April 22, 2011
Author Interview: CIJI WARE
CW: When I look back at the six historical novels I’ve done, I realize a certain theme has emerged: basically I’m answering the question “What were the women doing?” in a particular historical period. In A Race to Splendor, I wanted to create a novel around the first licensed women architects in America, and since Julia Morgan built some 600 structures in the San Francisco Bay Area, the spine of the story became the ten-month period when this 34-year-old trail blazer rebuilt the wounded Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire—a disaster similar in scope to the scenes of devastation in the recent Haiti and Japan disasters.
CW: Weaving in historical figures with fictional characters is one of my most favorite pastimes! In addition to the amazing Julia Morgan and the intrepid Donaldina Cameron, in A Race to Splendor you will also meet author Jack London, and the indefatigable reporter of that era, James Hopper—known to San Franciscans for his Rock-‘em-Sock’em journalism at a time when San Francisco sometimes had a very thin veneer of civility.
CW: I currently serve as a co-chair of an architectural preservation society where I live, so I think I have absorbed a bit of knowledge through that interest of mine. When I began researching Splendor in earnest, I delved into the architecture of the early 20th century like a madwoman, and also was really interested to learn about institutions both in America and abroad that were teaching architecture students in that era. I had a chance to go to Paris to walk the halls of L’Ecole des Beaux Arts—the postgraduate school where the young Julia Morgan was trained at the end of the 19th century. I also have a number of women friends who are architects, so I ran a lot of my questions by them as I went along. Any mistakes I may have made, however, are my own!
CW: I really hope readers will come away with a passion for—and delight in-- the city of San Francisco, and also gain an appreciation for the terrible fate that befell the town of some 400,000 souls in the wake of the quake and firestorm. The temblor left 400 city blocks obliterated; 250,000 of some 400,000 San Franciscans homeless for up to two-and-a-half years; and some 3000 dead, and counting because the city officials tried to cover up just how horrific the disaster had been. (The fatalities among Chinese population were listed as a dozen, when in fact, it’s now estimated that at least 500 were killed and left uncounted).
Just as with Hurricane Katrina when some voices said to abandon the place and forget about rebuilding the Ninth Ward, there were people after the ’06 quake and firestorm that declared that San Francisco was “Pompeii—never to rise again.” Heroines like Julia Morgan, and my fictional architect, Amelia Hunter Bradshaw, along with others who engaged in a competition to get the primary hotels open by April 18, 1907--the first anniversary of the disaster-- showed courage, determination and just plain old moxie daring to “put humpty-dumpty together again.” I want my readers to be totally in awe of these men and women when they come to the last page in the book.
CW: First, of course, comes extensive research. In the case of my latest book, I haunted San Francisco’s Chinatown; prowled around the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill, and generally pawed through hundreds of documents in various libraries. Once I think I’m ready to start writing, I’m probably take a very old-fashioned approach. I not only outline before I start writing, but also do what I call a complete series of story beats—scene-by-scene-by-scene. The ideas for what’s going to happen in the plot comes from in-the-field research, of course. As I indicated, a central theme in Splendor centered on what happened to the Chinese population in San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 quake.
I tend to tell stories on a “big stage” with events like earthquakes or wars interwoven in the plot. I love examining well-known events through the lens of everyday people whose adventures will reveal that particular time in history. Weaving real history and historical figures into my tale requires that I know what’s happening—and when--so I can use a timeline as a sort of “skeleton beneath the skin” of the novel.
Lots will change from my original outline before I’m through, but I think the outline is my security blanket to prevent my getting lost in the weeds of the “big events” that I usually incorporate into my fictional work.
CW: Oh, historical fiction, hands down is the toughest to do well—but it’s also the most fun to write. I was trained as a journalist and reporter and worked for ABC radio and television in LA for eighteen years, so I know the routine of nonfiction pretty well: Accurately answer the questions Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How Much Did It Cost?—and you’re pretty much across the finish line, as I was with Rightsizing Your Life that came out in 2007. In nonfiction, a writer is chasing down facts, which are there to be found—especially thanks to Google, Bing, etc . In fiction, novelists are “chasing and chiseling mist” as my write-father used to say. Fiction is a lot more challenging than nonfiction in my opinion.
So tell us about your work area . . . do you keep it nice, neat and work oriented only or do you have lots of personal touches and knick-knacks?
CW: I am saddled with having written the nonfiction work Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most (Springboard Press, 2007) and am known around town as “The Rightsizing Queen.” When I’m working I am messy—but then I have these fits of “getting organized” and “straightening this place out” so I won’t be mortified when people come by. It’s very exhausting….
CW: As a former professional dancer until I was in my early twenties, I’ve always known how essential exercise was, especially if one’s profession requires hours of sitting as writing does. So, three days a week before I write a word, I join my “Walking Group” and we march downhill with our dogs on leash about a mile and a half and stop for coffee at a wonderful place called Poggio’s. Then, if we’re really good, we go the long way home and trudge along San Francisco Bay and then up a steep hill home—another mile and a half. I get to my desk by about 9:45 and work until lunch, around one. Then I get back at it around 2:30 and go until “teatime” at 4. After that, I work until 5:30 when the news comes on. I also take a stretch yoga class and swim, maybe once a week in an indoor pool with my husband, who swims three times a week. At night, I watch a lot of BBC historical series via Netflix, or we head across the Golden Gate Bridge to go to a million and one great events going on in “The City.”
Since our child is an adult, now married, and about to become a father, my husband and I quintessential “empty nesters” now. Our time is much more our own than it was in years past.
CW: I guess you could say I’m in the “noodling phase”…. mulling over which of several projects I’d like to do. My sister-in-law who is a producer in LA wants me to write the screenplay for my paranormal/historical novel A Cottage by the Sea. I’ve written two (not produced, alas) before this, so I’m raring to go—but since I’m a working writer who pays her light bills from her work, I may have to do another project first, or at the same time. Stay tuned…
CW: That’s hard to answer because, having researched the 18th, 19th, and now early 20th centuries for my work, I have a less romantic view of those eras…especially when it comes to how women were treated. Until my most recent novel, I was an 18th century gal, even to the point of dressing like Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon, the heroine of my first novel, Island of the Swans. However, casting that aside, I think I’m most drawn these days to the early twentieth century--the era I wrote about in A Race to Splendor--through the period between World War I and II. It was an exciting time, full of change regarding the rights and roles of women. Plus, it felt great getting rid of those pesky corsets, and besides, who doesn’t like doing the Charleston?
And lastly, what one word would you use to describe A Race to Splendor?
CW: Compelling—I hope!
Thank you so much, Ciji, for taking the time to answer my questions. Best of luck to you with A Race to Splendor!
So, readers, what do you think? What era would you choose to travel to? Do you agree with Ciji or would you go further back in time?