As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Susan Furber on the research process behind her novel The Essence of an Hour (Valley Press, 2021).
Comparisons have been made between The Essence of an Hour and The Bell Jar, and it’s obvious that the current of twentieth century American literature runs strongly throughout the novel. There are numerous references to Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner (as well as English writers of the time), and I wonder how their influence fed into the composition of The Essence of an Hour. What is it in the spirit of novels like This Side of Paradise which helped inform your approach to place, character, theme? How did this literature help you capture the zeitgeist of 1940s America?
When I wrote the first draft of The Essence of an Hour, I wanted to create a voice that would be a female version of Holden Caulfield. She is messy and cruel and, while attempting to be honest, she is completely unreliable. While I do think The Essence of an Hour and The Bell Jar are quite different novels, they are both about young women who are limited by their circumstances and, as a consequence, lash out at other women.
Sylvia Plath’s journals provided a better understanding of what it was like to be a literary young woman during the 1940s and 1950s. The novels that most informed Essence’s historical setting are Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View, and The Company She Keeps and The Group by Mary McCarthy. I am especially indebted to The Group for understanding what Vassar life would have been like at that time.
Stylistically, Essence is most inspired by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Carson McCullers. Unlike their British equivalents, many of the American modernists (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein) did not dismiss popular literature or the cult of celebrity. So, it makes sense that Lillie would have access to these books easily and cheaply. Lillie herself loves Hemingway, and not only because I was influenced by him. Teddy for her embodies the perfect Hemingway hero, and Lillie too identifies with the author. In one of Richard Yates’ short stories, he talks about how every young American male writer of his generation was inspired to be and write like Hemingway. But I don’t think it would have been only male writers and believe Lillie too would have modelled herself on him. She feels stuck in the constraints of the feminine world and so she adopts the ideals of male writers.
It’s interesting how you contextualise the influence of these literary ‘celebrities’ not just on you as the author but on the characters themselves. It certainly jumped out for me while reading that so many characters in The Essence of an Hour consciously borrow their speech and behaviours from novels. I feel like that theme of artifice runs throughout, and maybe comes most clearly into focus during the fated party with New York City’s Bohemian crowd. Here, Lillie’s disappointment with the literary community is profound, and I wonder if that came from a personal place. As writers, many of us fantasise about the literary communities immortalised in books like A Moveable Feast, but does this community really exist? And if it does, is it even worth being a part of?
I’ve certainly been to a lot of awful parties as a college student during the height of ‘hipster’ culture, so those experiences did feed into the Bohemian party scene. I do remember, especially in my late teens and early twenties, going to parties or nightclubs and experiencing that feeling Nick has in the second chapter of The Great Gatsby, when he is both looking from within and without.
I, like Lillie, am from a small town in America. I was lonely as a child, and while reading took away a great deal of my loneliness, it also made me feel lonelier as there was nobody to talk to about how much I loved certain books. So, I did form my own world in books, and I channelled those feelings of angst into Lillie, and I gave her a friend like Teddy, whom I never had.
Lillie sees the reality of her world through the lens of fiction – both that she reads as well as writes, and, like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, she is obsessed with living a life worthy of fiction. Lillie also knows that her memories are not reliable – partially because memories never are, but also because she has twisted them to fit a literary narrative. I think most writers may well be like that, so I do wonder to what extent something like A Moveable Feast is fiction; not intentionally, of course, but because our memories are fiction, always.
I do think having a community is important, though it need not be other writers. You need people who love you for who you are and support your work as a writer, even when you will not let them read your work. Yes, Lillie is in love with this fantasy of what it will be like to be part of a literary set, but what she is aching for is a like-minded community.
Yes, I think that’s something a lot of writers will identify with, especially in that sense of seeking meaning through a community of writers or readers. For Lillie in The Essence of an Hour, there is of course another rather looming conduit for meaning and community available through the Catholic church. The presence of Catholicism in Lillie and her peers’ lives is made manifest in many ways – guilt, shame, apprehension, but also security, identity, sublimation. I’m curious as to your own proximity with the religion, and how your feelings about it might have fed into the novel. In particular, I’m curious to know how you perceive the effects of Catholicism on young womanhood, both in the 1940s of the novel and today.
I grew up in a devout Catholic family and attended a very conservative Catholic college in America. It was normal at college for people to party recklessly on a Saturday night and then be at mass the following day. This disturbed me deeply, especially when male students were pressuring female students for sex, but still considering themselves to be pious young men. It felt like something out of another era, and I think that is perhaps why I gravitated so much to the writings of female authors of the 1940s and 1950s. How they described sexual relationships with young men rang truer to my own experience than the teen dramas I watched on television.
In our first few weeks of college, my girlfriends – also Catholics – and I talked a lot about sex, specifically whether under any circumstances we’d consider having it before marriage. This enforced one narrow idea of morality that many of us hadn’t yet had the opportunity to confront. Others had lost their virginities in high school but felt too ashamed to admit it. It was a toxic culture. Because we couldn’t talk about what good sex might look like with one another, this also made it difficult to discuss what bad sex or even assault could be.
