Book City: Love affairs of Frank Lloyd Wright & Robert Louis Stevenson

Whidbey Island author Nancy Horan discusses inspiration for her new novel, past projects and books she can't stop reading.
Whidbey Island author Nancy Horan

Whidbey Island author Nancy Horan Kevin Horan

Nancy Horan moved to Whidbey Island from Oak Park, Illinois, the starting point for her best-selling novel “Loving Frank” about a little known chapter in the life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Her second novel, “Under the Wide and Starry Sky” is about Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny. It's due out early in 2014.

Valerie Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” I know Karen slightly, and she’s hilarious, wicked funny. “Stoner”, by John Williams, is a quiet story about a college professor, such insightful writing. And I’m looking forward to reading “Shadow Country.” It’s a collection of three of Peter Mattheissen’s novels. He went back and edited them so they’d fit together into an epic about Florida.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

There are a couple of recent favorites. Every story in “News from Spain,” by Joan Wickersham, drew me in, was so poignant. I’d never heard of Jane Gardam, but picked up her book “Old Filth” for three dollars at a used bookshop and loved it. It’s part of a trilogy, a guy looking back at his childhood and career. It’s a novel, but has some similarities to Rudyard Kipling’s life. The main character is a “Raj orphan,” born in Malaysia and sent back to England. The “Filth” in the title stands for “Failed in London, Tried Hong Kong.”

Where did the idea for "Loving Frank" come from?

I lived in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, in the 1980’s and 90’s, which was the town where Wright opened his own architectural practice in the late 19th century. He fell in love with a client, Mamah Borthwick Cheney, while he was working on her house. The two eventually ran away to Europe, leaving their respective families and setting off a huge newspaper scandal that changed their lives.

The house Wright had designed for Mamah and her husband was on East Avenue in Oak Park. I lived on East Avenue, as well, and realized that I had been walking past that house for many years and knew nothing about the story. The more I learned about the consequences of their affair, the more I knew I had to write a novel about it. The story took possession of me, and if I had to learn how to write fiction, I was going to.

“Loving Frank” was your first novel…did you write non-fiction?

I was a garden writer for the Chicago Tribune in the ‘90’s, and I wrote other things…including co-authoring a book on gardens.

What’s the inspiration for your new novel? And when will it be published?

The new novel is called "Under the Wide and Starry Sky," and is due out Jan. 21, 2014. It’s also based on a true story about real people — this time, Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. I was visiting in the Monterey, CA area when I discovered that Stevenson had lived there for a period of time in 1879. I had no idea the Scottish author had any connection to this country.

I learned Stevenson had come over to America in pursuit of Fanny, whom he’d met three years earlier at a bohemian artists’ colony in France. At that time, she had left her philandering husband and taken her three children with her to study art in Europe, which was one of the acceptable ways a woman could leave her husband in those days.

Louis (as he was called) and Fanny were an unlikely pair. He was an aspiring but unknown writer from an affluent family of lighthouse engineers, and belonged to a circle of ambitious artists and intellectuals. Fanny was ten years older than he, and had lived in mining camps in Nevada with her husband. She rolled her own cigarettes, carried a pistol, and had the grit of a pioneer woman.

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