Paula Marantz Cohen, author of What Alice Knew, accepted my request for a guest post. I am always fascinated in how authors get their ideas for stories or choose the characters they do and I asked Ms. Cohen to give me some insight on this book. After you check out this guest post, be sure to go read the review of the book that I posted yesterday and I urge you to get this book!
I had been reading Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, and had the idea that Henry James's sister, Alice , an invalid for most of her life, could be re-imagined as a kind of Nero Wolfe character, solving a mystery from her bed, much as Wolfe had solved mysteries from his NYC brownstone. As I thought on it, I realized that I wanted to bring the James brothers, Henry and William, into the mix. They would add more interest and action, and would allow me to explore the dynamics of this famous family. As I was thinking about a plot, my husband pointed out that 1888, a year when Alice and Henry were both living in London, was the year of the Jack the Ripper murders. Things just fell into place after that. I knew that William James was often visiting Europe for scientific conferences, so bringing the three siblings together would be logical enough.
My books up until this one had been contemporary social satires--comedies of manners. Two of them were contemporary adaptations of Jane Austen plots. Writing a historical novel and a thriller was therefore a departure for me. But I loved putting the pieces together and imagining the world through each of the three characters (chapters in the novel alternate in point of view among Alice, Henry, and William). I have to say that though Alice was what inspired the idea, and although I am most familiar as a teacher and scholar with Henry, my fullest identification in writing the book came to be with William. He is, I think, the central character and the most complex and interesting. He may not be to everyone's taste, but I really tried to incorporate not only details of his life but some of his philosophical ideas into his character.
I had written extensively on Victorian culture in non-fiction and scholarly essays, and it was delightful to have the cance to re-imagine this world in a novel. I wanted to bring to life my sense of the society in both its high and low aspects--from fashionable dinner parties to East End slums-- and to deal with certain sorts of ethnic stereotyping and social problems that I knew were central to the age. I also enjoyed introducing real characters like Oscar Wilde, Ellen Terry, John Singer Sargent, and Mark Twain in cameo appearances. Overall, the book was a challenge-- but great fun to write.