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.
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Whidbey Island author Nancy Horan

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

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.

Their relationship played out over an 18-year period and three continents and was marked by adventures as dramatic as the ones Stevenson concocted in his novels.

Both your novels are love stories……

I wouldn’t characterize them as love stories. They’re about the whole fabric of society at the time. I wasn’t seeking stories about love, I just bumped into both these stories. And it turned out I loved burying myself in a little slice of history. It’s so much fun.

Does your reading inform your writing?

Research plays an important part in my process. I’m drawn to the intriguing characters and stories that the past offers up, and I don’t mind working within the framework of historical facts since there is plenty of room for interpretation and invention.

Because I’m writing about real figures, I want to get as close to the subjects as I can. I read letters and diaries to hear their voices, as well as biographies and material about the times, settings and cultural values—all the things that not only enrich the fictional telling, but help me draw my own conclusions. One of the great pleasures of this project was reading Stevenson’s own works as part of the research process.

How and when did you come to live on Whidbey Island?

My husband and I lived in the Midwest for many years. He is a great outdoorsman and wanted to take advantage of all that is here; hiking in the mountains, skiing, sailing. I was up for the adventure and change of scenery. We visited friends here and it’s so beautiful, how can you resist? Of course, it was summer….

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite or two that influenced you or that you particularly loved?

I recall loving a book called "The Chestry Oak" by Kate Seredy, which I read probably in the fourth or fifth grade. It’s not a well-known book. As a birthday gift last year, my husband tracked it down and gave me an old copy of it. It’s a story about a boy born to Hungarian nobles prior to WWII. He has a wonderful horse and lives a charmed life until his father is accused of being a collaborator. When the boy is orphaned by the war, he’s brought to the U.S. by an American GI. Seems I was taken by historical fiction, even back then.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt turn to again?

I have re-read "The Great Gatsby" and "Madame Bovary." I recently took down "Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson from the bookcase to put on my nightstand because I want to read it again.

What are you reading now?

I have a habit of starting so many books…right now, it’s “The Swerve, How the World Became Modern,” by Stephen Greenblatt. It’s about a book hunter in the 14th or 15th century tracking down a book by Lucretius, which turns out to be incredibly modern in its thinking.

Are you researching a new book?

I am not researching at the moment, but certainly thinking about what will come next. I don’t talk about new projects, though. Better to use that energy writing.

What Val’s Reading This Week: A book of short, collected pieces by Ann Patchett, “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” Patchett (“Bel Canto” “State of Wonder”) is a novelist, essayist and bookshop owner in Nashville, Tennessee, and this book is so personal, so close to her heart, that you learn not only about her marriage, but about her dog, her Grandma and her writing and reading life.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.