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Author Talk: January 24, 2014

Journalist Nancy Horan follows up her New York Times bestselling debut, LOVING FRANK, with a much-anticipated second novel, UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY. It tells the improbable love story of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson --- author of TREASURE ISLAND and THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE --- and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny. In this interview, Horan opens up about what drew her to the Stevensons (who she knew immediately would be “good company”), including their unconventional romance and their loyalty to one another despite less than accommodating circumstances. She also talks about how Fanny and Louis (as friends called Stevenson) shaped each other’s artistic lives, as well as what she hopes readers will take away from UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY.

Question: Your New York Times bestselling debut LOVING FRANK --- named one of the best books of 2007 by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune --- explored the true story behind Frank Lloyd Wright and his lover, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. What prompted you to turn to the Stevensons next?

Nancy Horan: Part of it was serendipity. I stumbled upon Robert Louis Stevenson while visiting the Monterey area, where he lived in 1879. Curiosity spurred me on. Why was he there? The more I learned, the more I saw how rich a character he was, how timely his life might be for contemporary readers. But equally engaging was Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the California woman he fell in love with and pursued. Both Stevenson and Fanny were on their own journeys of discovery when they met. There were plenty of obstacles in their way, but they managed to marry, and their life together after that was marked by adventures and challenges worthy of a Stevenson novel. I felt immediately that they were good company, and I knew from the start they would remain so for the next four or five years --- however long it would take to write their story.

Q: At first glance, Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t seem to have much in common with Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American 10 years his senior who left her philandering husband in order to pursue an artist’s life in France. Yet he fell passionately in love with her, crossing the Atlantic and the American frontier and risking his life in order to win her hand. Why were they so drawn to each other?   

NH: Louis, as he was known by his family and friends, was attracted to Fanny at first by her appearance. He spied her through the window of a French inn where she was dining with some of his artist friends, who had arrived before he did. He was smitten by her earthy good looks, her olive skin, her lack of stiffness. She was entirely unlike the young women his parents had in mind for him, and that was part of her attraction. She rolled her own cigarettes and carried a pistol. Since he was a boy, Louis had fantasized about a life of travel. As he grew to know Fanny, he discovered a fellow free spirit who’d had her own high adventures already. She had lived in Nevada mining camps, and in other ways exhibited the grit associated with pioneer women. Yet she was a lover of books and art who had artistic ambitions of her own.

Fanny was not immediately drawn to Louis. She thought he was charming and entertaining, but immature, eccentric and a bit melodramatic. As she came to know him, though, she discovered his great talent as a writer, as well as his genuine decency. Stevenson was much loved for his kindness and generosity.

Q: How did Fanny and Louis shape each other’s artistic lives and accomplishments? Has researching and writing UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY changed your view of such classics as TREASURE ISLAND or THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE? 

NH: Fanny married Louis when he was a relatively unknown travel writer and essayist who was not yet able to support himself with his writing. He began writing novels after he was married to her. He trusted her critical opinions of his work, calling her his “critic on the hearth.” Some biographers believe she meddled too much in his work, yet Stevenson continued the practice of seeking his wife’s opinion for many years. Robert Louis Stevenson was a towering literary figure in the 19th century. Possibly Fanny’s greatest contribution to his achievements (aside from providing a living, breathing example of a complicated woman for his female characterizations) is the fact that her devoted attentions kept him alive despite his terrible ill health.

Simply rereading TREASURE ISLAND and THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE has made me appreciate him much more. The two books are very different. TREASURE ISLAND, which was serialized in Young Folks magazine when it first appeared, was viewed as a boy’s adventure story, and Stevenson got the reputation of being a children’s author after it was published. I think that reputation fell away with THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, which is dark, dark, dark. It is an allegory that strikes a chilling chord in most readers. Interestingly enough, most people today haven’t read it. Yet during the writing of my book, I was struck by how often the names Jekyll and Hyde appear in print, or are spoken in conversation. Even if the story is not read much today, people understand the theme of it quite well: that in most of us, a duality exists. We contain within ourselves the potential for both good and evil.

Did Stevenson shape Fanny’s literary accomplishments? In some ways, yes. She had written magazine pieces before meeting him, though she’d only published one before their marriage. Later, she wrote several short stories that made it into print. Publication of her stories may have occurred because of Stevenson’s influence with editors. Fanny and Louis collaborated on one collection of linked stories, entitled THE DYNAMITER, and a play called “The Hanging Judge.” Nevertheless, I believe Fanny felt frustrated living in the shadow of so popular a figure as her husband. She longed to be appreciated for something more than her value as his helpmeet.

Q: Who was in the Stevensons’ literary and artistic circle? Did that group change over time?

