I'm chatting with Liza Nash Taylor, author of Etiquette for Runaways and In All Good Faith.
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Hello and welcome. I'm Carol Cram, host of the Art In Fiction podcast. This episode features Liza Nash Taylor, author of Etiquette for Runaways, listed in the Theater category on Art In Fiction, and In All Good Faith listed in the Literature category. Liza Nash Taylor is the 2016 winner of the Fiction Prize of the San Miguel Writers’ Conference and a 2018 Hawthornden International Fellow. She lives in rural Virginia, in an old farmhouse that serves as a setting in her novels.
Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Liza.
Thank you for having me, Carol. Thanks for this opportunity.
Oh, it's my pleasure. I totally enjoyed both Etiquette for Runaways and its sequel In All Good Faith, particularly because of the time period, you know, the Roaring Twenties and the Depression. It's actually not a period I've read a lot of books about, although suddenly I've read several just recently, but I hadn't up until I started reading your book. Let's start with Etiquette for Runaways. What was the inspiration for this novel?
This book, Etiquette for Runaways, was my first attempt at writing a novel, and I started it in my very first creative writing class 10 years ago. And what happened was, I think it was the summer of 2013, I was supposed to go on a trip to France and I went for a walk before my flight, and I was texting and walking and I fell and broke my right ankle, so don't text and walk.
So, the trip didn't happen and I was stuck at home in a cast sitting on the porch of my house. And I had just started this online writing course where we were supposed to start writing a novel. And so I thought, well, where am I going to set this novel? And I thought, well, it's going to be set right here at the house where I live, which was built about 1820.
So, sitting there on the porch, I thought, I've got roughly a 200-year span in which I could set a novel set at this house. And I narrowed it down to the Prohibition era because in the county where I live, Albemarle County, Virginia, there was an awful lot of moonshining going on, which made for some interesting plot points. And Franklin County, which is about two hours from here, was known as the Moonshine Capital of the World at that time. So that gave me the setting. And then I had to come up with a main character.
And there were two things that really influenced me in coming up with May Marshall's character. The first was, I had just finished reading Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel called Moll Flanders. And I loved Moll Flanders. She was like an 18th-century badass, and she just came from nothing and people tried to take advantage of her, especially men, and she got even, she got ahead by using her wits and by breaking the rules. And I just love that.
So that character really inspired May, that she's kind of a rule-breaker. And the other thing that inspired her character was a small piece of porcelain. And in this old house where I live, this farmhouse, when I'm digging around in the garden, I find things like old horseshoes and antique bottles and pieces of pottery and porcelain. And so I found this broken piece of a Victorian doll's face, like white porcelain with the red painted lips. And it was kind of creepy, but it made me wonder whose doll that had been and what that little girl's life was like here at Keswick Farm where I live. But most importantly, it made me wonder how did that doll get broken? So I decided to write about the little girl who loved that doll here at Keswick Farm. And it became sort of a subplot of the story. And then moving to New York, I set the story at the boarding house where I lived at the age of 21. So yeah, that was sort of the inspiration for the whole thing.
Well, that's really interesting. I love the fact that you are a fan of Moll Flanders. You don't hear people say that very often, but that was one of my favorite books back when I was a student was Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. And you're right, she was such a badass. She's a wonderful character. So now when I think of May, your character May, in the context of Moll Flanders, wow, I kind of see an extra depth to her that I hadn't before. So thank you for sharing that.
Also, what really interests me from what you were saying is how we get inspiration, the fact that the bit of porcelain made you think or wonder who did it belong to? What if? And I think that's something that we as authors need to be on the lookout for, these sort of what-if scenarios.
Yes. You know, when we're doing research into history, I always tried to leave room for something from research, like what I call an Easter Egg, to influence the plot. And that piece of porcelain was sort of a gift. I look at it as a gift. It sparked something and ended up working its way through the whole novel.
Yes. It's interesting how often when I speak with authors, they talk about these types of things that just spark inspiration, and we never know where they're going to come from. And I think that is the magic of being an author, isn't it? You just never know.
It is. And I don't know if you've ever had the experience of having a character sort of arrive in your brain fully formed. Have you ever had that happen?
Actually, no, I don't think I have yet. I'm waiting for it!
Oh, it didn't happen with Etiquette for Runaways. It actually happened in my second novel.
