|Photography: Lautman Marc Hauser
No one can accuse Sena Jeter Naslund of lacking literary moxie. In Sherlock in Love, Naslund retooled the emotional life of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ascetic British sleuth. In Ahab’s Wife, she conjured an entire character Melville had mentioned only in passing. Now the 64-year-old author has turned her fearless abilities to one of history’s most famous women: Marie Antoinette. In her new book, Abundance, Naslund gives the young and fashionable queen a fictionalized voice, describing a short life that featured the altar at 14 and the guillotine at 38. Victoria Lautman chatted with Naslund, who spoke by phone from her home in Louisville, Kentucky.
Q: Out of every historical figure in the universe, what compelled you to channel the voice of Marie Antoinette?
A: It was partly an accident. When I was on the book tour for Ahab’s Wife, I stayed in an inn that had a copy of Stefan Zweig’s earlier biography of Marie Antoinette, and I picked it up just to entertain myself. I saw that he regarded her simply as an average woman and had little respect for her, claiming on the basis of her letters that she was featherheaded and insensitive. But I interpreted the letters differently, and thought, Someday, I’ll research this and see if she was given a raw deal, and was another case of a woman demonized because she was powerful.
Sena Jeter Naslund
Q: Sure does seem to be a lot of interest in her all of a sudden-Sofia Coppola’s movie, a book about her fashion influence, and 18th-century-inflected clothing on the runways. . . .
A: Part of what makes her compelling was that she lived during a time known as the Reign of Terror, and that seems relevant to our own times, with the acts of terrorism occurring here and in other countries.
Q: Your descriptions of bizarre-o etiquette in the French court were also pretty compelling.
A: Ha! Well, it was really extreme. For instance, that the queen had to stand there stark naked and shivering every day until some particular person handed her a chemise. And giving birth in a public display had to be one of the most horrifying practices of that court! There was such an unrealistic view of what was important.
Hear Sena Jeter Naslund talk with Victoria Lautman, Sunday, November 19th, 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Free. Call 312-832-6788 for reservations. WFMT (98.7 FM) will broadcast the event live at noon.
Q. Not to mention that her husband, the future King Louis XVI, was obese, boring, and odd sexually.
A: That’s another point: There’s been a lot of controversy about why it took over seven years to consummate the marriage.
Q: Did you ever feel daunted, providing a voice for someone who’s been so well documented?
A: No. I felt that I learned what Marie Antoinette’s voice was like through all the letters I was able to read. And other people’s diaries and journals often quoted her, so I could see into her thoughts. The hardest part was writing about her manic, hysterical attachment to gambling, since it was so entirely outside my own experience. But I spent a month living in the town of Versailles doing what I call “body research,” using all five of my senses to get an idea of what my characters would have felt in a particular place. It was there I realized her love of nature and flowers.
Q: You did the same for Ahab’s Wife, traveling to Nantucket and climbing around whaling ships. Do you even dress the part while on tour?
A: Actually, I did wear some jewelry that looked like seashells, and other pieces with a fish theme. I’ve been trying to think of what to wear for this tour, and bought a beautiful mask-you know, Marie Antoinette loved masked balls so much. If you encourage me, I might just get up the nerve to wear it.
Photography: Naslund Marion Ettlinger
Critical Mass: Noteworthy new releases for November
|Sidewalks: Portraits of Chicago (Northwestern University Press) This quintessential archive highlights more than 100 “Sidewalks” columns written by Rick Kogan and photographed by Charles Osgood for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine.
|What Paul Meant (Viking) Evanston-based religion writer Garry Wills interprets the controversial theologian’s letters and argues that Paul’s meaning was not contrary to that of Jesus.
|Return of the Golden Rhodes (TVT) They aren’t related. So what binds Chicago’s Baldwin Brothers? A love of spongy grooves and sinister funk. These sample-heavy songs vary between strutting disco, jubilant soul, and celestial atmosphere.
|Every Second Counts (Hollywood/Fearless) Look out, Fall Out Boy: Villa Park natives Plain White T’s are poised to become the next big chroniclers of suburban angst. “Finally, it’s our time now,” Tom Higgenson sings to kick off this collection of blasting power pop.