The tight-knit Nevada community of Red River Pass in 1895 may seem like a world apart from Great Britain but when the scandalous news of Oscar Wilde’s conviction on charges of gross indecency ripples across the telegraph wires, the effects are cataclysmic. The town’s self-righteous, God-fearing denizens – especially the womenfolk – just can’t seem to stop talking about the playwright’s perversity, especially insofar as the unsavory memory it conjures about two young males from their own ranks who were once caught in a compromising scenario. Paulette Mahurin’s new novel, The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, does an exceptional job in not only capturing the landscape in detailed brushstrokes but also delivering a plausible cast of characters whose collective objective is to sling mud and muck on others in order to feel better about themselves. Here’s what she has to say on how her novel came about.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
What was your inspiration to research and write this story?
I took a writing class in Ojai, CA, where I live, and the teacher came in with a stack of photos. We were to write a ten minute mystery using one of the photos. The one I took was of two women, huddled very close together, wearing turn of the twentieth century garb, looking fearful. It screamed lesbian couple, afraid of being found out. After that class I couldn’t stop thinking of the initial seed for that story, thoughts, ideas, dialogue kept coming up and I wrote them down which formulated the story. As I researched that time period, I hit pay dirt when I came up with Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment which would serve as the impetus that would generate fear in Mildred Dunlap, the protagonist in the story. When the news of Wilde’s imprisonment hit the small Nevada ranching town she lived in, it stirred up a hornet’s nest of hatred, which she overheard. The town was in a chaotic frenzy of homophobia bigotry and she was afraid it would spill over onto her and her partner, Edra.
What was the actual process you followed to develop the story?
Once I had the initial overview of two women afraid of being found out, I needed to understand why this would be the case, at this time in their life. That’s when I started on the research to see what would come up that might relate to that time, that would explain the change in them. Once I came up with Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, in Britain, for homosexual behavior, the rest was easy. I had to have a conflict to create tension: who would oppose Mildred and why? Josie was born. I needed scenes, what was happening in everyone’s daily lives to fit the story into, and what would be some good side stories to move things along with depth and not pull attention off the action. I did an overview of where I wanted it to go, diagrammed the town, so I’d not lose reference when moving from chapter to chapter and that began my first draft. At that point it was back and forth with write, research, plan, piece things together, a dynamic process. There’s never any ending to the minutiae of research detail, to ensure accuracy so as not to pull the reader off the story.
Who is your book’s target demographic?
Anyone over the age of twelve.
How much familiarity did you have with the circumstances surrounding Oscar Wilde’s trial and conviction?
I was familiar with it and my husband was also familiar with it from law school. We discussed it and I read up on it to get the facts straight. It was a very complicated trial, actually two trials. He was brought to court by the father of his lover, the Marquis de Queensberry, for indecency (Britain had recently changed its laws to make homosexual behavior a criminal offense punishable by two years in a hard labor prison camp, the offense indecency) and in this trial Wilde won. He couldn’t leave well enough alone (he later writes in De Profundis) and counter sues and loses, upon which he goes to prison for two years and lives like he’s in a concentration camp, sleeping on a wooden slab, walking a treadmill six hours a day, eating watery portage, and not being allowed as much as pen and paper.
What prompted you to tie this scandalous news to a small Nevada town so far removed from Great Britain?
The sequence was I had the two women in a relationship and an idea came up to place them on the frontier, to enhance the possibility that there would need to be a clever story line to hide them in this environment. Part of the research involving pioneering and frontier living, brought me to the Donner debacle and how pioneers migrating west took more southerly routes after this, to avoid the elements. This brought me to the Walker Lake region which resonated as a great place to put them, in a small town, where gossip would be a way of life. Oscar Wilde’s news fit into this. It had actually gone out over telegraphs, in fact I found a New York Times article, dated April 5, 1895, in which the news of his imprisonment was publicized with great commentary on the immorality of it all. This was a watershed piece that helped to change the attitude on same sex relationships. It all fit with the ideas as they came with the research.
Do you believe that attitudes toward individuals who are “different” have evolved over the past 100 years or that they are more polarized than ever?
That’s a really good question. The fundamental attitudes of hatred were alive then as they are now. Back then, however, it was a more genteel time, where hostilities were not as overtly in your face, as they are now, but the question you ask speaks to the attitudes, not the behavior. Hatred is in itself inherently polarizing, and where it exists, no matter the time period, then there will be polarity. It’s not easy to compare then and now as far as degree, but what we can compare is the unchanging human condition, not society and the changing acceptance and groups that are more openly liberal for that is a societal change, when we talk about an individual, our insides, then I would say not a lot has changed. “We” harbored hatred, prejudice, bigotry then, as well as now.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned while your storyline was in development?
