Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Straight Chatting From the Library: Jeanne Mackin

This post is part of a virtual book tour organized by Goddess Fish Promotions. Jeanne will be awarding a $15 Amazon or B/N GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour. Click on the tour banner to see the other stops on the tour.


Tell us about your current book in 10 words.

The Gilded Age, romance in Italy, gardens, choices to make.

What are you reading right now?

Schubert’s Winter Journey: An Anatomy of an Obsession, by Ian Bostridge. Bostridge is a classically trained singer of Lieder – art songs – and his voice is a miracle. The book is a lyrical, gossipy, intensely felt analysis of the songs in Schubert’s song cycle, and every night I read a chapter, and then listen to the song on a C.D. Beatrix Farrand, the main character of my novel, A Lady of Good Family (a real historical figure) trained as a singer before she decided to become a professional garden designer instead – this in a time when even the men in a certain class of family didn’t ‘work.’ Bostridge is helping me make the connection between beauty in songs and beauty in the garden.

E-Reader or print? and why?

I still prefer the printed page over the electronic page. I do write historical fiction, after all! Sometimes I wish I could read by candle or gas light instead of electricity. Keep in mind, that when I was a quilter I did all the stitching by hand rather than by machine. I stopped quilting because my cat used the quilting hoop as a trampoline one night. Fun to watch, but the end of a great hobby!

One book at a time or multiples?

Always multiples. A different book for each mood, and I am a person of far too many moods, I fear. If I’m sad, I read nonfiction. Reality is a great lifeboat for me, it keeps me from wallowing. When I prefer adventure or romance, I go to fiction. To stir up the imagination when it gets sluggish, I keep a volume of poetry going, usually Hopkins or Yeats. I usually have four or five books in progress at the same time.

Dog-ear or bookmark? (don't worry—Librarian Judith won't hold it against you—much)

Neither! I love post-its, those sticky things that come in all colors and shapes. I don’t like to mark in books, and with the sticky things I can both bookmark the page and write comments and questions without marking up the book. And I’m pleased to report that even after having had post-its on the same page for several years they still pull away without tearing the paper. When I taught graduate school one student told me that my advice to use post-its as she read was the most valuable advice she got that year. Don’t quite know how to take that!

Least favorite book you've read this year?

I would never, ever say. Writers need all the support they can get, and it’s mostly personal opinion, right?

When do you do most of your reading?

I like to read in the evening, when everything quiets down, I have a glass of wine, and the day’s work is either finished or pushed aside. I have my favorite chair, soft music in the background, a salt lamp on dim for the positive ions. It’s a lovely, lovely time and it keeps me sane. Well, maybe. Some would argue with that.

Favorite book to recommend?

Back to the mood and genre thing. For readers/writers of historical fiction, I would argue that if you haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys you don’t know the true beauty and capability and wonder of the genre. If you need humor, anything by P.G. Wodehouse. Even his name, Pelham Grenville, makes me chuckle…as it did him, hence the initials. For nonfiction, Becky Conekin’s Lee Miller – A Life in Fashion, is a great blend of text and illustration about the life and times of the famous Vogue model. It’s like taking a time trip through the 30’s and 40’s in Paris and London.

What would make you not finish a book?

A good story badly told is, to me, as bad as a failed romance. So much potential! Such a waste! What ruins a story for me, in fiction or nonfiction, is a too-intrusive author, someone whose style is always saying “Look at me! Look at me!” rather than, as an author’s style should ,”Read this story!” Of course, simply not writing well, and by that I mean grammatically and with good pacing, structure and language, turns me against an author. And the real test – depth of perception. When an author just repeats platitudes and phrases and doesn’t even try to show the world or us in a somewhat fresh way, they aren’t worth reading. I used to force myself to finish every book I started, because we writers might learn even more from a bad author as a good one. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t eat garbage, and I don’t read garbage. But every reader has to figure out for herself what she thinks is garbage.