While I am no longer a practising Catholic, I consider myself to be a cultural Catholic. It is difficult to unsee the world through the lens of my religious upbringing, to detach myself from its ideas and doctrines of sin, guilt, and the power of confession and the sacraments. Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was nineteen was revolutionary – I saw how one could write a novel about this loss of faith, alongside the loss of virginity and innocence, and that is when I started the first draft.
I think there’s something really pertinent there about the effects of faith on the sexual aspects of young womanhood, I hope you don’t mind if I return to it. I feel like one of the real strengths of the novel is the intimate insight we get into the anxiety generated by Lillie’s complex attitudes to sex and virginity. I wonder, especially as you say you can relate your experience to the sexual politics of the 1940s, whether you feel as though young women today are as confused about sex as the young women of Lillie’s time? What are the challenges young women may share with Lillie and her friends, and what new challenges do you observe in contemporary society? In broadest terms, is it easier or harder today?
Lillie comes of age in the years just before the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which supposedly heralded in second-wave feminism, and she is roughly the same age as Betty Friedan. I based Lillie on the women Friedan writes about in The Feminine Mystique – well-educated and poised for successful careers, but their society’s expectation was for them to be wives and mothers who stayed at home. This attitude certainly has changed. Thankfully, some of the strict gender roles which Lillie finds difficult to adapt and follow have also been deconstructed as well.
However, in terms of sex, I think not much has changed. I, like Lillie, and probably most of my childhood friends too, never received any ‘sex talk’ from my mother, and health class wasn’t much help either. When I went to college, I had no idea of what a healthy sexual relationship looked like, and again like Lillie, my romantic ideals were formed from films and books. This was not unusual amongst the girls I knew, and so many of Lillie’s conversations with her friends are inspired from the sort of things we said to (and about) one other.
While many young women may not fear the societal shame of losing their virginity before marriage that plagues Lillie and her friends, I think the patriarchy continues to win. Young men continue to pressure women for sex, not taking ‘no’ for an answer because they believe all young women want to have sex, all the time, and with them in that moment. We are told as young women that we are independent and that the world is ours for the taking, but it isn’t – because we are also taught how to hold our house keys in our fingers when walking late at night, what evidence we must keep if we ever need to report a rape, and that boys sometimes just won’t listen. This is not freedom.
I am glad to see in the wake of #MeToo more novels being published that deal frankly with rape, sexual assault, and abuse, but when I was a student the only book I had read that dealt with these issues was Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I was finishing the final full draft of Essence during the time of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the Supreme Court nomination hearing. I recognised Lillie’s story and the story of so many young women in her testimony; a story that too often is not listened to or believed.
There’s so much there we could go into further but while we’re touching on what’s going on in North America right now, I’d like to close by asking around your ideas of the USA. The USA of The Essence of an Hour is carefully-drawn, with its wider social changes exerting their power over your characters with a kind of invisible magnetism. As an American who has left the US, I wonder if your views of your birth country were altered by your processes of writing and research for the novel. When you think of America now, both as a political, literary and personal space, what do you think of and how do you feel?
Just as I will always be a Catholic culturally, so too will I always be an American. As a child, I, like many literary-minded kids, dreamed of living in Europe, of being some sort of Henry James character. I have lived in England for almost nine years and recently received my indefinite leave to remain permanently in the UK, but I in no way see myself as British. Yet, I know I plan to continue living in England while also continuing to write about America. Again, it may be a cliché, but I do think living away from America lends a clarity to evaluating and aiming to understand it as a country.
Lillie’s America is in many ways the America of my childhood, mixed with my grandmother’s stories of growing up during the 1940s in a small Pennsylvanian town, though she would have been a little younger than Lillie at the onset of the war. I will not claim to know America or what it means to be an American – there are too many possibilities and pluralities of identity and existence. Most of America I only know through novels, not through experience. But I do know a small segment of American life – the socially conservative suburbs of a small upstate New York town. Originally, I set the novel in New England (I’ve always wished I was from New England – it seems more glamorous; something I share with Fitzgerald), but I don’t know New England. So, I moved the setting to outside of Albany. I’m from a suburb of Buffalo – and my town inspired Mohawk Island, including some of the street names – but that is too far from New York for the action of the novel.
I know that adolescent feeling of desperate boredom, that loneliness of not knowing other people who are interested in reading and discussing books. But I also know the joy of hot summer nights spent with friends around bonfires and swimming pools, all of us bursting with energy to be grown up and able to escape.
My favourite of all literary tropes is that of the summer heatwave boiling over into tragedy, and I wanted to write a novel that played with this idea. Every year I longed for the summer because it meant two and a half months of reading outside in the sun. It was when I was happiest, and my imagination ran wild. I’d read the classic novels I didn’t have the time for during the school year and write failed attempts at novels in the evenings. Essence is my love letter to those summers and the world of my childhood, but also to all the American novels I have loved, been inspired by, and cherished.
Susan Furber was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1992. She studied English and Philosophy at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. Susan is a book editor and lives in London with her husband. The Essence of an Hour is her debut novel, published by Valley Press in February 2021.
Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.