I’m so excited to be back with my next installment of the Bookish People interviews! This month, it’s Joy Callaway, author of The Fifth Avenue Artists Society (available here!). The story follows a family of sisters during the Gilded Age of New York City. It’s a love story combined with tragedy and heartbreak, and the period details (clothes, street scenes, etc) are enthralling. (Bonus–on Instagram, she often posts photos of period dress and homes from that period of time.)
1. Give us a quick overview of the book(s) you’ve written.
The Fifth Avenue Artists Society
This is a story of secrets and family and history, but principally it’s about love, based on my great-great grandmother and her artistic siblings on the outskirts of Gilded Age New York high society. Pitched by its publisher as Edith Wharton-meets-Little Women, my main character, Ginny Loftin, is an aspiring novelist caught between the boy next door and a mysterious author who inducts her into Manhattan’s most elite artistic salon. Glitter and glamour aside, the story is really about what it means to be both a woman and an artist, and sounds the emotional depths Ginny is willing explore to protect her art, her family, and her chance at love.
Secret Sisters (Harper, 7.11.17)
This story is based on the founding of the country’s first sororities!
Illinois, 1881: Whitsitt College sophomore Beth Carrington has two goals to fulfill by the time she graduates: obtain a medical degree, and establish a women’s fraternity, Beta Xi Beta, that will help young women like herself to connect with and support one another while attending the male-dominated Whitsitt.
Neither is an easy task. The sole female student in the physicians’ program, Beth is constantly called out by her professors and peers for having the audacity not to concentrate on a more “fitting” subject like secretarial studies. Meanwhile, secret organizations are off-limits, and simply by crowding together in a dank basement room and creating a sense of camaraderie, she and her small group of fraternity sisters risk expulsion.
In order to have the fraternity recognized, she knows she needs help. She turns to the most powerful student on campus: senior Grant Richardson, Iota Gamma fraternity president and the scion of a Whitsitt family—a man she’s only acquainted with because of her longstanding friendship with his fraternity brother Will Buchannan. Staunchly traditional, Grant doesn’t see the purpose of this women’s organization, but captivated by Beth, he agrees to give her a helping hand. What she doesn’t know is how many will stop at nothing to keep her burgeoning organization out of the record books—and who she can actually trust along the way.
As Beth fights for her beloved Beta Xi Beta to be recognized, she will uncover deep secrets about the college and those who surround her, and will have to put both love and friendship on the line so that history can be made.
2. What’s the hardest or best criticism you’ve received, either after your book was published or as you were editing, revising, or getting feedback.
I’ll lead off here by saying that I actually love criticism so long as it’s productive. I have a great group of critique partners who have read my work since my attempts at books that will never ever become real books and their advice is invaluable. I remember sending Fifth Avenue to my friend Renee and she immediately told me that this was “the one”. I trust them immensely and they never hold back if things need to be reworked or changed. I also have a ridiculously smart agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, whose eye is always spot-on, and an editor, Emily Griffin, whose comments always challenge me.
Worst criticism=Goodreads. If you’re an author, resist the urge to look!
3. Funniest (or best or worst) thing that happened during a book signing or book tour?
My Costco signings were always so fun and often hilarious. I think it’s just a consequence of the variety of shoppers, but I had people stopping by my signing table telling me that they can vouch for the fact that UFOs and mermaids exist, that I should write about their grandma’s great-uncle’s cousin who was in the CIA, etc.
4. Describe your writing process. Is it orderly, scheduled, daily? Erratic, middle-of-the-night, gimme-a-piece-of-paper now? Or something in between?
It used to be orderly…sort of. I would put my two kids down for an afternoon nap, rush downstairs and write for an hour in the midst of Minnie Mouse stuffed animals, race cars, and puzzles, but now my three-year-old has quit napping, so I’m still trying to figure out a new routine. Right now it’s pretty erratic.
5. Is there a topic/theme/setting you’re particularly interested in that you’d like to write about in a future book?
I’m interested in everything. Honestly. It’s sort of a downfall. I spend hours looking up historical tidbits that I never actually write about. But, generally speaking, I’m always most interested in American history from the Revolution through World War II. And, I don’t really get very excited about writing well-known historical events. I like taking little-known but remarkable occurrences and giving them a stage.
6. What’s the strangest/most inappropriate place you’ve ever brought a book? (Example, a family dinner, a baseball game, etc.)
I’ve brought books about everywhere you can imagine, but maybe my most frequent inappropriate place is the bathroom when I’m trying to sneak in one more chapter and hiding from my kids.
7. Tell me a few recent books you’ve read that you really liked.
Last Ride to Graceland by Kim Wright—Even if you’re not an Elvis fan, this book is amazing. Kim always writes such compelling stories and Last Ride to Graceland is Southern voice at its finest. I also just had a dream that I was Honey (one of the characters in this book) and I rarely dream. It’s that good.
Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini—I love the depth of Jennifer’s research and this book is just phenomenal. It follows the women involved in John Wilkes Booth’s life and it’s harrowing and gripping and fascinating.
Goodnight From London by Jennifer Robson—This book isn’t out until May, but everyone should pre-order it immediately. Jennifer’s books are always so rich and this one is no different. It’s based in World War II London, and the main character, Ruby Sutton, is an inspiring, strong reporter whose unrelenting passion for her work and those she loves is a wonderful tribute to the real heroines of the press during the war.
8. Can you name a book you liked that you didn’t think you would? Maybe because of the subject matter, or an author you didn’t think you enjoyed, or a genre you weren’t used to reading.
To be honest, I’m sort of a reading wimp. I generally stick to women’s fiction or historical fiction, but, interestingly enough, some of my critique partners write thrillers and fantasy and I LOVE reading what they write.
9. What are your pet peeves as a reader—something you read in books that really bugs you?
I REALLY dislike accents that aren’t done realistically. It just zaps you out of the narrative.
10. Books: print or e-reader? Similarly, calendar: paper or electronic?
Paper all the way! I actually don’t have an e-reader or an electronic calendar.
11. Chocolate or vanilla?
12. Coffee or tea? Or something else?
Coffee with coconut cream.
13. Tell us what you’re working on now.
I’ve just started working on a really really fun project—my first attempt at dual POV. It’s set in West Virginia in the 1830s.
Thanks Joy, and thank you for reading!