The theme for tonight’s Arlington Author Salon, an event held quarterly at Kickstand Cafe in Arlington, was “Love in Tumultuous Times,” and the three featured authors were Whitney Scharer (The Age of Light), Jenna Blum (The Lost Family), and Christopher Castellani (Leading Men). The Arlington Author Salon is supported by the Arlington Cultural Council, which is in turn supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. I’ve only been to two events so far, and both have been packed.
Whitney Scharer was up first, showing slides and then reading from her debut novel about Lee Miller, known as a model for Vogue and surrealist Man Ray’s muse, though she was a photographer in her own right, and co-inventor of the technique of solarization. (Aside: Every student should have a project like the one mentioned in Meg Wolitzer and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s new middle grade novel, To Night Owl From Dogfish, “Give the right person the credit.”) Scharer discovered Miller at an exhibit featuring Man Ray at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2011, and was interested in the two of them “being in love and making art together.” (Miller went on to be a war reporter; she reminded me of Robert Capa’s partner, Gerda Taro, who was killed while documenting the Spanish Civil War.) Scharer read a scene from her novel in which Miller describes what she calls “wild mind”: her ability to set any expression on her face while modeling, yet thinking of anything she wants, setting her mind free. The scene (possibly the whole novel?) was in present tense.
Next, Jenna Blum (The Stormchasers, Those Who Save Us) talked about and read from her new novel, The Lost Family, set in New York and centered around a Holocaust survivor, Peter, who lost his wife and daughters. He now owns and runs a restaurant called Masha’s, after his late wife, and has sworn not to get involved with anyone again – but, of course, he does. The novel is about Peter and his second wife and their daughter, “a whole family trying to put its arms around a loved one’s PTSD.” Blum didn’t have slides, but she did share a cocktail of her own invention, and cream puffs called “Masha’s Little Clouds”; she said that she invented and kitchen-tested all the menu items in the book.
Finally, Christopher Castellani (A Kiss From Maddalena, The Saint of Lost Things, All This Talk of Love) talked about his newest novel, Leading Men, which imagines a party thrown by Truman Capote in Portofino in 1975, the guests, and the aftermath. Castellani said that people always want to know “how much is true and how much is not true,” so he explained that the party did happen, and that Tennessee Williams and his lover Frank Merlot really were invited, but that Williams’ journal does not mention the party in the days or weeks following it. Using both “real and invented people,” Castellani imagined and invented “between the cracks of what was known about these people.” Merlot is his main character; Williams isn’t a “point of view character” largely because he is too well-known, has written and been written about too much; Merlot, though not obscure, is less of a known quantity. Castellani admitted that it was daunting to write dialogue for characters like Capote and Williams; he would often use an “anchor quote” from their writings in order to get the tone of the dialogue and scene, and would sometimes remove the “scaffolding” once the scene was finished.
Though the book I’m currently reading (Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess, who, like these three authors, also has a Grub Street connection) is firmly speculative, I do love historical fiction and all three of these books are on my to-read list now. Thank you, Arlington Author Salon! (If you’re local, the next one is July 11.)