I’m very happy to re-introduce our global village of readers to Paulette Mahurin, the author of The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, which made it to Amazon bestseller lists and won awards, including best historical fiction in 2012 in Turning the Pages Magazine. Although semi-retired, Paulette is by no means taking life easy. Her new book, To Live Out Loud, is a fascinating historical fiction about what it means to be a friend when the personal costs of that friendship become increasingly high. In addition to her writing, she works part-time as a Nurse Practitioner in Ventura County, does pro-bono consultation work with women with cancer, works in the Westminster Free Clinic as a volunteer provider, and volunteers as a mediator in the Ventura County Courthouse for small claims cases. As if all this wasn’t enough, she and her husband are actively involved in and support dog rescue. Profits from her books go to help rescue dogs. Welcome Paulette!
Interviewed by Debbie A. McClure
Q When did the Dreyfus Affair first pique your interest?
A When I was writing and researching my first book, The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap, I looked up events that happened in 1895, the year Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for the criminal act of indecency. The topic of my storyline was intolerance and persecution. I found out that 1895 was a great year for prejudice and intolerance worldwide.
Not only was homophobia raging out of control in England with Oscar Wilde being thrown in prison for two years, but anti-Semitism was alive and well in France with Alfred Dreyfus being falsely accused as a traitor and thrown in Devil’s Island for life.
Over here in the U.S. racism was going wild as Booker T. Washington fought for blacks to be allowed in schools with his famous Atlanta Address. I became fascinated with the Dreyfus Affair at that time.
Q The research is clearly vast. Which were the best resources?
A Multiple books, especially one written by the son of one of Zola’s publishers, Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, Émile Zola Novelist and Reformer: An Account of his Life Work. I used multiple websites to gain an understanding of Jewish history in France during that time, which is where I found the one sentence I quoted from Dreyfus, “when will I kiss you again” (paraphrase) in his letter to his wife, Lucie. I found the transcript of the Zola Libel trial and used that. There are too many sources to reference here, but suffice it to say that my eyes were sore from all the reading.
Q Government Corruption and prejudice can probably be found in any era and in every country. Do you see yourself tackling the topic again?
A If there’s a historical situation, a person, or an event that moves me, then yes. I’ve started a brief outline and first chapter on a book called, The Seven Year Dress, about a woman I rented a room from while I attended college.
When I first met her I noticed the numbers on her arm. During my time living with her, I heard her story and became intrigued. There are so many incredible historical stories and events to draw from, like Florence Nightingale being lesbian and serving men at war. Right now, I’m just not sure.
Q Do you have a favorite Historical era?
A I’m fascinated by ancient Greece, when hubris was a crime and Socrates was put to death for it. I’m also fascinated by the early 18th century, when Thomas Payne wrote The Age of Reason, which challenged institutionalized religion and the legitimacy of The Bible. Not that I’m against any religion, it is just a fascinating time when freedom of speech and liberties is highlighted. Of course there are the paradoxes and dichotomies of every generation who oppose forward thinking. However, when the wave moved high for tolerance, those are the times that interest me, like the Dreyfus Affair, which changed a nation.
Q Injustice and Bigotry were also the subject of your novel The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap. How did the topic become a passion?
A I think it’s just my nature; to want to help the little guy, the underdog, the downtrodden, especially when there’s unjust intolerance. If an action isn’t hurting anyone, then let it be. How are gays hurting? Who are Jews hurting? Who are blacks hurting?
Q Monsieur Charles Mandonette; the fictional narrator in To Live Out Loud feels very authentic for the era. You made him a childless bachelor, so I’m curious; after all the serious research, how did you come up with the character? Was he always the planed original voice for the book?
A Initially I wanted to write from the prospective of Lucie Dreyfus or a friend of hers, but it was too hard to unleash any information about her. The love letters between Lucie and her husband have been circulating Jewish museums, but I couldn’t view any of them on-line.
There was a paucity of available information about Lucie, and what little I did find I included in the book. Because of this scarcity, I went for a friend and confidant of Zola’s, which was modeled after a real confidant and friend, Henry Vizetelly. Vizetelly kept a long running journal of his time with Zola, including being present at the libel trial. The idea of a confidant of Zola’s was then more plausible as a protagonist and narrator. Once I got into his voice, the rest flowed organically.
Q We all know that life teaches us many lessons. What has been the hardest personal or writing-related lesson for you to learn, and why?
A Close to eighteen years ago my husband and I moved to Ojai, California. Two weeks after arriving, I went to the local animal shelter and met a dog. Tazzie was a ten month old Rottweiler with a broken femur. I took her home with me and our love affair began. This was also the start of the most challenging physical debacle my body has incurred in this lifetime. Tazzie came with ticks, and one of them latched onto me. Two days later, my left side developed a huge bull’s-eye rash, clinically diagnosed as Lyme Disease. I was treated with antibiotics, but six months later I woke up with crippling Monoarticular left knee arthritis. The orthopaedic surgeon did blood work, an MRI, etc. The diagnosis: Lyme Disease. It was confirmed. In addition to the arthritis, my body weakened with meningitis, cardiac valve involvement/enlargement, and other odd bodily things. My right arm became paralyzed, as did my left facial muscles, etc. These symptoms went on for years, throwing me into a depression. All this time, Tazzie was by my side, seemingly the only light in the dark crevice my life had become. It was her vigilance over me that started the glimmers of gratitude. What good was left hadn’t been ripped from my life. Slowly I regained ninety percent of my health. As fate would have it, just as I was getting healthier, she lay dying in our home. There has never been a more profound life-changing experience for me with regards to my health, suffering, coming through in a newfound place of gratitude, and having a friend—Tazzie—who taught me more than any other teacher or life lesson before her.
