Author Laura Moriarty Chats with MCPL
October 28, 2013
Laura Moriarty is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. On November 6, she will be discussing her fourth novel, The Chaperone, at the Woodneath Library Center. The film rights to this bestselling novel were recently bought by actress Elizabeth McGovern of Downton Abbey fame. Ms. Moriarty has kindly granted MCPL this interview. Read on!
MCPL: Congratulations on the great reviews and buzz for The Chaperone. You must be excited about Ms. McGovern’s interest in doing a movie version. How did she come to know about the novel? Have the two of you spoken about her intentions?
Laura: She's the reader for the audiobook version, so she read it before it came out. I was pleased enough that she was doing the audio - she's really one of my favorite actors, and I love her voice. She did a fantastic job reading the novel and bringing the characters to life. And then I learned that she wanted to option the film rights. I was just thrilled. But things got even better when I learned that Julian Fellowes would be writing the screenplay and Simon Curtis would direct. I'm delighted by the level of talent working on the film. We haven't spoken so much about how they're going to adapt the book for the film, but I'm pretty comfortable leaving it in their hands.
MCPL: It can't help but be a wonderful film! You’ve said that real-life, silent film star, Louise Brooks, inspired The Chaperone but, you tell the story from the point of view of your fictional character, Kansas housewife, Cora Carlisle. How did Cora come to be Louise’s chaperone on her first trip to New York City? Did you try out different characters before you found the right fit?
Laura: The idea for the novel came to me while I was reading a biography of the tempestuous and daring Brooks. I found her intriguing, but I only saw a novel I wanted to write when I learned that when she was fifteen years old and already wild, she spent the summer with a 36-year-old chaperone, a Wichita housewife named Alice Mills. Right then, I knew that the chaperone would be my main character, and I just wrote and rewrote until I knew her. I never found much written down about the real chaperone; but to be honest, I didn't look that hard. My goal from the start was to fictionalize the anonymous chaperone, and tell her story alongside the facts of Louise Brook's tumultuous life. So everything about my chaperone's life is imagined except her age, hometown, and occupation - that's why I changed her name to Cora Carlisle. But everything about Louise is based on her memoir or on biographies. I really wanted to stick to the truth of Louise's life - it's so interesting, just as it was.
MCPL: You depict ordinary life in the Roaring Twenties so vividly. As I read the book, I imagined that you must have turned off your air conditioning and worn a corset for a week to get a feel for women’s day-to-day lives. What was your research process like? Where did you find all of your wonderful historical details?
Laura: I actually found a mail-order catalog for a women's department store from the summer of 1922, and that was so helpful. The catalog was aimed at middle-class women, and it allowed me to study not just what a young flapper would have worn, but what a more conservative woman might have worn that summer. I got a sense of what materials were used, and how much things cost. I also got a more accurate sense of hemlines. Nobody in the catalog was showing her knees, and though some young women had already thrown away their bras by 1922, I noticed a two-page spread of corsets in the catalog, and so I knew plenty of women were still wearing them. I couldn't help but imagine what it would have been like to wear one in a Kansas summer - or a New York City summer. I went crazy with the research. There were books everywhere, in every room in my house. I watched silent films and read popular novels from that year. I also used maps and old travel guides of New York. And I drove down to Wichita to walk around the train station where the real Louise and her chaperone left for New York that summer.
MCPL: How do you set the right balance of fact and fiction? Was it a challenge to stay true to history and still give your fictional character, Cora, her own strong story to tell?
Laura: Actually, no. I liked having the scaffolding of Louise's life to build Cora's imagined life around. And I liked reading about larger historical issues, like the Orphan Trains and the Spanish Flu and even the invention of the radio, and thinking about how they might have impacted my characters' histories.
MCPL: How has being a college professor influenced you writing career?
Laura: I'm still working it out, to be honest. I've only been teaching for five years, and I really love it, but of course I don't write as quickly. Teaching takes time, and so the novels will come more slowly than they did before I started teaching. But I feel I learn so much when I teach. I assign new novels every semester, and I love encountering them with students, thinking about their reactions as well as mine. And I have great colleagues.
MCPL: Laura, thank you so much for giving us some insight into your work. We look forward to meeting you in person at Woodneath next month.
Laura: Thank you! I'm looking forward to it, too.