Q & A with Joy Jordan-Lake UNDER A GILDED MOON
Welcome, Joy! Truly honored and delighted to have you join us today. Let us dive into your latest masterpiece, UNDER A GILDED MOON.
JJL: Thanks so much for the invitation, Judy! And thanks for the word masterpiece. You’ve already made my day, and if we were meeting in person I’d now be insisting on treating for coffee.
Q. Describe UNDER A GILDED MOON in three words or less?
JJL: Historical Mystery. Suspense.
Q. If you will share with our readers “the story behind the story.” The inspiration for UNDER A GILDED MOON. Where were you when the spark came to you?
JJL: Two different moments come to mind—many years apart—when the story was born. One was back when I was in my early twenties in grad school and spending the summer working as the (here comes my favorite job title ever) Head Sailing Instructor on Lake Eden for Camp Rockmont for Boys in Black Mountain. Right? I’ve done lots of things professionally, including some that required a lot of education and even a dissertation, but I’ll never top that summer job title. Anyway, a group of us who led the various areas of the camp were invited to have pizza at the home of the camp owner’s son’s girlfriend—if you can follow that connection. I left work on Lake Eden wearing ratty cutoff shorts, an old Georgia Tech T-shirt from a clearance bin and my hair still damp with fish fertilizer. Oh, and I was driving my ’79 Mercury Zephyr—ancient even back then. Maybe my memory has fogged the details, but I could swear that in those pre-GPS-the-address kind of days I only learned on the way where we were headed: that our dinner invitation was actually at the Biltmore Estate—for which I was quite clearly underdressed. The camp owner’s son’s girlfriend was a lovely, down-to-earth young woman named Dini Cecil, and she was, it turned out, exactly my age. She welcomed us all warmly, in spite of my cut-offs, rambling wreck of a car and fish-scented hair. I recall being startled that we were eating our pizza in a comfortable room with a broad window looking out across the fields at…Biltmore House itself. The view, I learned, was a kind of glimpse not only of past architectural feats, but also of the future. Because our gracious hostess would one day, along with her brother, inherit the house and estate. Yes, thanks for asking: I did very much choke in that moment on my Diet Coke. Though I can’t say the idea of a novel set at the Biltmore popped into my head that exact evening, I do distinctly recall looking out through that window toward that towering American palace as I munched my pepperoni, and wondering about the character of Dini’s great grandfather George Vanderbilt. He’d come down from New York after travels all over the world and fallen in love with these same mountains that I adored, too. I was intrigued that a man who could’ve built his castle literally anywhere on the face of the earth had chosen the same spot that I, in my cut off shorts and hair lightly laced in algae, would also have chosen. The second moment this novel began its life I’ll mention below. That second moment was where the central tension of the plot took root.
Q. For our readers who have not visited the Biltmore House, can you share a little with us and perhaps your favorite room or part?
JJL: Ah, love all these questions, and if we were in person, a group of us book lovers meeting over coffee or wine and cheesecake, you’d have to throw something at me at some point to get me to shut up. My favorite room of the house by far is the library. For anyone who’s not been there, it’s two stories of solid books, all beautifully bound in leather, with a black marble fireplace and a half-hidden door on the balcony level from behind the fireplace so that George Vanderbilt could move quietly from his own bedroom to the library to read without running into house guests or servants. The library features prominently in this novel. On the outside of the house, my favorite spot is the stable complex. I’ve been a horse lover since early childhood—one of those girls who never outgrew the craze. Honestly, I could stay all day having lunch in what used to be the stable itself, now a farm-to-table restaurant, then shopping for friends and family in what used to be the carriage house, now a book store, sweet shop and gift store (that includes, by the way, free wine tastings), and then moving to the stable yard, where one can sit, drink a latte, visit with a friend, and imagine the gorgeous, well-groomed creatures—people and horses both—who once came and went there. Or, in my case, as I worked on this novel, one could also tap away at a laptop. Come to think of it, I was the only one in the stable yard ever with a laptop. But part of being a writer is learning to be the odd duck in the pond.
Q. Do you have a favorite spot (s) in Asheville, NC, you like to visit, or a particular season? Tell us more.
JJL: I love hiking around Asheville. So many stunning spots with views of the Blue Ridge, so many waterfalls…. But if I can’t be out hiking and am in the city itself, a trip to the Battery Park Book Exchange—part book store, part champagne bar—is always a treat, with the most fascinating array of classics, niche texts, bestsellers, local interest…. Thomas, the gentleman who acquires the books for Battery Park, is worth the trip just to chat with. And not far away is the Chocolate Lounge with…well, you can imagine: a cavalcade of chocolate. If you’ve not been there, drop everything right now and run to your plane, train or automobile to make the trip. The Asheville area is mountains, books, babbling brooks, and the best chocolate you’ve ever put in your mouth. What’s not to love? Oh, and season? Take your pick. I worked a number of summers at two different camps near Asheville, so I’m partial to early summer when the rhododendron are in bloom all over the mountain peaks and the lakes are warm enough for a long, leisurely swim. But in autumn with the bold colors or in winter with snow or in spring with the forests are bursting with new life…
Q. There is a sharp contrast between the Biltmore House’s glamour and wealth and Appalachia’s poor people. The land is quite valuable. Tell us more about these two extremes.
