Lake Union Publishing
August 1st, 2019
Book descriptionSet at the height of the Roaring Twenties and the early women’s movement, RELATIVE FORTUNES is a thrilling historical mystery from Marlowe Benn.
At its center is 24-year-old Julia Kydd, a voracious young bibliophile who cares little for politics—until the death of a high-profile suffragette pulls her into the heart of the fight for equality. As the mystery unfolds, each fresh clue leads Julia deeper into a tangled web of familial strife, clandestine love, and political backlash.
For fans of Rhys Bowen and Jacqueline Winspear, RELATIVE FORTUNES is a riveting historical mystery that feels as relevant as ever, offering a window in the social upheavals of life in 1920s New York...and the price of women’s independence.
Meet the author - Marlowe BennMarlowe Benn (also known as Megan Benton) was nominated for UCLA’s 2013 Kirkwood Prize for fiction. Her poetry has appeared in the Chicago Review and other outlets, and her history of American book culture between the wars, Beauty and the Book, was published by Yale University Press in 2000.
A Conversation with Author Marlowe Benn
Q: Why did you choose the 1920s and the suffrage movement as the backdrop for this mystery? What about the time period inspired you?
A: I grew up to the jaunty sound of my dad’s old ‘20s records, and the era has always fascinated me. In many ways it was a more radical time (especially for women) than many realize. Beyond finally achieving the right to vote, women enjoyed at least the possibility of heady new social freedoms: emerging access to birth control, fashions that defied old notions of modesty, and the opportunity to live as independent, self-sufficient adults. Not everyone embraced these new freedoms, or even condoned them, but the old restrictive conventions had been challenged, if not breached.
Q: In the afterword, you nod to the ways you borrowed from actual history to weave together this story. Can you tell us a bit about your research?
A: It was important to me to anchor the novel accurately in its time and place. I spent a lot of time with magazines and novels of the era, absorbing details of everyday life (what one took for a headache, the price of a coffee, what books people were talking about) and how people talked. Learning the slang was great fun!
I also tried to blend real characters and details with fictional ones. I spent months in university archives studying the craze in the 1920s for beautiful handcrafted books of the sort Julia publishes. Her Capriole Press is of course fictional, but most of the printers, publishers, and collectors she meets are real people. Similarly, the Grolier Club was in fact the nation’s premier private club for bibliophiles, and as Julia complains, it was not only exclusive but was also firmly men-only until the 1970s.
Q: Wealth and status are not always symbols of goodness in Relative Fortunes. Why did you choose to expose the dysfunctions of the rich and powerful? What did you want to say about wealth and its relationship to virtue?
A: While there’s no shortage of aphorisms equating worldly riches with moral poverty, wealth per se isn’t inherently good or evil. The problem arises because the rich often view their wealth as natural and benign—invisible—while the poor see and feel sharply the injustices and exploitation that wealth usually relies on and perpetuates. That blindness can skew a rich person’s way of seeing the world: at first, they simply don’t notice others’ suffering, which of course translates into indifference. Julia truly understands the privileges of wealth only when she faces losing them. Of course, eventually the rich do notice—hence the centuries of rationales to justify and reinforce their class advantages. I hope that Julia’s reversal of fortunes, which opens her eyes to these issues, also helps readers see them better.
Q: For much of the book, there’s a sort of cold war going on between men and women. But there are some characters who cross the picket lines—literal and figurative—to advocate for women’s rights. Why was it important to you to show different kinds of men working as advocates for and as obstacles to women’s equality?
A: All the men and women in the book illustrate the gender realities of the time. It’s important to separate the overarching and pervasive nature of patriarchy from the attitudes of individual men—who can be cruel and exploitive toward women, or fair-minded and respectful. The system is one thing; individual behavior is another. For example, both Philip and Chester depict how society defaulted financial authority to men, but they use their privileges in different ways. How individuals embrace or challenge society’s larger conventions is what gives them dimension and interest as characters.
Q: Not all of the women in this novel agree with each other on issues like abortion, suffrage, and financial independence. Did you try to reflect a generational divide between younger feminists and older feminists, or married versus unmarried women? Why was this something you wanted to explore in this book?
A: I wanted to portray a spectrum of values among the women in the book without correlating attitudes or beliefs with any particular age, education, social class, marital status, and so on. The youngest woman in the book, Julia, for example, ultimately has more in common with the values of the oldest woman, Aunt Lillian, than with those of Vivian Winterjay, who is much closer to her in age and social class. I think it’s important to resist stereotyping according to such categories because then we stop listening to and respecting each other, and a dangerous polarization can set in. Our present-day world is a cautionary tale of the damage that can result.
