Since we cracked the first chapter of Mary Miley’s debut novel, The Impersonator, we’ve been smitten with whip-smart vaudeville star Leah Randall. A pragmatic daredevil who doesn’t suffer fools easily, Leah’s crime-fighting adventures in 1920s America make for awfully fun reading. Recently, Bas Bleu chatted with novelist Mary Miley about her fascination with impersonators and mistaken identities, her research process, and the books that inspire her.
Bas Bleu: As a writer, your career primarily encompassed magazine articles and nonfiction books about history, travel, and business. Why make the switch to fiction? And how has your previous writing experience informed this new genre?
Mary Miley: Well, I haven’t really switched to fiction, I’ve merely added it to my repertoire. After writing nonfiction for thirty-five years, I was looking for a new challenge. Writing fiction is very different from writing nonfiction, and it took me many false starts to get the hang of it. Whenever someone congratulates me on having won the Best First Crime Novel award for The Impersonator, I am quick to tell them it was not really my first novel at all—it was my ninth. It was merely my first publishable novel! The others are in the trash. As a historian, I have to set my novels in the past, so I looked around and settled on the Roaring Twenties, which is hands down the most exciting decade in American history. My nonfiction writing influences my novels in the sense that they share my desire to connect readers to the past, because we are all products of our past.
MM: I created Leah as a vaudeville performer who grew up on the stage because it was a way to have a believable main character in the 1920s who was not a bigot, as most people then were. The Twenties was a fascinating decade in many respects, but tolerance was not one of its virtues. Vaudeville was probably the only place in America where people were generally judged on their abilities. Vaudeville performers were disproportionately Jewish, Catholic, African American, Irish, Asian, and female, so that environment let Leah grow up unprejudiced. Few readers today could identify with a main character as bigoted as most people were back then . . . thankfully!
BB: There is some serious 1920s period detail going on in these pages! Tell us a little bit about your research process.
MM: I am fully aware that I spend too much time on research, but it makes me happy, so I don’t plan to change! Historians are picky people when it comes to the details. I don’t want to say that Leah took a coin out of her purse to pay for the streetcar, I want to know how much that streetcar cost in 1925. (In that particular case, it was a nickel.) Of course, I read a lot of books about the Twenties: histories, biographies, autobiographies, and fiction written during that era all give me the tiny details that bring the story to life. I watch silent movies to learn what people wore, what the inside of a hospital looked like, and what an office looked like. I visit museums: a local Telephone Museum helped me pick out the right phones to use; a Police Museum helped with uniform nametags (they didn’t have them) and how call boxes worked. I call on experts who advise me on poisons, silent film production, native plants and trees, and period automobiles and boats. And I love sharing with readers my collection of period advertisements and vaudeville programs, which I study for details that would never turn up anywhere else.
BB: Readers are justified assuming that Leah is “the impersonator” referenced by the title. Yet further reading reveals she’s not the only one pretending to be someone she isn’t. Should we condemn that behavior across the board? Or do you think we’re all guilty of playing a part on occasion?
MM: Exactly. Leah is the obvious impersonator, but Henry, David, and even Uncle Oliver, to some degree, are pretending to be people they aren’t. Is that necessarily bad? I don’t think so, not unless you are doing it to further a crime, which they all are. Initially, Leah tries to convince herself that her impersonation will harm no one, but she is forced to face up to her guilt to prevent a greater crime from going unpunished.
BB: Ageism plagues Leah’s vaudeville career in The Impersonator, driving her to accept Oliver’s offer. The issue rears its ugly head again in Silent Murders, fueling some decidedly bad decisions. Is it just a convenient plot device, or are you trying to make a point about the entertainment industry’s—and by extension, society’s—treatment of women?
