By Kathy Day
Somewhere in her basement, Jennie Fields has the first “novel” she wrote when she was 6. It’s a simple reminder of the beginnings for the Nashville-based author who will visit Rancho Santa Fe on Aug. 13 (see box) to talk about her newest work, “The Age of Desire.”
Set mostly in Paris in the early 20th century, the novel tells the story of Edith Wharton’s affair with journalist Morton Fullerton, but it also delves into her sexual awakening and her relationships with her husband Teddy and friend, former governess and secretary Anna Bahlmann.
In a recent phone interview, Fields said that when she wrote her first book, “Lily Beach,” it was a tribute of sorts to Lily Bart, a character in Wharton’s “House of Mirth.”
One of the agents that received the manuscript immediately recognized the connection, she recalled, noting that Lisa Bankoff still represents her.
“I’ve always had a connection to Edith Wharton,” she said. “She always wrote about people affected by society and how they were trapped by it.”
As a girl growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, she said she herself faced expectations that she would be a librarian or a nurse.
“Wait. Why do I have to do that?” Fields said she thought growing up. “I related to (Wharton’s) characters who were stuck in expectations.”
While she admired Wharton’s use of language and “can read her over and over and never get bored,” it would be 20 years from the publication of that first novel before she came to write about her.
“After three books, I was kind of stuck,” she recalled. “I didn’t know what was next.”
But then a chance call with Bankoff changed that.
Fields was visiting Paris and had just walked along the Rue de Varenne where Wharton lived.
“Lisa called and said, ‘I have an idea. Why don’t you write about your favorite author?’”
At that moment, she said, her heart started pounding and she stayed awake all night.
While “Age of Desire” is fiction, Fields chose the genre of a biographical novel to tell the story because “it allows you to live in the person’s skin” and as she puts in on her website,” to read between the lines … It was a delicious puzzle and I very much enjoyed solving it to my satisfaction. I hope I’ve done Edith’s life justice.”
The puzzle included many pieces of research, some of which were found in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, which houses a collection of manuscripts and letters – including love letters, personal papers and other materials from, to and about Wharton. She also spent time in the University of Indiana Library, which holds another collection about the author, including personal diaries about her love affair with Fullerton.
But a key to her work was the somewhat “serendipitous” timing of an online notice that Christie’s was about to auction a collection of Anna Bahlmann letters which had been found in an attic.
“I had already decided that Anna Bahlmann must be important in her life and nobody had written about her,” Fields said, noting that she told the story partially through the governess-turned secretary-turned friend’s point of view.
After seeking permission from the auction house, she was able to read through the letters. She’s also still in touch with Bahlmann’s great grandniece, who transcribed the letters.
“It was such a thrill. Everything I had supposed about her was true.”
The collection was purchased by Yale’s Beinecke Library and Fields went back to read them two more times.
Recently she attended a conference of Wharton scholars in Italy where she read from “Age of Desire.”
She was honored, she said, to have them “acknowledge I had done my research right.”
As Fields was getting ready to hit the road to promote her book, the author who spent 32 years as an advertising agency creative director in New York, talked a bit about her own life and a writer’s aspirations.
She attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for graduate school and “needed to get a job.” That’s when she landed in advertising, where she learned skills such as conserving words, meeting deadlines and being disciplined that she says have helped her as a writer.
She recommends that anyone who thinks they want to go down the author’s path “read like it’s food for your writing” and “write every day, even if it’s about the way your child looks when she’s sleeping or how the sun is shining.”
That way, she added, “writing becomes part of your soul.”
Meet Jennie Fields
• 11:30 a.m. Monday, Aug. 13
• Rancho Santa Fe Library Guild meeting
• 17040 Avenida de Acacias
• 7:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 13
• Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla