If you ask what I’m reading right now, I can give you a long list – I’m always reading three books simultaneously, fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, et cetera. I try to get a healthy dose of regional writers into that mix. The gifted Ms. Tasha Alexander only halfway counts as a Southern writer, but a whole lot of the development of her (largely English) characters and series happened when she resided in Franklin, Tennessee – and her voice speaks to many devoted readers around here. These days, she lives in Chicago with husband Andrew Grant (read his books too) and occasionally comes back to talk with me or drink wine with Robert Hicks (I’m jealous, Robert).
Tasha’s books have held my attention since I first got my paws on a copy of And Only To Deceive – the first in her series of historical novels/mysteries featuring Lady Emily Ashton. More than a decade has passed since then, and Alexander – who wrote her second book sitting in the downtown Franklin Starbucks, one of my favorite hangouts – has eight to her credit now chronicling Emily’s life, as well as the novelization of Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
When literary PR rep Tom Robinson first contacted me about interviewing Tasha, in my Nashville Lifestyles days, I jumped at the chance. It was just before the Southern Festival of Books, about two series books ago. I’d been a fan for a while, and as a history geek, loved talking with Alexander about her heroine and the choices she made. I’ve tried to keep tabs ever since.
If you’re not familiar with the series, Lady Emily is kind of an Amelia Peabody for younger generations (not that I advise anyone skip Amelia Peabody – and if you don’t get the reference, google). The story goes like this: Well-bred young English debutant makes smashing marriage (see, now I’ve hooked all you Downton Abbey folks in) circa the late 1880s.
Instead of the domestic bliss she expected, however, her husband dies, leaving her at a loss. And that’s where it gets interesting. What’s a newly widowed young socialite to do? Rather than sink into a miasma of misery, Emily opts to improve her mind. Shocking! First, she studies Greek in hopes of learning the classics. And as she improves her mind, she transforms slowly into a fledgling devotee of women’s rights – in an era when stepping outside the norm is considered scandalous. We won’t even talk about what happens when she starts drinking port and hanging about talking politics in the drawing room.
The arc of the story, while set in England, could easily be upper crust or even middle class society anywhere at the time. Alexander underlines this by having her heroine travel about (the advantage of inheriting large sums of money). In her latest foray, Death in the Floating City, the year is 1896, Emily and her second husband, intrepid agent of the Crown Colin Hargreaves, have ventured off to Venice, to help an old acquaintance of Emily’s deal with the murder of her father-in-law.
Alexander follows two plotlines – the current hunt for a murderer, that lays bare a circle of hypocrisy and emotional turmoil, and the centuries-old love story that went horribly awry, the consequences of which continue to have bearing on the involved families four centuries later.
Luckily for me, Tasha was in town last week to do a signing at Parnassus Books – Ann Patchett’s reinvention of local book stores in Nashville, and we got to visit a bit.
I ask her whether she’s a Southern writer, and she laughs. “I was living in the Northeast when I started the first book. Honestly, I feel nomadic, I’m not sure I ever felt I exactly fit into any one place.”
Alexander’s parents, professors at Notre Dame, came from St. Louis, one of those places that weirdly borders on the South, and is and isn’t a part of it, at the same time. Sure, we count Kate Chopin as Southern, but hey.
“My mom considered herself Southern,” says Tasha. “It’s a border state, and my mom embraced the Southerness. It definitely affected me – I mean, I still make biscuits four days a week.”
Yeah, that’s a thing. I admit, I don’t make them nearly as often as I used to, but surely Southern mothers and grandmothers instill into us as tiny children just how to make the perfect fluffy biscuit. It’s a sign of the culture.
I had to ask her about the fact that the books sometimes seem a paean to the food, wine and fashion of the time. “I love to cook,” she confesses. “I like cooking historic dishes, too. I tend to go with what I’m writing. When I was working on A Fatal Waltz, which is set in Vienna, I was all about making Viennese pastries.”
And how did Venice affect the culinary writing? “I was living there as I was writing, so I didn’t cook much, but I ate the food all the time. It’s part of the atmosphere there, food is an essential part of culture. That’s true almost everywhere.”
