Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Highly Recommended Reading: Mary Sharratt's New Novel

Mary Sharratt's third novel, The Vanishing Point, is one of the best books I've read this year--dark, intriguing, and very very fine all around.

The publisher's description:

In the tradition of Philippa Gregory’s smart, transporting fiction comes this tale of dark suspense, love, and betrayal, featuring two star-crossed sisters, one lost and the other searching.

Bright and inquisitive, Hannah Powers was raised by a father who treated her as if she were his son. While her beautiful and reckless sister, May, pushes the limits of propriety in their small English town, Hannah harbors her own secret: their father has given her an education forbidden to women. But Hannah’s secret serves her well when she journeys to colonial Maryland to reunite with May, who has been married off to a distant cousin after her sexual misadventures ruined her marriage prospects in England.

As Hannah searches for May, who has disappeared, she finds herself falling in love with her brother-in-law. Alone in a wild, uncultivated land where the old rules no longer apply, Hannah is freed from the constraints of the society that judged both her and May as dangerous—too smart, too fearless, and too hungry for life. But Hannah is also plagued by doubt, as her quest for answers to May’s fate grows ever more disturbing and tangled.

Sharratt is the author of Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point. She was the winner of the 2005 WILLA Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction

Q: One of the things I was most impressed with in The Vanishing Point was how you portrayed both May and Hannah Powers as women who ultimately kick over the traces of their era's social and moral constraints, without ever making their motivations or actions feel anachronistic.

I get claustrophobic just watching re-runs of Splendor in the Grass, when it comes to the whole female-sexuality-oppression deal. But I still cringe when historical fiction goes overboard with imported lashings of contemporary "I am woman, hear me roar" empowerment schtick.

Diana Gabaldon tackles that by having her protagonist time-travel, but far too many modern novels strike me as having fallen prey to the kind of "If I was a slave, I'd've just got in my Lincoln and drove the fuck away" hindsight-hubris on which Eddie Murphy once did a brilliant standup riff.

Was that difficult to navigate as you were crafting this novel? Did the depth of your research help you succeed at making May and Hannah such credible inhabitants of their times?

A: I'm so happy that my characters, Hannah and May, rang true to you as a reader. Presenting strong women in historical fiction is tricky. On the one hand, some contemporary readers tend to believe such figures are anachronistic, no matter how well-researched the characters might be, because many people do base their concept of women in history on lazy stereotypes and misperceptions that women were always completely helpless and downtrodden. But if you actually sit down and do the research, a completely different image emerges. Throughout history there have always been women who, within the restrictive parameters of their age, managed to carve out daring lives and to achieve extraordinary things.

While writing this book, I became intrigued by the notion of a late 17th century woman who was determined to carve out her own destiny and who demanded the same liberties, both social and sexual, as a man. This was how May's character was conceived. The Restoration era certainly had its share of adventurous women who challenged the status quo.

Nell Gwyn is one of my favorites. Though illiterate, she rose from poverty to become the most celebrated actress of the Restoration and one of the first women to ever act on stage in England.

Previously female parts had been played by men dressed up as women. Eventually she became Charles II's mistress, but she was every bit the master of her own destiny. She earned her living by acting (a highly disreputable profession in that era) and high-class prostitution, yet she was never ashamed or coy about what she was. When her coach driver attacked another man for calling her a whore, Nell reportedly broke up the fight by saying, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about."

Aphra Behn is another huge idol of mine. She's credited as being the first Englishwoman to earn her living as a writer.

A prolific and celebrated dramatist and poet, she traveled to Surinam and later to Antwerp, where she worked as a spy for Charles II. Although she was briefly married, her husband remains an obscure footnote in her very colorful life.

It's also interesting to note the frequent jokes about cuckolds in Restoration comedies. Although the dearth of reliable birth control put women at a disadvantage when it came to sexual freedom, we're left with a picture of upperclass wives who enjoyed adulterous romps and who used their marital status as a shield for any resulting pregnancies.

So Hannah and May, although fictional characters, were inspired directly by my research into the lives of real women in this era.

Q: Equally impressive to me was the way you wove what your publisher's reading guide for the book describes as "fascinating descriptions of social customs, recipes, and medical practices" into the action, without ever weighing down the narrative's drive. I always want to include every last scrap of research in my fiction--hardest darling to kill. Are there things you wish you could have included but had to scrap?

