21st June 2018
This month’s guest is the lovely Denitta Ward who has travelled a long way from her Rocky Mountain hideout in Kansas, USA, to tell us about her new novel, Somewhere Still. An historical novelist, she is particularly interested in how women survive and thrive in changing times. (This is a theme I love to explore too!) So, without further ado, welcome, Denitta!
Denitta: Delighted to be here, Lizzie, and to have this opportunity to talk about my work.
Lizzie: Can you briefly describe the story of Somewhere Still?
Denitta: Somewhere Still is a portrait of a young woman making her way in an era of opulence and abundance, at a time of great division and separation. Itteems with resilient characters and takes you back to the Roaring Twenties to a city known as ‘Paris on the Plains’, alive with jazz clubs, speakeasies, and a burgeoning Prohibition bootleg trade. This time and place also deliver a rich tale of women’s social groups changing their corner of the world, the birth of baseball’s Negro League, and fast changes that bring traditional social mores into question. It was a time when the rules were clear and made to be broken.
From the day Jean Ball lands a job at the elegant Empire hotel, she quickly learns the secrets of the entitled class. Dazzled by a Roaring Twenties society on the cusp of radical change, this naive and innocent young woman finds herself dancing, bobbing her hair, and falling for Elden Whitcomb, the handsome son of the wealthy hotel owner. The stakes rise when the Whitcombs’ powerful secrets are revealed and loving Elden comes at a price – one that may be too high for Jean to pay.
Shattered and alone, Jean’s in the battle of her life in a city alive with romance, smoky speakeasies, jazz music and scandal, but divided by race and class. With the help and encouragement of influential women, Jean may find what she has always needed, though her choices could echo through generations. But will the man she trusted and so fiercely loves redeem himself?
Lizzie: What is the most significant event for you in the story of Somewhere Still & why?
Denitta: There are some surprises in the book that I can’t give away. I am disappointed when spoilers leak out and I never skip to the end of a book myself, so the most significant events are a secret. But, there are scandalous secrets revealed that tell you the motivations for some of the characters’ behavior. Elden’s parents, for example, have very rigid thinking and great fear of crossing social classes. Once you know their secrets, you can see the tension our male lead carries with him every day. The poor boy! I also love/hate the scenes where you get a sense of the terrible racial divide in America in the 1920s. Many white people then lived by simplistic ideas of “truth” that were so wrong, and that were just starting to be questioned. When you see this in the book, you can also feel the hope that these beliefs will be broken down by individuals who will make a conscious choice to reach out across race and class to one another.
Lizzie: Is there an important theme (or themes) that this story illustrates?
Denitta: All of my historical fiction features young women coming of age in times of social and cultural turmoil. I think it is fascinating how we raise young women with certain rules, and I know we all recall the rules our parents and grandparents tried to instill in us. In times of social and economic change, as we go out into the world, those rules don’t always seem to apply. How they adapt and find their own resilience makes for wonderful tension and great story-telling.
Lizzie: What did you learn about change and social classes in this book?
Denitta: I love questions. Somewhere Still is ALL about change — social, racial, cultural and economic. Women had just gotten the right to vote in the U.S. and the activism that resulted in those rights continued. Women had figured out the power of collective action and group formation. The book tells the true story of the women’s Consumer League that was active in 1921 in Kansas City. It was a time when barriers were being crushed and opportunities opened.
Lizzie: Who is/are the hero(es)? Who are the villains? And why?
Denitta: The biggest heroes are some of the supporting characters: Otis and Abby and Michele Hayward, all who do the right thing, even when they have nothing to gain. You see the power of one individual to make the good choice, the right choice, the ethical choice, in the moment and to take action. And that makes all the difference – in ways the main characters themselves may never have imagined. I hope seeing those choices and their impacts provides a lasting lesson readers will carry with them and pass on. The villians are those who hold fast to prejudices – of race, gender and class. We can understand these characters, and appreciate that they are grasping for a sense of normalcy that is old-fashioned and, ultimately, not healthy for themselves or society. The 1920s were a critical turning point in American society, and even worldwide, and we see characters who are not yet ready to move forward.
