Thursday, September 21, 2017

Author Denise Kiernan (WSC ’91, STEINHARDT ’02) on the Stories that Interest Her



Photo by Treadshots.com
Denise Kiernan enjoys writing stories that focus on topics we are familiar with, but may not know entirely.  Her previous book, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped to Win World War II, explores the history of the women who worked in Oak Ridge, TN, one of the Manhattan Project sites.  Her new book out September 26, The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, investigates the connection one of America’s most famous families, the Vanderbilts, has with the larger history of America during the Gilded Age.  In our interview, Kiernan shares what narratives she loves to explore and how her education at NYU helped foster this passion. 

What did you study at NYU?

As an undergrad, I studied biology. I also got my masters at NYU, and studied environmental conservation education, which was then part of the Philosophy of Education department.

Based on your educational background, how did you get into the writing profession?

There is no easy, straightforward answer to that, unfortunately! I have written since I was a kid—journals, plays, stories. However, I never considered writing to be a viable career. While I was in my grad program at NYU, I had a lot of courses that required writing—more than I had done while studying biology. I enjoyed them. During grad school I spent a semester at the University of Washington while working at an internship in Seattle. While there, I wandered into the offices of the university newspaper and…that was it. I was hooked. I ended up spending way too much time in the newsroom and on my next trip back to New York I pestered my way into an internship at The Village Voice. 

In what way has your educational experience at NYU shaped what you do now?

My professors, especially at the graduate level, were big believers in the importance of communication and being able to discuss and write about what you thought and believed. Tom Colwell and Millard Clements, my grad advisors, were incredibly intelligent and really embraced discussion and debate. I think in many ways they helped shape my desire to look at situations from a variety of viewpoints. And of course living and learning at NYU, in the Village, surrounded by such wonderful minds and enthralling history, was incredibly inspiring.

Your new book, The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home, focuses on Biltmore House.  How did you become interested in the lore and history of this estate?

It started with my own love of the estate—the house and its grounds. I became familiar with some of the back story as I visited repeatedly over the years, but I always wanted to know more, especially about how a place like that managed to survive into the 21st century. I collected things I learned about the house and kept notes along the way, not sure what I would do with them. In the end, it was a series of visitors I brought to the house who helped me decide to pursue a book project. Both were very well read, loved nonfiction and history, and neither knew much about the house or its role in American history. I thought there was enough curiosity there to merit exploring how I would do a full-length book and then saw the house and estate as a lens through which to explore a larger moment in American history. 

It’s fascinating that your book opens with Edith Stuyvesant Dresser’s backstory, future wife of George Vanderbilt.  What made you choose to begin the narrative with Edith rather than George?

I have always felt that George got the lion’s share of attention, and I wanted to give Edith a bit more literary limelight. I also found her story to be so compelling—the losses she suffered throughout her life, her willingness to do things not expected of a lady of the age. She is also the person who remained and helped secure the future of Biltmore House after George was gone, so I wanted her to be the through-line of the story. 

Your previous book, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped to Win World War II, centered on the forgotten history of the women who worked in Oak Ridge, one of the Manhattan Project sites.  Is Edith’s story, or Biltmore House, a narrative that has also been forgotten or overlooked?  What draws you to write about forgotten parts of history?

I like stories that speak to larger issues. Girls was focused on Oak Ridge, yes, but was really about the much larger story of the Manhattan Project and women’s roles in World War II. The Last Castle is focused on Biltmore House, yes, but it is also about the heyday and eventual demise of the Gilded Age, the birth of the forestry movement and income disparity in America. I like looking at underexposed aspects of larger American stories, and finding relatable subjects to focus on as I lead readers along the way. Edith fit the bill nicely. 

What is one thing you want readers to take away from this story about Edith, George, and everyone who was connected to Biltmore House?

I hope each reader takes away something different, and I think that with this story, that is possible: The evolving roles of women, the fact that extreme wealth is no guard against tragic loss, the importance of historical legacy, the lasting effects of philanthropy on a community, the seeds of environmentalism and that effect on a community… 

What excites or interests you in writing historical narratives?

I love stepping back in time as a reader, so I thoroughly enjoy being able to share that experience with those who read my work. I am always amazed at the similar concerns and struggles—history repeating itself—that I come across.

What is a typical day like for you writing and doing research for a book?

It depends on whether I’m in a research phase, writing phase or promotion phase. These all overlap at times as well, which makes things even trickier. Now, for example, I’m promoting The Girls of Atomic City AND The Last Castle, while finishing up writing the proposal for my next book. When I’m in a research phase, it’s usually a bit of travel and long days in the archives, which I LOVE. Writing days at home start early, and I usually shift to administrative duties—interviews, social media, email—in the afternoon. 

What do you enjoy most about writing?

Spending time in different worlds. The satisfaction that comes from revising—a sentence, phrase, chapter—until it performs the way it should. Watching work go from an idea to execution. And, of course, sharing the finished product with readers is a very humbling and extremely thrilling feeling.

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