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Under the Wide and Starry Sky Reader’s Guide

By Nancy Horan

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

READERS GUIDE

A CONVERSATION WITH LAUREN BELFER AND NANCY HORAN
 

Lauren Belfer is the author of the novels A Fierce Radiance (a Washington Post Best Novel of the Year, an NPR Best Mystery of the Year, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice Book) and City of Light (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Times bestseller). She lives in New York City.
 
Lauren Belfer: When I first heard that Under the Wide and Starry Sky was about Robert Louis Stevenson, I thought—perfect, I’ll be spending time with an old friend. Was I ever wrong about that! Under the Wide and Starry Sky captures a Stevenson I never imagined and a story I never knew, a story that’s filled with adventure, anguish, and heartbreak. How did you discover the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne?
 
Nancy Horan: I was visiting the Monterey Bay area and discovered that Stevenson had lived there in 1879. I wondered what the Scottish author of Treasure Island was doing there. I soon learned that he had come to California seeking to marry an American woman he had met in France. Naturally I was curious about the woman. Who was this Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne who so upended Stevenson’s life? I did some initial research about both of them, and when I learned about their amazing life together, I knew I had the concept for my next novel.
 
LB: Writing a book requires passion and commitment, especially when you’re exploring such a rich, almost overwhelming, subject. What was it about this particular story that touched you so deeply that you wanted to devote years to researching and writing it?
 
NH: The fact that the story was sweeping was part of the attraction. Louis and Fanny’s life together resembled a Stevenson historical romance, along the lines of Treasure Island or Kidnapped. In fact, Henry James worried after Louis’s death that his adventurous life might overshadow the importance of his work. I was very interested in the artistic pursuits of both Louis and Fanny and the course those pursuits took. Most of all I was drawn by the love story between these two very different people from different backgrounds, each of whom possessed enormous grit. In the end, I saw it as an exploration of a long-lasting partnership between two creative people that was marked by joy, conflict, huge difficulties, and devotion.
 
LB: How did you go about doing your research? Did you follow in Louis and Fanny’s footsteps and travel the world? Or at least part of the world? Did you immerse yourself in their letters, journals, and diaries?
 
NH: I began by reading a wonderful biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, J. C. Furnas’s Voyage to Windward. I also read Margaret Mackay’s The Violent Friend, a biography of Fanny.Those two fine books gave me an overview and convinced me that the story of Louis and Fanny was one worthy of novelization. Biographies are helpful as starting points, but I am cautious because I think biographers sometimes bring their own biases to their work. I always go to primary sources to do the real research, because I want to get it right and draw my own conclusions. I read Louis’s papers at Yale University and Fanny’s unpublished letters at the University of California-Berkeley. Stevenson’s letters are published in eight volumes and I read those. And I did follow in their footsteps by visiting many of the places they lived in the U.S. and Europe, including Louis’s boyhood home in Edinburgh, which is now a bed and breakfast. Different landscapes and cultures exerted powerful influences on both of them, so it was useful to experience those places.
 
LB: Were Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels a resource for you? Did you study the novels to gain insights into his values and beliefs?
 
NH: A great joy during the research process was reading as much of Stevenson’s work as possible. He was a literary athlete who produced some thirteen novels, a large number of shorts stories, and many wonderful essays. He was fearless about trying different genres, and he wrote poetry and music as well. In his stories and novels, Stevenson is a master at showing the moral complexity of his characters. The most obvious example is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but the wicked pirate Long John Silver is also capable of kindness in Treasure Island. This complexity runs through his later stories that were written in Samoa, such as The Beach of  Falesa, which is narrated by a bigoted copra trader, stationed in Falesa by his firm, who falls in love with a native woman and finds himself the father of mixed-race children. He cares about his kids and knows that if he were to return to England with his family, they would face discrimination. So he remains in the islands. He states at the end of the story that he still prefers the company of whites, but that opinion is not borne out by the facts of his life. He is changed to a degree, even if he can’t recognize it. Stevenson is dealing with issues close to his heart in this story: his disdain for class distinctions and his deep concerns about the impact of colonization upon the native people of the South Seas. What interests me is that he chose to tell the story from the trader’s point of view.
 
LB: Many readers wonder about the line between fact and fiction in “historical fiction.” When letters, journals, and diaries are available, do you quote the actual words of your characters, the way a biographer might? Do you have any personal rules to guide you, when you put real people into scenes and conversations that are imaginary?
 
NH: My general rule is that because these were real people, I try to get it as right as I can. I feel I owe it to them. I stick to agreed-upon facts as a framework, because it was the historical story that drew me in the first place. The dialogue is invented, except for a few quotes. When I use these lines I put them into the mouths of the people who spoke them. If I quote from a diary or letter, I put it in italics, and if it is more than a couple of sentences, I make note of it in the Afterword. Because Louis was a prolific letter writer and Fanny was a diary keeper, I was sometimes able to write dialogue informed by how the characters were feeling at the time. But people are not always forthcoming in their written correspondence or diaries. Even with the rich resource material available for this book, much interpretation and imagining took place.
 
LB: To me, writing about real people is both a blessing and a curse: The writer knows what’s going to happen, which removes the burden of making up a plot—that’s the blessing part. But the writer still has to create suspense, for herself as well as for the reader, even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion. That’s not easy. Your books are highly suspenseful. What do you focus on to build suspense?
 
