It's funny how I find books these days. Years ago, I would wander bookshops and pick up eye-catching covers off display tables and read the information on the back of the book. I'm sure many still do, but for me, social media seems to be driving my book selections. A few months back, I saw Francine Mathews aka Stephanie Barron comment about Louis Bayard's book-to-film The Pale Blue Eye--and anything she recommends, I'm all about. MrB and I streamed the film that very night and enjoyed the adaptation of Bayard's 2006 novel about a veteran detective in 1830 as he investigates a series of murders at West Point, the US Military Academy, with the aid of young military cadet Edgar Allen Poe. We were riveted by the performances of the ensemble cast including Christian Bale, Henry Melling, Jillian Anderson, and Robert Duvall, the cinematography, reference to the Army Navy rivalry (as MrB is an Annapolis grad), and smart intrigue. We downloaded the novel to Kindle that very weekend to see how it matched. Not to be cliche, but the book is always better. And just like that, Bayard had two new fans. I just finished reading Bayard's Jackie & Me, the fictionalized memoir of "Lem Billings, a closeted gay man who has made the Kennedy family his own, and who has been instructed by them to seal the deal with Jack’s new girl." Delicious. I'm thinking of going to my local bookstore to make sure the book is prominently displayed on the shelves. It's that good.
CHRISTINA: What do you owe the real people whom you have based some of your characters?
LOUIS: That’s an excellent question. I’ve written about a lot of real-life people, but usually they’ve been safely dead—e.g., the Lincolns, Teddy Roosevelt. With Jackie & Me, a few of the characters are still alive—like Ethel Kennedy, like Robert Kennedy, Jr.—so I had to pause a moment and think out the implications. For me, it comes down to the fact that I’m writing a work of fiction, and the characters just have to make sense within that world. I’m also assuming that the Kennedys have had so many books written about them by now that they no longer bat an eye at them.
CHRISTINA: You really do blur the lines between fact and your own imagination. Well done! What a titillating read about friendship and romance—I had to remind myself it was a fictionalized memoir.
What is your writing process like? Are you more of a plotter or a pantser?
LOUIS: Pretty much a pantser, though I usually know my ending, and maybe some stations along the way. I used to envy the plotters, but then I realized it would be pretty boring to know your whole story in advance. Why bother writing it? Discovery for me is one of the pleasures of the process, and I’ve come to cherish those moments when the story, in effect, grabs me by the lapel and tells me where it wants to go, and I have to shed whatever dumb idea I had in mind.
CHRISTINA: I like that you have an idea of where you want to end up in your story but let the story drive you. It gives me hope for my own hybrid style. I call myself a "plantser."
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
LOUIS: When my first book came out a million years ago, I sweated every single Amazon review (there weren't many) and followed the ups and downs of my ranking on practically an hourly basis, and it was a road to madness. So, I’ve l weaned myself way back. These days, I only read the advance reviews from the trade pubs (like Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews) and then if I’m lucky enough to get reviewed in some newspaper or magazine, I’ll give that a cursory glance—mainly to see which parts of the book are landing. I’ll just add that one of the plus sides of sending ten novels into the world is that the importance of any single review declines in proportion.
CHRISTINA: I know a lot of authors at various levels of their publishing journey and "sweat" each review. I hope when it's my turn, I can be as cool as you are now. #goals
Are you writing anything now that you can tell me about?
LOUIS: I’m finishing a book about Oscar Wilde and his family. A lot of people don’t know that
he had a wife and two children who were deeply affected by his scandal—had to leave the country, take assumed names, build new lives. So, my goal is to bring their story to the fore and track them through successive generations, while also evoking the deep love they all had for Oscar and each other.
CHRISTINA: Sounds like another fascinating read. I'm in! I'm a fan of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. I was amazed to learn Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for homosexuality. How barbaric! That decriminalization only came to a worldwide peak in the 1990s is chilling enough but knowing some countries still resist decriminalization of homosexuality is incomprehensible. But I digress...
If you could tell your 21-year-old self anything, what would you share?
LOUIS: Use more sunscreen! Other than that, he’s on his own.
CHRISTINA: Too true. If your 21-year-old self sees 21-year-old Christina, please tell her the same.
Thank you for taking time to answer these questions. I hope final edits for the Oscar Wilde story are making the words sing. Looking forward to reading it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
In the words of the New York Times, Louis Bayard “reinvigorates historical fiction,” rendering the past “as if he’d witnessed it firsthand.”
His acclaimed novels include The Pale Blue Eye, adapted into the global #1 Netflix release starring Christian Bale, Jackie & Me, ranked by the Washington Post as one of the top novels of 2022, the national bestseller Courting Mr. Lincoln, Roosevelt's Beast, The School of Night, The Black Tower, and Mr. Timothy, as well as the highly praised young-adult novel, Lucky Strikes.
A New York Times Notable author, he has been nominated for both the Edgar and Dagger awards, and his story, “Banana Triangle Six,” was chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories.
His reviews and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Salon.
An instructor at George Washington University, he is the chair of the PEN/Faulkner Awards and was the author of the popular Downton Abbey recaps for the New York Times.
His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages.