Please join me in welcoming author Stephanie Lehmann to Let Them Read Books! I was privileged to get an early peek at Astor Place Vintage, Stephanie's first historical fiction novel, and if you've been looking for something different, this is it! Independent heroines, dual story lines connecting the past to the present, vintage fashion, and New York City at the turn of the twentieth century--what more does a historical fiction lover need? Stephanie was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions for me, so without further ado, here she is!
Ever since moving to Manhattan, I’ve felt inspired by the architecture here and the strong sense of the past. I love to think about the people who used to walk down these same streets and lived in the same buildings. So the idea of writing about two people who lived here at different times and couldn’t know how they were connected intrigued me. But I had no idea who they would be.
I began to read some memoirs of immigrants living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. These had a special interest for me because I used to live in an East Village tenement back when I first moved to New York City to go to NYU.
Those books led me to visit the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. They have it set up so you can walk through an old tenement building with the various apartments done up as they would have looked in the past. I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of those apartments to the one I used to live in. My old apartment qualified as a historical relic!
Then I read a novel that inspired me: THE LADIES PARADISE by Emile Zola. It’s set in a huge department store in 1860s Paris, and the story centers on a young woman who arrives in Paris without any money and takes a job as a shopgirl.
I have fond memories of shopping in department stores when I was growing up in San Francisco. Macy’s, The Emporium, City of Paris, I. Magnin… Downtown is conducive to my favorite state of being: having lots of people around me with no obligation to speak with them.
Some of the beautiful old buildings that used to be the first grand department stores in New York City still exist along Broadway and Sixth Avenue. That area used to be known as The Ladies Mile. I decided to write about a woman who might’ve worked in one of those department stores. Not in the present-time sections, though. Department stores now have no allure. For the present-time storyline, I hit on the idea of a vintage clothing store owner. It made perfect sense. The modern character would romanticize the past, and the character from the past would aspire to being modern. Once I got that concept, there was no going back.
Can you tell us a bit about your research for this novel? What kind of sources did you use?
When I began this novel, I knew very little about what it was like to live at the turn-of-the-century. Did they have electricity? Telephones? What did women do for birth control? How did they refer to “birth control,” since, as I soon learned, the term “birth control” didn’t exist yet? I fooled myself into thinking I could just Google the historical details I would need, and would be good to go. Fooling yourself about how “easy” it will be is actually a good way to trick your self into beginning a novel.
Of course I did find lots of information on the internet, especially the public domain works on Google Books. I also spent many hours in the library. Ironically, the business branch of the New York Public Library is now in the basement of the same building that used to be the B. Altman Department Store on 34th Street. I’d be leafing through old trade magazines imagining sales counters surrounding me instead of desks and bookshelves.
Did you come across anything that surprised you?
A lot of things I learned about the first decade of the 20th century surprised me, especially when it came to attitudes about women that still lingered from Victorian times. We’re all pretty much familiar with the idea that women were supposed to center life around home and family while men went out to work and make money. (A debate that continues to drag on!) But I wasn’t aware of how there was still a real pervasive segregation of the woman’s sphere from the men’s sphere.
So, for example, restaurants would often have separate seating areas for women who were without male escorts. Or, as portrayed in my novel, many hotels wouldn’t give a room to a woman traveling alone because of an assumption that she must be a loose woman who is out to solicit men.
This moral climate meant there were surprisingly few places where a middle-class woman who was alone would feel welcomed in the city. And it turns out that department stores were one of the first socially sanctioned places for woman to go. For the sake of consumerism, women were finally encouraged to get out of the house, even if it meant she was away from family and became more independent in the process.
Oh, and don’t get me started about the utter lack of information about sex available to women at the time…
Did you face any particular challenges in writing a novel with dual storylines?
Yes. It was really hard! I don’t even want to tell you how much revising went into making the stories of Olive and Amanda resonate with each other and come together. I can’t even say that I have any advice on writing dual storylines because I probably did it in the most inefficient way possible: try it out, see if it works, throw it out, try something else.
This is a tough question, but I’ll try to do it justice. Like a “real person,” both family and environment are going to help mold a character. So part of a character’s evolution comes from how she reacts to the various situations that challenge her in the plot, and that was an ongoing process for me while I figured out what the darn plot was going to be. But then other aspects of her character come from the sense of identity she’s formed while growing up, within her family. So I had to figure out who the families of my two main characters had to be.
For both Amanda and Olive, I sensed that the father/daughter relationships needed to be especially important because both of them were businesswomen trying to achieve financial independence. So I began with creating scenarios that felt right for each of them.
I saw Olive as being extremely close with her father. She identifies with him, wants to be like him, and feels confident enough about his love that she can aspire to have a career in the retail business even though he doesn’t approve. But the social climate of the times stood in her way. Amanda, on the other hand, I saw as being estranged from her father, who basically abandoned the family.
Though women have become less socially constricted, Amanda’s personal sense of being unlovable has thwarted her attempts to move forward in life. In other words, it evolved that Olive’s problems came more from the outside world, and Amanda’s problems came more from inside. And this was reflected in their characters.
What do you like to read for fun?
Oh good, an easy question! My favorite books to read are biographies and memoirs, preferably written by women who lived in the US sometime in the 20th century.
What are you working on now?
All I can say is that having completely immersed myself in the first decade of the 1900s, I’m now totally engrossed in the second.
Ohhh, goodie! Great interview, Stephanie!
Thanks so much for stopping by!
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Stephanie Lehmann received her B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and an M.A. In English from New York University. She has taught novel writing at Mediabistro and online at Salon.com, where her essays have been published. Like Olive and Amanda, she lives in New York City.