Welcome to the website of Andromeda Romano-Lax, author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour.
What Andromeda is working on now:
A new novel about psychologists Rosalie Rayner Watson and John Watson, set in Baltimore in the 1920s. Teaching in the low-residency MFA program at University of Anchorage Alaska. And preparing for a round-the-world working, learning and volunteering adventure with her husband and daughter.
As I hit the three-quarter mark in my current manuscript about Rosalie Rayner, I thought back to this moment only a year ago, when I was on the research trail. The search still continues–new unexpected details uncovered every week. This post was originally published at 49 Writers on May 10, 2012.
The Internet can make certain kinds of research possible, as we all know. Quick— locate my narrator’s senator uncle and give me all the facts about his turn-of-the-century career, including famous statements he made about preserving Maryland blacks’ right to vote. Quick—the gorgeous church I discovered this afternoon that used to be a synagogue, built in the 1890s; who was on the board of trustees?
These are precisely the sorts of questions I’ve been Googling from my Baltimore hotel room. It’s been wonderful to follow the trail of crumbs—from the Internet to a university library to a hospital to a medical archives and back to the Internet again.
But even more amazing, on this trip and on every research trip I’ve ever made, is serendipity. Serendipity is the reason we visit real libraries with real books, and browse the shelves, not quite knowing what we’ll find. Serendipity is the reason we mention to the librarian, the taxi driver, the security guard, and the bartender what we’re doing in town, just in case they have something interesting to add. Serendipity is how we find out what’s not on the Internet.
And serendipity was the reason I lingered on the once elegant, now elegant-shabby corner of the 1800 block of Eutaw Street in Baltimore, in light rain, on Tuesday afternoon. I checked out the synagogue around the corner. (Boy, a lot of synagogues around this street—I finally realized my narrator might have been Jewish— and yes, the records confirm, she was, whether or not she observed the faith later in life.) I talked to two retired guys sitting on a marble stoop, who were hanging out here because just two blocks west there were too many drug deals going down. (Straight out of “The Wire,” which I watched for the first time just before this trip.) They told me where to walk and what blocks to avoid, and also shared what they knew about the neighborhood’s history.
And then I took my time—looking in a back alley, walking around the Queen Anne-style mansion I’d come to see, trying not to hurry, trying not to be shy. It’s the moments of hanging out, usually solo (unfortunately), that tend to deliver.
I’m writing a novel about a young psychology student named Rosalie Rayner, who was involved in a divorce scandal (also an academic scandal) that made East Coast headlines. I found her census records just weeks ago. The 1900, 1910 and 1920 census gave me her Eutaw Street address, as well as the changing names of her neighbors and her family’s servants (Irish, German, American black) each decade.
And now, here I was on Tuesday. Getting wet. Wondering what to do next.
Suddenly, a man darted out of the building next door. I called out hello to him. He paused just before getting into his car and asked me if I was looking for someone. “Yes,” I said. “Someone who lived here a century ago.”
Turns out, Craig had a hand in owning and renovating both buildings, and had even heard of the family I was writing about. Twenty-four hours and many cell phone calls later, I was invited into 1814 Eutaw Street, once a mansion (“Richardsonian Romanesque” style, not Queen Anne after all) and now an apartment complex. My kind host and his partner, J.W., had gone to the trouble of asking their tenants if I could peek into various apartments. This one used to be Rosalie’s bedroom. Another, her parents’ bedroom. And so on.
We all shared Rayner family stories—with each other, and with the tenants. I promised to share any blueprints or historical photos I come across, and the building owners—reinvigorated about a subject they’d dabbled in when they bought the building back in the 1990s—promised as well. They were excited to find someone who knew something about their building’s history. I was thrilled to get to see inside the building: every staircase and pocket door and beautiful bit of restored woodwork, while we all made our guesses about where certain events (the finding of certain hidden love letters, for example) happened. The tenant who had lived–without realizing it–in Rosalie’s bedroom was excited enough about the century-old history that she said she hoped to “see the movie version someday.”
“Well, a novel first,” I told her. “But who knows.”
I went back to my aging Baltimore hotel and celebrated–running shoes soggy, feet sore, and imagination on fire–with oysters Rockefeller.
Andromeda Romano-Lax’s novel, previously titled The Expert and now tentatively titled Behave, is about Rosalie Rayner and her affair with and marriage to iconoclastic behaviorist psychologist John Watson. Rayner and Watson co-authored the infamous “Little Albert” infant fear conditioning study.
