Today Judy Alter is joining me to tell us a bit about her novel, The Gilded Cage.
Welcome Judy. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
JA: Against the background of Chicago history in the last half of the 19th century, The Gilded Cage tells the story of Potter and Bertha (Cissy) Honoré Palmer. He was a prominent businessman and builder of the city, owner of the still-operating Palmer House Hotel; she was one of the first socialites to believe that wealth carried an obligation to philanthropy and to put her belief into actions beyond monetary donations. Her greatest accomplishment came as president of the Board of Lady Managers at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
What prompted you to write about this historical era or event?
JA: As a young child growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the Hyde Park neighborhood, I wandered the land that once boasted the World’s Columbian Exposition. My mother took me out in rowboats around Wooded Island, and I learned to ice skate on the Midway, which still cuts a swath of green through the city for more than a mile west from the lakeshore. My friends and I made countless trips to the Museum of Science and Industry, the only exposition building that survives. Much later, I attended the University of Chicago, which sits almost on the exposition grounds. That part of the city was “my” Chicago. Then, somehow, I stumbled on the story of Cissy Palmer and was intrigued. I decided her story would make a good novel, and I simply combined the two interests—the city and the character.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
JA: I stuck pretty closely to historical fact—certainly the major events such as the Great Fire, the Haymarket Riot, the Columbian Exposition. But I took liberties with the stories of the individual characters, which I think is inevitable in historical fiction. There is for instance a romantic attraction which I’m quite sure never happened, and the villain or bad guy is wholly a product of my imagination. But I did a lot of research for this book and really tried to get the history correct. You might say the city is one of the characters in the book.
As many storytellers will say, characters can take over a book and dictate the course of the action. That’s what happened here, especially in the case of the forbidden attraction. I really tried, though, not to let the characters dabble with history.
What research did you do for this book?
JA: The Author’s Note contains a bibliographic essay detailing the works I consulted. But I also relied on my knowledge of the city and its history, my memory of my childhood there, and my own reaction to the setting—for instance my fascination with Lake Michigan when it’s at its wildest best.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
JA: Most of the major characters are historic, though not in their pure form. I did invent a couple—principally the bad guy—black sheep of a proper New England family. He thinks the world is against him and eventually blames his “bad luck” on Potter Palmer. His wife is also an invention, an Irish girl who works in a pub. They provide a contrast to the Palmers.
I suppose invented characters are a bit easier to write because you have free rein to give them characteristics and attitudes, whereas with real figures you feel a bit like you’re tampering with someone’s life.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
JA: The place was easy because it’s a place I know and remember well. All I had to do was recreate what I saw in my mind. As for people, I’ve never had a problem putting myself in someone’s head and seeing the world the way they do—or as I think they do. I’ve written several other books set in the late nineteenth century, so the era wasn’t a problem either. This novel is a bit unusual for me in that it’s in third person—I often tell the story from the first-person point of view which really makes me see and experience the world the way my character does.
But the characters, to repeat, in a sense told me what they saw and felt. They took over the story, telling me which way it would go. That makes the writing sound as easy as snapping your fingers, but that’s not the case. The book was written and rewritten, from several points of view, over a ten-year period.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
JA: I suspect that larger scope is due to our lingering belief that men shaped history. Women’s roles are gradually being recognized though. I prefer to write about women, always have. I’ve done several novels about women who played a major role in the American West during that time period—Libby Custer, Jessie Benton Frémont, a cowgirl modelled on Lucillle Mulhall, and Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend. It’s a trendy thing to say these days but I identify as female, so it’s easier for me to see things from a female point of view. Hardest assignment I ever had was to write a chapter from the viewpoint of an escaping male slave in the South.
Thanks for answering my questions, Judy.
About Judy Alter: She is the award winning author of fiction for adults and young adults. Other historical fiction includes Libbie, the story of Elizabeth Bacon (Mrs. George Armstrong) Custer; Jessie, the story of Jessie Benton Frémont and her explorer / miner / entrepreneur / soldier / politician husband; Cherokee Rose, a novel loosely based on the life of the first cowgirl roper to ride in Wild West shows; and Sundance, Butch and Me, the adventures of Etta Place and the Hole in the Wall Gang.