audio was wonderful. I enjoyed the people I worked with. Everything was comfortable so I was able to focus on the acting.
Anne: Thank you both for chatting with me today.