Was that with the character of Dorrit in your second novel?
It was. Yes. The character of Dorrit Sykes. When I started my second book, In All Good Faith, I knew that I was continuing May’s story and I knew sort of the trajectory of her life six years later. But this character sprang to my head and sort of waved her arms around. And then as I said, no, no. And as I kept researching, I kept finding spots where this teenage girl fit in. And I kept thinking, no, no, I know what I'm going to write. I’ve got it all set out and she wouldn't go away. And finally, I gave her a name, which was a combination of two Charles Dickens characters. It's Amy Dorrit from Little Dorrit and Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist. And once I gave her a name, she really would not shut up. So the book became a dual narrative, but we just never know where these characters, what's going to spark a character.
No, that's very true. I really enjoyed Dorrit. She's a wonderful character. Getting back to Etiquette for Runaways, I was very fascinated by the moonshine. It's not something I know about. I don't think we had moonshine in my part of the world. I live up in Vancouver. Actually, I think we were the ones that were sending the booze down to the States.
We were the rum-runners. Actually, very close to where I live, there are places like Smugglers Cove and Buccaneer Bay. And that apparently is a leftover from the Prohibition days because I live on the coast, right, and so the boats would come in.
But the making of the moonshine is very interesting. And so your county was, what did you say?
A couple of counties over, Franklin County, was called the Moonshine Capital of the World. And I don't know if you're aware of Jeannette Walls, the New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle; her new historical novel called Hang the Moon is set near Franklin County in 1921, and it's all about Virginia moonshining, really interesting book.
Wow. So, I found that interesting because as I said, I know nothing about it and just how they wheeled and dealed and worked with the feds and all of that. It added an interesting context to the novel. And I think another reason I enjoyed the novel is that it does span three different areas. You've got Virginia with the moonshine, and then New York, and finally in Paris.
Paris in the 1920s, it was quite a haven for Black performers from America. Can you talk a little bit about what role this played in your novel?
As I said, this was my first attempt at a novel and I knew I wanted to change the settings, and I felt most comfortable writing settings that I knew about, places I had spent time in or lived. So in May's story, she leaves Virginia and then she goes to New York, to Prohibition-era New York, and then on to Jazz Age Paris. I've always been fascinated with the life of Josephine Baker, the great African American performer. And originally I had her as a character in this book, and I read four biographies of Josephine Baker and did a lot of research. And my then agent said, no, no, if you use Josephine Baker, then readers are going to have expectations and you will be stuck with following the actual timeline of her life.
So, I created a character instead called Janie, who's inspired by Josephine Baker and has a similar career trajectory. And in the twenties there were a lot of Black performers, jazz musicians and dancers who were leaving the United States and going to Paris and to Berlin because they had career opportunities that just were not available to them in the United States. They were paid more, they were appreciated more. There wasn't the overt racism that they were experiencing. So as I was researching this, I did write in some instances of racism because I found them in biographies of Josephine Baker. And so I stuck to actual events that had happened to her, but I felt like I needed to sort of include those in the story because it was such a part of that time. And it is one reason a lot of these performers moved to Paris. And Josephine Baker went to Paris and basically never came back. She refused to perform in America at segregated venues. And she worked for the Underground during World War II, for the French, became a French citizen and ended up adopting 12 children from all over the world. And she just had a fascinating life. So she inspired this character of Janie, and May, my main character, is doing the costumes for this review that is opening in Paris in 1925.
So that is the arts tie-in in Etiquette for Runaways is that she is a costume designer who then goes to Paris. And your main character May is fascinating. She's a really interesting, well-rounded character. I mean, considering this is your debut novel, that's very impressive. She's definitely a woman of her time, and yet she's way ahead of her time. What sort of themes were you wanting to express using May as your protagonist?
Well, you know, I think that when we're writing historical fiction, or when we're writing any novels, any fictitious characters, we want to imbue our characters with, either they're totally unreliable and, you know, we will learn to like them or we forgive them their mistakes or they have attributes that we admire as modern readers.
But I think we also have to take into consideration the constraints upon women in any given time period. For instance, in the 1920s, May had to follow the rules, the rules of her college, the rules of living in a boarding house. And then we would see what happened when she broke those rules. But then when we move on to the next part of her story, in 1932, during the Great Depression, women had different constraints. As a young mother, then, she was not encouraged to work whereas during the war, women were encouraged to work. But during the Depression, the railroad companies and the post office were firing all of their female employees to give those jobs to men with families. So I think we have to be very much aware of the norms and rules for women in whatever time we’re writing about. And so I had to sort of try to make her a rule breaker, but also be aware of the rules of the time period that I was writing about.
