“A little laughter in grim times is better than Xanax.” an interview with author, William Kuhn

I had the happy chance to meet William Kuhn through his bookshelves before I met him in person.

In 2015 my husband was working on a film in Boston, and after subletting the author’s apartment, he wrote to me, “Come here and stay, you will love it.” On a humid hot night at the beginning of August I arrived. The Mister walked to the train station to meet me, and we bumped my suitcase a few short blocks over cobbled streets to a bow-fronted brownstone on a quiet leafy street in a lovely old city. The apartment was up two flights of stairs, and the moment I walked in and saw oh-so-many books, reaching to the ceiling, I immediately felt I was in a wonderful place.

Mr. Kuhn has written extensively on the history of Victorian England; following the lives of Disraeli and an adventurous couple who were courtiers to the Queen. He followed that with a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that focused on her publishing career, and then turned his attention to fiction, and a delightful novel on the current British monarch called, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train. A study of the long friendship between John Singer Sargent and Isabella Stewart Gardner is in the works, and, just recently he jumped into the self-publishing pool with Prince Harry Boy to Man.

Before I start this email exchange with the man who took me on a tour of the Boston Athenaeum I want to turn your attention to something Jackie O. said:

One of the things I like about publishing is that you don’t promote the editor — you promote the book and the author.

Q. What a pleasure to be promoting your book, Bill. You have a comprehensive knowledge of British history and the inner workings of the monarchy. What sparked that interest?

My father was an English professor.  He took our family to Britain in the year I turned 12.  We lived in London and I went to a British grammar school off Victoria Street, midway between Westminster Abbey and Victoria Station.  We had a long lunch break and I sometimes walked with the other boys near Buckingham Palace.  They all spoke English but their government and politics were vastly different from what I was familiar with in the States.  That was the beginning of my interest in a thriving, contentious democracy that nevertheless retained the trappings of a medieval monarchy.  What’s that about, the 12-year-old me wondered.  It’s now more than 40 years later, but I still haven’t  answered that question.

Q. When you were in London last, did that experience set the stage for your recent novel?

I love being in London.  I love it at all times of year.  I love the people.  I love the language.  I love the clothes.  I love that it’s home for so many people from around the world.  It’s also the home of my imagination.  So in that sense, yes, it set the stage for my most recent novel.

Q. There’s a fascinating thread that runs through your novels and your historical works, it’s the idea of how someone retains their humanity in the face of overwhelming celebrity — or the lengths they go to to maintain dignity while staying on message — tell me how your latest book explores this theme.

Well, Prince Harry was born to fame he didn’t want.  Who would?  There’s a line in the tabloid press which goes like this.  Well, they roll in satin sheets at our expense (the British taxpayer) so they should do what we want.  But it’s very difficult for members of the royal family to walk away from all that without feeling that they’re shirking something important.  When Edward VIII did it in 1936, he committed himself to a life of pleasure that made him very unhappy.  Nor has his historical reputation ever recovered from that.

Q. Nancy Mitford (historian and novelist, just like someone else I know) famously said of her aristocratic father, “Thing about my father was he simply hadn’t got enough to do. He hadn’t got anything to do. He was a very healthy young man… Made him very bad tempered.” And while researching a family record she came across something that set off her sardonic intellect, the record summed up her father like this, “David Mitford, occupation: Honorable,” and she found it laughable. How is that notion of nobility versus purpose addressed in your novel?

Harry doesn’t want to be a prince in the novel.  I doubt as a kid he wanted it in real life.  He thinks his being deployed to Afghanistan is finally going to prove to the world that he can do a normal job.  But the people following him (his former nanny, a CNN reporter, a fellow soldier who has a crush on him) won’t make that easy for him.

Q. As an author do you inhabit your characters, or do your characters inhabit you?

I think I begin by inhabiting them.  But then later, when I’m going back to re-read and edit, they surprise me, crack me up, get me choked up.  They take on an independent existence that I’ve forgotten about.  They have the capacity to confront me as if they’re people I didn’t already know.

Q. Where do you do most of your writing?

The fifth floor of the Boston Athenaeum.

Q. What books that you’ve read have most influenced your own work?

I like Lillian Hellman’s MAYBE for its investigations into the unreliability of memory.  I was very moved by Colm Toibin’s THE MASTER for its description of a gay sensibility without  gay sex.  I will always love George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH for the calm moralizing of the author.  It feels to me almost like guidance and counseling rather than censure or superiority.

Q. In his essay, “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James wrote:

The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does compete with life. When it ceases to compete as the canvas of the painter competes, it will have arrived at a very strange pass. It is not expected of the picture that it will make itself humble in order to be forgiven; and the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle) is the same, their success is the same…insist on the fact that as the picture is reality, so the novel is history.

How has your historical perspective shaped your fiction?

I’m fascinated by historical situations where the existing documents will never tell us what really happened, or what the participants really felt.  For example, I know the Queen was depressed following the death of Diana and the almost universal blame that fell on her as the surviving “wicked” mother-in-law.  That was the beginning of my asking what she might have done to feel better in that situation.  My fiction MRS QUEEN TAKES THE TRAIN begins with an impromptu train ride that she thinks might return her cheerfulness to her for a while.

That doesn’t do justice to the Henry James quote you’ve chosen above.  I can only add to it that Henry James is one of the most fascinating commentators there is on the work of John Singer Sargent.  After the disaster of his portrait of MADAME X in Paris, Sargent moved to London mainly at the urging of Henry James.  I love the quote about the parallels between fiction and painting.

Thank you, Bill!

And thank you readers!

14 comments

  1. George Kaplan

    John Singer Sargent, such a fine artist. It is difficult to conceive of the negative reception for Madame X in this present day (at least in parts of the West).
    Mrs Queen Takes The Train is a charming whimsical “what if?”. Even if one is not a Monarchist, it’s possible to have sympathy for Queen Elizabeth in the wake of Diana’s death; the tyranny of sentimentality forcing people to behave in ways alien to them in order to appease the mob. Although I don’t think protocol should be immutable, I also loathe the idea that dim bulbs should dictate behaviour (especially when some of those who make such a great performance of their “emotions” would likely show or feel no sympathy or empathy for non-celebrities – a corollary to this is the Charlie Gard in which the ill-informed foghorned their antipathy toward Great Ormond Street whilst not understanding the awkward truth of things; something which found its ugliest expression in a lack of respect for the parents of other desperately sick children and in death threats sent to staff.) Equally, the notion that the public – or the noisiest part of it – were as deeply affected as Diana’s sons by her death is troublesome at best.
    Fascinating interview. Well done, Ms Vickie. And, thank you Mr Kuhn.

    • I agree, there is something of the ill considered, ill informed, and narrow minded, to those who jump to make the most noise instantaneously — and sometimes the Internet only serves as amplifier — yet at other times it’s a means to quickly spread vital information. Life, and digital life particularly, is complex. Thank you, Mr. Kaplan, for your always insightful comments.

    • Next week I will try to be back with some more posts. It was a pleasure to focus on Mr. Kuhn, not only is he as delightful as his books, but it also it was great to be back in touch with this lovely community. xox, V

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