Q&A with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore,
author of June
Two Oaks was stuttering to attention. The mention of those two names together was too much to sleep through. In its excitement, the house ushered forth its crowd of memories, flooding the foyer and the parlors, where Nick and Cassie were discussing Jack and June.
As anyone who's read Bittersweet knows, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore excels at creating a sense of place. In her latest book, June, she takes things one step further, imbuing the home at the heart of her novel with sentience. Here Beverly-Whittemore talks about the real-life inspiration for this special home, how she researched June's time and place, and how our ancestors are like Hollywood's stars.
Victoria Fullard: Two Oaks, the grand home that serves as the central setting for June, is sentient. Why was it important to include this fantastical element in an otherwise reality-set novel?
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: There is a real house that served as inspiration for Two Oaks, and it was built by my grandmother’s great uncle, whose name, like the character in the book, was Lemon Gray Neely (although the Uncle Lem in the book is an exercise in imagination—I don’t know much personally about the real man). When I first visited that house in 2010, I had the strange experience of not necessarily being at home, but feeling as though I had finally come in contact with an unmet friend. The house was not in great shape at the time—a family is now lovingly restoring it—but it didn’t matter; I felt so completely enchanted by the banister and the ballroom on the third floor, and the secret ice door, and the rounded corner office in which even the window panes are curved. I could also feel the house’s loneliness as though it was a palpable emotion, and imagined that a house like that, built for the ages, would feel desperately bereft if it was suddenly abandoned and left to rot. And then I wondered, why would a house like this be left to rot? And that was the seed for June.
VF: Both June and your 2014 book, Bittersweet, explore the theme of privilege and what it means to enter, in one way or another, a world of glamour beyond what most of us live day-to-day. What draws you to this theme?
MBW: I think most of us are very curious about what goes on behind the velvet rope, and it’s my great pleasure, as a writer, to explore a little bit of the darkness of privilege. I’ve never been particularly wealthy or beautiful or a member of elite society, but at various times in my life—at private school in Oregon, at Vassar college, and in a literary capacity in New York—I’ve brushed up against, even become friends with, people who are. It’s easy to construct a fantasy about how great it would be to be a celebrity, or rich and fabulous, but the truth is that those people are just like the rest of us—flawed and complicated—and I suppose there’s a part of me that returns, again and again, to the intrigue of that position. What would it be like to be envied all the time? To be watched? What would one’s responsibilities be? One’s downfalls?
VF: What research was required to accurately and evocatively capture 1950s Ohio and Two Oaks?
MBW: I first visited the house that inspired Two Oaks in 2010—which had been built by my grandmother’s Great Uncle in the late 1800’s—and, when I had started writing June in earnest, I went back to that same house in June 2014. I spent a week measuring, photographing, and just kind of sitting in various rooms of the house to get a sense of what sounds one could hear, the way the light moved, the particular quirks of the place. It was like a cram session, trying to learn all its mysteries in what felt like a very short period of time. I definitely couldn’t have written the book without that trip.
The town the house is in is where my grandmother was raised, and it hasn’t changed all that much since her childhood in the early nineteenth century, so imagining the town in 1955 wasn’t all that challenging, actually. It was easy to squint and imagine different cars parked in the driveways, or the now-abandoned storefronts bustling with customers. Then I interviewed my parents and a few other folks who grew up in the Midwest in the 1950’s and got fabulous details from them that I could layer over the descriptions of the town itself—the way women would handknit washcloths, for example, or the sound of laundry flapping on the line.
A lot of the challenge of writing about that time period was getting into the post-war mindset, when America was all about development, and even in a small town being markedly different from everyone—as many of the main characters turn out to be—was perceived as an unfortunate flaw. I’m lucky to live in a community where difference is celebrated, so I very much had to don a different hat when writing about St. Jude in 1955.
VF: What did you draw on for inspiration when writing June? Were you inspired by any old films or 1950s movie stars? Were there certain books or music you were inspired by?
MBW: I started with the idea of legacy. Culturally, we’re obsessed with celebrities—we treat them like gods (even though they are all just people), and then we’re surprised that they act flawed and normal, like us. In this way, we regard them in much the same way as we do our ancestors, of whom we usually know a few choice tidbits, but don’t understand much beyond the major headlines of their lives. I really loved the parallel of descendants of a movie star trying to reconcile his real past with the mythology surrounding his legend.
Early on in my research process, I knew that I wanted the movie being made in the 1950s—called Erie Canal—to be using the small town as a location because of a specific feature (in this case, the canal that runs through the center of town), and I was looking for a model for that film in real Hollywood history. A friend of mine who works at Turner Classic Movies suggested I might want to check out a movie called Raintree County, which starred Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift, and was filmed in a similar way as I was imagining “my” movie would be (a month on an LA soundstage, followed by a month on location in a small town). I actually haven’t ever watched Raintree County, because I didn’t want the movie to have any influence on what I imagined, but there’s a really fascinating documentary about the making of it that helped me a lot.
VF: June stitches together several emotionally rich storylines and relationships, but one that resonated particularly strongly for me was the friendship between June and Lindie. What challenges did you face, and what opportunities enticed you, in trying to capture a complex friendship?
MBW: Lindie kind of came to me fully formed; that’s the way it is with some characters. I knew at once that she was queer, and totally unable, at the beginning of the book, to reconcile this fundamental part of herself with the world in which she was growing up (1950’s small-town Ohio). She knows, for example, at the beginning of June that she is in love with her best friend, June, even though she’s not be able to put those passionate feelings into words.
For her part, June knows how Lindie feels, but June is, at heart, a true believer in privacy, in doing what is right—so though she doesn’t feel those same feelings, she would never make Lindie feel ashamed about them. But neither is she particularly interested in doing anything to upend the status quo.
This dynamic between them—Lindie wanting more, June content with what has been handed to her—is the catalyst for the girls’ interaction with matinee idol Jack Montgomery. Lindie has such a hunger inside herself, and if she can’t satiate it on her own behalf, she decides she will try to feed June, although she has no way of knowing what the repercussions of pursuing Jack on June’s behalf will be. This dance plays itself out throughout the book, forcing both girls to recognize exactly how successfully one can or cannot expect to live on behalf of someone else.
VF: A few months ago you posted an incredible article on Medium about how authors should prepare to promote their book and work with their publisher’s publicity team. Since you were already so thorough, I won’t ask you to repeat any that, but instead am curious about what you’ve enjoyed about promoting June. Have there been unexpected highlights?
MBW: Talking like people to you is really fun! Truly, there’s a lot that’s strange about this transition from a book belonging, privately, to its author, to its becoming a public product. I find that time and again what fuels me is the chance to connect with readers, because they always bring new insight to a set of ideas I only ever saw one way. I love writing books for that reason, because at the beginning, you believe your characters belong to you, but they actually make their own, vibrant lives in the world.
VF: June is just hitting bookstores now, so this question may be premature, but are you already thinking about your next project? What can you share?
MBW: I’m just starting to ruminate about my next book idea, and I can say that it will be about a group of people who make a very big mistake, and what happens to them as the result of that mistake. Mistakes are ripe for fiction.
VF: Fill in the blank (hopefully in an unexpected way): People who like ________ should read June.
MBW: People who like Hollywood, family secrets, forbidden love, unexpected passion, small-town America, and beautiful old houses should read June.