Lizzie: Do the characters change?
Denitta:I felt the biggest change was for the character who was hardest for me to write, Elden, the male protagonist. You see and feel his journey, and at the end you can understand all the forces that held him back and controlled his choices, and you get to see how he won over those forces. For Jean, her life is forever changed and we feel hope and love in whatever comes next for her. Even for Elden’s parents, we can see the change and how they grow and evolve.
Lizzie: Which character would you most like to invite to dinner this evening and why? Who would you invite too? What would you hope to learn?
Denitta: I would invite Mrs. Hayward Parker (Michele) to dinner in a heartbeat. She is forward-thinking and a can-do person. Never comfortable with the status quo, she will make things happen – even when others would turn away. I love that in her and I value that in any person. I’d want to know about her early life. She and Elden’s mother had so much in common but they turned out as polar opposites. I wonder why and how Mrs. Parker found and kept her strength of conviction, and I’d love to chat with her about it. I’d also like to share with her where women have progressed to in 2018, and the #metoo movement. I know she would have thoughtful insights to share. #Metoo didn’t start in 2018, you know.
Lizzie: Where did your research take you?
Denitta: I grew up in a little town outside of Kansas City and the story probably began when I first set foot in the city’s famed Savoy Restaurant and Hotel back in 1968, when I was 5. The grandeur. The history. I could feel it. I remember it still. Then fifty years passed and finally the story came to life. I did much of my research online and also had a wonderful trip back to Kansas City with my daughter and mother. Kansas City is beautiful. It’s called “Paris on the Plains” for a reason – the Plaza is breathtaking, especially when it’s lit up over the holiday season, and the city has so many ornate fountains and parks. I hope readers will feel my love for this city. I wanted to bring the city to life in Somewhere Still.
Lizzie: What moments in the novel do you like best?
Denitta: The Christmas Dinner scene was such a fun scene to write. Jean is meeting Elden’s parents for the first time. Oh, the drama and the feelings and the glasses smashing against the wall. I am quiet and shy away from any drama in my personal life, but I let it all loose in that chapter.
I love the scene where we learn why Otis is so tender and caring with Jean. That tore me up and was inspired by a conversation with the consultant who reviewed the book for unconscious bias. He wanted to know more about Otis, and with just a few sentences I was able to add that to the book.
There were other scenes that if I shared would spoil plot secrets — you’ll know them when you read the book — they wrenched my heart and it took time to recover from writing them. When devastating things happen in novels, I now understand that the biggest toll is taken on the author. We have to love our characters, heart and soul, to bring them to life. To see them in pain or hurt is so very hard.
Lizzie: I agree. Have you compared Somewhere Still to any other novels you’ve read? What’s the same? What’s different?
Denitta: Readers have and it’s such an honor. I hope those who loved Before We Were Yours, The Great Gatsby, and To Kill A Mockingbird will feel and enjoy the sense of time and place, as well as understand the thin reed upon which lives hung back in the Roaring ’20s. We’re coming upon the 100th year anniversary of the Roaring Twenties and I hope this era captures the imagination of readers worldwide.
Lizzie: What is your next book?
Denitta: There are two. Prohibition Cocktails is now out. Here are the blurb and a link.
It has a promotion in the UK where it will be 99 cents – July 14-21. — though I don’t think that means a thing for your Australian or US readership.
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07BHF1NSJ. The book provides historical background on Prohibition and the history, secrets & recipes of 21 of the most popular cocktails of the Prohibition Era. It’s a nice companion to Somewhere Still.
The next novel in the series, Somewhere Else, is in the works. This is a coming of age story set in Havana in the weeks before Batista falls and Castro comes to power. It is written but needs to be pulled apart and put back together – which I truly enjoy!
In addition to writing the Somewhere story series, Denitta holds a Juris Doctorate from Georgetown University Law and obtained her undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies and Political Science from the University of Kansas. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, the Historical Novel Society, and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. To learn more about her, see her website, and/or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.