BWW Interview: Kristina Riggle, author of Broadway-themed novel VIVIAN IN RED
Booklist wrote that author Kristina Riggle can uncover "plenty of family secrets and emotional struggles without making it a soap opera." Her rich, emotionally complex novels of family turmoil include Keepsake, Real Life & Liars, and The Whole Golden World.
In her latest novel, Vivian in Red, Riggle broadens her scope while still giving us some juicy family secrets. The book tells the story of Milo Short, a Broadway producer who, nearing the end of his life, is haunted by a woman he hasn't seen since the 1930's. It's up to Milo's misfit granddaughter, Eleanor, to piece together the fragments of the mystery woman's life and finally tell the real story behind Milo's greatest song.
To celebrate the paperback release of Vivian in Red, we asked Kristina a few questions about the book and her stage experience. We weren't expecting to hear about getting slapped in a catfight...
BWW: Vivian in Red is a little bit of a departure for you. What were some of your inspirations for this book?
My literary agent challenged me to expand my focus, pull back the camera so to speak, to tell a grander story than my earlier books, which were more intently focused on family dynamics and a single point in time. In wondering how I might do that, but remain true to my calling for character driven stories, I decided to tell a multi-generational tale covering generations. "Legacy" came to mind. What kind of legacy? When I thought "Broadway songwriter" I got chills. And I was off and running.
BWW: I know you have a little bit of a theatre background. Tell us about that and how it informed this book.
I have been fascinated with theatre since I played the violin in the pit orchestra for my high school's production of The Music Man. ("Seventy-Six Trombones" haunted me for weeks, to say nothing of "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little"...) Because my seat was at the edge of the pit, I could watch the whole show from down there. I was so scared to try out to be on the stage instead of under it. I did audition for a couple of plays in school, but no luck.
Skip ahead years, and I left my full-time newspaper job and the unpredictable schedule that went along with that gig. So I decided to try community theater. I was in luck; friends were directing and choreographing a show that fall, and needed a big cast. So I became a singing and dancing secretary in How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying) (See picture!) Still one of the top five most amazing and fun experiences of my life.
I soon after played Miriam in a local production of The Women in which I had to smoke, get slapped in a catfight, and drink flat ginger ale masquerading as whiskey. Good clean fun.
So I got to start writing this book with a tiny bit of theater jargon. Plus, being on the inside of a production, with all the camaraderie and intensity, definitely informed my portrayals in Vivian.
I have since moved from that city and my subsequent auditions failed, and now I've got my hands full with kids and writing. I still have my character shoes, though! Someday...
BWW: What kind of research did you do?
An incomplete list of topics: strokes that cause muteness in the elderly, speech therapy, Tin Pan Alley, songwriters, the songwriting conventions of the day, the first-generation Jewish-American experience in New York, the Depression, the Bronx of the 1930s, the Stork Club, hundreds of pages of lyricist biographies... My favorite moment was probably interviewing Ernie Harburg, son of the great Yip Harburg, no slouch of a lyricist for little ditties like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Paper Moon." Heck, I live in Michigan so I had to find myself a Manhattan synagogue for my characters in the modern timeline. I almost picked one that was closed in 1999 because of a fire. Google saved me from that mistake because I decided to check.
How challenging was it to come up with lyrics for Milo's songs? Something like Hilarity, for instance, really had to be rooted in the period - not just for the political references but for the style of theatrical music at that time.
Yes that was very true! It was challenging but also some of the most fun I've ever had as a writer. The work of Philip Furia was a great help. He's an expert in lyricists and lyrics of the time, and his books analyzing the lyrics of the day were so useful. If you're interested in this stuff, go read his books.
BWW: What are some of your favorite "cameos" in the book? (I'm thinking of Cole Porter showing up at the party, for instance.)
You nailed it. Cole Porter. He's a genius and a character and such a singular figure. That cast party scene was one of my favorites to write. Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh also show up, a songwriting team I enjoyed reading about during my research. I admire Dorothy's moxie. Her vaudevillian dad did not want her in the business, but she made up her own mind.
BWW: What do you hope readers will take away from Milo and Eleanor's story?
First and foremost, I want my books to entertain people. Beyond that, I think Vivian in Red is about owning your story, and that means all of it...your triumphs and your mistakes, both. Milo and Eleanor both struggle with that in their own ways. Readers may also connect with the sense of clinging to art and entertainment during times of economic strife; that's something fresh in our modern memory.
BWW: You do a wonderful job utilizing social media - especially Instragram - to give your readers glimpses into Milo's - and your - world. How easy - or hard - has it been for you to create these posts?
Thank you! Leading up to the paperback launch I created a #30daysofVIVIAN hashtag. It was really fun to dive back into my research and share the fun facts and behind the scenes snippets I learned while writing this book. It's harder to find a visual image to go along with everything, which of course is necessary on Instagram and still important elsewhere on social media. The hashtag exists on Twitter and Facebook as well. It might be over by the time this is published, but I invite everyone to search the hashtag and scroll back through.
I'm a latecomer to Instagram, I only joined about a year ago but I'm really loving that platform. Come keep me company there! You'll also see lots of pictures of my dog and sweaty running selfies. I'm @kristinariggle.