In Maud’s Circus, Michelle Rene’s fictionalized story of historical figure Maud Wagner, the first female tattoo artist in North America, the author brings to life a strong and passionate woman making her own way in a late-19th- and early-20th-century society. As a teenager, Maud Stevens runs away from home to join a circus as a contortionist and aerialist. After meeting the practical and loving tattoo artist Gus Wagner, she lets him tattoo her. She’s instantly hooked on getting inked and learns the art of tattooing herself. A commanding presence in her illustrated body, Maud tattoos other women, empowering them in the process. Rene spoke to BookLife about folding historical content into her bold saga of an inspirational woman.
What about Maud’s story inspired you to write about her?
When I saw the photographs of her covered from neck to ankle in tattoos, how could I not write about her? During the turn of the century, in a time when wearing a bathing suit to the beach could get you arrested, this woman had the audacity to be a human art gallery. I’m an artist by trade and education. Even though I’ve never gotten a tattoo, I’m fascinated by them. I love their beauty and what they mean to people. When I looked at that famous portrait of Maud that’s on the cover, I couldn’t help but wonder what each of her tattoos meant to her.
With the scant historical information about Maud, how did you determine what part of her life could be fictionalized?
A good deal of my information came from tattoo and circus history sources, which overlapped quite a bit. One book was a wonderful reference: Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin. When writing historical fiction in general, I try to pinpoint one of the universal truths like love stories, tales of bravery, corrupting paths of greed, and epic tales of adventure. These archetypes transcend culture. I tend to focus on everyone’s undeniable need for family in my writing. Each step of the way, I placed myself in Maud’s shoes and knit together the facts I knew with a story that I invented. It became such a personal experience that I cried while writing parts of it. I don’t think I’ve ever put so much of myself in a book before.
Maud is such a free spirit. How did you craft the character?
She’s sort of an amalgam of all the strong women in my family and the headstrong artists I know. There’s also a dash of me in there. But, no matter how outspoken or brave you are, there are still insecurities and fear underneath, those inner battles that are hidden behind a big personality. I wanted to show that in Maud. She has so much grief and hurt, but she sets the world on fire anyway, making history.
What motivates Maud to help the women of her time, who are so restricted by society’s expectations?
Maud found her calling and place in the world, but she never turns her attention away from the countless women she sees suffering. Maud’s tattoo tent is her little universe wherein she has all the power she needs to grant her brand of healing. Her friend Dora helped her when she needed it, so Maud does the same for the lost souls she finds. Sometimes all you need is the knowledge so you can fight back to change your fate.
Why did you highlight the special mother-daughter relationship between Maud and Lotteva?[The real-life]
Maud never wanted her daughter to get a tattoo. She only relented after Lotteva’s father died. Why? In writing this book, I interviewed a lot of people about their tattoos and why they got them. It’s where I got the main themes in the book: stories about healing, taking back your body, remembrance, and defiance. Maybe Maud never wanted her daughter to have to get a tattoo to heal, to live a pain-free life. Being the only child of a single mother, and a mother myself, this resonated with me. I dedicated this book to my mother.
Why was it important to depict the historical surroundings of the circus as accurately as possible?
I wanted you there, smelling the ink and tasting the food on the air. Maud’s Circus is a long book, but I wanted it to read like it wasn’t. My goal was to make it so immersive that the reader forgets where they are. When you write about something in history, it’s your duty to make the place feel real to your audience. Maud had a spectacularly bizarre way of life, and I wanted to make sure I captured it.
How did you depict the evolution of the circus in relation to the historical events in the book?
You can’t paint a proper image of the circus without touching on the milestones that altered it. As the economic fortunes of America changed, so changed the circus landscape. I always try to paint the history as it was, nuance and all. Shows like Cirque du Soleil keep the art alive, and tattooists have moved to their own parlors to do business. The art is still there.
Lorraine Savage is a freelance writer from New England.