"The History of Us" by Leah Stewart is an emotional story about a family, the home where they all grew up, as well as the choices they did and didn't make. In an email interview with the Chicago Literature Examiner on Jan. 6, Stewart talks about her inspiration, Cincinnati, and the issues the characters face. (Read a review of the book here.)
How did the idea for "The History of Us" come about?
I wanted to write my own version of George Eliot's "Middlemarch," which is one of my favorite books. I love the thorough and realistic examination of each character, and their inter-connectivity, and the way the shifting point of view allows you to see them all from both the inside and the outside. My first attempt had many, many more points of view, like "Middlemarch," but with my editor's help I pared it down to three. (After all, that novel is more than 700 pages long.) My book has gotten away from being directly modeled on that one, but I think if you know Eliot's novel you can see some traces of it in mine.
How did your own background influence the plot of "The History of Us"? Did you decide from the start it would be set in your adopted city of Cincinnati?
The book was always set in Cincinnati, and very much about living here and in cities like this one, i.e. non-coastal cities that are not as prominent in the national imagination as New York, LA, San Francisco--or Chicago. I grew up military and kept on moving around as an adult, but now I'm a tenured professor with two small children and I feel like a permanent resident for the first time in my life. Because of that I paid a lot of attention to the city and to other people's relationship with it, and the book emerged in part from those observations.
Speaking of Cincinnati, all of the characters have very strong opinions about the town -- especially Eloise and Theo. Do you identify with one of the characters more than the others, both in regards to their feelings for Cincinnati and otherwise?
I really like Cincinnati, so I'm closer to Theo's feelings than Eloise's on that subject. Otherwise I guess I don't identify more with one in particular. I just understand them all thoroughly. That sounds odd, I know, since I created them, but they all feel, to me, like actual people I know intimately.
The home is a character of its own in the novel. Talk a bit about how your vision of the family mansion came about. Did the characters grow out of the home? Or did you try to picture where this family of four might have lived?
The house is based partly on an actual house where I once went to a party, and in part on comparable houses belonging to friends of mine, one here and one in Connecticut. Cincinnati is full of gorgeous century-old houses with original architectural and design features, and that's one of the things I love about being here, that you can go to a party and see a mural on the ceiling. Also, the house makes physical the characters' ties to the city and to each other, because it's been in the family so long and because it represents their own history as well as the history of the area.
While all the characters have their own issues to deal with, Theo seemed to have the most to overcome in a way. Was that your intention when you started writing "The History of Us"? Do you see the main character as Theo, or Eloise, who gave up so much of her old life for the kids?
When I started it, I saw Theo as the main character. The original first chapter was in Theo's point of view, before I went back and added the chapter set in the past that now begins the book. At this point I'm not sure one of them is dominant. I'm endlessly interested in the ways in which people are in conflict with themselves, and can be so deeply and passionately committed to self-defeating notions. Many of Theo's problems—maybe more than Eloise's—are self-generated, but they're still real, and still a struggle to overcome.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with your readers?
"The History of Us" by Leah Stewart hits store shelves on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. You can also meet Stewart at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville (Wednesday, Jan. 9 at 7 p.m. CST) or The Book Stall in Winnetka (Thursday, Jan. 10 at 7 p.m CST) to learn more about Stewart and her novel, "The History of Us."
© Elizabeth SanFilippo 2012
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