Accompanying oneself on the journey of life: An interview with Laura Moriarty

Laura Moriarty

Flapper-era film actress Louise Brooks infamously couldn’t be controlled, even at 15. But don’t expect “The Chaperone” — in part based on Brooks’ biographies — to be a “Taming of the Shrew” adaptation. Author Laura Moriarty’s fictional account of Cora — a middle-aged housewife who accompanies the would-be star from Wichita, Kansas, to a New York City dance audition in 1922 — is instead a tale of self-discovery and self-preservation. Although the unlikely pair’s escape from the doldrums of Midwestern life is mutually beneficial, what Cora yields from their turbulent relationship is invaluable: the courage to think rationally and see things the way they are, rather than accept what she’s been taught. Sincere and engrossing, the novel has already been optioned for film by “Downton Abbey” actress Elizabeth McGovern. We talk with Moriarty about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the beginning, Cora and Louise distinguish their opinions on what else but historical fiction. Louise finds it false; Cora, rapturous.

When Louise voices that opinion — that’s what people who don’t read it think. But Cora talks about how moving it can be to think and feel, see and smell worlds gone by. It helps me look more effectively at modern times. You realize that this, too, is just a passing moment. Our values now might seem passé someday.

What attracted you about the 1920s?

The generation gap then must have seemed so vast. A woman like Cora who came of age 20 years before Louise would have been wearing a corset, a long dress, had long hair and her sexual morals would have been very conservative. Years later, Louise wears dresses a foot shorter, she’s showing her arms, she’s cut her hair. And she has different attitudes about what she can do as a woman. Everything was changing.

Louise represents a progressive culture. As a suffragist married to a closeted gay man, Cora doesn’t exactly represent the opposite. Major cultural shifts are happening now, too.

The commonalities surprise me. Cora gets very involved in birth control issues. She has to talk to a man about it, and she fears what he’ll think of her. I remember thinking when writing the novel a couple of years ago that everybody uses birth control [nowadays], and it’s not something that women should be punished or labeled for. Then [the issue came up] in 2012! The reason Cora can’t talk to her doctor about her body — 100 years later, it’s the same. And with her marriage — we have this nostalgic view of the past, like everybody was the Waltons. There were gay people then, too. How many generations had to hide who they were and make crazy arrangements to make things work? We have no idea when we look at sepia-toned family portraits. Relationships were probably more complicated than anyone knew.

Cora seeks her identity in NYC, a place where she’s alone and unable to seek validation from friends, family or even Louise.

In a place where no one has any former impressions of you, you can really be whoever you are. It’s liberating — but it’s also frightening, because so much of our identities are rooted in how other people see us. As difficult as [Cora's] time in New York is, it’s the difficulties that make her grow. I didn’t want the book to be about Louise teaching Cora to be free. Cora is more complicated, and Louise turns out to be not as confident as she appears.

Do you agree with Cora that spending time with younger folks “is a big payoff for all the pain”?

I teach, so I spend a lot of time with people who are 19 to 25. I’m 42 — that’s about the age difference between Cora and Louise. [Students] can be so maddening, condescending and rude. Louise is terrible to Cora but she has to endure it; it’s an admission worth paying for. I’ve tapped into Cora’s feelings by having felt similarly about working with young people. I notice professors in their 70s or 80s who are still teaching. They’re more engaged and current because they’re constantly interacting with young people. It keeps you young.


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