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Interview: August 10, 2007

August 10, 2007

Nancy Horan’s debut novel, LOVING FRANK, is a poignant fictional account of Frank Lloyd Wright’s controversial affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney. In this interview with’s Bronwyn Miller, Horan explains how having lived in the renowned architect’s hometown inspired her to write this book and describes some of the pressures and difficulties she experienced in her attempts to portray her characters faithfully and accurately. She also discusses Mamah’s situation in the context of accepted women’s roles in the early 20th century and speculates on why little is known about this real-life relationship, despite its prominence in the news during that time period. Frank Lloyd Wright is perhaps the most noted resident of Oak Park, Illinois, and you yourself lived there for 24 years. Is that why this story intrigued you? What role did being from Oak Park play in informing Wright’s work? How has it informed yours?

Nancy Horan: I would not have pursued this story if I hadn’t lived in Oak Park. My education about Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney was a gradual process, kept alive by the proximity of Wright houses and the impressive collection of books at my local library about the architect. While Oak Park didn’t have much untouched prairie left around it by the time Wright was practicing architecture there, it was the place where his prairie period was expressed in many houses he designed. Wright knew that the prairie had once been there, and he abstracted the essence of the prairie in the horizontal lines of the low-slung, rectilinear houses he designed. At the time Wright was working there, Oak Park was a magnet for successful businessmen who could afford to hire Wright to build homes for their families. Oak Park has retained its turn-of-the century houses and tree-lined streets. I was immersed in the setting of the book while living there.

BRC: What made you decide to focus the story of this remarkable love affair through Mamah Borthwick’s eyes? Given that it was such a tabloid scandal at the time, why do you think the story of their relationship isn’t more widely known?

NH: I told the story from Mamah’s point of view because it presented to me the most compelling questions. It was her story I was after. When scholars consider Wright’s achievements, they look at his long life. Mamah’s part of it spanned about a decade, so she has been relegated by most to a footnote. Also, there has been an understandable effort by architecture scholars to focus on Wright’s work rather than his personal life. Still, Mamah played a role in influencing Wright’s intellectual development at a turning point in his career as an architect.

BRC: The friendship between Mamah and Mattie is very touching. They both start off on the same track --- single teachers --- but their marriages take them on different paths. At times, it seems that Mattie serves as Mamah’s confessor and conscience. Was this intentional?

NH: Yes. I wanted Mattie to be a confidante, while presenting an opposing point of view in keeping with a more conventional woman of the times.

BRC: Throughout the novel, Mamah wrestles with reconciling her home life and her intellectual life. How does her situation compare to women of today?

NH: Women in the U.S. have far greater personal freedom and professional opportunities than they did a hundred years ago. Yet, judging from early readers’ comments, the book seems to tap into an anxiety many contemporary women still feel --- how to be a good mother and wife while exercising one’s strengths (and making a decent wage) in the workplace.

BRC: In her travels, Mamah encounters all sorts of women who represent the different archetypes of the day. Else is the free-spirited German artist; Ellen Key is the staunch orator; Mattie is the traditional wife and mother; and Lizzie is the single working woman. Considering the times, were you surprised that there were more roles available to a woman beyond the traditional “wife and mother”?

NH: I was not really surprised. The Woman Movement had been effective in the latter part of the 19th century in opening the previously closed doors of universities to women. Mamah was born in 1869, just when those doors were beginning to open, and by the time she was of college age, there were plenty of middle-class girls who proceeded on to the university, and on to roles besides “wife and mother.” Education made these women want more and surely played into the changes happening inside the suffrage-focused movement. A new emphasis developed in which women wanted to “realize their personalities,” as it was expressed at the time. Still, they had long battles ahead to achieve equal pay and economic independence, not to mention access to a wide variety of professional roles. To read about this period, an excellent source is Nancy Cott’s THE GROUNDING OF MODERN FEMINISM, which gives a clear picture of how the Woman Movement was morphing into Feminism in the 1910s.

BRC: Did you find it difficult to write fiction about a real person? What responsibility (if any) do you feel towards your subjects?

NH: Because I was drawn to the narrative drama inherent in actual events in the lives of Wright and Borthwick, I chose to hew closely to historical information. There were great gaps in that information, though. It was difficult, at first, to put words into Frank Lloyd Wright’s mouth. But as I developed the narrative consciousness of Mamah, imagining Frank became much easier.

BRC: Because Mamah makes such a controversial decision to elope with Wright, leaving behind her children and husband, was it hard for you to write without any judgment?

NH: At first, I had to overcome my own discomfort with Mamah’s choices. Once I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a woman who was unfaithful to her husband and who left her children, I tried to present Mamah’s line of reasoning, as I imagined it, without judgment. The only way to get inside a character’s skin, I think, is to see how they view themselves, and that character’s perception of self changes over time. So, I wanted to follow Mamah’s emotional evolution as she traveled her path from Oak Park out into the world.

