Debut novelist H.S. Cross is not exactly foreign to the limelight—as a teen she was an anchor on a television show in Michigan called Kids World Magazine—so she knows the obvious prepublication question about Wilberforce (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Sept.), her debut set in St. Stephen’s English boarding school after WWI. It is: how did an American girl became obsessed with British public schools? “I don’t really know the answer to that,” she says, but English boarding schools and the literature about them have been her obsession for as long as she can remember.
At Harvard, she studied theater and took a playwriting course with Adrienne Kennedy. She struggled with the idea of “real writing vs. good girl writing” until she and theater “got a divorce,” and she started working at the famed Friends Seminary in Manhattan. But all the while she formed stories about an English boarding school without any idea how to publish them and eventually stepped back from full-time teaching to tutoring and write the stories she imagined. When she concentrated on the writing, this minor character named Morgan Wilberforce—who the author thought was going to be mean but still found attractive—began to emerge as the center of her novel.
At 17, Wilberforce faces a crisis at the same time St. Stephens and the post-WWI English way of life is in crisis. Comparisons to Hogwarts are inevitable, and Cross says she admires how J.K. Rowling brought fantasy into the English boarding school genre. But Wilberforce, says Cross, also presents the adult teachers’ point of view, which was directly influenced by her own teaching days. “When you create a school, it’s a mini-world,” says Cross. “It’s this pressure cooker.” The crisis Wilberforce faces is emotional, sexual, and spiritual, explains the author, but being set in 1926, she believes she could write about sexuality more in terms of love and longing in the classic tradition and less about orientation and identity seen in its treatment today. “There’s a tenderness about it because WWI was so traumatic,” she says. “I love being in that world.”
Long after she hatched a childhood obsession with English boarding schools, Cross married a Brit reared in that tradition. Her husband died suddenly several years ago, and Cross says her bereavement informed some of the most emotional parts of the plot in Wilberforce. Her British stepson, she adds, served as her cricket adviser. As for the characters in Wilberforce, Cross insists there are more stories to come, and FSG is marketing Wilberforce as the first part of a series, with huge in-house buzz comparing the author to Evelyn Waugh and Donna Tart.
Conventioneers can pick up a galley today at 9 a.m. at the FSG booth (3056).
This article appeared in the May 29, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.