JJL: This touches on a second moment when the novel took shape in my imagination. I was on a tour of Biltmore Estate, just as a paying guest, but with my usual over-active writer’s imagination. The tour guide was delightful, and began telling stories about the end of George Vanderbilt’s process (along with his agent McNamee) of acquiring the estate’s original tens of thousands of acres, and how a couple of families toward the end refused to sell their farms. For them, it wasn’t about holding out just to drive the price up. It was about not being willing to leave the land that their families had owned for generations—that for all the struggle of trying to farm that rocky soil, this was simply home. Every novelist knows that the heart of a story has to be conflict or you don’t have a story. This lit up my brain with possibilities. Although across the state line into Tennessee, I’d grown up in the mountains myself—not in poverty, but also not in great wealth. I was intrigued by what I’d learned of George Vanderbilt’s character—his philanthropy, his love of books and art, horses and dogs, his having considered becoming an Episcopal priest, his gentle spirit. But I was also sympathetic to and even admiring of the Appalachian farmers who had no desire to be uprooted from generations of family homestead, and for whom money was no motivator. Those tensions over the land itself—land that I also had fallen in love with—were where the plot and Kerry MacGregor’s character began to grow.
Q. UNDER A GILDED MOON has been referenced as the American version of the Gilded Age compared to the British version, such as Downton Abbey? Can you expand?
JJL: You’re so right. The American experience of the Gilded Age had plenty of similarities with the British experience of a Downtonesque variety, but also so many differences. I tried to have a bit of fun with that in this novel. Wealthy Americans did try to mimic British aristocracy, of course, and it was understandably in vogue to hire housekeepers, butlers, chefs and other servants from Europe to work on grand estates like Biltmore. But it decidedly looked different here in the United States where there was no long history of landed gentry and of classes of people being content “in service.” Some of the novel’s humorous scenes come from this American attempt, not always successful, to mimic the elite of Europe.
Q. It would not be a good story without a villain. Though he is little known presently, Madison Grant was a prominent name in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century eugenics movement, land, and wildlife conservation. Please share with us more about Madison Grant and his involvement with white supremacy.
JJL: I’m so glad you asked about this, because Grant is an absolutely pivotal character in the novel—and disturbingly relevant to our own day. And part of what makes him so dangerous is (and was) that he was highly educated, suave, debonair, and well connected. But I’ll have to ask readers who are interested to read the novel and its Historical Notes at the end, partly because I could rattle on for hours on this subject. For anyone who wants a nonfiction book to read as background on him, I’d recommend Defending the Master Race. With that unfortunate title, you’ll have to wrap it in brown paper to read it out anywhere in public, but it’s a fascinating biography of a little-known figure who, chillingly, had a significant influence on American policies and law.
CHARACTERS & PLOT
UNDER A GILDED MOON is full of history, glamour, mystery, scandal, suspense, and murder. Both plot and character-driven.
Q. What did you have the most fun with, character or plot?
JJL: Thank you for that description because both are important to me. If I had to choose, I had more fun with character—and that often suggested the plot.
What an intriguing cast of characters! We have royalty. A fugitive from Sicily. An investigative reporter, chasing a groundbreaking story. A debutante tainted by scandal, a conservationist, and a young lady trying to achieve a life and education in New York when she is pulled back to the mountains of North Carolina and caught in the cross-fires.
Q. How much fun was it creating this diverse group of characters? How did you keep them all organized?
JJL: Thank you for noticing that. And that diversity isn’t just imported by the over-active writer brain. The early days of Biltmore included scores of Italian stonecutters, an Italian stable master, a French chef, a British head housekeeper, and a grounds crew on which African-American and white men worked together. My research on Asheville revealed a Chinese man, on which the character Ling Yong is based. And so on. The cast of characters being so diverse actually made it easier to keep them straight, including how they would speak. I don’t even want to know what people thought who may have passed me in my neighborhood library while I was working on dialogue and maybe mouthing out something, complete with a facial expression, as I typed. I should probably be grateful no one arranged to have me carted away to where I couldn’t do harm to myself or others.