Yes, it’s really a fine balance, isn’t it, as historical novelists, because we do want to have these characters that are interesting and do break the rules, but we can't make them too anachronistic. They are women of their time. They believed in the mores of their time, and yet they broke the rules as well. So anyway, I think you did it very well with May. She was believable as a person who accepted the time, but also wanted to be her own person. I particularly found that in the second novel, In All Good Faith, when she wants to be a businesswoman because she's good at it and her husband who loves her just can't see why this is important.
Right. Because in the tradition of that time, he feels, you know, the weight of taking care of his family on his own and being a provider. So yeah. It causes friction between them.
I was very frustrated with him, and yet he was a man of his time. Would you like to do a short reading from Etiquette for Runaways?
Sure. Yes. Now I know you focus on the arts, so one of the arts in the book is fashion, costume design, and the other one is dance. So, the scene I'm going to read is set in Paris in 1925 and May has worked on the costumes for this jazz revue. And her friend Janie is the star. Janie is inspired by Josephine Baker. And so, this Janie's debut on the stage in Paris with May observing.
On opening night, May stood with Rocky in the wings. The stage looked like a forest. A kettle drum began to roll, and the crowd hushed. Janie’s dance partner strode onto the stage wearing a rough tunic, slit low at the neck. His build was lean and muscular, his skin very dark. The new costumes, of Louis’s design, were minimalistic and modern, sometimes resembling an assemblage of rags. Janie popped out from behind a papier-mâché tree, wearing only briefs of reddish-brown fur with a fox- tail swinging behind. Her fingernails were varnished black. The audience roared, then quieted in anticipation. A clarinet began a solo, and with her partner in pursuit, Janie began to slink around the stage. When he caught her, he raised her onto his shoulders as if she were weightless, and the or- The orchestra joined in, accompanying their pas de deux. Her tan skin glowed against his as their bodies moved together in a sensuous, primal rhythm, as if they were the only two humans on earth. This was not the chorus girl Janie. This Janie was a seductress, radiating sexuality and strength. She held sway over the audience. May could tell that she knew it and reveled in her power. With every leap and twirl, she manipulated the crowd a little more. May watched the faces of the men in the audience. Janie was toying with them. The women looked as aroused as the men did, and May suspected that Janie had never really minded the idea of appearing topless at all.
When the curtain finally dropped, there was thunderous applause with a standing ovation. In the crowded dressing room, hoots and elated chatter flew as bouquets arrived one after another, with invitations to dine and notes of congratulation. Velma held an armload of red roses, sent by an admirer. Chorus girls mopped sweat and wiped off stage makeup as May helped Janie into her flamingo evening dress. May observed the revelry, quietly performing her own small duties—checking over costumes and hanging them carefully, then lining up vases on the dressing tables. Rocky pinned a gardenia in Janie’s hair, then she shrugged into the green velvet evening coat and was whisked away to the opening-night party.
Quiet descended after the girls left. May unbuttoned her work smock and sat in her slip and stockings at the abandoned dressing table, tracing a path through spilled face powder. She began applying makeup as Rocky had taught her to do, transforming her face from the downtrodden ward- robe assistant into what she hoped might pass for the fresh loveliness of an American socialite. Her lipstick was the color of ripe plums, and she liked to think that its intensity proved her to be a girl with nerve and style. Rocky had trimmed her hair so that it hung like black satin, framing her face in geometric planes. As she slipped her kingfisher blue dress over her head, she could not avoid thinking of Byrd. The only time she had worn it was with him, dancing in New York.
Oh, thank you. That was wonderful.
I really like that scene with the dancing and the tail and all of that kind of thing. That's very well done. You can just see her. Good. Well, thank you.
So I wanted to ask then, why did you decide to continue May's story in your second novel? Which I didn't even realize was a sequel until I started to read it.
