In my experience, a novel accrues, over time and from many sources, with ideas and aspects seeming to light up until enough of them form a cluster that can become a story. I read a lot of biographies and I love volumes of letters because they give you authentic voices, the diction and vocabulary of a period. A major plot line in my novel Leeway Cottage came from one sentence in a book of letters by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Her fiction doesn’t speak to me at all, but her letters are brilliant and wonderfully frank and full of the daily details of a life. At one point the love of Sylvia’s life left her for a younger woman who was more beautiful and far richer than Sylvia. She bore it quietly, in spite of being devastated, because she wanted her lover’s happiness even more than she wanted her own. Eventually, Valentine came back, and Sylvia wrote to a friend this incredibly simple explanation: her rival had all the advantages, except that “I was better at loving, and being loved.”
What a thing to say, what a thing to understand.
I think Gossip started with a biography of Emily Post. I’m a longtime fan of Mrs. Post, a very witty writer and brave, self-reliant and deeply considerate woman. Etiquette books in general paint a vivid picture of changing manners and mores, but Post’s are the most fun. From her 1928 edition one learns that is shocking to allow your butler or footmen to sport facial hair of any kind. Who knows, in this Downton Abby world, when that might come in handy? (As you can infer, I find a lot of research material in second hand bookstores.) Mrs. Post is brisk and confident, but a crusader against snobbery and fussiness, and I thought I might do a character based on her, but instead turned out to use Tuxedo Park, the very grand, very early gated community where she spent much of her childhood and where she is buried. It was the perfect symbol for one of the questions the book raises: what does it mean to be an insider in society? What does it mean to choose to be an outsider? A maverick, if you will? By society, I mean any group that sets the tone for a community, be it the local grange in a farming village, or Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred.
This is real life, but it is also Edith Wharton territory, of course; so many of her New York plots are turned by the terrible power of social judgments and gossip. But in Wharton’s world, and in Mrs. Post’s, there is a recognized social standard and body of opinion. Our world is very different. The true purpose of manners, according to Emily — I think of her as Emily, since she feels to me like a friend — is to treat others with consideration and kindness and avoid making people uncomfortable. In my mother’s youth, good manners required addressing people formally unless you were truly familiars. When she insisted, though, on calling my friends “Mrs. Todd” or “Mr. West” although she was 35 years older than we and we were wearing blue jeans with our hair down to here, it didn’t seem polite, it just seemed weird, really a protest or rebuke, if not actually to us, then to the world for changing and shifting the ground beneath her feet.
So the deal with manners is not propriety, but kindness. Which reminded me of the “Iago question,” which you hear a lot about if you’re an English major. What is his motive, why is he evil? Does he even know? He does seem to be one of the few characters in literature or life who actually knows that he’s mean. So I re-read Othello, and Othello led me again to the subject of gossip, or rather to the fact that knowledge is power, and words are weapons. I began to think of a modern character who winds up doing something like what Iago does, but in such a way that we understand what she thinks she’s doing when she does it. You almost never meet with pure malice outside of a mental ward, but you certainly all the time meet with people who do casual harm to others while feeling swell about themselves, and that seemed like a proper subject for a novel.
But is that really where this particular novel came from? I think we all wonder why some things lodge in memory when we forget so much else; someone once told me we remember moments when we learned things. Here’s a moment from when I was about seven. The subject of rumor had come up, maybe in life, maybe in a book. My mother told us about the girl who went to confession because she’d said something untrue about somebody else. The priest said that as a penance, she was to go outside, cut open a feather pillow, and empty it on the breeze. Then she was to retrieve all the feathers. I remember my childhood bedroom, blue wallpaper, my sister’s horseshow ribbons on a string above the mantel, the clock on the wall in the shape of a black and white cat with eyes and tail that went back and forth as it ticked, and that story.
Beth Gutcheon, author of Gossip, is the critically acclaimed author of eight previous novels: The New Girls, Still Missing, Domestic Pleasures, Saying Grace, Five Fortunes, More Than You Know, Leeway Cottage and Good-bye and Amen. She is the writer of several film scripts, including the Academy Award nominee The Children of Theatre Street. She lives in New York City.
Today at Stiletto Storytime we are not only honored to have author Beth Gutcheon visiting and sharing with us but we also have a copy of Gossip available to one lucky reader. Giveaway ends midnight EST on April 14, 2012. US/Canada addresses only please. Winner will be selected by random number generator and notified by e-mail.
To enter simply comment below and share a memory, person or event that you think might be the starting place for a novel. I loved Beth’s description of her childhood memory about the girl who rips the pillow case and releases the feathers like gossip goes out into the world and can truly never be reversed just as every feather can never be replaced. It’s such a striking image in one’s mind.
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