After writing numerous science and history books for children, Phillip Marguiles follows the remarkable life of a madam in his first novel, Belle Cora.

What inspired you to write a novel after years of nonfiction work?

Mine is really an extreme case. Before I wrote Belle Cora, I wrote eight other novels, and they’re all lying around my apartment. Every job in my life has been to not let my family starve while I write this novel. I wrote nonfiction the way an actor waits tables.

How did you get the idea for Belle Cora?

Several years ago I was on vacation in the Catskills, and I was reading Frontier Women by Julie Roy Jeffrey. And I came upon the story of Belle’s encounter with Mrs. Richardson, the marshal’s wife, in the American Theater in San Francisco in 1855. Belle, a madam, had been considered respectable a few years earlier, when women were very scarce and most of them were prostitutes. But now, like luggage that arrives late, the good Christian women had come west, bringing their values with them. The rules were changing. That was interesting. What do people do when the rules change on them? Belle, it seemed, put up quite a fight. I grew to like her, and I wanted to write about her.

How did the triangle between Belle, Agnes and Jeptha take shape?

I wanted Belle to have an antagonist—really, she needed a villain. I wanted the strongest people in her life to be other women. It felt right to me to give her a rival and a substitute mother who was inadequate, who withheld the love Belle thought she was entitled to.

The novel is about shame. Guilt comes from within, but shame comes from outside you. Belle is always moving to new environments. She comes to a new town and hasn’t really changed, but suddenly she’s a bad girl who can’t do anything right. She finds this boy—Jeptha—who has this very solid moral core, and stamps a seal of approval on her and gives her back her self-esteem. Throughout the novel, she tries to hold on to that, and sometimes loses it, and tries to regain it.

Why did you decide to create the history of the manuscript, faux frontispiece and all?

There were a lot of things that were immediately very convenient in posing it as an old lady writing her memoir. I knew I’d be explaining how things were in the old days, and it was easiest to have an old person do that. She’s addressing a younger generation. Because of the kind of women Belle is, it would be a defense, often looking back in anger.

She wrote so long ago—what happened to this manuscript? It was either discovered in an attic or had a publishing history. I found I could use this history to evoke other elements of the time that aren’t in the novel. I wanted it to feel as if we’re descending in a bathysphere down and down through layers of time. I think also it helps to evoke Belle’s character—the family tries to suppress her, but they fail. Even in death, she’s formidable.