I’m very happy to announce that The Detour is now in paperback. Ask for it in your local bookstore or click here for Amazon link. Thanks to Soho Press for the lovely design, and to the following reviewers whose words grace the back cover.
“Vogler is a beautifully layered character–misunderstood, doubting, secretive, precise. … Romano-Lax paints a glorious landscape of northern Italy, with sunsets and winding vineyards that pull the reader in as much as the characters. Thoroughly recommended.” –Historical Novels Review.
“Romano-Lax creates an atmosphere of slow-building suspense, and her skill as a writer is irrefutable. Part romance and mystery, this piece of historical fiction sheds light on an infrequently explored aspect of the Third Reich.” –Jewish Book Council
The Next Big Thing is the latest spin on an old time chain letter. It’s a blog chain that’s circulating in which a writer answers ten prefab interview questions about a current project, then tags other writers to do the same. I was tagged by a UAA MFA poet, Zack Rogow, and I have tagged some other Alaska writers. I’ll link them up once they’ve posted responses. It took me an entire month to get around to doing this, which surely does not explain why my car broke down and why I’m currently recovering from a cold, does it? (Really, I’m not at all superstitious. Even so, I couldn’t dare to break the chain.)
What is your working title of your book (or story)?
It’s a novel tentatively titled The Expert.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Close to one ago I was at a party, venting about ethics (or the lack of it) with an old friend who is a psychology textbook editor, and we shifted from talking about ethical debates in creative nonfiction to ethical debates in psychology, including an infamous experiment by “Father of Behaviorism” John Watson. The experiment he did, conditioning an infant named “Little Albert” to become afraid of furry animals, was pretty bad science – a single subject, a questionable setup using a perhaps abnormal child, and an overly passionate desire to prove a theory (never mind that little thing called evidence). Nonetheless, it became one of the most referred-to experiments of all time. My interest in Watson led me, that very same night, to start searching for more information about Rosalie Rayner, the 19-year-old research assistant, later mistress (and even later, wife) of Watson. I wanted to see that period, and the outcome of that flawed science and its later effects on the entire Watson family, from her perspective.
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Always a fun question but I’m not deep enough into the novel to know yet.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In 1920s Baltimore, young psychologist Rosalie Rayner struggles to become an independent, professional woman, both aided and ultimately thwarted by her famous lover (later husband), pioneering behaviorist John Watson.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be represented.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I started researching it in March 2012 and am getting close to the halfway point, one year later.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, which managed to convey with sympathy and intellectual depth a portrait of another difficult affair-turned-scandalous-marriage (of Mamah Cheney to architect Frank Lloyd Wright), and other books about strong women in various time periods, from Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women to Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife. All of these books reveal the familiar conflicts of women in past time periods, accurately and tenderly rendered, providing greater perspective on our own times.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
As mentioned above, what inspired me at first was indignation about unethical practices in the field of psychology. What has kept me inspired is the task of bringing a mostly-forgotten woman – a footnote of psychology and history – to life on the page. I am still struggling to understand why such an intelligent woman fell for John Watson and put up with as much as she did. I’m hoping the writing itself will bring to me to at least a provisional understanding.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
John Watson, with Rosalie’s help, went on to become a famous parenting expert, thanks to his 1928 bestseller about raising your kids, with “classic” advice like: never kiss them, a handshake will do. I had no idea how much his parenting advice shaped (or misshaped) earlier generations, and how difficult it was to overturn that brand of anti-attachment parenting. Dr. Spock came along just in time.
When I heard that the British Museum was sending its copy of the Discus Thrower (a.k.a. Discobolus) to the Portland Art Museum, I wanted to cheer once again for Portland, land of Powell’s and a great place to visit.
The art exhibit overlaps the subject of my novel, THE DETOUR, set in 1938, about a curator who escorts the famous Greek statue to its new owner, Hitler, via northern Italian backroads.
If you live in Portland and have read The Detour, take advantage of this chance to see rare Greek art at close range. If you’ve already seen the exhibit, consider picking up the novel, a love story that also explains the cultural significance of Greek art to the Third Reich.
From the Portland Art Museum Website: Ending January 6, 2013
The Body Beautiful In Ancient Greece features more than 120 priceless objects from the British Museum’s famed collection of Greek and Roman art. Iconic marble and bronze sculptures, vessels, funerary objects, and jewelry are among the treasures that explore the human form, some dating back to the second millennium BC. The Portland Art Museum will be the first venue in the United States to present this exhibition. Make your plans now to see The Body Beautiful.
NEXT STOP FOR THE BODY BEAUTIFUL IN THE U.S.: Dallas Museum of Art, May 5-October 6, 2013.