Q: Julia is a character brimming with professional ambition and a desire for independence. This aspect sets the book apart from others set in the same time. What inspired you to veer away from the more traditional narrative of a marriage plot, where a woman is desperately seeking a husband?
A: Julia’s central problem is economic, which she quickly realizes is a far more powerful factor in marriage than romance. Even today, girls can’t escape the pervasive fairytale that tells her pure and complete happiness comes from attracting, and being chosen by, a man who will thereafter take care of her. Perhaps because of what Julia’s witnessed, particularly in her parents’ marriage, she’s wary of that myth. Fortunately, she lives in one of the first modern eras when a woman could assert her right to enjoy love and relationships outside of marriage—as long as she had the means to support herself. Less fortunately, women’s opportunities to earn a sufficient livelihood were not yet plentiful. Hence her choices—like those of so many other women throughout history—are painfully few.
Q: What inspired you to write Relative Fortunes?
A: As a child I was fascinated by the hugely popular mystery novels from the 1920s written by S. S. Van Dine (the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright). Wright’s urbane and sophisticated sleuth, Philo Vance, both intrigued and infuriated me. As an adult I began to imagine ways I’d like to “revise” him and his elegant world. By a happy quirk of luck, those old novels are now being reissued in new editions, so readers can consider for themselves how my Philip Vancill Kydd might have been transformed into Philo Vance by an ill-humored writer. Of course, it’s also true that my characters took on identities of their own quite beyond this original idea. At first Philip was more like Philo, but neither Julia nor I could bear spending much time with him! So Philip now shares mostly superficial and circumstantial features with Philo. I hope the differences can be credited to the derisive mind of my fictional version of Mr. Wright.
Q: What do you love most about writing historical fiction?
A: For years I happily wrote nothing but carefully researched and argued cultural history. Now with fiction I can begin where the archives end. It’s like turning old black-and-white photos into a full-color video. Research reveals the past; fiction puts it in motion. And once history comes to life, it’s clear that people then wrestled with troubles a lot like our own.
I love writing mysteries because they’re ultimately about justice, and what’s more complicated than guilt and innocence? I especially relish writing about crimes that pit the law against my characters’ moral code. In the end justice is often about power, and the struggle over who gets to decide what’s right or wrong makes for great stories in any genre. Historical mysteries are a great way into the life’s most meaty stuff.
Q: What authors do you most enjoy reading?
A: This list is a long one, and it’s always getting longer. Kate Atkinson is firmly at the top. Other authors who’ve rarely let me down are Alice Munro, Meg Wolitzer, Amor Towles, Siri Hustvedt, Jesmyn Ward, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Amanda Cross. On a different day, you might get a different list.
Q: Have you made any good literary “discoveries” lately?
A: Absolutely! Terrific books published in the past few years that deserve to be better known include Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First, and Jess Kidd’s Himself. Older books unjustly overlooked, I think, include Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Muriel Sparks’s A Far Cry from Kensington, and Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam. I could go on and on.
Q: Tell us about your writing process. When and where do you typically write, and how often?
A: I love routines, which means I lead a very boring writing life. I’m fortunate to have a study that overlooks Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier. Yes, I know! The view can be a distraction, but it also keeps me at my keyboard most days from morning until mid-afternoon, when my brain is tired and my muscles want their turn. Then I head outside to work in the garden or go for a walk, or I catch up with errands, email, and everything else that gets bumped to later because I’d rather be writing.
Q: What author would you most like to meet?
A: That’s easy—Kate Atkinson, though I’d probably just gush about how much I admire her prose and genre-be-damned imagination. If there’s an afterlife I’d seek out Carolyn Heilbrun, the trail-blazing feminist scholar. As Amanda Cross, she wrote #MeToo mysteries starting in the early ‘60s, back when misogyny and harassment were seriously risky to talk about, even with a pseudonym.
Q: We have to ask—what are you working on next? Anything that you can tease for readers who are looking forward to your next book?
A: I’m working hard on the next Julia Kydd novel, tentatively called The Passing of Miss Pruitt. It’s May 1925, and Julia is back in New York. Eager to launch her Capriole Press, she quickly makes friends in the publishing world—authors, editors, illustrators, publishers. Soon she’s caught up in murder and the theft of a new novel manuscript claiming to reveal explosive truths about the Harlem cabaret scene. She’s drawn into the exhilarating yet treacherous world beneath the Harlem Renaissance, where notions of race, sexuality, and power are slippery, and identities can be deceptively fluid.