Scharer’s first novel, The Age of Light (Little, Brown, Feb.), is a chronicle of the romantic and working relationship between the surrealist Man Ray and model-turned-photographer Lee Miller.
You began research on this novel after seeing an exhibit on Man Ray and Lee Miller at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., in 2011. What about that show inspired you to look into their relationship?
They did a really good job of having these artifacts that highlighted Man Ray’s jealousy. They had this page, which I reference in the novel, on which he wrote her name on a piece of paper again and again and again. I kept trying to picture a grown man doing that. And then there was that piece of his called Object to be Destroyed, which is a metronome with her eye cut out of a photograph and these instructions to smash it to bits. They had a lot of that sort of stuff sprinkled in with these very tender photographs of her and her own work. It felt rich and complex and so much more interesting than I thought it would be before I walked in the door.
What did you want to capture about Lee in your version of her?
I started from a place of wanting to do justice to how forward-thinking and confident and career-focused she was. It was important to me that I not present her as this little wilting flower or this fluffy, you know, 1920s model, because she was so much more than that. Sometimes in historical fiction the women come off as passive, and she was just so active. Like giving up her modeling career, moving to Paris, taking action at all these different points in her life in a way that felt really modern to me. I also thought about how it would feel to have been objectified by your dad and other men from some of your earliest memories, and how that would shape the way you saw the world and yourself within the world as well as your relationships with all men going forward. So it’s this balancing act between her confidence and this fragility that underlies it that I found fascinating.
What were some of the challenges of working on this project?
Knowing when you’ve done enough to make the scene come to life. The research is tricky, because you can easily go down a rabbit hole and do research forever and ever. So that was a learning curve for me—because I like research, but what that ends up becoming in most cases is procrastination. I also didn’t have access to any documents in the archive, which was kind of a bummer, but also good in a way, because it allowed me to just imagine her the way that I wanted to write her.