On Thursday I attended a reading at Powell’s by Claire McMillan of her debut novel Gilded Age. The event was a happy confluence of author reading and college reunion, as McMillan went to school at the University of Oregon. It gave the evening a convivial feel not always found at readings. Not that they’re ever drama laced events but, depending on the author, the feel can sometimes be high pretension. Add to that, McMillan’s warmth and wit and this was an enjoyable night.
Before the reading McMillan discussed a bit about the genesis of the book. She has been an Edith Wharton fan since her college days and The House of Mirth was her favorite book. Her husband surprised her with a first edition for her birthday and that’s when the idea was born. However, it was not an easy or quick process. She shared that all told, it took seven years for Gilded Age to get published. Five of those years were spent writing and then sending the manuscript out to agents and being repeatedly rejected. Finally, she gave up and put the manuscript in a drawer, thinking to put it behind her. Except, apparently, that wasn’t strong enough so McMillan decided to have a ceremonial incineration (a superficial gesture on her part, she admits, as she “had it saved on her computer”) but when thrown on the fire the pages wouldn’t completely burn, indicating that perhaps this was a book meant to be so she began again and well…the result is sitting in bookstores.
After her reading, there was Q&A with a number of interesting questions and answers.
Why Cleveland and not New York City for your setting?
I wanted to show a side of Cleveland that’s not often seen. Also, I thought Edith Wharton would be appalled.
How did you decide on the title?
Gilded is something that is only coated in gold not made of it. It’s a covering for another metal. And ‘Age’ simply because age is such an issue in the book.
Are you working on anything now?
A novel set in Cleveland in the 1920s and even though I’ve never worked with them before, some short stories.
I had a question as well but I’d read the book and written a review for Portland Book Review, so it involved the ending and I didn’t think it was fair to ask for an answer in front of people who may not have had a chance to read the book yet. I emailed Claire and she kindly answered. If given an inch, I’ll take a football field so I asked a couple more questions and she even answered those- which is like winning the Powerball for anyone interested in what makes writers tick.
What lies ahead is a SPOILER, but, really, if you haven’t read The House of Mirth by now you need to read more. Just my professional opinion. Still, this is a young site and I don’t want to alienate anymore readers than necessary so I’m going to insert a page break. Click through to read some great questions and their answers but stop here if you must.
Did you know from the beginning that you would stick with Wharton’s ending?
When I first started writing Gilded Age, I told myself Ellie didn’t have to die at the end. I didn’t have to “kill her.” I wasn’t opposed to that ending, but I wanted to leave all options open. I couldn’t have written the book and her story if I knew she was going to die. It would have been too sad for me.
If not, at what point in the process did you decide that you would?
When I got to drafting the ending, I played around with a few scenarios.
Did you ever entertain other alternatives for Ellie and if so, what?
I tried a happily ever after with Ellie and Selden together a few different ways. Each was just atrocious. I tried an Ellie on-her-own and strong ending, but it felt so unearned.
Do you have time for reading? If so, what do you like to read and what are you reading now?
I love to read! I recently read Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism by Deborah Lutz. I got on a Swinburne tear and was rereading a lot of his poetry, and listening to Morrissey, and just kind-of wallowing in that whole aesthetic. I also recently finished With my Body by Nikki Gemmell because I think she so totally and completely rocks at bare unadorned honesty. Also, I am in the world’s best book club. We have members in their sixties through to members in their twenties. We’re reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl this month, and I can’t wait for the discussion about it.
Before I finish I want to expand a bit on my review. I thought Gilded Age was a marvelously nuanced book with a great deal to say about the reality of women’s status in society and the disparity between what is acceptable for men and for women. And yet it isn’t a treatise or manifesto; it’s an engrossing thoughtful read. McMillan makes the same points Wharton did but a century later—which is quite depressing if you think about it. The ending was the only area that was difficult for me. In my mind, Lily Bart (the heroine in The House of Mirth) is one of the most heartbreaking figures in literature. Every time I read that book I am sad and angry for days. Somehow, I felt/hoped that Gilded Age would be different. That Ellie would adjust her expectations and accept the reality of her status. Now, having heard from the author why she held to the original ending I understand and it feels right. Sad but right.