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Welcome to It's Raining Books. How did the idea for this book occur to you?
I was in the Santa Barbara Art Museum with my wife, standing in front of a painting by Berthe Morisot, one of the characters in The Girl from the Lighthouse. The painting was titled View of Paris from the Trocadero. In it, two women stand with a small girl looking off into the city of Paris far in the distance. The women are blocked from moving forward into the city by a wooden fence that cut diagonally across the painting. It isn't a strong barrier, more symbolic. Because I have done a lot of research and writing about the Victorian era, I was struck by how the painting represented the restricted status of Victorian women, and I got the idea to write about a woman of that era who was strong and independent, and in no way taught about women's roles. To accomplish that I had to create a place where am I protagonist, Emma, grew up abandoned by her mother at age five. She was raised by her father and three other men. I chose a lighthouse on the remote and rugged California coast.
What is your favorite scene in the book and why?
Emma Dobbin is a young American girl studying art in Paris, France in 1870, and trying to find her way in Victorian-era society. She regularly goes to the Louvre Museum to study and copy the masterpieces there where she is befriended by Impressionist artist Berthe Morisot. They go to lunch together. Here are the scene and the picture Emma is studying:
Sitting on a bench in the Louvre Museum a month later, hunched over my sketching pad, I’m focusing on the masterpiece in front of me, oblivious to people walking up and down the marble-walled Grand Gallery. A Jacque-Louis David portrait of a reclining woman is in front of me, so elegant in its simplicity, yet so beguiling and mysterious, I can only stare at her, trying to imagine the thoughts going through her mind. I can’t help wonder if Madame Récamier had any of the same feelings I do while she was being painted.
I set pencil and pad down, after adding a final few strokes and turn to a friend who has just come by. “Ah, Bonjour, Mademoiselle Morisot. Pardonne-moi. I was lost and didn’t notice your approach.”
“Bonjour Emma. I would be pleased to have you call me Berthe. I saw you and wanted to ask if you would join me for lunch.”
“Yes,” I tell her. “Yes, I would like that. I have done enough for today. Some days—like today—the work seems hard, and I get distracted. I haven’t seen you for some time, Berthe. It will be pleasant to catch up.”
“Oui I have been with my family. If you are finished...”
Together we leave the museum, cross rue de Rivoli, and walk along the stone-canopied sidewalk to a café on the corner of rue Royale, across from the Place de la Concorde. We take an outdoor table. Berthe orders a meat and cheese plate, with a glass of wine, and a mushroom omelet for me.
“How is your work progressing?” She asks as we settle in.
“It’s been several months, and I still copy with pad and pencil, sometimes I try watercolors—I think I have learned a great deal, but I’m still not ready to try oils.”
“You should,” she encourages me. “David is a good artist for you to copy. His portraits are beautifully executed, especially the one of Madame Recamier you are working on. Portraits like that are the kind of commissions you are likely to get when you are ready.”
“There is always demand for portraits of wives and children, and other women that are best done by women artists. You should also study some of Vigee Le Brun’s portraits.”
I study the wine in my glass, using the pause to consider Berthe’s recommendation. “I hope to paint landscapes one day,” I tell her.
“Difficult for a woman,” she replies. “Traveling alone to paint a landscape is often...” She pauses, “how do I say, looked down upon. There are not many buyers for the work of a woman landscape artist.”
“I want to be free to paint whatever I want.”
Berthe cuts a slice of cheese from the wedge on her plate and adds it to a piece of baguette before taking a sip from her glass. She looks at me with her doleful dark eyes the whole time. “That can be difficult,” she says at last. “Consider your decision carefully. It is easier for us to paint in a boudoir than side-by-side in a world with men.” She pauses again and picks at a piece of ham.
Feeling frustrated, and looking for a response that won’t offend my friend, I stab my fork at a mushroom. “It seems to me women in Paris have only limited freedom. Do you find it that way, Berthe?”
What drives you to write?
Honestly, I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything other than a writer. My first novel was started in the seven grade when I wrote about being a midshipman on Old Ironsides, the USS Frigate Constitution. The business successes I achieved in the advertising agency world of New York were all based on my writing, and when I decided the business world was not for me, I became a freelance journalist to help support my family. From there I became the editor and publisher to two magazines. I didn’t think my writing was particularly special at first—I thought anyone could do it. Then I realized that’s just not true. It’s a monstrous gift that was given me.
But to answer your question more specifically, I think it is when I see injustice in the world, and it sticks in my craw that I have to get rid of it by writing. Several unpublished and my first published novel all dealt with injustice is some form or the other. Dream Helper, my first novel in the Chronicles of California trilogy, which won a gold medal from the Independent Book Publisher Association, came about when I learned the real story about how badly treated the Chumash Indians were treated by the Franciscan missionaries at the Santa Barbara Mission. The Girl from the Lighthouse is about the unjust way women were treated in the Victorian Age.
Tell us how you came to choose the cover elements.