A: Research is indeed the hardest darling to kill! There's always the temptation to show off your research in a way that hits the reader over the head. I had several long passages about how Maryland started out as a refuge for Catholics and a sanctuary of religious toleration, only to later become a place where the Church of England was in control and Catholics were persecuted, as they had been in England. Since this wasn't integral to my story but more of a potted history lesson, my editor wisely asked me to cut it and I did.

Q: I was captivated by your description of visiting the Philadelphia rowhouse in which two eighteenth-century seamstresses "once lived and plied their trade," an experience you've cited as early inspiration for The Vanishing Point. What was it about that house that first sparked your imagination?

A: When I entered that little rowhouse, I felt immediately drawn into lives of these two women. I was impressed that the two of them had managed to carve out an independent, masterless existence, ruled by neither father nor husband, in an age when nearly every factor in the dominant society and religion herded women into marriage and domesticity. I wanted to learn more about them--the hidden history of how they came to be living together in that little row house. This inspired me to use fiction as a tool to explore women's lives in Early America.

Q: During the ten years of research you did for this book, you lived in California, Germany, and England. How did your sojourn in each place impact your perspective on the evolving story?

A: Germany was where I first started working on The Vanishing Point, way back in the early 90s. At that time, I was studying to become a Heilpraktiker, or naturopath. I was learning about herbalism and also the medical theories that were still widespread in the 17th century, such as plant signatures, the medicine of the humors, and the theory behind "bleeding" the patients and applying leeches. In this course, we also discussed the teachings of Paracelsus, for whom medicine, science, magic, astrology, and religion were inseparably woven together.

I ended up not becoming a professional naturopath for various reasons, but the material I had learned was too interesting not to use, so I wove it into my novel-in-progress.

My husband and I moved to California in 2001. Here The Vanishing Point was on the backburner as I worked on my second novel, The Real Minerva. The agent I was working with at that time didn't like The Vanishing Point and told me to scrap it.

When we moved to England in 2002, The Vanishing Point came alive again for me again. I found a wonderful new agent who sold The Real Minerva as part of a two-book deal and that security allowed me to focus all my energy on The Vanishing Point. Before I'd been a little daunted writing about Maryland, because I'm not from there. Then it dawned on me that my characters were displaced English people, way out of their element, and that was the key to portraying them with confidence and authority.

When we bought a house in the Lancashire countryside, the novel took root and gained a life force of its own. The characters' surnames were lifted from 17th century gravemarkers in village churchyards. The yew trees and hawthorn hedges that May longs for in her American exile grow outside my door. My writing room looks out onto Pendle Hill

where George Fox received the ecstatic vision that inspired him to found the Quakers. The final drafts that I did here in England just seem to flow out of me. The book almost seemed to write itself.

Q: Have you gotten any responses to the book you weren't expecting?

A: I was amused that Publisher's Weekly thought my book was too sexy. My previous books also contain explicit scenes, but this was the first time a mainstream reviewer had a problem with it. I wonder what this particular reviewer would make of Samuel Pepys's diaries? People were quite frank about sexuality in the Restoration era--far less prudish than many people are today.

Q: What's next for you on the writing front? Please tell me we'll be seeing more from you soon!

A: My current novel-in-progress is a ghost story called The Art of Memory.Inspired by the English gothic novel and pre-Raphaelite paintings, the book is set in and around Manchester, England during the Industrial Revolution and the present day. The theme is that the past never dies--the souls lost in the tumult of historical progress keep haunting and exerting their influence on contemporary lives.

The novel concerns a dysfunctional American family that experiences a devastating blast from the distant past when the father, Will, goes to Manchester on business. He encounters a mysterious young woman who calls herself Angel. She lures him into her flat, serves him drugged tea, and then steals not his money or his credit cards but snapshots of his wife and daughter.

When circumstances force Will to relocate to Manchester, his 16-year-old daughter begins to receive mysterious communications from a stranger who speaks to her deepest dreams and desires. It is up to Will to try to disentangle his daughter from this web. In doing so, he must unravel Angel's true identity and purpose.

Thank you, Mary!


  1. Wow - this is a book I'm going to have to check out.
    (Too sexy? Can't wait to form my own opinion!)

  2. What a great review and interview. I'm with Sandra. Sounds like a book that merits attention.

  3. I LOVED this book... not a mystery, but nice and dark and crime-y. And just beautifully written. I think you guys would enjoy it a lot!

  4. Diane Cox-I loved the book even though I cried at the end. I wanted a different ending. You'll know what I mean when you read the book.