Jill Morrow’s Newport sends us to the glamorous and wealthy Newport, Rhode Island, of the glitzy 1920s inside a spectacular mansion filled with secrets. Adrian, a debonair lawyer and former resident, has returned to handle a will and encounters the secrets of the Chapman family while dealing with his own murky history. With elements of mystery and dark humor and a cast of distinctly drawn characters, Newport succeeds in bringing the 1920s to life in a finely wrought setting. The New York Times bestselling author Beatriz Williams noted, “A delicious plunge into the gilded lives and mansions of another era, Newport sends you swimming through an intricate mystery involving money, tragedy, bittersweet love affairs, and voices from beyond, until you arrive at the whirlwind ending. It’s everything you need for literary escape: a ripping good read.”
Local author Jill Morrow has worked in various fields, including practicing law and singing with local bands. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Towson University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Baltimore School of Law. Meet Jill at The Ivy Bookshop on July 8 at 7 p.m. and get to know her there as she answers questions about her novel, writing and Baltimore of course!
BTC: What inspired you to tell a story set in the upper echelons of 1920s Newport society?
Jill Morrow: I wanted to set this story in an era where individuals were particularly vulnerable to the lure of séances and the supernatural. 1921 fit that bill. Following the end of World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, people were desperate to contact their lost loved ones, and spiritualism experienced a surge in popularity that cut across social class.
Newport appealed to me as a setting because it really had everything needed to enhance this story. There was the beauty of the ocean, the danger of the rocks, the magnificent mansions …and an iconic social class which several characters in the novel longed to join.
BTC: Adrian is at the heart of the story and is a fully developed character who the reader empathizes with immediately. Was it difficult getting inside the head of a man to present an honest portrayal of his emotions and development?
JM: Adrian arrived with a story to tell. He was, in fact, the first character in Newport to introduce himself to me. His story unfolded slowly, so I never quite knew where it was going. I was so immersed in each layer revealed along the way that it never struck me that I was writing from a man’s perspective. To me, it was just Adrian’s story, and I wanted to get it right.
BTC: How long did the novel take you to complete? Describe your writing process. Do you write every day? Where? Who do you use as a sounding board? Are there any must-have beverages or snacks to keep you motivated?
JM: My writing process now is very different than it was when I wrote Newport. With Newport, I had yet to give myself permission to treat writing as much more than a hobby, which meant that a manuscript that would probably have taken about a year-and-a-half to write stretched into three years. Life is different now. I write nearly every weekday, although that doesn’t mean I’m always working on my current manuscript. In general, I prefer to write in the mornings, and I like to leave myself notes to help jumpstart my next writing session. I have a great office at home, but if I’m really stuck, I take myself and a legal pad away from home distractions and walk to a coffee shop. (There should be a seat with my name on it at both Towson Hot Bagel and Panera.) I’m a great believer in long walks, too. They help me think.
I was fortunate with Newport: I had talented critique-group members to use as sounding boards.
I’m a coffee person throughout the morning, but I can’t even open the door to snacks, because I am a chocolate person all of the time!
BTC: You really bring the Newport of the 1920s to life. How involved was your research for the novel?
JM: I research quite a bit, because I want to get not only the facts of a historical story right, but the texture of the time as well. I usually start by researching the bigger picture. What was the state of the world? Who were the world leaders? What new discoveries or products had just hit the market? How did people spend their leisure time? I research just about everything you can think of, from ground-breaking world events to which toothpaste my characters would use.
I like to research. My problem is knowing when to stop researching and start writing – a misleading statement, since I usually find myself researching each new aspect that reveals itself in a manuscript, which makes research an ongoing process throughout the writing of the story.
I should add, though, that no matter how hard I try to be accurate, no matter how often I triple-check my facts, there is always the chance that something incorrect will slip into the story. I cringe in anticipation of that.
BTC: I enjoyed the essays at the end of the book describing the American Spiritualist movement and The Four Hundred. Séances are important to Bennett Chapman. Why was including the spirit world necessary in the telling of this story?
JM: Newport had its roots in an incident I read about years ago. It took place in the late 1860s and involved Victoria Woodhull (who later became the first woman to run for president) and her sister, Tennessee Claflin. These two were the daughters of a con man and a fanatic spiritualist, and it would take more than a brief paragraph to do justice to their vivid lives. In 1870, Victoria and “Tennie” became the first women to open a stock brokerage firm in New York City. They were a success, but whether or not native acumen played into that was open to debate since they were backed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the country. They’d caught Cornelius’ ear at just the right time: He was a superstitious man, still mourning the loss of his beloved first wife, so the sisters began hosting séances for him to “help ease his pain.” Naturally, this arrangement proved fortuitous for all parties involved. The sisters got financial backing, while Cornelius’ broken heart was soothed not only by the séances, but by Tennie, with whom he had an affair. That story started me thinking. At what point do people who grieve become so desperate that they will believe anything? Does anything other than greed motivate the medium? What if the medium is legit, and the messages delivered from “beyond” are real? So, from the very start, the spirit world was in Newport’s DNA. But aside from the obvious plot points, there were subtle benefits to using the supernatural that I didn’t pick up myself until the book was well underway. The spirit world leveled the playing field between classes. In his desperation to hear from his late wife, Bennett Chapman allowed himself to view Catharine and Amy in ways he never would have done otherwise. And all of the characters became vulnerable where “Mrs. Chapman” was concerned, regardless of their class, backgrounds or the secrets they wanted to keep.
BTC: What authors, books or ideas have influenced you? What are you reading now? Is historical fiction a favorite genre? Do you have any favorite historical fiction authors?
JM: I have always enjoyed historical fiction. I’m not sure I could point to any particular authors who have influenced me, but I tend to be drawn to novels where the history doesn’t hijack the story, but instead infuses characters and plots with a sense of time and place.
I just finished The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James and am looking forward to catching up on her other titles. I enjoy Beatriz Williams and Lauren Willig, and am eager to read each of their new summer titles (Tiny Little Thing and The Other Daughter).
I’m currently reading a nonfiction book called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies.
I like looking at my nightstand and seeing a nice stack of books waiting for me. Right now that stack includes Murder at the Brightwell (Ashley Weaver) and Dark Road to Darjeeling (Deanna Raybourn).
BTC: You’ve had a varied career, including working as a lawyer. How did law school and your legal career influence your writing?
JM: My three years of law school were probably my least productive creative-writing years ever. Too many facts jangling in my brain, too much “real life” going on (During those years I also sang in a band, got married and had a baby.) But each life experience has value, not only adding information to my personal databank, but allowing me to understand different approaches and varied patterns of thought. For a writer, that’s invaluable, because it gives me a whole range of choices for fleshing out my characters and their lives.
BTC: What’s the best part about living in Baltimore? I know you sang in local bands. Is that something you still do? Do you enjoy the Baltimore music scene?
JM: Baltimore’s history is rich, varied, and not always pretty, and I’m always fascinated by the way those roots have formed the city’s modern-day personality. I’m also amazed by the fact that no matter where you go in this city, you’re likely to run into somebody you know.
I enjoyed the years I spent singing in bands – can I send a shout-out to Fortune and Mariah here? I left band work to perform in musicals, so it’s really been quite some time since I’ve been involved in the Baltimore music scene. I am woefully out of touch!
BTC: What can readers expect next?
JM: The novel I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Road to You and is set in Hollywood during the years 1930-1934.