Would you like to be part of a research and writing effort, supporting me as I tell the story of a forgotten woman, Rosalie Rayner–scientific partner, lover, and later wife of famous (and infamous) psychologist John Watson?
Every dollar donated is being matched by Rasmuson Foundation, and there are some interesting perks at the USA Projects website. Learn more at USA Projects.
My new novel tells a story of experimentation, love, and scandal, based on the lives of real psychologists — John Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner — in 1920s Baltimore. I’ve been eagerly working on this project for several months now, enjoying an immersion into a fascinating time period and a peek into the lives of two people whose ideas continue to influence us today.
To learn the whole story– set to the music of Duke Ellington — please watch my video by following this youtube link.
Jessica Brockmole of Historical Novels Review just posted this about The Detour:
Romano-Lax has taken a snippet from history, Hitler’s controversial pre-war acquisition of The Discus Thrower, and cast it in a classic road trip story, where the journey is more about self-discovery than maps and routes. Vogler is a beautifully layered character – misunderstood, doubting, secretive, precise – rivaled only by the colorful Digiloramo twins, who keep a thread of dark humor running throughout. Romano-Lax paints a glorious landscape of northern Italy, with sunsets and winding vineyards that pull the reader in as much as the characters. Thoroughly recommended.
The Detour was recently released in an Australia edition by Murdoch Books with the title The Art Lover, and this week, Southern Hemisphere reviewers had this to say:
Courier Mail, Brisbane– “VERDICT: Elegant, Haunting, Compelling.”
Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney– “With great care and skill, Romano-Lax teases out the human complexities, exploring the differing values, desires and fears of the various characters while creating, through Vogler’s cautious and evasive voice, an atmosphere of chilling menace and threat.”
Launceton Examiner, Tasmania: “A skillful blend of art history and contrasting personalities. A very rewarding read.”
When a recent interviewer asked me if it’s really true that as a principle, seconds novel are tough, I hesitated. Yes, undeniably tough. But no, this new novel, The Detour, wasn’t exactly my “second” novel. Between my debut and this book, an entirely different novel and a few other partial manuscripts had languished: unfinished, unloved, and finally, unread by all but a few trusted souls. They weren’t rejected by a publisher. They didn’t even get that far. My first agent — with my own harsh internal censor as Kevorkian accomplice — pulled the plug.
No wonder, then, that I’ve always been drawn to the stories of other novelists with unpublished, unfinished, rejected, or simply abandoned novels in their past.
Read the entire essay, which includes words of admiration for some of my favorite authors — Mark Salzman, Michael Chabon, and Lionel Shriver — as well as some details of my 2005-2008 Mesopotamian novel (currently set aside, never fully abandoned!) at Huffington Post.
It’s official: in April, Murdoch Books, Pier Nine imprint will be bringing out The Detour (retitled The Art Lover in Australia). I love the cover, and I look forward to seeing how this title communicates to readers, because it’s true: this is a story about art and love. Is there a happy ending? I probably shouldn’t say. But I will say this: I wrote the story that I most wanted to read, and that includes the ending as well. If my first novel, The Spanish Bow, started in the light and moved toward the dark, this one starts in the dark and moves toward the light.
I’d love to hear from Australian readers, and it should go without saying that if I ever make it out to that part of the Pacific (maybe in a year?), I’ll certainly be stopping by.
Praise for The Detour:
“A gently haunting work of subtle and surprising wisdom.” Carol Haggas, Booklist
“A marvelous adventure across landscapes both inner and outer, The Detour is a moving study in art and memory, history and geography, courage and compassion and every kind of love.” Jon Clinch, author of Finn
“Romano-Lax is singularly gifted: she creates full-fledged, engaging characters and writes compelling narrative. Some of her descriptive passages take your breath away. ” David Keymer, Library Journal
“Ernst’s story is an engrossing one. It also serves as a means by which the author demonstrates the insidious role of Nazi culture in ordinary lives… A very satisfying novel.” The Washington Independent Review of Books
“The Detour is a gem, combining a fascinating storyline about art acquisition in Hitler’s Germany, an entrancing setting darkened by impending war, rich symbolism and engaging characters.” David Hendricks, San Antonio Express-News
“The ethical issues of the book are thought provoking, contrasting the artistic perfection of classical sculpture with basic human values. Ultimately, the sculpture itself provides the answer. Just as the discus thrower leans to balance the weight of the outstretched arm and the heavy disc, Ernst must learn to balance his love for classical art with personal morality, to reach for love, even while acknowledging it is more than any of us deserve.” ForeWord Book Reviews
During the war, the Third Reich stole over a million artistic works from both public and private hands. Many of those works were repatriated after the war. Others remain missing to this day. But before the Nazis’ schemes were fully understood by a horrified world, and before Hitler stole and looted art, he bought it. One of the most significant early acquisitions was an ancient Roman statue, copied from an earlier Greek statue, called The Discus Thrower, purchased from an Italian owner in 1938, against the objections of many, and no doubt with some help from Mussolini. Robert Edsel, in Rescuing Da Vinci, calls this purchase “theft by any other name.” The narrator of The Detour, Ernst Vogler, calls it “one of the earliest symbols of our questionable intentions.”