Q. What was the most enjoyable character to write and the most challenging?
JJL: Aunt Rema was great fun to write, as was—at the opposite end of the economic scale—Lilli Barthélemy. But both women not to be trifled with. The character of George Vanderbilt surprised me, I think. I suppose I was trying to remain neutral about what he was really like, and whether he’d turn out to feel like a heartless son of a robber baron. But after so much research, I ended up just bottom-line liking him immensely, as if we were old friends who rode through the woods together and talked about what we were reading, and his dreams of assisting people in poverty without hurting them unintentionally.
Q. You reference literary icons inspired by some characters. Would you like to elaborate, in particular— Lilli Barthélemy.
JJL: I love that you noticed that. And Lilli is one of my favorites—though she’s not much like me. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I like her—because for all her faults, she has strengths that I don’t.) She’s based on the character Lily Bart of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. And since Wharton was actually a close friend of George Vanderbilt’s, I’ve imagined my character Lilli Barthélemy as Wharton’s niece, and the inspiration for Wharton’s Lily Bart. Partly, it’s a shared wink with readers who enjoy these sorts of literary Easter eggs like I do. But also, I’ve always loved The House of Mirth and Lily Bart—but also wanted her to have a different ending, one that she determines at least in a small way, rather than being crushed by society.
Q. UNDER A GILDED MOON would make for a fabulous TV series or movie. Our fingers are crossed! What actress/actors would you cast to play any of the main characters or secondary? (name a few).
JJL: Aw, thanks. From your mouth to God’s ear, as they say. That would be really fun, of course. I pictured the character Robert Bratchett (another actual person) looking a bit like Denzell Washington, and Kerry MacGregor a bit like Amy Adams, complete with red hair. Though I’ve lost track of Amy Adams’ age since she always looks great. Hugh Jackman as George Vanderbilt, maybe, if he could grow that Gilded Age kind of moustache? Ryan Gosling as Dearg, if a Canadian can do a deep Appalachian accent? Meryl Streep would rock the role of Aunt Rema, if they could make her look old and rough enough. Lily James as Lilli Barthélemy? Hugh Bonneville as Frederick Law Olmsted who shows up, I think, in only one scene—but just so I could hear Hugh Bonneville speak. Okay, enough from me. Who do you picture?
JDC: Wow! Fun, Fun! These are fantastic selections. If this book is not snatched up for the widescreen, I will be shocked. I am currently watching J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy and Amy Adams is excellent. She would make a perfect Kerry or Rachel McAdams. I LOVE Meryl Streep as Aunt Rema or Glenn Close (also starring in Hillbilly Elegy). Hugh Jackman is absolutely perfection as George Vanderbilt (same dark good looks). What about Leonardo DiCaprio as Madison Grant?
Now, you are talking about my crush, Ryan Gosling! I can see him as Dearg (get him roughed up a little as he did in The Notebook when he grew out the beard and hair) —even though I do love his sexy cleaned up version. Yes, I can see Lily James as Lilli Barthélemy, or possibly, Nicole Kidman. The possibilities are endless!
TOPICS AND THEMES
Good versus evil. Darkness and light. Poor and the privileged. Throughout the novel, we learn about injustices, greed, bigotry, class, culture, and contrasts. In your historical fiction novels UNDER A GILDED MOON, A TANGLED MERCY, and BLUE HOLE BACK HOME— they are all set in the Carolinas and have commonly shared themes. You seem to balance the light and darkness of humanity so well, as well as uncovering unknown stories as you bring them to life.
Forgiveness is also another topic. Kerry had a tragic childhood and estranged from her father, Johnny MacGregor. However, she is called to return home to help take care of him and her twin siblings—forcing her to work at the Biltmore, where she least desires.
Q. Could you share with us more about this struggle?
JJL: I’m always drawn to the topic of forgiveness. Because it’s so blasted hard, right? I mean, I can hold onto a grudge over someone’s slight toward me from fifteen years ago and reel off the exact words that wounded me, verbatim…. But then when you live long enough, you screw up enough big time and need forgiveness yourself enough, you begin to understand that without forgiveness, our whole world implodes. In my last novel, A TANGLED MERCY, set in Charleston in 1822 and 2015, forgiveness was also a central theme. I spent a lot of time listening to the survivors and victims’ families of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, shooting talking about their very different journeys. Bottom line: no one’s journey is the same. As one of the family members of that tragedy said with an eloquence that I won’t do justice to here, essentially, I’m a person of faith, so forgiveness has to be where I end up. But I’m not there yet. I have to be honest. I have no choice but to be on a journey toward that, but I’m not at all there yet. I’ve thought about that so much, and so value the honesty of that, not trying to paper over real feelings with pat phrases or false religiosity that doesn’t acknowledge a raw and bloody pain. I think that’s where Kerry MacGregor is by the end of the novel. She hasn’t “achieved” forgiveness of her father yet, and all the hurt he caused the family. But she recognizes that, if only for her own sake, not being eaten away by bitterness and resentment, she has to be on a journey toward that. In my own life, as a former champion grudge holder (seriously: the writer brain is a dangerous thing when it comes to recalling line by line what someone said that was offensive or mean), it’s been screwing up enough in my own life that’s helped me realize how in need of forgiveness I am and also watching the lives like those of Emanuel AME, Charleston, that has helped me loosen my hold on past hurts. And to be more open-armed and quick with love and acceptance.
