"The Chaperone" by Laura Moriarty. (Riverhead / Handout, The…)
It's difficult to imagine what Laura Moriarty's four novels would have been like if she had chosen a place to live other than Kansas, with its endless wheat fields and abundance of ordinary light.
Moriarty, 42, focuses her gaze on the most common, everyday things in the world — a single mom cooking a grilled cheese sandwich, a visit to the convenience store — and finds in them characters and events of remarkable depth, complexity and variety.
Though the author is a Marine's daughter who was born in Hawaii and spent her childhood in places renowned for their physical beauty, she decided as an adult to settle in Kansas.
"We moved so much as a kid that all I could think about was that when I grew up, I was going to stay in one place," says the author, who teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas.
"I went to the place where the people who grew up there couldn't wait to leave. I love the geography of eastern Kansas, with its rolling hills and big sky. Politically, Kansas can be very frustrating, but I feel frustrated with it in the same way that you can feel frustrated at a family member. That contrast creates a beautiful tension that enriches my work."
Moriarty's 2003 debut novel, "The Center of Everything," took 12 years to write and netted the fledgling author a book contract in the middle six figures. Her fourth novel, "The Chaperone," is based loosely on the life of silent-film star Louise Brooks and has been optioned for film by actress Elizabeth McGovern of "Downton Abbey" fame.
Moriarty visits Baltimore on Friday to read from "The Chaperone" at the Ivy Bookshop.
The Sunflower State seems to have had a profound influence on your work.
There's a lot of humility in Kansas, because it's kind of a joke. Kansas is the state in the union that's visited the least by tourists, and everyone who lives here knows it. In some ways, that makes us less provincial because we know there are other ways of being. We don't strut around thinking that we've got it made.
My characters are like Kansas in that they're the kind of people who are easily dismissed. Someone like Cora [the heroine of "The Chaperone"] or Evelyn [the narrator of "The Center of Everything"] could be written off as boring or unsophisticated. But there's so much more going on beneath the surface.
All of your novels feature girls or women in their late teens or early 20s. What about that age intrigues you?
For me, the time when you take control of the reins of your own life is a fascinating time. It happens most often in late adolescence, but it can happen at any age. Evelyn begins to form a philosophy of life when she's 10. Cora is 36 when the novel starts.
What was the inspiration for "The Chaperone"?
I was browsing in a bookstore and I started flipping through a book about flappers, and I got to the section on Louise Brooks. I hadn't known she was from Kansas. She seemed to be a lot like the way she looked — beautiful, dark, brooding, really smart, kind of mean because she didn't suffer fools, hard to work with and self-defeating.
And she really did leave Wichita at age 15 to study in New York. She was accompanied on the train by a middle-aged neighbor woman her mother had talked into being her companion. And I thought, "Wouldn't I like to go on that ride?"
I purposely didn't find out too much about the neighbor because I wanted to invent her character. I really like the idea of intergenerational tension, especially at a time when fashions and social mores were changing overnight.
Did you do a lot of research?
A ton. I had to research what New York was like in the 1920s and what Kansas was like then, what people wore every day. That was hard. You can't look it up on the Internet because all you get are pictures of flappers. Finally, I found an old catalog from a department store.
I also did a lot of research into the orphan trains that transported children from crowded cities like New York to foster homes in the country.
I wanted Cora to have her own reason for making the trip to New York. I wanted her to be more complex and less provincial than Louise ever guessed.
Your first career was in social work. Did that background make you a better writer?
Well, I do think they're related. Both social work and writing a novel teach you a lot about empathy and trying to understand what makes people do the things they do. You have to understand how people get into messes and how they might get out of them.
How did you make the transition from case worker to novelist?
I've been writing stories since grade school. I loved telling stories and I loved reading, but I always wanted to do something useful and tangible. Authors don't help people the way a social worker or a doctor does. Writing a novel isn't the same as giving someone a tracheotomy.