Keep books or give them away?

Books make me realize the concept of limitation and the finite, in terms of space. If I kept every book I read (I’m a very fast and persistent reader) I’d have filled houses and houses by now. The real question is knowing when a book has to go, to make room for others. There’s a real sadness to this process, unless it’s one of the books discussed above, in which case I can’t wait to get rid of it. My town has a fabulous Friends of the Library sale and I figure my cast-offs have earned them a bit of cash!


Raised among wealth and privilege during America's fabled Gilded Age, a niece of famous novelist Edith Wharton and a friend to literary great Henry James, Beatrix Farrand is expected to marry, and to marry well. But as a young woman traveling through Europe, she already knows that gardens are her true passion. How she becomes a woman for whom work and love, the earthly and the mysterious, are held in delicate balance is the story of her unique determination to create beauty while remaining true to herself.


Lenox, Massachusetts

My grandparents had a farm outside of Schenectady, and every Sunday my father, who worked in town, would hitch the swayback mare to the buggy and take us out there. I would be left in play in the field as my father and grandfather sat on the porch and drank tea and Grandma cooked. My mother, always dressed a little too extravagantly, shelled the peas.

A yellow barn stood tall and broad against a cornflower blue sky. A row of red hollyhocks in front of the barn stretched to the sky, each flower on the stem as silky and round as the skirt on Thumbelina’s ball gown. In the field next to the barn, daisies danced in the breeze. My namesake flower.

I saw it still, the yellows and red and blues glowing against my closed eyelids. The field was my first garden and I was absolutely happy in it. We usually are, in the gardens of our childhood.

When I opened my eyes I was on a porch in Lenox, a little tired from weeks of travel, a little restless. My companions were restless, too, weary of trying to make polite conversation as strangers do.

It was a late-summer evening, too warm, with a disquieting breeze stirring the treetops as if a giant ghostly hand ruffled them. Through the open window a piano player was tinkling his way through Irving Berlin as young people danced and flirted. In the road that silvered past the inn, young men, those who had made it home from the war, drove up and down in their shiny black Model T’s.

It was a night for thinking of love and loss, first gardens, first kisses.

Mrs. Avery suggested we try the Ouija board. Since the war it had become a national obsession.

“Let’s,” I agreed eagerly.


Jeanne Mackin ‘s latest novel, A Lady of Good Family, explores the secret life of gilded age Beatrix Jones Farrand, niece of Edith Wharton and the first woman professional landscape design in America. Her previous novel, The Beautiful American, based on the life of model turned war correspondent and photographer, Lee Miller won the CNY 2015 prize for fiction. She has published in American Letters and Commentary and SNReview and other publications and is the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers. She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and her journalism has won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. She lives with her husband, Steve Poleskie, in Ithaca.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jeannemackin1
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JeanneMackinAuthor
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/36613.Jeanne_MacKin

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  1. Just as your books inspire authors, what authors have inspired you to write?

  2. Thanks for hosting! So pleased to be here.

    And Mai, to answer your questions, the authors I read in my early years - du Maurier, Seton, Godden - first inspired me. I fell into their stories the way you fall into a summer lake or very soft and comfortable armchair, total immersion. Craft as a writer, for me, is about learning to create that total immersion, engufling your readers in the story you want to tell them. Who keeps me writing? More recently, I've been reading Ian McKewan, Ann Patchett and always, my favorites for a reread: Jeanette Winterson, the Mitford sisters...

  3. I would love to read this book it sounds great. TY

  4. Great interview! Thanks for sharing.

    And I must agree that there is something to be said about a paperback book.. I love my e-reader but I also love the feel of a book in my hands :)

  5. I really enjoyed the excerpt, sound like my kind of read and I would love to read it. Entering under the name of Virginia

  6. thank you, all! happy reading...

  7. I really enjoyed the excerpt! This sounds like a great book! Thank you for sharing!