That if I got out of the way the story would find itself to the page in a much better flow than if I over think it to death and try to put in the things that I want to. I found a lot of great info in doing the research and wanted to include it. I loved the little side track about the Donner party debacle but when my editor read it she told me it sounded like the story had veered into a history lesson, interesting, but completely off the action of the story. I was deflated so I cut. She made me cut more. Pages in the two digits were cut down to one sentence. When I read the story back through, I had to admit that it really moved nicely as opposed to side stepping off into a ton of other historical side bars. This was a really valuable, and surprising, lesson in writing and in life.
Homophobia is a prevalent element in your book but were there other prejudices running rampant as well?
Yes, 1895 was a good year for hatred fodder. One of France’s all time scandals took place around that time, the Dreyfus affair, which divided France as a nation on its views on anti-Semitism. That was the year Booker T. Washington gave his Atlanta Address, which drove racists nuts. And, the Monroe Doctrine was expanded into South America, which fueled hubris. I factored all this into the story line to make the point of prejudice and not have this just be a story of homophobia but rather one of intolerance.
In a historical context, it has always been easier for two women to cohabitate without drawing suspicion than it is for two men, this being a plausible reflection of safety-in-pairs and economics. Given the duration of Mildred and Edra’s relationship and the fact that neither one would ever be perceived as a desirable mate, why did the news about Oscar Wilde escalate their respective fears of discovery?
This is accurate, women friendships were very accepted. Two women could even live together if they could afford to and were considered spinsters. But, were a couple labeled “lesbian” and not just two women who were friends or living together, they were deemed (diagnosed) insane. The treatment was rape, to cure them so they would enjoy sex with a man. This was the air of lesbian persecution at the time. Mildred and Edra were very learned and intelligent women, they would know about this. Max, Mildred’s father, sensed what he needed to do to protect them and so they were educated women. Okay, so they’re living together, with excuses, what changed was the hatred Mildred became aware of that day when she went to town and overheard the news of Wilde’s imprisonment. Nothing had felt personal before but there was something in the air, the energy, the attitude that told her the tide could change for her and Edra. You have to understand that Wilde’s imprisonment actually did this to the GLBT community back then. Research shows that it created a change of attitude from that of a social tolerance, to one of overt hostility, a danger for anyone suspected. Mildred caught it head on and her body screamed to her to watch out, that’s why the psychosomatics occurred so early on in chapter one.
Did you draw on your background as a nurse practitioner to write some of the scenes involving illness?
Yes, especially the scene with the dehydrated baby. And, Mildred’s stress internalizations. And, also the psychological aspects of Edra’s emotional instability, the PTSD eruptions, and Josie’s sociopath personality.
If Hollywood came calling to adapt this book to a film, who would your dream cast be and why?
I would love to see an unknown cast. Great actors but new people. With one exception and that is the role of Gus, I think a perfect Gus would be Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’d put the Hollywood talent behind the direction, like Ron Howard or Jane Campion, or Streisand. I think this is such a novel plot, not a lot of books or films in searches come up with this kind of plot, and it would work well to have the big names relegated to behind the scenes.
What message do you want readers to take away from your book?
What we think of someone is not always accurate, most times it probably isn’t and yet we make these thoughts into realities about someone, think that’s who they are, a uni-dimensional living creature, but no one is like that. Human beings are complex emotional, biochemical, conditioned, functioning conglomerations of cells joined together into organs that make up a body that houses a brain that thinks and identifies in all kinds of illogical, not based on fact, ways. We, as humans, all have emotions, wants, desires, dark aspects/shadows (to use Jung’s term), we all do. If we can see our differences as different and not good or bad then we may be able to get along better instead of wanting to go to war with the difference, to subjugate it or meld it into our way of being. Can we accept differences, suspend beliefs/ideas and embrace these, which all humans possess? If so then the light on tolerance has seen a good day.
How did you go about promoting the book prior to its debut? What marketing techniques are you continuing to use to keep the interest level high and attract more readers?
I didn’t use any marketing before it was out. Once it was out, I e-mailed all my friends, put up a Facebook page, and started to ask how to network. I did what was suggested, left no stone unturned, but really I got lucky… people liked it and the word spread. Someone influential read it and it got press coverage, someone else and it went to an Art Center Literary Branch, and I continued in the trenches to go on every blog site I could, to give books to reviewers, to swap reviews with others, to keep putting myself out there, despite all temptation not to want to. Many, and I mean a lot, have been very helpful in promoting it. I’ve been very lucky.
Each chapter opens with a quote by Oscar Wilde. Which one of this playwright’s many quotes is your personal favorite?
