Sunday, September 9, 2018

7 Questions with Author Jeanette Watts

Jeanette Watts is a writer, a dance instructor, a costumer, an actress, and a very poor housekeeper. Her previously published historical fiction includes Wealth and Privilege and Brains and Beauty. Her most recent book is Jane Austen Lied to Me. Her website is 

1.      How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
It was fourth grade, and I discovered this AMAZING section in the library at school. It was straight back from the entrance, on the left hand side, in the corner. It was… the biography section.

In the next three years, I think I devoured every book in there. Books on Betsy Ross. Florence Nightingale. Juliette Gordon Lowe. Elizabeth Blackwell. Madame Curie. Years later, I was confused by all the feminists saying that History courses were really the history of men. It took me a while to realize my broader knowledge of history came from my independent reading.

By high school, history was my favorite subject. I moved to a different state in the middle of the school year, and I terrorized my poor high school history teacher my sophomore year. The textbooks at my new school were much less good than the textbooks at my previous school - and there was a copy of the better textbook on the shelf in my new classroom! The teacher made the mistake of letting me borrow it.

I would read the chapter from the school’s textbook, then I would read the same episode of American history from the other book. Next day in class, while the teacher is discussing the material, my hand would inevitably go up. “You know, that’s not how it REALLY happened. It was actually a lot more complicated than that. It was a logical process, but there were more like 15 things that happened to get from A to Z, not the 4 that are described here….” The Civil War, the Industrial Revolution; I specifically remember a chapter on the Haymarket Square riot and the labor movement that was particularly poorly written in the one textbook. I think I came to the conclusion at that point that I cared a lot more about history than my teacher.

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
There are so many huge avenues of history that run through my life.

1) Clothing. I’m an avid seamstress, and almost everything I sew is historic costuming. I’ve worked for local history museums in Ohio and North Carolina, and simply can’t be a docent out of costume. How am I supposed to talk about the history of bicycles, if I’m not wearing a bloomer costume from the 1890s? If I’m giving a tour of a house built in 1800, I should be dressed properly for 1800. I have full court garb for the English Renaissance, Regency dresses, hoop skirts, bustles, flapper dresses. This last month I was working with a group on aviation history, so I made a Pan Am stewardess’ uniform. Had to be done.

2) Dance. I’m a dance instructor, and more specifically, I teach Vintage dance. The waltz as it was done in 1800 is not the same dance that was done in 1860, which is not the dance as it was done in 1914. The Victorians mostly favored set dances over couple dances. In the 1870s, however, the young folks were doing dance party games they called “Germans” which were mostly couple dances, although there was no doubt this was about the larger social group, not about two people facing each other for three minutes.

3) Acting. I have played Katharine Wright, the younger sister of the Wright Brothers. I have played Grace O’Malley, the Irish pirate. And I have played Brigid Hussey, Countess of Bedford. In all of these cases, it might have been possible for some people to simply stick to a few dry facts, recite a few lines. But most of these roles were improv acting, not stage performances. When a small child asks a question, I need to be able to answer it, in character, and give an accurate answer. I am this child’s window into the fascinating story of our past. It’s the best storybook, ever.

4) Writing. My first two novels are set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the Industrial Revolution. While I was wallowing in research on the first one, a friend looked at me and said, “You know it’s historic FICTION, right?” I just shook my head, and explained that if I don’t know what it smells like, and tastes like, and sounds like, I don’t know enough to write about it yet. My current novel, Jane Austen Lied to Me, is a modern-day romantic comedy, and it perplexes me sometimes when it’s time to go out and sell it. The only way I know how to sell books is in costume. (See #1 above…) It was a fun departure, but my next project is back in my comfort zone. I’m tackling New York at the Turn of the Century, this time.

3.      How is history part of your professional career?
Your question, and my answers, say a lot about me… apparently I don’t make a distinction between my personal life and my professional life.

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?
It may be a tropism, but it’s true: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately this is may be more true for societies than for individuals. History helps explain who are, and how we got here. This is true for each of us as people, and us as A people.

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
Well, if we go by the number of books I own on individual topics, it’s just about a tie between the American Civil War and the Industrial Revolution. Why? The flippant answer is the clothes. Hoop skirts and bustle dresses, what’s not to love?

I can blame my love of the Civil War on Gone With the Wind. I met the book in 8th grade, and I was hooked. The honest and complex storytelling was compelling, but so was the historical detail. Scarlett gets bored while Grandma Fontaine gives a hair-raising eye witness account of an Indian massacre. She reads the newspaper filled with little details, including a sly reference to abortion. And of course there’s the initial reaction to secession and the burning of Atlanta. While that sparked my interest, the real-live characters who fought the war held my interest. I adore Grant and Sherman. They aren’t perfect romantic heroes, they are flawed humans struggling to do the best they can in the times they face. Did Grant drink, and was Sherman crazy (his own term for it)? Oh, I hope so.

The Industrial Revolution I fell in love with while writing Wealth and Privilege. It was hard figuring out WHEN my novel was set. There was always something messy and interesting going on in Pittsburgh - fire in the 1845, a cholera epidemic in the 1850s, the war in the 1860s. I decided to start in 1875 during a bad recession, touched on the railroad riot of 1877, Garfield’s assassination in 1881 (which wasn’t Pittsburgh history, but the whole country was affected), and the Johnstown Flood in 1889. If I would have gone further in time, there was the Homestead Strike of 1892, the opening of Kennywood Park in 1898, the annexation of Allegheny in 1907…

Once I settled on 1875-1889, and got into the research, I fell in love. It’s a vibrant time, full of tumult, full of change, full of progress, full of horrors. We created new problems for ourselves as a society.  And we groped our way forward towards solutions.

6.      What  is the story behind Jane Austen Lied to Me? 
I was driving home from the Jane Austen Festival in Lexington, Kentucky when the premise came to me. And you know how it goes sometimes; once you think something, you can’t UNthink it. So I had to run with it.

I am always a questioner. It gets me in trouble, I’m sure, but I can’t NOT ask questions. So the question I had to ask was, as much as we love Jane Austen, and romanticize her characters and stories, how would those same characters and situations really play out, today? For example, if you meet a guy, and he’s a rich jerk, is he necessarily going to turn out to be a nice guy when you get to know him better?

7.     Is there any part of your life that doesn't have to do with history?
Well, we just moved to a house that was built in 1938, so it’s got a touch of history about it. My husband and I have been married for 27 years; we have a history. My car is a 2007 Mazda, once cars have 237,000 miles on them, I think they have a history.  The Out box on my email has 9,669 messages going back as far as 2006. There’s some history, there. The contents of my sewing room include a work basket from my mother-in-law, pincushions from my grandmother, thread from grand-aunt Rose, and a cabinet from my girlfriend’s great-aunt Ludie.

So, I think the answer is: nope.