Well, it's funny because what happened was it wasn't so much that I was so in love with this character. It was a more of a practical decision because when I became really interested in writing, I applied to an MFA program and I started that in 2016. And at the same time, I had just signed with my first literary agent, and we were working together on revising Etiquette, what became Etiquette for Runaways. So I wasn't going to work on that as part of my master's work. But every month, I had to turn in 30 pages of new work for this program to my advisor. So I had to start something new. And I thought, well, I just cannot keep May's story in my head and be working on that with my agent, and also come up with a whole new cast of characters.
So, I made the second book a standalone sequel. And as I said, I started out continuing May's story six years later, and then this other character Dorrit just would not be quiet. So, it became a dual narrative, and I decided to make it standalone because, you know, what if Etiquette for Runaways didn't sell, then certainly nobody was going to want to buy the sequel. So yeah, I continued the same story.
I had the characters in place, I had the settings, and I had an idea of where May's story was going, and Dorrit was a surprise. But what happened was shortly after I finished my master's program in 2018, Etiquette for Runaways went out for sale to publishers. And while that was in play, I finished and sent to my agent In All Good Faith. And when the publisher Blackstone made an offer and got back to my agent and said, we want to buy this book, he said, well, there's another one too. And they said, send it over. And five days later they said, we want both of them. So lucky me, I got a two-book deal there. So yeah, that's how that happened.
Well, that's really interesting. That must have been a nice day when you got the two-book deal.
One thing I really enjoyed in In All Good Faith was learning about the Bonus March, which is something I knew nothing about. Can you tell us about that?
That's one of those, when I was talking earlier about Easter Eggs in our research, and that was one of them. I knew I was continuing May's story during the Depression, and so I started researching the area, Albemarle County in Virginia, and looking at events that were going on in the early thirties. I knew I wanted to set it during the Depression, but that's a 10-year period. So I didn't know which year to start it until I read accounts of the Veterans Bonus March that started in that summer of 1932. I had not been taught about it in school, in American history. They don't teach it. It's kind of a smudge, I would say, very much of a smudge on our American history. And what happened was in, I think it was February of 1932, a group of eight veterans left Oregon and they were determined to make their way across the country by hitchhiking, by riding the rails, however they could. They had no money. They were destitute. To get to Washington, DC, and to speak to Hoover about getting their war bonuses early. And these were a bonus that soldiers from World War I were supposed to get, like a savings bond kind of thing. But they weren't supposed to be paid until 1942. So this group and we're three, four years into the Depression, people are becoming desperate. This group of eight started getting a lot of press as they made their way across the country. And by May, they had arrived in DC. They were now something like 11,000 strong, veterans joined them along the way. They got to Washington, the Army tried to find enough cots and tents and the Salvation Army, and there just weren't enough.
And people were arriving in Washington, veterans bringing their families. By July, I think there were 20,000 veterans camping in and around Washington, DC. And Hoover, in a spectacular publicity fail, refused to meet them. There was a bill proposed and it was defeated. They were not going to get their bonuses, and a lot of them had nowhere else to go. So, they stayed until in late July, Hoover sent Douglas MacArthur with Dwight Eisenhower as his wingman to teargas these camps, these encampments of veterans, and to drive them out in one night.
So they burned out the camps, they teargassed them. And so my plot envisions this 17-year-old girl coming from Boston to this march with her father who's a veteran, and then they get separated and she's on her own. So that was one of those plot points that just came right out of research. I'd known nothing about it beforehand.
Yes, it was very interesting. I knew nothing about it either. Did the veterans ever get their bonuses?
Not until they, the year that they were slated to be paid.
Well, they did get them in 1942.
They did that. That's something good.
Yeah. But you know, if the government had paid them early, it would've bankrupted the treasury. And there was no American system then of service, of welfare or unemployment at that time. So it would've bankrupted the treasury. And there were so many people during that time who needed assistance. Farmers. There were no programs for farmers. So it wasn't just the veterans. So if you're looking at both sides of the coin, yeah, it was just a terrible time in so many ways.
It was a terrible time. And your novel really brought that out, just the effects, the long-reaching effects of the Depression. Those were tough years. I can still remember my grandmother talking about the Depression. And my mother even, who was born in 1927. They never really recovered from those years.
One of my sort of missions with The Art In Fiction Podcast is to inspire other authors. What is a piece of advice that you would give to a new author?
I really came to the party very late. I wasn't one of those people who was the minute I could hold a pencil, I started writing stories. I was always a voracious reader. And I would encourage anyone who wants to learn to write, to read, and also to take classes. It's never too late.
