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Author Talk: April 2009

Q: Your newest novel, A Flickering Light, is based on the life of your grandmother. Tell us about the Jessie Ann Gaebele you knew growing up?   

A: I called her the “play” grandma and my father’s mother was the “work” grandma.  Not that my grandmother of this story wasn’t a worker… she was, from the time she was thirteen years old she held a job and at the death of her husband with young children at home, at the age of 58 she went to work as a nurse’s aid to support them.  But when I knew her, she was a woman who enjoyed living, picked blackberries with us, said one should always find a good hairdresser and pay them well no matter if you had to give up chocolate to do it.  She loved music, played the piano “by ear” and most of all loved her children and grandchildren and we knew it.  She thought my sister and brother and I worked too hard on our family dairy.  My father’s grandmother thought we ought to work “a little harder” so Jessie endeared herself to us with her references to “rest.”   

Q: This is your fifteenth novel based on the lives of actual historical people or events.  How was writing about your own family different than writing about the ancestors of others --- or was it? 

A: There are many grandchildren and two aunts still living and I was constantly aware of what they might think of what I was finding out, what I was writing and speculating about.  I wanted to honor her life with my story while at the same time tell the truth as I could find it about the choices she sometimes made.  I had to keep asking myself:  What aren’t you writing about and why?  On the other hand, one of my deceased aunts and I had discussed my writing this story one day and she’d written a family history so a lot of the genealogy research had already been done and I just had to piece it together.  I had the benefit of her transcribing some of my grandmother’s remembrances and I’ll always be grateful to my aunt Fern for that.  And I had cousins who shared their stories and my brother; so I hope I’ve created a well-rounded character with both adorable qualities and quirks.  They were all trusting of me and four read the draft manuscript offering suggestions and opinions which were very helpful for making these “characters” become well-rounded and hopefully, real.

Q: How did Jessie describe her youth?

A: Jessie grew up on a dairy farm (as did I) in western Wisconsin.  Because of her father’s illnesses, the family moved to Winona.  She had an older sister and a younger sister and a baby brother whose tragedy affected Jessie, I think.  She worked as a bookbinder at the age of 13 – children in 1905 often finished only the eighth grade and then went out to work to help support the family.  Stories about her suggest that she was a hard worker but one who liked adventure, too, and chose a profession not generally open to women though I’m quite sure she’d never describe herself as a ground-breaker of any kind, if she were alive today.  She loved the Ferris wheels at carnivals.  It was one of the few diversions permitted by her strict parents who allowed no movies or dances or cards…church and music was her life until she discovered photography and later, family and travel.

Q: Did Jessie ever talk about her passion for photography?  Was she a dreamer, someone close to her family, her brothers and sisters or did her passion for photography influence all her relationships? 

A: As a young woman, I think she must have been very focused and loved photography.  Oddly, it wasn’t until I listened to a series of taped interviews she had with her adult children when she was close to ninety years old when she told them she was a photographer that I learned how involved she actually was in the profession. We’d known the story of her operating photo studios when the photographers became ill with mercury poisoning or when a widow needed someone to run a studio, but I guess I thought she did the bookkeeping. On the tapes I heard her say, almost defensively, “Well, I took photographs too.  Some of those cameras in the basement belonged to me.”  That set me to researching and I found out she not only took photographs, she owned her own studio for a time!  That was a surprise to all the relatives and I think it indicates her passion for the art.  She stayed close to her family and there are several photographs of her brothers and sisters and parents and an uncle so I think she adored her family even though at times she must have frustrated them --- and she, them.  They lived near each other their entire lives though.  Jessie was the only one to marry and have children though her younger sister, Selma, did marry.

Q: What were the societal obstacles OR what did you discover were the obstacles that she faced as she pursued her dreams of becoming a photographer? 

A: For one thing, much commerce took place in lodges or where men gathered such as on the golf course where women were excluded.  Because of the danger of the flash powder, women couldn’t even take courses taught only by men, to learn how to handle that part of the profession.  A woman out in the workforce was often acceptable until she got married and then it was expected she’d go home and tend her family; or work with her husband but not go off on her own.  There were well-known women photographer such as Jessie Tarbox Beals (the only woman to photograph the St. Louis World’s Fair) and Francis Benjamin Johnston but these women were often seen as socially unacceptable as they traveled around without escort or chaperone.  The chemical poisonings were life-threatening, of course and yet for many women, they endured the risk in order to run the studios.  The competition among photographers was also quite fierce at times.  In 1907 in Winona, a town of around 20,000, there were fifteen photographers listed in the city directory.  One assumes they were aggressively competing for portraits, reprints and penny postcard sales.

Q: So, because the work was considered dangerous, did Jessie have a harder time than most as she pursued photography? What other kind of dangers, literal and spiritual, did Jesse find in the studio? 

