And now for something a little different but sure to be of interest to buffs of history, period detail, good storytelling, and also something pretty inspirational to creatives interested in getting an idea out there. If you know this blog then you know that last Halloween I cohosted an amazing Val Lewton event that was the brainchild of Stephen Reginald, aka Classic Movie Man. If you know his blog then you must also know of his extensive classic movie knowledge, which he also dispenses through teaching film classes and hosting big screen showings in Chicago. But I bet you didn’t know he also took something of a moviemaking approach to turn his book idea into a well received trilogy of novels known as the Avenue of Dreams series. A small bit of information he learned while training to act as docent at Chicago’s historic Glessner House turned into the desire to share the stories of women trying to find their place in an age defined by many class and gender obstacles, women eager to educate and better themselves during the last decade of the 19th century. Stephen drew upon his experience in editing and trade publishing and acted as producer and researcher, connecting and working with author Olivia Newport to produce the series, the latest installment of which came out only a few weeks ago.
The stories take place in an active and richly detailed setting by virtue of being specifically located in the Glessner House / Prairie Avenue neighbourhood, which was, at the time the novels unfold, “Millionaire’s Row,” home to the VIPs of commerce and power, marked by elegant architecture and a packed schedule of lavish social events. In addition Chicago was for most of 1893 the location of the World’s Columbian Exposition, aka World’s Fair, which brought more than 27 million visitors to the city. It was the occasion for the promotion of newfangled contraptions like electricity, carnival rides, and new concepts like the City Beautiful Movement. It was time in which Ladies Home Journal magazine was offering scholarships to the women who would sell the most subscriptions, a time that coincided with the opening day of the University of Chicago which had a strong commitment to gender equality, a time that offered more than just glimmers of hope that there could be more out there for women than lives as ornaments, servants, or possessions. With the masses of international visitors, the excitement and the promise of a new century, there were plenty of specific and vivid situations in which to place three searching, struggling and striving female characters, along with some romance and suspense, and with the help of a talented writer, develop fascinating reading. On a nuts and bolts level I find the partnering approach a really inspirational idea for other writers. I was glad to have the opportunity to ask Stephen some questions about the novels and his involvement.
Could you talk about the Avenue of Dreams trilogy, what the books focus on, and your role in the project?
SR: The series focuses on the lives of three women (each is the focus of their own novel) living in Chicago during the late-nineteenth century. One of the women comes from Prairie Avenue society (Prairie Avenue, a region in Chicago that became synonymous with wealth and power; it was Chicago’s first “gold coast.”) I came up with the series idea and a rough outline for the trilogy.
You once said that what you learned about Glessner House during your docent training there, is what got your imagination going, but was there one specific item, room, or moment that you can recall as really kicking things off or being a continuing source of inspiration?
SR: It wasn’t a room or artifact, but some information that another docent had shared about the University of Chicago. When it was founded in 1890, they granted degrees to women from the outset. This got my mind going about a heroine from a privileged family who wanted to get an education like her brothers. Even among the very wealthy, women weren’t encouraged to go to college. I thought our heroine would want an education and would do whatever it took to get one. That was the genesis for the series. All the history about Chicago, Prairie Avenue, and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition served as the backdrop.
Research is like archaeology and detective work; did you come across anything that really surprised you, that you just had to include and share in the books?
SR: Not sure if you’ve read “The Devil in the White City” by Eric Larson, but his research on the World’s Fair is pretty exhaustive. When I was researching information about the planning of the fair, I came across an article in the New York Times that detailed a parade they had in Chicago the day before they had a dedication ceremony at the fair grounds. This parade was huge with over 100,000 people marching in the parade, including all the sitting Supreme Court Justices, the current Vice President of the United States, and foreign dignitaries from all over the world. This even wasn’t mentioned in Larson’s book, but the NYTimes article mapped out the entire parade route. We ended up including this event in the first book and because of the detail in the article, we were able to place characters from the novel where they would most likely have been had they attended the parade.
You’ve outlined what the stories are about plot wise, but what are they really about, besides satisfying entertainment, what do you and the author hope people take away from the trilogy? Possibly you are already hearing that answer when you meet with readers.
SR: We had a few things in mind. We wanted readers to understand what life was like in late-nineteenth Chicago and what life was like for women. Even though the character Lucy Banning in book one is from a privileged background, her choices are still limited by the society and culture she comes from. In spite of what we might think were horrible circumstances for these women to live under, they were still, because of the choices they made, to live lives that had purpose and meaning. Each character had her challenges, but their journeys weren’t depressing or hopeless.
Of course I know you are a huge classic movie fan and (I would sure call you) an expert; time for some fantasy classic casting, who would you get to play the major characters? Did you have any people or favorite movies in mind all along? And how about modern actors, if the movie or miniseries were to be made today?
SR: That’s interesting. When the publisher was working on the covers, they asked us what movie stars we thought the characters looked like. I can see Carey Mulligan as Lucy Banning, Emma Stone as Charlotte Farrow, and Emma Watson as Sarah Cummings.
Any ideas for your next production?
SR: Many ideas. I Would love to explore how Prairie Avenue society deteriorated and the rise of settlement houses and progressive reformers like Jane Addams.
I encourage you to:
Read more about the books at author Olivia Newport’s site (which also leads you to more ordering options than Amazon)
and an absolute must is to visit the Glessner House site to learn about the times, explore and go on the virtual tour
please click on each book cover for Amazon ordering info :