The lighthouse where Emma Dobbins was raised is a significant element in the book. It represents a world without female influence which is important to Emma's mindset when she arrives in Paris, and it also represents a remote and lonely place that is an iconic figure for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it is only the past. I wanted the cover to represent the new world of Paris, France to readers and potential book buyers. I shared my thoughts with Peter at Bespoke Book Covers in the UK, and he came up with the illustration we chose. It is looking into the familiar sights of Paris as if the viewer is a newcomer's, and the colors suggest perhaps an early morning sky as if the viewer is just arriving there.
Who is your favorite character in the book?
This may sound strange coming from a man, but my favorite character is Emma Dobbins, my protagonist. After writing the original manuscript of The Girl from the Lighthouse in a third person voice, my editor and I realized the story was not working. So I completely rewrote it in the first person, present tense to bring the reader as completely into Emma's life as possible. So I had been thinking about Emma for two years, but now I had to become her literally. She was always intended to be an independent woman with strength of character and a well-formed moral compass. Those traits had to serve her well as she dealt with the trials and tribulations that confronted her in a new country where the language is unfamiliar to her, as well as the social structure. I have always created strong female characters for my novels, but my experience with Emma has been unique. She is by far not a perfect young woman. That's what the novel is about. I am pleased that many people have complimented me on how I captured her.
How did you choose your characters' name?
Several years ago, I was doing some genealogical family history research, and I came across information about my grandmother, who I never knew, named Emma Thompson. The more I researched and learned about her the more I began to see her as a remarkably strong woman raising five sons as a widow at the turn of the 20th century. She came from a challenging background herself and yet seemed to thrive in the Canadian world she lived in and overcame the issues of being a single woman raising her family. Well, I want to point out that my protagonist in my novel, Emma Dobbins in no way is representative of the life of my grandmother, I believe she does represent the spirit and the strong moral compass of my grandmother.
Other character names are usually randomly selected. I look for names that resonate with me for a variety of reasons, and are different enough not to confuse the reader. In this novel it was important to find French names except for Emma and the Italian lad.
What is the single best piece of writing advice you have ever received?
The best writing advice I ever received came from a playwright, not a published author. He showed me how to bring my reader and my characters as closely together as possible without intruding my own voice on them. My writing is heavily in dialogue with the absolute minimum of what we might call "reader feeder" to explain backstory or a character's state of mind. I very much respect my readers and as such expect that they will understand what is intended without spoon-feeding it to them. The backstory appears where it is organically intended, not where the author chooses to place it. What that means is that it's not linear, we learn about Emma for example and how her upbringing bears upon the present when it's appropriate to the story. Done right my stories are like being an audience in a theater that has no stage and no walls, so the interaction is straightforward.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
All my favorite authors are writers of historical fiction. The list could be a long one, but the top four in order are John Steinbeck, Edith Wharton, A.B. Guthrie Jr., and Wallace Stegner.
Readers' experience and intake with a book vary. If you could ensure that a reader took away a certain element, be that a theme or moral from your book, what would it be?
I mentioned above that I am motivated to write when troubled by injustice. Emma Dobbins in The Girl from the Lighthouse is far from being a perfect character. She is flawed in that she doesn't always respond to the expectations the Victorian era placed on women. Sometimes she offends people important to her. But on the other hand, she is a kind young woman, strengthened by her own moral compass, commitment to honesty, and a positive belief in the future. I would like readers to take away this balanced picture of her, and see how it can apply in the 21st-century.
What makes this book stand out from the crowd?
First of all, this is an honest book. It is well researched, and there are no "author's convenience" scenes where reality is blurred or overlooked to create a good outcome. My characters, both the ones I create and the real people with whom I populate the story, are all well drawn and three-dimensional. Second, I invite my readers to be a part of the story. By that I mean I do not feed them important background of factual information where it is convenient for me to do so; I present that information in real life dialog between my characters when it is organic to the subject at hand. I believe I honor my readers by not belittling then, instead I give them credit for being intelligent people.
Abandoned by her mother at an early age, she was raised by her father, a lighthouse keeper at Point Conception in California, where early on she discovers her artistic talent. At the age of 17, Emma travels to Paris with a chaperone, to attend art school but is separated from the chaperone when the woman becomes ill. Emma arrives alone in Paris with no money, no language skills, and no friends. A chance meeting with a young working girl in the train station becomes her first Parisian friend.
The setting is Paris in the 1860s-70s, the start of the Belle Èpoque. France soon is involved in the Franco/Prussian War and the Commune Uprising; difficult times for Emma and all Frenchmen. Initially rejected by art schools, her determination keeps her moving toward her goal in the art world, where the Impressionists are starting to change the world. Frenchmen fall in love with her beautiful face and lustrous dark hair. Some wanted to paint her, others to court her, but either way, she does not abide by the rules they try to impose on her because she never learned them. She grows into an accomplished artist but never gives up her own principles... even when someone steals something precious to her and she fights to get it back.
The story is told in the first person, present tense, allowing the reader to enter the story and feel a part of it as it unfolds, sharing with Emma her highs and lows, loves and rejections, all focused in the art world of Paris. The novel is filled with vivid characters, both fictional and real people, and the story unfolds gracefully from the 1870s until 1912, just prior to the start of WWI.
About the Author:
Thompson is a past president of the board of directors of the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. He is a native of Manhasset, New York and a graduate of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Willard-Thompson/e/B00UCFSMDU
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