Study with good writers if you can. I loved reading historical fiction as a child. I didn't even know to call it historical fiction, but I was in love with, like Sarah Crewe in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess and The Secret Garden. And then I think I had just a yearning to be an abandoned English orphan like them. And then that transferred into loving the literature of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. And I really think that it's very important to, when we're learning to write, is to learn to read very closely.
Yes. I think that's very good advice. I find that the more I read, the better my writing gets. And I do like what you said, that it's never too late. I was also a little late to the party. My first novel, I was, I think 59, 58 when it first came out. And you know, when you're young, when I was young anyway, I thought, oh, you have to be famous by the time you’re 30. But life doesn't work that way. You know, you have a family, you have work, you have a career, all sorts of things get in the way, but it's never too late. Why not start in your sixties?
I loved your novel Love Among the Recipes because the character was not a young character. And I think that what we can bring as older debut novelists is the life experience. And I love seeing, seeing the success of people like Alka Joshi with The Henna Artist and Bonnie Garmus, whose Lessons in Chemistry is on the New York Times bestseller list. And Delia Owens, of course, who wrote Crawdads. But there's the life experience, I think there's nothing that will substitute for that.
No, I think we bring an awful lot to the table after 40 years, 60 years of living, you know?. And, it's interesting how many really great novelists are coming out that are in their fifties, sixties, seventies even. I had Alka Joshi on The Art In Fiction podcast. She's about my age. She was just wonderful. So yes. Never too late for us.
So, historical fiction, of course, relies on an incredible amount of research. What is some advice that you would have about researching?
Well, I kind of touched on this before, but one thing I've really learned is, well, I don't write from an outline. I make a sort of a general outline, and then I start doing research. And, of course, in doing research we can go down rabbit holes, but I really like to allow room for something I find in research to influence the plots of my books. And that's happened very much with both of the ones that have come out. But I also like to, speaking of reading, read novels and periodicals that are contemporaneous to the era I'm writing about.
For instance, when I was writing Etiquette for Runaways set in the twenties, I was reading Fitzgerald's work and, you know, anything written during that time. And that's a really good way to pick up speech patterns and slang from the era you're writing about, and also especially with periodicals and newspapers to find details of everyday life that you can include in setting the scene. And I spent a lot of time also on Pinterest and eBay looking at old things.
So I bought a 1922 copy of Emily Post’s etiquette book, the original one. And I imagine that my character May had maybe gotten it for high school graduation, and that became sort of a through line of the plot of what would Emily do in any kind of given situation. So things, like, of things that are written in the time period that you're writing about are really helpful.
Yes. I think they are actually. I like to read periodicals in particular during the time period. And also newspapers, which is fine if you're writing in the 18th and 19th century, not so great if you're writing the Middle Ages, which my first novel was.
I'm not brave enough to attempt that, and I don't think I will.
Well, sometimes, in some ways, you could say it's easier to write about a time when there is less known. I don't know.
Have you done that?
I've done both.
Yeah. So you can really build your own world.
I suppose so, yes. I don't know what's better. I actually think writing in a time when there is lots of information can be a little bit more intimidating because there's more to get wrong, there's more people to know that you've got it wrong.
I don't know. But if you're writing in the Middle Ages, you know, it's a bit scanty, so you don't need to be quite so worried that you might get a detail here and there wrong. I mean, we try to get the facts right, but, you know, we're novelists.
Is there anything that you would like to add?
I love that we discussed being late to the party and that it's never really too late to start trying to write or to get published. I think we have to evolve through life, right? We can't just, once our children grow up and move away or we stop working full-time or whatever, I think we always have to look for sources of inspiration. And whether it's writing or gardening or art or podcasting, I think that we just will continue to flourish as long as we're being creative.
I totally agree. I think being creative is so important. Yes. I mean, we're not ready to stop yet. We've got lots more life kicking in us.
So thank you so much for chatting with me, Liza. This has been just delightful.
Thank you, Carol. I've really enjoyed it. And thanks for the opportunity.
I've been speaking with Liza Nash Taylor, author of Etiquette for Runaways listed in the Theater category and In All Good Faith, listed in the Literature category, on Art In Fiction at www.artinfiction.com. Be sure to check the show notes for a link to Liza's website at www.lizanashtaylor.com.
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