As part of Bas Bleu’s 2016 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
In our November Book a Month selection, the exuberant historical narrative O My America!, Sara Wheeler introduces six British women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who bucked convention and created impressive “second acts” for themselves by packing up and moving to America in their later lives. Our reviewer CH, nearing fifty years old and a “second act” of her own, drew great inspiration from the intrepid trailblazers and their unique experiences in a young and fascinating America. In an exclusive interview with Bas Bleu, author Sara Wheeler offers insights into her spirited multi-biography, discusses modern women she admires, and more.
Bas Bleu: In the prologue, you somewhat mourn the oncoming “Frumpy Years,” yet at the end of your journey you seem more at peace with the years that lie ahead. You comment that each of the six ladies taught you different ways of handling the new challenges that come with late middle age. Now that it’s been several years since the release of O My America!, do you find you identify with any one woman more than the others? Is this different from when you first followed in their footsteps?
Sara Wheeler: In the prologue, and to a certain extent in the book itself, I telescoped a transition in my life, and I think in the lives of many women. Nobody looks forward to the onset of senescence and it’s a grim old business once it takes hold. But I think we can make peace with it—after all, the alternative is bitterness. As for my favorites—the women with whom I most identify—I am reluctant to pick. Fanny Trollope is a superstar but I disagreed with many of her opinions. Fanny Kemble was a bit mad—but so am I, in a different way. I admired the way Kemble dealt with the tremendous adversity heaped on her by her ghastly husband. Perhaps one knows more about ghastly husbands now.
BB: You reached back into history to find the women of O My America! Are there any modern women who you think embody the spirit of your girls?
SW: Martha Gellhorn, who died in 1998, was and is a heroine of mine—as a war correspondent she was writing the fighting for decades; she said, “I am angry all the time, about everything.” [Feminist writer] Germaine Greer also embodies their spirit, for never giving up—and she is certainly barking mad too. And [travel writer/historian] Jan Morris—talk about a second act.
BB: Obviously, the struggles of women on the frontier differ greatly from the struggles we women face in modern age—but at the same time, they have plenty of similarities. What do you think the ladies would each envy the most about the twenty-first century? What do you envy about them?
SW: I think they would envy the opportunity we have to achieve financial independence. I get asked to speak in girls’ schools a lot, and it’s one of the three pieces of advice I give them. (The other two are finding out what you believe in, and never trusting a man who drives a Porsche.) What do I envy them? I suppose the pre-globalized world had its advantages.
BB: America is a far cry from Antarctica, where you lived for seven months as a writer-in-residence for the U.S. National Science Foundation. What challenges did you find while retracing the women’s journeys that surprised you?
SW: The opposite of what I expected. I was worried I would find nothing but carparks, and no trace of what the girls saw. But much of the American countryside remains as it was in the nineteenth century (think of the Estes Park region in Colorado). Even some urban environments helped me see through their eyes: Catherine Hubback’s street in Oakland, for example. Of course, there were disappointments. I followed Harriet Martineau to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, which she describes so eloquently. Surely, I thought, the caves can’t have changed. They hadn’t—but the arrival of national park status and its attendant tour buses obliterated the experience.
BB: You’ve written several travel books, and it could be said that O My America! is a travel biography. Which of your locations would you go back to if given the chance?
SW: It’s like boyfriends—you love the one you’re with (er, until you don’t).
BB: What places are you eager to visit/write about but haven’t had the opportunity?
SW: Many, many, many! I’m thinking Venezuela, Paraguay, all the Central Asian Stans. . .
BB: Aside from your own titles, which biographies or travel books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
SW: Barry Lopez on the Arctic (Arctic Dreams); Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, a transcendent novel set in Mississippi and every bit as potent an evocation of place as any travel book. Blue Highways is a great U.S. travel book by the part-First Nations writer William Least Heat-Moon, and of course John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. The Victorian Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, Freya Stark’s The Lycian Shore (about sailing down the coast of Turkey).
As for biographies, for me Michael Holroyd is the king of kings: try his books on Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey and Augustus John.
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you?
SW: A book on Russia—the Golden Age of literature, from Pushkin to the death of Tolstoy, woven in with my travels in the country—the proper country, not Moscow and Petersburg. But not quite yet . . .
BB: Our sincerest thanks to Sara for sharing her insight…and for introducing us to six amazing women!