Thursday, February 21, 2013

Barbara Corrado Pope, cheeky feminist historian and Oprah pick

HALLIE EPHRON: Historian Barbara Corrado Pope came to mystery writing after a truly illustrious career as a (no, it's not a dirty word) feminist. Founding Director of Women's and Gender Studies at University of Oregon, her wonderful mysteries are steeped in history and twisted by her own uniquely subversive viewpoint.

Her debut novel, "Cezanne's Quarry," asks could Paul Cézanne be a killer, and introduced the world to detective Bernard Martin. Her new novel, "The Missing Italian Girl," is set in Paris in 1897, and Bernard's wife Clarie comes into her own as a sleuth.

Barbara, What was going on in Paris in 1897 that inspired you to set this story there?

I thought Paris would offer me a topic very much up my alley: the women’s movement. I assumed this might be a good way to bring the series (and especially the character of Clarie) to a conclusion. None of this worked out!

The most fascinating characters in the women’s movement didn’t really achieve notoriety until slightly after this period (e.g., Marguerite Durand walking around with her pet lion!). So I fell back on my other historical passion: social classes. Then, things fell into place: anarchism, the labor movement, the plight of poor working class girls, middle class women coming into their own by doing something not fully approved by society.

HALLIE: In all of your books, not so far beneath the surface you are exploring the theme of the role of women within the context of established institutions and expectations. How are you exploring that again -- because the "detective" this time isn't your series sleuth Bernard Martin but his wife Clarie. 

BARBARA:  A number of readers asked, “What happened to Clarie? in ‘The Blood of Lorraine?’” she was grieving the loss of her child and vulnerable to the messages of religious fanaticism. They wanted the young, fierce Clarie of “Cézanne’s Quarry” back. And so did I.

But she’s older now, constrained by the responsibilities of motherhood and profession, so she doesn’t decide all at once to be a detective. It takes her ethnic and maternal identity with a charwoman and her compassion for the poor to give her the courage to go against society and her husband, and pursue the search for Maura Laurenzano, the Missing Italian Girl.

Also, I wanted very much to write a “woman’s book,” in part to see if I could do it. In "The Missing Italian Girl,” Clarie and Maura, who, unlike Clarie, needs to soften some of her harder edges, form a strong identity.

Tell us about the research you did for this book. I hope it involved a trip to Paris.

BARBARA: Are you kidding me? All my friends thought me immensely clever to set a book in Paris. Before going, of course, I did quite a bit of research around the topics that would be explored in my book: women’s and labor history, schooling, and anarchism. But I also knew that the place would inspire me as well.

In contrast to Aix and Nancy (where I researched the previous books), with their historical, relatively unchanged, centers, Paris is ever-changing and big. So, I had to choose a neighborhood for my characters to inhabit.

First, I picked a school for Clarie to teach in. I wanted it to be not the poshest girl’s school in Paris, but a very good one with a “mixed” (Catholic and Jewish, professional and commercial) population. Once I located the school, the Lycée Lamartine, we looked for an apartment near it. We found one two blocks up the street! For those who know Paris, it is the street that divides the 9th from the 10th arrondissement, not very picturesque, but, for Parisians, the “real” Paris.

Then I began to treat the neighborhood like a village, learning the buildings, the slope of the streets and its history. Old photos helped immensely in re-imagining the long-gone aspects of place.

HALLIE: Congratulations on getting picked for Oprah's Book Club as a "Compulsively Readable Mystery." I think I can speak for all the Red when I say we're jealous! Were you sitting down when you found out the book had been picked?

BARBARA: Thanks! Of course I was excited. Since I was at my computer I was already sitting. So I just gave the computer some special cheers! I especially liked the fact that the reviewer, Nathalie Gorman, emphasized the women’s issues that I tried to bring out in the story.

Tell us about what are you working on next?

BARBARA:  Hmmmm. Historical.
HALLIE: Why am I not surprised?

I am drawn to two different topics. The story of Galla Placidia, the last Roman Empress, which I will attempt first to put in play form; and, a semi-autobiographical novel set in my hometown Cleveland, Ohio. My friends who cheered me going to Paris, look at me skeptically and say: “Rome? Cleveland? Is there a choice?”

There’s also the possibility of a fourth Martin book. I might write that women’s movement book after all, carrying it right into the First World War.

HALLIE: So, Reds, are you comfortable being called a feminist? Do you you like to  books that feel as if there's a cheeky (not preachy) broad at the keyboard, not afraid to call it the way she sees it?


  1. This sounds like a fantastic book and I'm so glad to know about it, and about you, Barbara.

    But how to respond to Hallie's question? My first reaction is, "Are you kidding? OF COURSE I'm a feminist." I have been one explicitly since college in the early 70s and by nature my whole life.

  2. I must confess to not having read Barbara’s books, but having read this interview, I am now compelled to seek them out . . . “The Missing Italian Girl” sounds quite fascinating. Mostly I pick books to read because the story appeals to me in some way or because it’s written either by an author I am familiar with or by one whose books I always read. For me, it’s all about the story, not necessarily about the feminism [or lack thereof] of the author. While I am not a fan of folks who try to push their viewpoints down my throat . . . either in real life or in a book . . . I am not at all reluctant to read one written by an author willing to “call it as she sees it” . . . .

  3. Since one of the most compelling reasons for reading is to broaden my perspective, the answer is a resounding "yes". I much prefer a strong viewpoint than a politically correct or wishy washy one, whether I agree with it or not.

    I've also been a feminist my whole life, largely due to the reading I've done. How could you not be?

    Barbara, your books sound wonderful. I'd even read one set in Cleveland! Best of luck.

  4. This does sound like a fantastic book, and the idea of carrying the women's movement story into the First World War is fantastic x2.

