In Courting Mr. Lincoln, young Abe is a country lawyer living above a dry goods shop in Springfield, Illinois in the winter of 1840. With vivid, witty and exquisite prose, author Bayard has taken little-known history and brought it to life.
In the words of The New York Times, Louis Bayard “reinvigorates historical fiction,” rendering the past “as if he’d witnessed it firsthand.” His affinity for bygone eras can be felt in his string of critically acclaimed historical novels, which include Mr. Timothy (1860s London), The Pale Blue Eye (1830 at West Point), The Black Tower (1818, Paris) The School of Night (16thcentury England), Roosevelt’s Beast (1914 Amazon expedition), and in his recent young-adult novel, Lucky Strikes, set in Depression-era Virginia.
Let me introduce you to master storyteller Louis Bayard, Gramercy’s selected author for our first Prosecco and Prose literary series to be held at Giuseppe’s Ritrovo on May 15 from 5 to 7 pm. He was born in Albuquerque, grew up in Northern Virginia, and now lives in Washington, D.C. where he teaches at George Washington University. He graduated from Princeton where his advisor was Joyce Carol Oates, and he has a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern. He’s a nationally recognized essayist and critic whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Salon. His fictional influences are Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, and his work has been nominated for both the Edgar (mystery) and Dagger (crime writing) awards. His breakout novel was Mr. Timothy (2003) and that novel established his career in the literary thriller space.
I recently asked Lou a number of questions to get to know him better.
LK: Tell me about your formative years. When did you determine you wanted to be a writer and what did that early part of your journey look like? What was it like to learn writing at Princeton from Joyce Carol Oates?
LB: Writing was just one of many ideas I had as a kid. At various points, I also wanted to be a child actor and a Wimbledon tennis champ and an archeologist. But writing was the one that came to seem feasible.
As for Joyce, I don’t recall imbibing individual lessons from her so much as savoring the quality of attention she brought to my work. She never, never, never told me I should be a writer, but to have somebody at that level paying you that respect is inspiring in its own way.
LK: Your first two novels (Fool’s Errand and Endangered Species) were romantic comedies with modern settings. How did you decide to change it up and write about the past?
LB: I always call myself the accidental historical novelist because I never intended to follow that path. I just got it in my head that I wanted to do bad things to Tiny Tim, and I realized that if I was going to pull it off, I would have to create a plausible Victorian London. So I started researching in a rather tentative way, and then in a less tentative way, and eventually I came to love the whole process of unearthing lost worlds, and I couldn’t wait to do it again. Which tells me it was as much providential as accidental.
LK: In almost all of your novels—Edgar Allan Poe in The Pale Blue Eye, Eugene Francois Vidocq in The Black Tower, King James of England in The School of Night, Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt in Roosevelt’s Beast, and now with Courting Mr. Lincoln—there is a real-life character. How do you find/choose your real-life characters and the stage of their life you write about? What is it about these characters that makes you want to imagine the world around them?
LB: Usually, what I respond to is some kind of mystery. It could be something simple like “What the hell was Poe doing at West Point?” or it could be more complex like “How did Kermit Roosevelt lose his way?” History tells us so much but only so much, and it’s when the historical record falls silent, I think, that the novelist properly comes rushing in with “Well, this is how it might have been.”
LK: As The New York Times wrote, you reinvigorate historical fiction, rendering the past as if you were a firsthand witness to it. Did you always love history? What is it about literary historical thrillers that appeals to you as a writer?
LB: I have always loved history, yes, and living in Washington as I do, it’s a really ambient presence. I mean, every day, I walk past houses that are 100 to 150 years old. I catch sight of the U.S. Capitol, parts of which date back more than 200 years. I know this qualifies as antiquity only by American standards, but it’s still in the air. As for the thriller genre, I find it’s a useful tool for bringing the past alive because it sets your characters in motion (sometimes literally) and it keeps you from getting mired in detail, which is the trap of all historical fiction.
LK: Even your 2016 YA novel Lucky Strikes is historical, set in Depression-era Virginia, but it is a departure for you. Why did you decide to write for younger readers? How was that writing experience different from your adult novels? Do you plan to write more YA novels?
LB: I’d been casually reading some of the books my son and his friends were reading, and I was struck by their range and maturity. There was nothing kiddie about them. And because I was between books and between publishers, I figured why not. (“Why not?” is the question that’s pretty much driven my career.) What made it a wonderful experience was that I never once felt the need to write down, and whenever I thought I was going too far – e.g., having my teenaged heroine smoke or curse – my editor always said, “No, it’s fine.” So it ended up being in some ways the least compromised book I’ve ever written. As for writing another: Why not?
LK: All of your stories require research into place and time and character and all the things that create a verisimilitude for the reader. What is your method of research; do you have a set process after you determine the time period and characters? What are some of the most interesting places your research has taken you?
LB: I used to be very clever about setting books in London and Paris because then I could build in research trips. For my art, right? What I found, though, is that Victorian London and 1818 Paris are mostly gone, so the only way to find them in totois in the library stacks. Fortunately, I live six blocks from the Library of Congress, so that’s an amazing backyard to have. My general practice is to do three or so months of research before I write a word because I’m trying to get to the point where a story can emerge. Then, as I write, I learn what I still need to know, which is always considerable. But I never become an expert on anything. I learn just enough to be able to tell my story.
LK: You’re a nationally-recognized essayist and book critic, and you’ve been quite prolific. Do you have a preference between fiction and journalism?
LB: No, I like them both, and I find they complement each other. The best analogy I know is to singing – the head voice vs. the chest voice. Fiction, for me, is the latter.
LK: Like me, you began as a journalist, after getting a Master’s. How and when did you make the transition to fiction? Did you have challenges in that transition, or did journalism help you as a novelist?
LB: Well, I’ve done a lot of book reviewing, but I don’t know that I’d call myself a true journalist because, after J-school, no self-respecting newspaper would hire me. The only job I could get was as a flack on Capitol Hill, which is kind of the antithesis of journalism. But I will say that the training has stuck with me, and it’s the reason I spend a lot of time on opening lines. I always picture some reader, idly flipping open one of my books the way you’d open a newspaper, and I ask myself: Okay, what’s going to grab him? What’s going to keep her reading? That’s the J-school in me.
LK: You teach fiction writing at George Washington. What message do you try to impart to your young writers?
LB: I don’t know that I have any particular message because they come from such different places and have such a wide gradient of ability. Very few of them, I would guess, will become professional writers, so I try to do what Joyce Carol Oates did for me, which is to give them close and respectful attention. I certainly would never encourage any of them to become writers because it’s a tough business.
LK: How did you decide to become a contestant on Jeopardy? I read that you won $17,000. (I used to watch the show religiously between classes in college.)
LB: Oh, it was a dream I’d had since I was a kid (back in the days when Art Fleming was the host). I ended up winning a game, and then I went out on Final Jeopardy of the next game. “Balmoral” was the one I missed. It still colors my view of the royal family.
And by the way, that money got spent so fast. Not even on something fun and trashy like a big-screen TV. Just the exigencies of living.
Written by Linda Kass
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. It won a Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction from the Independent Publisher Award Program and was a 2016 Foreword INDIES Award Finalist. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.