Whitney Scharer is an American novelist. Whitney holds a BA in English Literature from Wesleyan University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. Her first novel, The Age of Light, based on the life of pioneering photographer Lee Miller, was published in the UK in February 2019.
1. Who were your literary heroes and influences as you were growing up?
I was always a reader and a writer (my parents and their friends stoically endured many performances of my early poems and stories), and even as a child I was drawn to characters who wanted to write.
I read Anne of Green Gables and then fell in love with another series by L.M. Montgomery: the Emily of New Moon books. For a girl obsessed with being a writer and happiest when reading books set in the past, the Emily books were perfect fare. I also loved Harriet the Spy and spent hours on the balcony in my suburban neighbourhood, waiting for something interesting to happen so that I could write it down in my spy notebook (we lived on a cul-de-sac; nothing interesting ever happened).
As I got older, classics and historical fiction remained my favourites. Like probably a million writers before me, I’m in awe of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — I still remember the experience of reading it for the first time in high school, and it’s a book I reread once a year.
2. The Age of Light covers the love affair between Lee Miller and Man Ray. What drew you to Lee as a character, and how bound did you feel by what we already know about her?
I was drawn to Lee because of her confidence and ambition. She always seemed to me a woman who would do whatever it took to get ahead in her life.
I was equally compelled by her effect on men, especially Man Ray. He was at the height of his career when he met Lee, and yet he became so obsessed with her that he acted like a schoolboy around her, and his growing jealousy eventually drove her away. What would it feel like to have so much power over a man like him? I wanted to write about that woman, and so I set the bulk of my novel during their affair because I think it was the time when Lee was really figuring out how she was and how she could use her power.
In fictionalising her, I felt bound to do justice to her spirit, and bound as well to the important details of her life (especially her early childhood trauma and her complicated relationship with her father). When I fictionalised scenes — and lots of the book is 100% fiction! — I always wanted to be able to point to a specific fact in Lee’s actual life and be able to say “well, that happened, so the scene I’m fictionalising also could have happened.”
3. Was there a point when you felt you had found Lee’s ‘voice’ as a character?
I think writing the WWII scenes really helped me find Lee’s voice. As a war correspondent, Lee was making the art she was most proud of, and felt she was making a huge difference in women’s lives. Yet she didn’t have the tools she needed to recover from the trauma of what she was seeing. Writing those scenes helped me figure out the woman she became, so that I could better understand the woman she was at the beginning of her career in Paris.
4. There is a feeling throughout The Age of Light of a woman ahead of her time in a world of alpha males. Do you think Lee would have thrived in our own time, perhaps with the support she needed?
Absolutely. Honestly, I think she thrived in the 1930s, as far as she was able. If she were alive today, I think she would be an even more successful version of the badass she was a century ago… and I think she would find a good therapist, which would help!
5. Is there anything you can tell us about your next project?
Ah… my next project! Well, last year I began working on a project set in Colorado during the Silver Rush in the late 1800s. But now I’ve got a different idea, and so I’m cheating on the Colorado novel with this new project… which feels very sexy and fun. I don’t know which one I’ll stick with, but I’m enjoying the process.
6. What is on your ‘to read’ pile at the moment?
I have so many books on my teetering “to be read” tower! I’m looking forward to rereading Chip Cheek’s Cape May, a gorgeous novel about desire and betrayal. I’ve got Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend right near the top of the pile. And I snagged an advance copy of Naomi Wood’s new book, The Hiding Game, which I just started reading and absolutely love so far.
7. Do you have a message for your Suffolk library readers?
I love hearing about readers in the UK who have enjoyed my novel, especially because Lee Miller is a better-known figure in England than she is in the US. Whether my novel is your first encounter with Lee, or she has been a hero of yours for years, I hope that reading my book will encourage you to dig deeper into her art and life. Go down the rabbit hole of internet research, or read one of the terrific biographies that have been written about her. She’s endlessly fascinating.
8. Can you tell us one thing your readers may not know about you?
Just last year, I adopted a big black Labradoodle named Bella. She is the goofiest dog ever. She’s not interested in treats, or balls, or any traditional ‘doggish’ things.
Instead, the only thing that seems to motivate her is being petted. If you don’t pay enough attention to her, she throws herself onto her back and starts moaning and groaning — she sounds like a person when she does it — and won’t stop until you rub her belly. It’s hilarious. I’ve never had a dog of my own before and I’m finding the experience delightful.