A: I’d have to say, given the outcome of the story which I don’t want to unveil totally here, that she faced the temptations of spending much more time with one’s work mates than with one’s family and the consequences that can occur from that.  Her mentor was much older than she was and described as a kind and caring man who loved his children and his wife.  But as the story progressed and I learned details through family stories, it also became clear that with proximity and shared passions for one’s art, it’s wise to keep a very close check on one’s heart.

Q: In the novel, you chose several photographs your family believes were taken by Jessie.  What made you decide to use those particular photographs?  Why did you use Jessie’s voice to describe those photographs rather than the third person narrative employed in the main parts of the book? 

A: When my grandmother died, along with several members of the family, I was given glass plates that had been hers.  Looking at them reminded me of conversations I’d had with her when she described a number of photographs and told me why she liked them or some little story about them such as a certain dress she was wearing in the portrait shot.   She loved the water so I chose a photograph with water.  In her later life she told me about how she looked after an elderly friend of hers (who was probably younger than she was!) so I knew that she was a good friend and wanted to use a photograph that allowed her to talk about friendship and the intricacies of relationships.  She’d kept those pictures and glass plates for a reason.  I wanted to give her voice to those photographs and to suggest how she might have seen photography as a metaphor for different aspects of life.  I chose third person for her story, Mr. Bauer’s story and his wife’s story so that I could get inside the heads of others dealing with the strains of devotion, loss, longing and truth.

Q: Tell us about F.J. Bauer, the circumstances of his life and the development of his feelings for Jessie. 

A: FJ was a German immigrant who arrived on shore with nothing but the clothes on his back and his hat which the wind blew away from him on the dock.  In Buffalo, NY, a great uncle awaited him whom he’d work for to pay off his passage.  He eventually joined the army where he was afflicted with rheumatic fever leaving him with an impaired heart.  Despite this, he made his way as a photographer building a fine studio in Winona.  I think he saw potential in Jessie Gaebele, someone he could share conversations with about the business and artistry.  When he became ill, she and another young woman working for him literally saved his studio running the operation for many months.  I think he felt indebted to her and also likely enjoyed her wry sense of humor and her pragmatic joy for life.  He’d lost a son in a freak accident on his ranch in North Dakota and I think grief was also a large part of his life. 

Q: How did Jessie try to manage the attraction? 

A: She was young, remember, only fifteen when she began working for FJ.  Youthful infatuation, however, can be as intense and agonizing as for those much older.  Willa Cather, the great novelist, says the stories that engage us as adults are based on experiences we had before we turned fifteen.  She adds that the emotions of that age are passion and betrayal.  I would add two more:  acceptance and forgiveness.  I think we’re seeking those last two all our lives as well.  I thought of that often as I saw Jessie trying to manage her admiration for this man and at the same time an attraction that would have been nothing she’d ever experienced before, highly unacceptable to her family and to her own way of living a good and moral life.  She worked for him until she was eighteen and she made a number of false starts hoping to leave his employ before she actually figured out what she needed to do to guard her heart.

Q: How do you see Jessie sabotaged her own success?  

A: As I spent time looking at specific events in her life, what she was doing, when, it became apparent to me that continuing to work for FJ must have become a problem.  And yet, he also supported her interest in photography.  FJ was a generous man and he enjoyed giving gifts to her, gifts her family began to question.  I think she struggled with her own worthiness, the challenge of temptation and the accompanying guilt that comes from insisting one can do the right thing…and then failing to do it.  It was the love of her family and her own honesty and faith with herself that finally saw her through.

Q: What parallels did you see between modern women and Jessie? What is the lesson that modern women can learn from her life? 

A: A great many of us think we can “compartmentalize” as I think of it:  we can work side by side with men we admire and not have that spill over onto our own family lives --- or theirs.  We can contribute greatly to the problem-solving of the businesses we’re involved in; and at the same time there is likely to be a price that men may not have to pay… the price of being a team player where increased time is demanded and hours away from family needed.  I think that’s changing in this 21s century, at least a little, with men struggling to juggle family and profession, too.  Women can sometimes get so busy we don’t think about the prices we’re paying or even allow ourselves to “feel” sometimes.  And when we do, the brunt of reality can be devastating.  In addition, sometimes talented people, gifted souls, men and women, move along an arc of success and then they do something that seems to sabotage their very dreams.  As a mental health professional, I saw this often and especially with very capable women: whether it was losing 100 pounds and then putting it back on; whether it was competing for a scholarship and then at the last minute choosing not to accept it; starting a business, doing well and then picking a partner in the business whom family and friends would warn against and later be proven right.  I found myself helping women explore these kinds of choices, to be honest with themselves about what they really wanted and to see their own worthiness.  I hope Jessie’s story is yet another way of allowing men and women to see that they can chose to be happy, choose to allow a gift to truly shine through.  Jessie’s story certainly reminded me to seek that in my own life, too, to be clear about what matters in my life and seek the courage to act on that.