Monday, June 8, 2015

Working Up A New Novel...The Long Way

Working on my 1920s Novel

I’ve just finished reading a book called “Wit’s End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table” by James R. Gaines, written and published in 1977. It was the May-June selection for my Dorothy Parker’s Vicious Circle Book Club, where we read exclusively books by and about the writers of the Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s. Up ‘til now, my interest in the era has centered around Hollywood, and while I have aspired to read the works of the writers of the day, I have been, for the most part, unsuccessful. I’ve read half of Hemingway’s work, a handful of Fitzgerald, a smattering of other random writers, and that’s it. I joined the book club to rectify that, particularly because I am gathering research to write a historical novel of my own, set in the era.

My proposed book, as of yet, has no plot. The protagonist is sketchy, at best – I am basing her on a MC from a short story I wrote last year, who in turn is based on an amalgam of Clara Bow and Lois Long, with a pinch of Dorothy Parker and Thoroughly Modern Millie thrown in. She was a World War I widow, moved from rural Pennsylvania to Manhattan in 1921. She became a modern – cut her hair, got a job, changed her life, became her own woman. She is still young, and searching for her destiny. I think I will see parts of her in my book’s MC, but not totally.

The real women of the Algonquin writer’s scene are starting to live inside me. I am drawn to the artist, Neysa McMein (pictured right, in the self-portrati entitled, "The Lady Seldom Smiles". She often used herself as a model, and can be seen upon most magazine covers of the day), and the independence of Edna Furber. I would like to learn more about the ambitious Jane Grant. And then there’s the Hollywood connection, of which I have always been enamored. Helen Hayes, Tallulah Bankhead, and Ruth Gordon…whom I was surprised to see in this book. I had always liked her as an actress and a personality, but had no idea she had been involved with this group in New York.

I am still drawn to the tragic life of Clara Bow, and she was born, raised, and discovered in the slums of New York. She was far from the lives of these writers in fashion and the arts, so I am still unsure how to connect them. I think I will have a Clara Bow type MC who falls in with an ART crowd. That will allow me to explore a lot of themes around education, classism, wealth and poverty, and how talent gets ahead (or not). I will probably not have my MC be the victim of incest by her father, like Clara Bow, though, because ugh.

I feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of names in Wit’s End. They are, for the most part, completely unknown to me, except for Dorothy Parker. I may have heard the names of Benchley and Woollcott, for sure Edna Furber and Edna Millay, but that doesn’t mean I know them or have actually read them. It was a swirl of names to read this book. I had to restrain myself from falling down the rabbit hole of google and youtube while reading, and my Amazon Wish List has grown by an entire page. I am most excited to read Ruth Gordon’s memoirs, of which there are three, but her life was so much in television and film that it won’t be completely relevant… or will it? I’d love to build a character similar to her.

In any case, I am glad to have read it. Now, we are on to the collection of early Vanity Fair articles, to be read and discussed in July and August.

P.S. Some of you may know Ruth Gordon from her many iconic roles in her later years, such as Rosemary's Baby, Harold & Maude, and more. So you may be as surprised as I was to see her in these photos of the Roaring Twenties:

 Ruth Gordon with her then husband, Gregory Kelly.

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