Q. What would you hope readers may take away from UNDER A GILDED MOON?
JJL: First of all, during this incredibly difficult pandemic season, I hope it could be a chance to get away, an intriguing journey to another time and place at a time when it’s tough to travel. But I also hope readers are struck, as I was writing this story, at the similarities of the 1890s to our own time, including so many political and social struggles, and what we can learn from that.
Meticulously researched, there is a wealth of history, and you have seamlessly blended fact and fiction. (readers, please view the “behind the scenes” tab for more).
Q. Joy, was there any research for the book you found fascinating or something new you learned?
JJL: Oh my. Again, if we were all in person together, we’d have to stay by the fire for hours on this question alone—with a whole other round of hot cocoa. I so enjoy the research on a historical novel. In fact, I just tried to write a contemporary story, and it kind of limped out of the gate to my agent. Then I tried setting it in another time period, and already it’s coming so much more alive. Go figure. Something about the research process must make me write more deeply somehow. Which makes little sense to me, but there you have it. Maybe it’s just what I love. At any rate, one thing that particularly startled me in the research for Under a Gilded Moon was digging into the American eugenics movement. I’d no idea to what extent the racial theories behind The Third Reich—Lebensunwürdiges Leben, life unworthy of life—were driven in part by the work of intellectuals outside Germany, including in the United States. Many of our esteemed Ivy League institutions in the late 19th and early 20th century produced alumni whose ideas and writings on racial superiority we of the twenty-first century now find appalling—or should. But you can see little strands of these early eugenics theories popping up still, more than a hundred years later. Often in looking back at the mistakes of history, we can more clearly see where we’re off track in our own contemporary culture.
Q. You blend historical, mystery, suspense, and literary elements into UNDER A GILDED MOON. Share some of the literary elements you reference in the book.
JJL: Can I just say that I love that you noticed that? I may not always weave it just right, but I love all those elements you just named, and since my own favorite books to read are in those different areas, or a blend of them, I’m trying to tell stories that combine these in ways that feel satisfying, entertaining and challenging to the reader. I’m still learning, and I hope I keep improving until the day I die.
Q. Not many readers may be aware you also write children’s books and non-fiction. Tell us more.
JJL: I like to joke that my writing is so all-over-the-map in terms of genre that only my mother and maybe my husband have read all of them. Truly, they run from children’s picture books to an academic text, with several novels in between. It’s no way to brand yourself as a writer, I can assure you. Basically, I always wanted to be a novelist from the time I was about ten, but because I come from a long line of hardworking, practical people, I wanted to have a profession that paid some bills. (There’s an idea, right?) So I was always working at several different jobs as a part-time professor or running a food pantry for homeless families, and I wrote about whatever was on my mind in that season of life, including how to balance kids and career (that was my worst-selling book, Working Families, but one that let me interview some fascinating people). I’ve no regrets on the bizarre circuitousness of the journey. I’ve learned all along the way. And when, finally, I came to a point I could just focus on writing novels, I took that leap—thanks to a spouse with health insurance. Even on the hard days, I’m grateful for that chance.
Q. You have a remarkably impressive and diverse background. Give us some highlights of this journey to becoming a full time successful published author?
JJL: You’re generous to frame it as impressive. The truth is that it also looks like I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to be when I grew up. I like your description much better. As I recently told an aspiring young writer asking my advice, my professional journey is a study in what NOT to do to become an author, honestly. I wouldn’t take anything for it myself, but getting a Ph.D. in 19th-century literature is only not only no path to fame and fortune, it’s also no fast track to writing novels that might appeal to 21st-century readers. I spent so many years reading so much of that gorgeous, rambling 19th-century stuff that my idea of a brisk plot is to describe a tree for five pages. I wish I were kidding. I’m just grateful for this very odd path, and grateful for editors who care enough to tell me the truth. And to write kind, encouraging things in my margins, followed by and could we speed up the pace in this scene? May editors everywhere live long and prosper.
Q. What scene (or chapter) did you enjoy writing the most?
JJL: The scene that simply would not go away in my head was one toward the end that—not wanting to slip into spoilers—takes place on the roofs of Biltmore House. I wrote the scene while looking up at the various roofs, and challenging myself about whether someone might actually survive what I was describing.