NH: Ah, you are so right about that mixed blessing. I am drawn to big personalities and stories with powerful arcs that are visible to me when I set out, so I mostly know where the story is going and I feel that because these people are fascinating to me, they have the potential to be fascinating to others. That’s the blessing. The challenge is in finding the inherent conflicts and shaping the story in such a way that the reader feels tension and wonders: What will these people do next? Some of their struggles are against forces (health, nature) over which they have limited control, while other struggles arise out of their flaws. It’s these personal frailties that are especially interesting to me and that lead to tension. The suspense flows out of the uncertainty one feels about complicated personalities who are given to unpredictable choices. And it flows out of having two points of view alternately telling the tale.
 
LB: I’ve read that one of your goals in a novel is to show people confronting the consequences of their actions and choices. Robert Louis Stevenson is credited with a wonderful quote, “Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences.” How do you go about creating this sense of reckoning through the course of a novel?
 
NH: Once I’ve settled on the narrative arc of the story and who will tell it, I follow the characters on their journeys—and in the case of Under the Wide and Starry Sky, the whole book is an account of Fanny and Louis’s individual and joint journeys. In writing each piece of their story I observed the decisions they made and the consequences of those choices. Sometimes the choices reflect the character’s strengths, and other times their weaknesses. I don’t judge the characters—that’s key.
 
I try to understand why they chose to act in certain ways and to feel things with them as they move forward. Though I map out the plot and know how it will end, there is a process of discovery going on the whole time. I may see new connections between actual events, or notice unexpected themes rising up on their own. Over the course of the book there are actions, ideas, and words that ideally reverberate across the chapters so that by the end, there is a certain inevitability about the denouement.
 
LB: You and I both published our first novels when we were beyond our twenties. When did you begin to write fiction? Do you have a collection of unpublished novels in your closet? What types of jobs did you do before you wrote Loving Frank?
 
NH: I love that phrase—beyond our twenties! My first career was as an English teacher. Later, I worked as a freelance writer in the Chicago area when my children were small and I wanted to work part-time from home. I did primarily newspaper feature stories, though I also co-authored a book on garden design. About ten years into my journalism career, I decided to take a couple of fiction classes through the University of Chicago, and that’s where I caught the bug. I had no idea when I began writing Loving Frank that my future work would be called “historical fiction.” I simply wanted to tell a fascinating and powerful story about real people in novel form. Now I know that I’m drawn to foreign times and places, and that the pleasure of research in tandem with the writing will keep me hooked for the five or so years I require to write a novel. There are no unfinished novels sitting in a desk drawer, but there is one in my head.
 
LB: What novels have inspired you over the course of your life?
 
 
NH: So many books have inspired me. I recall reading a book called The  Chestry Oak by Kate Seredy in fourth grade that moved me greatly. It was about a young Hungarian prince, a boy who had everything until the Nazis took over and his life fell apart. Recently my husband hunted down a copy and gave it to me as a gift. It was interesting to discover that it’s historical fiction, for I had little interest in history as a kid, but the human drama was enormously compelling to me. Another book I loved when I was young was T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. In high school I got hooked on books by the Brontës—Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in particular. Crime and  Punishment knocked me over when I was induced to read it by a wonderful high school teacher. Later, in college, I majored in English and I was fed a steady diet of the classics. Nothing compares to the value of a massive infusion of beautiful language into a young, receptive brain. I benefited from it all, especially Dickens and Shakespeare. American writers helped me locate my voice and exposed me to great style. Hemingway’s work led me to prefer spare language. I was also drawn to the Southern women writers—Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter— who were such witty and clever storytellers. Here was a whole collection of writers who didn’t flinch from portraying disturbing characters and events. Over the years, there have been many more books that moved and inspired me, but exposure early on to the ones I’ve mentioned influenced me most as a writer.
 
LB: I’m always curious about the daily routines of writers. How do you structure your time? Do you turn off Internet access when you work? Do you have any tricks for taking yourself out of the everyday world and entering the private universe of your imagination?
 
NH: There are some people who produce two pages a day; others who work from eight to two. I don’t belong in either category. I stay connected to the story rather intensely. I may work two hours or ten, but I think about the work continually. I give myself mental breaks, of course, especially when I’m stuck. When that happens, I get away from the whole thing to clear my brain so I can see with new eyes when I return to it. As for entering a private universe, a quiet space and a laptop or legal pad are all that’s required. Long solo walks are important, too. A lot of writing problems get solved on foot.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2. At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any point in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4. After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and Louis enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5. “Sargent was down again and painted a portrait of me walking about in my own dining-room, in my own velveteen jacket, and twisting as I go my own moustache; at one corner a glimpse of my wife, in an Indian dress, and seated in a chair that was once my grandfather’s,” wrote Louis, in an 1885 letter describing John Singer Sargent’s painting Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife. “It is, I think, excellent, but is too eccentric to be exhibited.” If you can, look  up  Sargent’s  painting  (http://www.jssgallery.org/paintings/robert_louis_stevenson_and_his_wife.htm; 1885; Steve Wynn collection); or just consider Louis’s description above. What do you think of this portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6. Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does Louis do the same?

7. The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them?

8. Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9. In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does—her gardening for example, of which she writes in her diary, “a blossom on my rose tree is like a poem written by my son”—is not that of an artist. Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art to be, and how does it manifest itself and impact those around her? Do you agree with her views?

10. Why do you think Horan chooses “Out of my country and myself I go” as the epigraph for this book?

11. What is Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary legacy? In what ways does reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky change your view of him and his writing?

 
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