Q There is far more to writing a good novel than most people will ever realize. What is the most difficult aspect of writing for you, and why?
A Sitting down in the chair and doing the work. Showing up. Continuing to show up, and then when it gets so tiresome that I want to stop, to quit, persevering by doing what the Nike commercial says, “Just Do It!” So I continue, despite all temptation not to, despite wanting to burn every piece of paper on the planet when going through the editing phase, despite hating those times of excruciating feedback from editors, publishers, etc. As with any work, there are the good days and the bad, the ups and downs, the joys and crap, but ultimately hanging in there, going through it all, “the process” is rewarding. It’s a good feeling to look back and say, “Yup, I did it. I hung in there and look what happened. A book was born.”
Q Writing historical fiction requires huge amounts of research that can feel a little like falling down the rabbit’s hole. How do you decide what to include or not include in your story and characters?
A I think the story decides for you and you ride along on the sense that it’s enough. Then of course there are the editors who scream that reality so loudly that if you don’t obey, don’t cut back, you receive their wrath until you do. I’ve worked with an editor from Simon & Schuster, a minimalist who is a wordsmith cutter. It’s been a downside with some readers who want more, but then you can’t make everyone happy. You just do your best, work with people who are professionals and who you trust to guide you, and put your product out there.
Q Many writers of historical fiction struggle with blending fact and fiction in a way that tells the intended story, yet stays true to certain elements of time and place. How do you tackle the art of weaving fact and fiction in your historical novels?
A My first novel was more storyline with the historical facts as background. It centered on the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, and I added facts into conversations from the characters living the storyline. Historical facts about time-related things went into scenery and the narrative as back story. With my third book, I really stayed with the Dreyfus/Zola history because it is one of the most profound historical stories about intolerance in France’s history. I didn’t want to add much to it. I used the vehicle of a friend of Emile Zola’s (one of his publisher’s in fact) to give a fictionalized voice to the narration, and parts where history was scanty, like Zola’s death. With this book, again the reviews are mixed. Some readers feel it is true to the facts and is accurately portrayed, while others want more dramatization from the characters. I didn’t want to add a lot of false/fiction to Zola, to Dreyfus, to Dreyfus’ wife or brother, to Esterhazy, or other historical figures. With the protagonist, Charles Mandonette, the narrator, I took liberties.
Q It is often said that writing is not for the faint of heart. What advice would you give to new writers just starting out on this crazy journey?
A What defines a writer is writing. Sit down in that chair and just do it. Whether it be an hour, a day, once a month, a writer writes. Don’t worry about the editing process or how good it reads, just tell your story and leave the editing up to the professionals. I do suggest working with a really good creative and line editor to give shape and validity to the writing. Readers are turned off by poor grammar or juvenile writing. They don’t want to pay money for it. There’s a big difference between telling a story and making it look professional. We all know how to tell stories. Just sit down in that chair and tell yours. The editor will help shape it to look good and read well.
Q Who has been your greatest personal or writing mentor, and why?
A I’m very fortunate to live in a small town that’s a Hollywood bedroom community with lots of talent living among us. I took a class by one such person, a stage and screenwriter whose work has made it to the stage. She encouraged me to write and gave me feedback that was very helpful in developing scenes and continuity of storyline for flow. It was her genteel, positive way that made me feel I could do it. One of the best things I learned from her is to not listen to the critic inside my head. It’s never accurate anyway.
Q For many people, writing is a personal journey, or a calling. What has writing taught you about yourself, and why?
A Writing can be fun, a purging, and serve many functions. On a personal level, it’s given me the space between what’s in my head that stimulates all sorts of chemical reactions in my mind and body. In that space, I can see. It’s breathing room. Without that space, it’s just me over here experiencing something that passes, without reflection or understanding. This is not to say I don’t have self-reflection without writing, that wouldn’t be true, but writing puts it out there and gives the vision greater clarity.
Q So, what’s next for you, Paulette?
A Thanks for asking. While attending UCLA, I roomed with a woman who was a concentration camp survivor. As time progressed, she opened to me about the atrocities she’d witnessed, including the loss of her family. As you can well imagine, there are stories within stories as she shared this unthinkable time with me. The working title, The Seven Year Dress, is derived from her telling me she wore the same dress for seven years.
You can find and connect with Paulette here:
Press article on Paulette’s book profits going to help dogs get out of kill shelters: http://www.vcstar.com/news/2012/sep/08/ojai-authors-historical-novel-teaches-tolerance/