Nancy Horan talks about her research and the inspiration for her new novel, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne.
What drew you to Stevenson and Osbourne’s story?
The spark of inspiration came when I was visiting the Monterey area [of California] and learned that Robert Louis Stevenson had lived there for a few months in 1879. What was the Scottish author doing in Monterey? Turns out he had fallen in love with a married Californian woman 10 years his senior, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne. He’d come over to the U.S. to try to persuade Fanny to go through with a divorce and to marry him. At the time, R.L.S. was a skinny, near-penniless, 29-year-old unknown with a chronic lung ailment, and the long voyage to California nearly killed him. Fanny, a fiery, intrepid sort, eventually married him. They spent their honeymoon camped out in an abandoned mining shack on Mt. St. Helena in Napa. That was enough story to hook me, but the more I learned about these two vastly different people, the more I wanted to know. Their life together was joyful and thorny, and as adventurous as the lives of Stevenson’s most romantic characters.
What kind of research did you do?
I always use primary sources, in addition to reading biographies and other materials. Though Stevenson was often confined to bed, he produced some 13 novels, dozens of stories and essays, several travel books, and lots of poetry. His letters fill eight volumes; he was brilliantly funny and perceptive. I read Fanny’s unpublished letters, visited the California sites where they spent time. I stayed in R.L.S.’s boyhood home in Edinburgh, which is now a B and B. Stevenson’s father was a lighthouse designer who built a posh bathroom adjoining his bedroom after Fanny teased him for being a famous engineer with substandard toilet facilities. I visited the Hotel Chevillon in France, where Fanny and Louis met, and their home in Hyeres, where they shared some of their happiest years. I didn’t visit their home in Samoa, which is now a museum.
R.L.S. was at times self-centered and histrionic in a way that could have made him difficult to live with. Fanny was mercurial, occasionally petty, and her manner of communicating in letters was sometimes off-putting. She had a problem being treated as merely the supportive spouse; she wanted to be great, too. Their flaws are integral to the conflict in the book, and by contrast, amplify their courage, humor, and decency.
Have you ever faced their dilemma of trying to balance two creative lives?
I’m married to Kevin, a photographer whose career has put him on the campaign trail with presidential candidates and sent him on assignment to far-flung places for long periods of time. It was sometimes rough when our children were small, and I was beginning to write in earnest. It was a struggle to find time. Yet there was never competitiveness between us. Kevin has always been my biggest supporter. I don’t know if true balance is possible. It’s more a process of taking turns.