Be yourself, everyone else is taken.
Tell us about why the profits from your book are going to animal rescue.
I had a dog, Tazzie, who lived to be 15+ years. Right around the time she died, I completed the story. We went to a shelter to rescue another dog (a kill shelter) and I was still heartbroken, all those sad faces got to me. I couldn’t bear to see them in cages on death row, for what? Because they were born or were an inconvenience. I wanted to help, but how? We ended up bringing a dog home but I became preoccupied with those faces. It was also around the time the first and only no-kill shelter opened in Ventura County, CA. The light bulb went off that I could use profits from the book to help more, and so I partnered up with the shelter, Santa Paula Animal Rescue Center, and as soon as profits started coming in, I turned them over to them. My husband and I have been into rottweiler rescue for the last 28 years and have a passion for dogs.The more we can help the better we feel. And, lately, I’ve been sleeping very well at night.
Where and when do you do feel the most creative as a writer?
Morning when I am awake and refreshed.
What was your road to publishing like, and what do you know now that you wished you had known then?
It’s been interesting. One of my best friends, a publisher and talented format/editor, (X-NY Journalist) wanted to see this book I was working on. She took it upon herself to jump on board and work with me. Through her it went to press but the printing costs and promotion were out of sight for her, so we took that over. We stayed with her printer until we became aware of CreateSpace and Kindle publishing then switched over to them. That part was easy. The hard part is all the time, all the networking, walking through the process with no compass to direct me and fumbling a lot, but it was okay because my life doesn’t revolve around this book. I’m okay with letting go. I do put in the work because the demand is there right now and it’s doing well, but if and when it ends, than that’s just a phase of my life and I’ll move on. I think that helps keep me grounded in not taking too much too personal. I’ve been blessed with the support and help I’ve gotten, and the success. It’s been in the largest circulating press in Ventura County, Sunday Life Section front page article, been written up in the Ojai Press, Santa Barbara Independent, national magazines, featured by the prestigious Ojai Art Center’s Literary Branch as the read of the month this last July, etc. We did a five day free download to thank everyone who supported it and had just under 19,000 downloads. I’ve been told that’s a really good number. It hit Amazon as their #3 kindle store best seller and has been on the top of the list for searches for “persecution in books”on Amazon.
Who were your favorite authors when you were growing up and how do you feel they influenced your outlook and your writing style?
There were so many but the one that stands out is Steinbeck. When I read Grapes of Wrath, I couldn’t believe how it haunted me, how I couldn’t stop thinking of the Joad family. He took what could have been a mundane boring story and turned it into gold. I’ve never forgotten that, his detail, how he dug into the emotional cellular chemistry to bring forth something remarkable. Of course, others felt the same – it won The Pulitzer.
What are you reading now?
Just finished Suzy Witten’s The Afflicted Girls. She’s masterful and the story is superb, about the Salem Witch debacle.
If you could beam yourself to anywhere in the world (“Beam me up, Scotty!”), during any time in history, where and when would it be―and why?
Spontaneous answer is sitting with Oscar Wilde and picking his brain. I’d also love to speak with Emile Zola about exonerating Dreyfus, for it was he who discovered the letters that were written by the real spies, that the prosecutor had but wouldn’t use. Zola found the data and wrote about it, freeing Dreyfus but it got him kicked out of France. These are the things Kennedy wrote about in, Profiles in Courage. It reminds me of what Viktor Frankl wrote about when he went through his concentration camp experience, that one can have all taken away from them but what they make their attitude. Remarkable people who risked. I would like to know what would I risk for decency. If I were Wilde, or Zola, for instance, what would I have done? That’s what came up.
What’s your best advice to other writers?
A writer writes. Sit your butt down in the chair and do what the Nike commercial says, just do it. It really doesn’t matter if it’s ten minutes or ten hours, if you’re not in the chair banging away on the keyboard then the process isn’t happening.
What’s next on your plate?
I’m into my next novel. A short story I wrote and won an award on while in college about a couple who meet in their oncologist’s office. It’s a tender and very different love story. It was a true story, poignant but also very spiritual, in that they really learned through each other what it meant to be fully alive. I won’t tell you about the outcome, don’t want to spoil it, but not every “terminal cancer” case is, in fact, terminal.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
I am grateful for this opportunity here today, Christina, thank you. And, to anyone who has bought my book, read it, reviewed it, featured me on their blog site, had me on their radio show, or just spread the word about it, I thank you with every cell in body in the name of tolerance. By communicating perhaps we can shine a light on what the heart knows that the mind can never conceive of, all that is possible.
The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap is available on Amazon and Amazon UK. Readers are also invited to visit the author’s Facebook page (and like it!) at