    I'm always shocked when someone uses the word "feminist" as an insult. I think it's a compliment of the highest order, particularly when you consider the trials and suffering taken on by women for the most basic equal rights.

  5. My answer, too: OF COURSE I'm a feminist. And yet for the younger generation I wonder if it's such an easy YES...

    It's true, "you've come a long way, baby," but a lot of folks just accept the status quo as a given, not something that was fought for.

  6. Me too, ever since the consciousness raising groups of the early 70's.

    Wonderful interview ladies--can't wait to try this book, Barbara!

  7. Thanks you-all, hard to believe that feminism, to many is the "f" word. I can remember one definition, early on, was simply, to be a feminist is to be skeptical...of lots of things! Well, maybe in today's world, with its anti-science crowd, that's enough of a condemnation. I did worry that I was violating my principles somewhat by killing a woman in the first pages of my first book, but then thought, no, who I am will come through. And eventually readers understood something about the history of violence against women.

  8. Thanks you-all, hard to believe that feminism, to many is the "f" word. I can remember one definition, early on, was simply, to be a feminist is to be skeptical...of lots of things! Well, maybe in today's world, with its anti-science crowd, that's enough of a condemnation. I did worry that I was violating my principles somewhat by killing a woman in the first pages of my first book, but then thought, no, who I am will come through. And eventually readers understood something about the history of violence against women.

  9. Let me see. I'll just check my Women's Studies degree for the F-word. Yup, all cool with me.

    Now if I can just reconcile it with writing erotic romance. For strong women, of course.

  10. Welcome, Barbara. This has been on my TBR list since I heard about it. My Molly Murphy books have developed a strong feminist theme as the series has progressed and coincidentally I am setting the next one in Paris, 1905. If I'd known the research involved, I'd never have tackled it. Every street I need to use has had about 4 names since then. Finding when streets were renamed is a huge chore. But what a place to write about!

  11. Love the ideas behind these books! I'd not been aware of your work, Barbara. Now I'll have to read it.

    Yes, Hallie, as someone who ran a university-community women's center for decades, I do and always will consider myself a feminist. It underlays everything I write from poetry to mysteries.

    But I'm familiar with the young women who'd sneak into the Women's Center when others weren't looking, afraid people would call them 'lesbian' if they saw them. And the alums who came back two or three years later, after disdaining us as "unfeminine," saying "Why didn't you tell us it wasn't fair to women out here in the work world?" (It wasn't our not-telling, but their not-listening that had caused their problems.) I set up the University Women's Leadership Institute to offer chances to learn the skills they needed, like negotiation, contract resolution, finding a mentor, etc. So I am quite aware of the women who see it as the "f" word. *sigh*

  12. Susan D, what could be unfeminist about erotic romance! Especially when we mystery writers engage in the god-like demise of our women characters. And Rhys, I know what you are talking about when it comes to research in Paris. I really had a problem with my Maura L, because she just took off, and went everywhere. Old photos are, of course, a great help and also I was thrilled to find an 1898 Baedeker guide in my university library. I kept that sucker a long time. Linda, the young women will learn....someday....sigh

  13. Feminist? Darn right! My husband asked out early 20s daughter recently what she thought feminist meant. She hemmed and hawed, so he suggested the image of a strident, man hating woman. THAT was, in fact, her image! Imagine her surprise when her dad said he thinks a feminist is one who takes women seriously and that he is one.
    Love that man

  14. Hi Libby, Something else you might tell her. I taught Women's Studies 101 for many years and had many student presentations and guests, and the only time men were truly insulted in my class was when a "house mother" for a sorority was invited in by one of my students, and kept putting down her husband. Just proves you don't have to be a feminist to be a man-hater! (as if we were!)

  15. Libby, your husband sounds like a gem. Yeah, it's interesting how the term has come to have such a negative connotation for young women.

    I was working with an editor recently (not on my novel) and she was questioning a term I'd used: "consciousness raising." What was that? she wanted to know. I couldn't keep my mouth shut. My response: "And how old are you?"

    I was shocked. But really, her readers are just like her so the term ha to either come out or get explained.

  16. Hey Hallie, This is good to know in case I ever go contemporary!

  17. Funny how things converge sometimes. Last week my boss and I were talking about how we still feel as feminist as ever, though we talk about it less and we just accept that some battles have been lost. For example, I still think language really matters because words shape thought; but I've learned to correct only the most egregious word choices, not tilt at windmills.

    I'm surprised no one else has mentioned Jacquelyn Winspear's Maisie Dodd series. They, too, are set in the past but raise lots of wonderfully feminist notions.

  18. Sounds absolutely wonderful, Barbara! I'm looking forward to reading your books. Thanks Hallie for having her here.

    I don't see how any woman cannot be a feminist.


  19. Funny you sould mention Jacqueline Winspear, Susan - her new Maisie Dobbs comes out in MARCH! "Leaving Everything Most Loved" - an when she's here in New England she and I will do an event together. April 4 at the Weymouth Public Library.

  20. Hallie -- thanks for correcting the spelling of both her name and the series! I'm usually better than that....tempted to blame it on my age, but find no comfort in that.

  21. I proudly call myself a feminist. And if anyone calls me a radical feminist, I don't mind that, either.

    If it weren't for "radical feminists" we wouldn't have the right to vote or any of the other hard fought for rights that women now have.

    I get really annoyed when women tell me they're not feminists. I want to say to them, "Okay, then you don't get to vote, and give custody of your kids back to your ex-husband. You only get to see your children if he allows you to. And you now make 20% less than the men who do the same job you do. "

  22. What a sassay wonderful place you JRWers have created for women writers. Thank you for letting me visit. And thank you for reminding
    all of us that feminism (in some form, or under any other name, is here to stay! Barbara