MM: I try to weave the serious problems and prejudices of the Twenties into all my stories. Silent film actresses in particular were terrified of aging. To some degree, that’s true today, but it was much more so back then. The big stars were in their late teens and twenties. Few actresses had starring roles beyond their early thirties. Men too, faced that hard fact. Douglas Fairbanks knew he was reaching the end of his career when he reached his forties, and he started drinking heavily. My upcoming books in the Roaring Twenties series deal with society’s views on miscegenation, unwed mothers, women’s roles, and homosexuality—views that were shockingly different from today. I hope to show how far we’ve come in the last century by comparison.
BB: In Silent Murders, Leah/Jessie rubs shoulders with some major Hollywood players. Was this storyline born of your own interest in silent film? And how did you go about fictionalizing the lives and voices of Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Myrna Loy, people who were not only very real but also very well known?
MM: I wasn’t overly interested in silent film until I started this series. I started watching them via Netflix and found they were not boring, as I had expected. I settled on using Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks as characters in my books because theirs was a small studio, and they were the King and Queen of Hollywood. They were also the subjects of many books, so I could learn enough about them to make their portrayals accurate. The other actors I cast in minor roles, like Myrna Loy and Gary Cooper, were unknowns trying to break into the business. It fascinated me that most of the early movie and radio personalities came directly from vaudeville. Vaudeville is the underlying commonality in the series.
BB: If someone set out to impersonate you, what’s one detail about yourself that would be impossible to imitate?
MM: Someone trying to impersonate me would probably get tripped up with music. I play the piano, the pipe organ, and the harpsichord—not terribly well, mind you, but it is unusual to find someone who plays all three of these similar looking, but very different, keyboard instruments. I thought of that characteristic when I was plotting The Impersonator: I gave the missing heiress traits that could be faked. Let’s face it, if Jessamyn had played the piano, Leah could not have been successful, since she couldn’t. While you could conceivably learn to ride a horse in a few weeks, as Leah does, you can’t learn to play an instrument in that amount of time.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
MM: I love the Roaring Twenties and books about the Twenties, especially Last Call by Daniel Okrent that explains prohibition in ways that make your jaw drop, and The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum, about the beginnings of forensic medicine and how that almost eliminated murder-by-poison. In retrospect, I can see I’ve always had an affinity to identity issues: amnesia, identical twins, imposters, impersonators, and such. Some of my favorite novels focus on those issues: Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar (1949), Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree (1962), Joy Fielding’s See Jane Run (1991), and Sebastien Japrisot’s A Trap for Cinderella (1963).
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
MM: That’s easy! Nancy Drew. Those were the first chapter books I ever read. I remember they cost $2 each, and I received one each year for my birthday and another for Christmas. The library didn’t carry them (they were considered “trash”) so I borrowed from my cousin and other kids, and one glorious day I inherited a dozen from the older girl across the street. I wish I could tell those who denigrated these books that all four women who have served on the Supreme Court have credited Nancy Drew with inspiring them to succeed by showing them that girls could be action heroes and problem solvers as well as boys. Other books that made an impression on me in the 1950s and 1960s included the Boxcar Children series and A. A. Milne’s books, his poetry as well as the stories about Winnie the Pooh. All are still wonderful for children today. I read them to my children and plan to read them to my grandchildren—if I ever have any!
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you?
MM: Next up this fall is Stolen Memories, a gothic romance in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, and Victoria Holt. This has an identity theme as well—it’s the story of a young Englishwoman who regains consciousness in a Paris hospital in 1928 without a memory in her head. She quickly comes up against a vengeful husband who accuses her of the theft of priceless art, the French gendarmes who have linked her to a murder on the Riviera, and a scorned lover who is trying to kill her. I’m also expecting my nonfiction book about transportation in colonial America, Rivers and Roads, to show up in bookstores in August, and the third in my Roaring Twenties series, Renting Silence, is due later this year. The underlying theme for #3 is blackmail. As one of the characters says, “You don’t buy silence, you rent it. And the rent keeps going up.”
BB: A big thank you to Mary for providing so much insight into her fictional world. We can’t wait to read what’s next!