BRC: How much research did writing this book require? Can you give us a glimpse into your writing process?

NH: There was a great deal of early and ongoing research, but even more time was devoted to fiction writing. The two aspects --- research and writing --- worked in tandem. In researching, I pulled together information from many sources. Because there was so little available about Mamah, I studied the places she lived and visited, the books she read and translated, the talks she presented at her women’s club meetings. I pieced together a picture and timeline of her years with Frank Lloyd Wright. I looked at the choices she made along the way and found them most interesting; the choices were like challenges to me to get at what was working inside of her. Once I had structured a story outline --- a framework from which to work --- my focus was fiction writing and all that entails. When a book reaches a certain mass, it’s exciting to see it has a life of its own.

BRC: In 1998, Ken Burns made a documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright for the “American Masters” series on PBS. Had you screened it as part of your research?

NH: I did see the Ken Burns documentary. It is a fine portrait of Wright’s life.

BRC: The reader gets to know Mamah through her travels, thoughts and letters, so the ending really packs a devastating, emotional punch. How difficult was it for you to write the final shocking scenes?

NH: I confess it was hard. I knew how the book would end, so I carried that knowledge with me as I wrote it. When the time came, I tried to tell the story simply.

BRC: In your afterword, you mention the discovery of the letters Mamah wrote to Ellen Key. How did these letters help you to flesh out her character?

NH: Yes, I discovered an article on the Internet about the existence of 10 letters Mamah had written to Ellen Key while she was translating for her. I was well into the book when I discovered the letters; I had a pretty clear vision of who my character was. When I read the letters, I was happy to find they validated my instincts about her inner life. They were mostly about the business of translating, so they gave me insight into the actual work Mamah did for Key and where she was when she was translating. Here and there Mamah opened up to her mentor and revealed her inner feelings of conflict. These were consistent with how I had imagined she would have felt.

BRC: Do you think Mamah’s relationship with Frank would have lasted if she survived?

NH: It’s so hard to say. Frank viewed Mamah as a peer, an intellectual equal. He called her his “faithful comrade.” He trusted her enough to run his architectural studio at Taliesin when he was absent. Mamah was as close to an equal as he got in his relationships with women, I’m guessing. Whether they would have lasted as partners, though, is something we’ll never know.

BRC: An earlier version of the novel featured four points of view. What made you change it to the third-person omniscient narrator? The story is structured and divided into three parts. How did you decide to break it down this way?

NH: The first version of the novel was intended to examine Wright’s relationships with several women. The idea was to let the plot unfold as different narrators told it. What resulted was a story that reflected what happens in a community when a marriage falls apart --- the ripples that touch everyone --- but it was not great and it wasn’t the book I wanted to write. Once I decided to write strictly from Mamah’s point of view, the conceptual underpinnings of the story changed. As for there being three parts, the book is, in a sense, Mamah’s journey. It divided itself up by time and geography, with the middle section occurring in Europe.

BRC: At one point, Mamah tells Lizzie, “You’re the one who told me once that the world can’t forgive ambition in a woman.” Do you think this is still true today?

NH: I think the world celebrates ambition in women today, as long as a woman’s children are not damaged in the process.

BRC: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the characters while writing LOVING FRANK? What would you like readers to take away from this novel?

NH: I think some readers might want to avoid a book in which the protagonist is a woman who is an adulteress. There’s no question that Mamah’s choices, along with Wright’s, brought about great suffering to their families. My hope is that those who read it come away with the same sense about Mamah that I had --- she was a complex woman whose story is worth understanding in the context of her times.

BRC: In his letter to the Weekly Home News, Frank writes a loving tribute to Mamah: “But this noble woman had a soul that belonged to her alone --- that valued womanhood above wifehood and motherhood…..the ‘freedom’ in which we joined was infinitely more difficult than any conformity with customs could have been.” Despite taking place in the early 20th century, the issues LOVING FRANK deals with are still very much discussed today: love, infidelity, reconciling motherhood and the individual. Were you surprised at how little things have changed?

NH: Yes. I was repeatedly struck by how her issues resonate for women today.

BRC: LOVING FRANK’s epitaph reads: “One lives but once in the world.” This quote by Goethe very concisely sums up their relationship. Do you agree with Goethe’s sentiment?

NH: Yes.

BRC: Who are your literary influences? What types of books do you enjoy reading the most?

NH: So many novels influence me, it’s hard to pinpoint one or two. I pursued a traditional English Lit major in college, so I read Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf. I think those voices work on anybody who reads them. I admire Truman Capote and Katherine Anne Porter, and contemporary writers like Alice Munro, Michael Cunningham, Elizabeth Berg, Colm Toibin, Richard Bausch, Jane Hamilton, Karen Fisher and Anna Quindlen. I am now embarking on THE MAYTREES by Annie Dillard.

BRC: Are there any other historical/cultural figures you would consider writing about?

NH: I’m thinking about that question a lot lately. Can’t say right now.