Six years ago, I moved back to the Boston area (Cambridge, to be exact) after thirty-five years living up and down the East Coast. I was immediately struck by how bookish this city is. People read on the subway, waiting in lines, at stop lights, even walking down the street! Actual, physical books, not on their phones or Kindles or Audible.
I also noticed the many house plaques and other historical markers highlighting the gentleman of letters who once defined the city. Longfellow’s impressive mansion is around the corner from where I live. The ghosts of Henry James, Robert Frost, George Santayana, and W.E.B. Dubois still feel present on these streets, not to mention Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne.
I began to wonder what it might have felt like to be a woman writer in this bastion of male literary giants. True, Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott also left their mark here, but what if you wrote adventure novels and dime store romances for the city’s legion of everyday working women? Would that put you at odds with the snobbish elite of this highly literary town? And would that be a painful challenge?
The character of my protagonist Victoria Swann began to emerge. Set in Gilded Age Boston on the cusp of the twentieth century, my novel The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann, (Regal House, 2023), tells the story of a highly successful woman author of popular novels who becomes a champion of women’s rights as she takes on the literary establishment and finds her true voice, both on and off the page.
The saga of a woman who uses the act of writing to meet life’s challenges resonates with my own experience. Right out of graduate school at Sarah Lawrence in 1987, I landed a prominent literary agent. She tried to sell my first novel but without success. Faced with this early disappointment, I went on and wrote another novel, then another, another, and another. Over the years, I’ve had three agents and many near misses. But I’ve persisted and the novels I’ve written have improved, I believe, because practice really does make a difference.
In 2013, my debut novel, River of Dust, was published by Unbridled Books, followed by Dreams of the Red Phoenix in 2015, also with Unbridled. Both are literary adventure stories about Americans in northwest rural China, one in the early twentieth century and the other at the start of WWII. River of Dust was an Indy Next Pick and a Finalist for the Virginia Literary Award. Dreams of the Red Phoenix was a Best Book of the Year from the Richmond Times Dispatch. These stories come out of the colonial literature tradition with a focus on American hubris. My father was born and raised in China to Congregational missionary parents, and he went on to become a leading China scholar. In personal essays in The New York Times, The Rumpus, and Literary Hub, I describe how these two generations of my family served as inspiration for my Americans-in-China novels.
All the while, as my husband and I raised our two children and lived in different cities for his work as a museum curator and director, I also wrote short stories. These have appeared in The North American Review, The Tampa Review, The Baltimore Review, Failbetter, and elsewhere. A short story collection called Shelf Life of Happiness (published in 2018 by Press 53) won the Independent Publishers (IPPY) Gold Medal Award for Short Fiction.
In each of the cities where we’ve lived, including Hartford, New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, I’ve reached out to writers and relied on their company to break the isolation that comes with writing. I’m currently part of writing groups in multiple cities. I also found connection through teaching, including at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, and through professional organizations. For ten years, I helped run James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond that hosts a wonderful annual conference and monthly programs. In Cambridge, I’m active at GrubStreet, one of the largest and most established writing centers in the country.
I’m also on the board of the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, was a Tin House Summer Workshop Scholar, an assistant at the Virginia Quarterly Review Conference, and a repeat fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Each of these associations has made my life richer with the company of fellow writers and readers. It’s the life my protagonist Victoria wants for herself, too—to find a voice, and a life, that is genuinely her own, both on and off the page.
Regal House Publishing is delighted to bring you The Literary Undoing of Victoria Swann in the fall of 2023.