Today I’ve invited Susan Wittig Albert, author of The Darling Dahlias and the Unlucky Clover, the seventh book in the Darling Dahlias series, to Ascroft, eh? to tell us about her latest novel.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
SWA: It’s1934. FDR is in the White House, the New Deal is in full swing, and Prohibition has finally been repealed. And in Darling, Alabama, it’s time for the Dixie Regional Barbershop Quartet Competition. The Dahlias (the local garden club) are rooting for the Lucky Four Clovers. But the music may have ended for the Clovers when one of their members is involved in a fatal accident.
To complicate things, there’s a serious foul-up in Darling’s telephone system, and not a penny for repairs. The town’s party lines may have to go out of business, which would be bad news for the gossips. It doesn’t help that newspaper editor/publisher Charlie Dickens is facing a crisis of confidence in his new wife, Fannie. And that Liz Lacy (the Dahlias’ president) has to decide whether she’s ready for a do-over in an ill-fated romance. And more, of course . . .
What prompted you to write about this historical period?
SWA: I began the Darling Dahlias series about 10 years ago, when the U.S. was going through the Crash of 2008, which was very reminiscent of the Crash of 1929. Many Americans had to tighten their belts and get by on less, which reminded me of my mother’s stories about the Great Depression. I began digging into the period (the 1930s) in order to understand how families managed—or didn’t. I found many brave, stories of creative “making do,” which I’ve used to shape the Dahlias series. I was also inspired by the sense of community that kept many people going during those tough years. The Dahlias (a garden club in a small Southern town) have that sense of community and responsibility for others.
In addition to the seven books in the Dahlias series, I’ve written about the 1930s in other books: A Wilder Rose, about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and their courageous work on the Little House books; and Loving Eleanor, about the enduring friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok which began in 1932 and continued through three decades. The General’s Women—about Dwight Eisenhower, his military aide Kay Summersby, and his wife Mamie—is set in the 1940s but covers a great deal of 1930s territory, both in the U.S. and in England.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
SWA: I’m a fact person. In all my work, I build the fiction on the factual basis of real people and real events. When I fictionalize, I color inside the lines, always staying as close to the facts as possible. It’s a challenge I enjoy.
What research did you do for this book?
SWA: Here’s a small sample of the background material for this series: Since Yesterday: The 1930’s in America, by Frederick Allen; Daily Life in the United Sates 1920–1940, by David E. Kyvig; Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs, edited by Stella Blum; Month-by-Month Gardening in Alabama, by Bob Polomski; To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville (the source for her descriptions of Maycomb, where TKM is set). Monroeville is only fifteen miles from fictional Darling. And many, many 1930s newspapers, found on newspapers.com.
I also do quite a lot of research on Southern food. In the most recent Dahlias mystery, I’ve included a selection of Southern pie recipes of the 1930s, with a few historical notes.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters? Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
SWA: In Loving Eleanor and A Wilder Rose I used only historic figures. In The General’s Women, I used mostly historic people but added a few fictional characters. In the Dahlias series, most of the characters are fictional.
In my experience, it’s much, much harder to use only historic people—and to get the facts straight. Fictional characters are easier. I like doing both. But it’s hard to find historic people I want to live with for the full year it takes to tell their stories. For instance, I thought I wanted to write about Georgia O’Keeffe’s later life. But the more I learned about her, the less comfortable I was with her story.
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?
SWA: For me, it’s a matter of detail. Characters have to dress and eat and work and play and fix their hair and talk (above all, talk!) the way people did in the 30s, using the tools and equipment used back then. I run into questions like what kind of lipstick does Lizzy wear? How does Beulah do a finger wave? What cigarette brand does Charlie smoke? What kind of washing machine does Ophelia have? What songs are they listening to on what model radio?
And of course places have to look the way they looked then: houses and furniture, buildings, roads, and landscapes. Which means that I look at a lot of historical photographs, study Sears catalogs, and leaf through old copies of Life and The Saturday Evening Post. Detail, detail, always detail.
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?
SWA: If that’s true (and I don’t agree that it is universally true), it’s true because men have been portrayed as doing things while women sit around watching and admiring. Personally, I prefer to show brave women doing unexpected, courageous things in difficult circumstances, while the men stand around and watch and admire.
There are male characters—villains and heroes—in all of my fiction. But strong women interest me far more.
Thanks for answering my questions in fascinating detail, Susan, and good luck with the latest book in your series, The Darling Dahlias.
For more information about Susan Wittig Albert, please visit her website and the Darling Dahlias Facebook Page. You can also find Susan on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Google+, Instagram, and Pinterest.
The Darling Dahlias and the Unlucky Clover is available online at:
About Susan Wittig Albert: She is the NYT bestselling author of over 100 books. Her work includes four mystery series: China Bayles, the Darling Dahlias, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and the Robin Paige Victorian mysteries. She has published three award-winning historical novels, as well as YA fiction, memoirs, and nonfiction. Susan currently serves as an editor of StoryCircleBookReviews and helps to coordinate SCN’s online class program. She and her husband Bill live in the Texas Hill Country, where she writes, gardens, and raises a varying assortment of barnyard creatures.