On Wednesday I posted my review of Parlor Games, the debut novel from Maryka Biaggio. Biaggio currently lives in Portland and appeared at Powell’s Tuesday night so I had the pleasure of meeting her and getting to learn more about both the novel and the author. First things first, though. I have to maintain a certain level of detachment when I write a review but meeting an author is a personal experience so I give myself leeway I my observations. Yes, the writing is paramount but I loved both the boots Biaggio was wearing and a lovely pin that fastened her jacket at the top. There I said it. I am that superficial.
After reading an excerpt from Parlor Games, Biaggio was kind enough to share her journey to becoming an author which, as she said, “Began when I sent in a story to one of those contests they used to have on matchbook covers.” While nothing came of that first attempt, her desire to write remained strong but so did the fear of rejection. In the end she chose to major in psychology after which she began a career in academia. She continues, “After 30 years in academia I decided, ‘You know, I want to write. I really want to write.’ I finally came up with an idea. For many years I wanted to but could never come up with an idea that I thought would make a good novel and then in 2000 I did so I took the leap and quit my academic position. I wrote 3 books prior to Parlor Games. Nobody wanted them. They’re inventory in my home study. Maybe I’ll get back to them at some point.”
Biaggio also discussed the process of getting published which began with finding an agent. In finally deciding on one her partner, who has a legal background, helped her review the contracts to make a decision. Her story about getting a publisher is one every writer dreads but seems to be the norm for the business.
“My agent requested changes which I felt were good, so took a couple of months to make them and then she pitched to publishing houses. Two were in the running but the one at Doubleday was so sharp and showed such interest that I went with them. Within a week I received letter from the editor that opened with how great the novel was and reading it was like being a kid on Christmas morning but that she had a few suggestions that would make it even more “irresistible”. What followed were sixteen pages of single space changes.”
From there the dialogue moved on to Parlor Games and its fascinating protagonist, May Dugas, a real woman whose adventures Biaggio recreated in the book after ‘discovering’ her at the Menominee Historical Society in Michigan where there she found a small book by a Chicago journalist who interviewed the Pinkerton detective who tracked May. It was after reading this self-published pamphlet that “I knew I had to write about her.” All events are accurate and required extensive research, including going to Washington D.C. to look at archives as May traveled to Europe quite a bit. Despite the involvement of the Pinkerton Agency in her life, Biaggio was not able to find any information about May in their files, which were donated by the agency to the Library of Congress, when they sold the Pinkerton name.
After an overview of the process and the book itself, Biaggio fielded a variety of questions with good grace and a wry sense of humor.
Why did you choose to tell it in the first person? And are the people accurate?
All of the main characters are real. I changed the name of the Baron because some of his descendants are still living. Some other names have been changed as well but the people are real.
After I read the book I thought it was fascinating and no-one had ever written anything about it. The book contained a lot of inconsistencies. I thought if I tell it in the first person, then I can try and get inside her head and see how did she view the world? How did she view the things that she did? A first person really required I get inside her, which was kind of a challenge as she was beautiful, bright, charming, intelligent—the things I’m not. I loved trying to understand her and to peel back the layers. I knew I had found her as soon as I wrote the first lines. After that, she never left my head- she stayed with me, was in my head and always in my mind.
Anything you discovered in your research that might lead you into a second book?
The book closes when May is in her mid-forties and she did live into her sixties and the nature of her adventures changed but she continued in her wry ways, so I’ve thought perhaps I would do a sequel but right now I’m working on something different.
Was Portland part of May’s actual journey?
Yes, she did pass through and spent some time at a famous ‘house’ here.
Have you been in touch of May’s family?
Yes, but not in Europe. The baron’s castle still exists in Holland and it’s now a B&B. Interestingly enough, May does have a granddaughter living in CA and I have been in touch with her. Maybe that would be part of a sequel.
Was May very educated?
Yes, she was very well educated. Her parents were French-Canadian and very focused on her getting a good education. When she was in Chicago she took some college classes—business, French—and studied on her own because she wanted to be able to keep the company of society men, so she learned about music and read.
What was your greatest frustration during research?
The novel spans 40 years and I wanted to be as true as possible to the timeline and actual events of her life. There were so many problems with the self-published pamphlet that it really took me a long time…I have a spreadsheet I used to set up times, places and events and a column for where I got the information so I could keep track of where I learned something. There were many inconsistencies and sorting all that out took quite a bit of time. I was writing while I was researching so I would have to go back and rewrite.
What was your most satisfying moment?
Here Biaggio hesitates.
Well, I loved, I knew, well, you know, she’s a con woman. She is. But she’s got a little heart! I knew some of the cons she pulled but I didn’t know how she pulled them off so I would spend weeks thinking ‘how did she get from here to there? How did she do that?’ so my greatest satisfaction were the times when I figured out something that made sense in terms of how she pulled off her cons.
How much have you changed since meeting May?
I think I have changed. This subject really got me enthused. I knew when I found May that I really had a story that people would really love. I just felt it. During the writing I got more and more of a feel for her and it got easier and easier for me to speak in her voice so I, as a writer, developed a lot more confidence in my writing and learned to better trust my own instincts which I think is a big part of learning how to be a writer. It’s a very solitary activity, so in order to know whether you’re doing something right, whether it’s working you have to be able to get some distance and have the confidence to look at your work critically and say ‘it’s not working’. So, a little of May’s confidence has been imbued in me. But I’m not ready to rob a bank.