Jamaica Plain resident Beth Castrodale will be releasing her novel “Marion Hatley,” on April 20. The Gazette conducted a question-and-answer session through email with her about the book. (The session has been edited.) For more information about the book, visit bethcastrodale.com.
Q.: Where did the name Marion Hatley come from? What is the significance of it?
A.: Marion was born the same year as my maternal grandmother (1897), so I tried to choose a first name that would be appropriate for the time. As for Marion’s last name, I’m not entirely sure where that came from. Because I’d imagined Marion as a fan of stylish hats, it’s possible that her surname bubbled up from that mental picture subconsciously.
Q.: How would you describe the novel to a potential reader?
A.: At the start of the novel, Marion has just gotten fired from a Pittsburgh lingerie shop after being caught in an affair with a married man (the husband of a customer’s sister). So when Marion receives an invitation to take care of a dying aunt–a woman she doesn’t really know–in the countryside, she decides to accept it. Marion sees the time in the country not only as an escape from her city troubles, but as an opportunity to realize her dream of designing a revolutionary corset, one that is as comfortable as it is beautiful.
Instead, life in the country brings new challenges: a mysteriously troubled student at the school where Marion is filling in as a teacher; frustrations in her attempts to end the daily, private trials of all corset-wearing women; and, most daunting, her ailing aunt, who holds the key to secrets whose revelation could change the way Marion sees her family and herself.
As Marion tries to learn the truth behind these secrets and to get to the bottom of her student’s troubles, her problems from Pittsburgh threaten to resurface. One thing that sustains Marion is a bond that she forms with a local veteran, who continues to suffer the physical and emotional effects of his war service.
Q.: Why did you set the novel in the early 1930s?
A.: Because both of my parents grew up during the Depression, I was always fascinated by that time.
Circling back to my maternal grandmother, she wore an uncomfortable corset daily, even while doing the hard work of helping to run the family farm. Years ago, my mother drew a picture of the type of corset my Grandma wore, and I wish I’d kept it. I just remember trying to imagine how uncomfortable such a garment would be, especially while doing hard physical labor during the heat of summer.
As I worked on the novel, I pictured Marion coming to the rescue, retroactively, for my Grandma and all of her peers.
Q.: What was the writing process behind the novel? How long did it take? Any research involved?
A.: It took me about five years to write “Marion Hatley,” including three passes of fairly substantial revisions. Key to the development and revision of the novel were suggestions from members of my writers’ group and, later, great insights from the editor and publisher at Garland Press, Laurel Dile King.
In terms of research, I had access to one important primary source on the corset angle (my mother), but I also did a good deal of reading about the history of corsets and about women’s undergarments more generally.
Before writing about the veteran’s war experiences, I turned to the Library of Congress, which offers incredibly detailed and moving journals of American soldiers who served in the First World War. I also took another dive into Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory.”
Q.: What writers have influenced you and how so?
A.: There are so many writers I could name, but an enduring inspiration for me is Alice Munro. I love the ways in which she immerses us in women’s lives and brings us to moments that feel both unexpected but completely inevitable. Every story of hers has left me in awe.
Q.: What other projects are you working on?
A.: Recently, I finished a novel that’s set entirely in a Forest Hills-inspired cemetery (the central character is the cemetery’s gravedigger-in-chief), and I’ve just started my first crime novel.
Q.: Where is Marion Hatley available to buy?
A.: The book will be available at Porter Square Books, and Garland Press and I are looking to place it in other independent book stores as well, such as Papercuts in JP. It’s also available online. If people would like to order it online, it would be great if they could do so through GarlandPress.com to support an indie publisher.