NH: Robert Louis Stevenson developed an important circle of friends in his early 20s. They included his cousin, Bob Stevenson, who was an aspiring painter and for many years Louis’s closest friend; W. E. Henley, an English poet and literary editor who disliked Fanny Stevenson; Sidney Colvin, a fine arts professor and keeper of prints at the British Museum, who acted as his literary advisor; Fanny Sitwell, Colvin’s companion and the first Fanny that Louis fell in love with; and Charles Baxter, a Scot who attended law school with Stevenson and oversaw his financial affairs. There were other literary members of the circle, and many of Louis’s friends were celebrities in their day. The circle often gathered at the London home of Fanny Sitwell, who acted as a mentor to the young men. An incident involving Fanny Stevenson caused a rift between Henley and Louis, and created tension among the whole group. One person who was not an early friend but who became a very close one was Henry James, who met the Stevensons while they were living in England. Once Louis and Fanny settled in Samoa, Louis corresponded frequently with Sidney Colvin, Charles Baxter and Henry James.

Q: What were some of the obstacles the Stevensons faced, and how did Fanny and Louis help each other navigate them? What made their relationship endure?

NH: The greatest obstacle was Louis’s ill health. He suffered from a serious lung ailment that was thought to be tuberculosis, though some contemporary writers question that diagnosis and suggest that it may have been bronchiectasis. Treatment options for serious lung conditions were limited in the 19th century, and usually involved a change of climate. The Stevensons’ life together became a quest to find a climate that would allow Louis to get out of bed and regain strength and mobility. They lived in the Swiss Alps, the south of France and Saranac, New York at the urging of Louis’s various doctors. Fanny performed any number of heroic feats to keep him alive, and to get him to safe places where he stood a chance of living longer.

For his part, Louis provided the emotional support Fanny needed to get through a difficult divorce; he also provided the artistic lifestyle she craved, reliability and, through his prolific writing, the financial security she would need if he died. The promise of security was not evident when she married him, though. He was near penniless at the beginning. What he offered her at that time was his gentle, hilarious, brilliant, devoted self. Why did their relationship endure? Certainly it was complicated and often thorny; different individuals might not have stayed the challenging course they faced. But for all their flaws and eccentricities, they loved each other and derived great pleasure from the other’s company. Stevenson was able to say, well along in his relationship with her, that marrying Fanny was the smartest thing he ever did.

Q: The Stevensons traveled all over the world in search of a place to call home. What were they looking for, and did they find a favorite spot? And did you find a favorite place when you were researching UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY?

NH: The Stevensons’ journey was all about finding a place where Louis could regain his health. And while he did improve living in communities where TB patients gathered, such as Davos, Switzerland and Saranac, Fanny could not bear cold weather or, I suspect, the pall cast over those places by frequent deaths of their fellow residents. When they found that Louis improved while at sea, they undertook several voyages in the South Seas. Though Fanny was seasick most of the time, she was thrilled to see Louis healthy. Eventually they found a spot, in Samoa, that pleased both of them. I did not get to Samoa during my research, but did visit many of the places they lived. My favorite, a tiny chalet called La Solitude, was in Hyeres, France.

Q: Fanny was only 18 years old when her first child was born --- as portrayed in the novel, she and her daughter were often mistaken for sisters. In what ways did she grapple with issues pertaining to motherhood? What did she seek to impart to her children?

NH: Fanny enjoyed motherhood and took pride in her children. Like a lot of mothers, Fanny believed her children had certain talents and she wanted them to be cultivated. She wanted her sons, Lloyd and Hervey, to be educated well and to grow up to be gentlemen. She wanted her daughter to develop her gift for painting, and to enjoy some independence before marrying a worthy, faithful husband. Ambitious mothers seldom realize all their fondest wishes for their children; Fanny was no exception.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the Stevensons’ legacy? What do you hope readers take away from UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY?

NH: The perception of Robert Louis Stevenson’s legacy has gone through some changes since he was at the height of his popularity at the end of the 19th century. After his death in 1894, there were glowing tributes from friends and critics. As early 20th century readers embraced realism, however, Stevenson’s star fell rather dramatically; increasingly, he was seen by critics as an outdated Romantic. By the late-20th century, Stevenson’s name was excluded from a couple of respected anthologies of English literature. Though his popularity waned over the years, a number of great writers defended his work and credited his influence on them, including G. K. Chesterton, Jack London, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov. Recent scholarship has reexamined his work and has championed his reputation as a great stylist, an outspoken critic of imperialism and an intrepid experimenter in genres.

Stevenson passed on his hard-won wisdom not only in his novels and short stories, but also in wonderful essays on a range of topics. His letters --- which fill eight volumes --- make entertaining reading as well. My hope is that readers of UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY will be inspired to pick up THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, or KIDNAPPED and its sequel, DAVID BALFOUR, or read TREASURE ISLAND to their children, or try out THE BEACH AT FALESA or some other stories written while he lived in the South Seas. It has been a pleasure to get to know him and Fanny.

Q: What’s next for Nancy Horan?

NH: A little quiet time before the book tour. I do think about what I’ll write next, but I rarely talk about the ideas that are brewing. Too risky! It dissipates the writing energy.