Questions for Kathy from Holly Hartley, a schoolmate
How did you decide to publish Pageant as an ebook now? What do you see as its special relevance for today?
I think I became increasing depressed by the hateful rhetoric that is being spewed by Republican candidates. I became aware about how it was tapping into a frightening reservoir of hate in this country that really scares me. Look, my dad was a staunch Republican. My mom, a Democrat. But my father if he were living would be appalled by the candidates. Both of their parents were immigrants. I look back now on that 1960 election and think of Kennedy. He was the embodiment of hope, of looking at the world in a new and bold and just way. But the odd thing is I now feel that Richard Nixon was benign in comparison to Trump and Cruz. How have we gotten so far away from all that? How have we so successfully nurtured hatred?
Do you think there is a different audience for Pageant now than when you wrote the book originally?
In a way I do. I feel the audience is not young people, not millenials but maybe our age, baby boomers. The young adult audience today is into imaginary dystopian fiction. Tudor Hall was my dystopia back then. I’m not sure if kids today would understand that. I mean Tudor was hardly Hunger Games, but it struck me even back then as being kind of weird. However that said I made my best life-long friends at Tudor and the best teacher I ever had in my life was my eighth grade teacher Phyllis Oldham.
The Stuart Hall that you describe is without question the Tudor Hall that we attended. Much of the detail is from your imagination, but some of the characters are spot on people we knew. The ancient history teacher Miss Ullrich is Miss Haber down to her size and her hair combs. Miss Crowninshield in her tartans and Scottish accent is Miss Stewart perfectly to a T. The portrait of Mme Henri (Mme Hendren to us) was all joie de vivre. Did you have any feedback with regard to these characters when the initial book was published?
Well, a lot of my old Tudor friends would write me saying they recognized these characters. Everyone caught Miss Haber as being Miss Ullrich, and Madame Hendren as well. Now that I’m thinking about it I wonder why I didn’t include Mrs. Oldham. I think maybe she was just too normal to make into an interesting character for a novel. She was the only teacher we had who was married, had a kid and was sort of like my mom. So (and I say this ironically) what’s the big deal? She was just the best teacher I ever knew, She did not so much impart huge chunks of knowledge but taught me something much more valuable that I can only describe as how to learn, how to question what I was learning. Yes she gave me the impulse for reflection.
Today Sarah would no doubt be able to opt out of the Christmas pageant. Do you think she would?
Well, yes she would have opted out but at the same time she might have tried to link it with something more dramatic. A friend of mine who went to Park and is Jewish just wrote me and said he loved the book. He told me this funny story that I think is just great about his sister who went to Shortridge. She apparently was not allowed to be on stage in the Christmas pageant there, but she was allowed to participate offstage. She was the voice of God. So I think Sarah today would have demanded to be God.
The character of Aunt Hattie, a manager of musicians, was a thorn in Sarah's side and then the key to her emancipation. How did you conceive her? Was there an Aunt Hattie in your life?
Oh yes there was an Aunt Hattie in my life! I really loved my Aunt Mildi but she could be challenging. Aunt Mildi also had gone to Tudor way back when. She went on to Wellesley and her best friend at Wellesley became Rudolph Nureyev’s manager. So I had a deep fund of information about that. But I did change a lot of things for the Hattie character.
When writing historical fiction, how do you create dialogue that fits with facts?
I’m not sure how I do it quite honestly. I think that I do have a capacity to listen. I’m constantly eavesdropping on people when we’re out for dinner. You remember that Holly? The time you and I were in a restaurant in New York and were listening to a woman at the next table talking about how she preferred men with hair on their chests? We hardly talked to each other. There’s a lot of material out there if you listen hard enough. However, it’s not just getting the words right but the cadences.
Was it fun for you to write this book? Why?
I had to wait a long time to write this book. I didn’t want it to be angry or snarky (talk about a word that wasn’t around back then!). I wanted it to be engaging and funny and sad—all those things that make a person love a book and totally immerse themselves in that book and it’s character. So it was fun once I grew up enough to write it
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