Ok, so what about all the wine and especially the port they imbibe in her books? “I really hadn’t tried port until I had it for the first time while writing And Only to Deceive. Back then, it was very much a part of the world they lived in that after dinner, the women would leave the men alone to drink port and smoke cigars and discuss serious issues – so women missed all the interesting conversations. You can’t read about the Victorian era without reading about the ladies leaving so the men could drink port.
“So, doing the research, I thought I should try port. Turns out it’s really good.”
Ruby or Tawney? “Tawney, usually, but it depends on the port. I think I should say I’m a terrible wine buyer, because I don’t always remember what I like.”
So, port, which you and I drink all the time, is a cultural metaphor for your character, it’s the first time she slips out of the expected norms. What are some others?
“There were plenty of things a woman could do to step out of bounds back then, but a lot of them happened gradually, at home, too. Rational dress, for example – I mean, you could just stop wearing your corset, and people would notice that, or you could wear a Liberty gown, which still looked very right and not wear a corset, you see?”
What about the travel part? Emily goes off – essentially on her own – quite frequently in the books.
That, Tasha tells me, is also part of the larger narrative. It is ultimately easy for us to armchair quarterback the past, wondering why women like Emily didn’t instantly rise up, demand the vote and the right to jobs and all the rest of it. Travel, as it turns out, is a good way to grow and evolve.
“With regard to her position as tourist and traveler, Emily starts in a very sheltered position, she goes abroad at first with her family in a very controlled way. Because of her nature, once she’s abroad, she becomes a sponge, deciding to be open to new cultures, always seeing both the good and the bad. I think travel is one of the best ways to broaden the mind. If you start out cynical, however, with a fixed notion of how things should be, you might not be as open minded.”
Tasha says when she started the series, she’d always had in mind that Emily – who has since made voyages to Paris, Normandy, Vienna and Istanbul, among other places – would eventually travel to Venice. “It’s been in the back of my mind since the beginning, but I had to be careful. The trip to Venice had to further her character development, and it didn’t make sense until now. It was never just ‘where I’d like to go.’ So Venice didn’t actually come up for awhile.”
When Emily does get there, it’s to help Emma, someone from her past who is in many ways more rival than friend. The parallel story – of 15th century lovers Nicolo and Besina, whose romance leaves stains that reach forward to Emily’s day – carries with it hints of Paolo and Francesca from the Divine Comedy and Romeo and Juliet, but also is a cutting commentary on the beautiful city’s checkered past, and an unflinching look at the ways rigidly enforced morality and sense of duty on the surface can give way to stunning injustice and indecency underneath. Of course, it not only parallels, but directly influences the experiences of Emily and Emma four hundred years later.
I ask Tasha what she wants readers to know, as they pick up her books, maybe for the first time. “A lot of readers don’t look at the development of Emily over the course of the whole series. She’s been carefully brought along from this very sheltered, naïve girl to someone on her way to being enlightened and empowered. People don’t change overnight – it’s so easy for us to sit in the 21st century and reject Victorian traditions, but it takes time, and people move at a pace that’s comfortable for them. They take small steps. Being radical isn’t so easy. We take small steps in our own lives, questioning things like family traditions – even when we don’t like them, sometimes we can’t bring ourselves to stop, or to question them.”
Favorite place to dine, Nashville/Franklin: Saffire
Favorite place to dine, Chicago: Riccardo Trattoria, Topolobampo (can’t pick one)
Cocktail: Gin & tonic
Wine: Inman Brut Rose Nature Sparkling “Endless Crush”
Vacation: Jackson Hole, Wyoming or Venice
Halloween costume: Princess Leia
Signature scent: Don’t use perfume, but I love the way Philosophy’s Falling in Love lotion smells
Dessert: Churros from XOCO in Chicago
Cooking: There are too many things I love to cook … Indian, Cuban, homemade pasta, pizza, French classics. My favorite time is going through my cookbooks and deciding what to make over the next week.
Reading: Kate Morton, The Secret Keeper
Current obsession: Studying Italian
Starbucks usual: Chai
Band: Pearl Jam
Must-see TV: Not sure yet if it will prove to be must-see, but I just started watching Parade’s End
Jeans: True Religion
Kitchen item: Kitchen Aid stand mixer