It’s easy now to recognize the rapaciousness of the Third Reich, as reflected both in its “Final Solution” and its unparalleled looting of European art. More interesting to me, as a novelist, was trying to imagine how these issues would have seemed before the war, especially to someone living at the geographical heart of Nazism. I wanted to imagine the difficulties faced by an average German who doesn’t know what’s coming, who can’t seem to extricate himself from the activities and influence of the Third Reich, who may feel that his own livelihood—even his own life—are at stake. Given a simple job—catalog art, and visit another country to retrieve it—should he have any qualms? By framing the story before the war, it places us in the position of imagining difficult choices made without the benefit of retrospective, historically-informed wisdom. In our own lives, we are more like Ernst. We don’t know what’s coming, and we are influenced most by own our experiences, our own hopes and fears.
Ernst knows a lot about classical art. But he is self-taught, and only narrowly. He doesn’t know much about the history of more recent art, or anything about modern abstract art—which in Germany was declared as “degenerate.” What is the significance of this naivete?
Ernst admits that 1938 is not the time to be a Renaissance man. It is the time for “the deep, clean, and relatively painless cut of narrow knowledge.” (Not the only cut in the novel, by the way.) His ignorance spares him. In his mind, it’s a valid excuse—he doesn’t choose to speak up against some of the Nazi’s views about abstract “degenerate” art, for example, because in most cases he doesn’t even know the arguments. But it’s still an excuse. Of course, after working in art curation for two years, he could have learned more and developed some opinions. He certainly has enough taste (he realizes the Nazi collectors favor some real contemporary dreck, in addition to the masterpieces) to start forming some questions or to think about defending the artists the Nazis were ostracizing, if he wanted to look up from his basement office and catalog cards. But Ernst is reflective enough to realize his narrowness, and able to recognize it as both a form of self-defense and a source of weakness. A price will be paid.
We discover that Ernst has a physical defect—a very small one. What role does this play in his professional life, and what evidence is there that such a small defect might concern a German man of his time?
Ernst’s defect is common and minor. But to him, it suggests some internal inferiority lurking within his genetic makeup, at a time when eugenics are a national obsession. In the 1930s and early 1940s, hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Germans judged to be physically or mentally inferior were put to death, for conditions as common as epilepsy. In addition, hundreds of thousands were forcibly sterilized. It’s disturbing to note that during this same period, compulsory sterilization campaigns were also taking place in many countries around the world, including the United States.
Five years ago, when my first novel came out, a barrier existed between author and reader. Certainly, I received emails—wonderful emails—but I took a while to answer them, I neglected a few, and for the most part, I was overwhelmed to hear so directly from people who had spent so many patient hours inhabiting a fictional world I had created.
Do you remember a cheesy old movie called “The Boy In the Bubble?” Thanks to Google, I just looked it up. Yep, 1982, John Travolta. Wow. I can laugh now, but I remember how that movie captivated me. I was fascinated and horrified by the sense of a person cut off from the physical world, and the idea that he might just die suddenly if the barrier was breached, and the notion that in some cases, that risk would be worth taking. Who wants to stay in a bubble?
Email, Facebook, instantly downloadable ebooks, online reader reviews, instant sales metrics and more have breached the author-reader barrier. Now, authors are expected to communicate more directly with their readers. At the very least, readers have gained power, able to talk back instantly, to enter a cultural conversation that was once open only to professional reviewers and the editorial mandates of a limited number of venues.
For an author, it’s a little scary at first. What if a writer gets sucked into interacting too often, compromising time for writing? (It certainly happens.) What if readers insist on making off-point comments in their reviews? What if readers are unfair? Whose book is this, anyway?
The truth is: it’s the reader’s book. The author had her chance—two years, or five. The editor had her chance as well. But now, like a teenager leaving the nest, insisting upon independence and individuation, the book shakes off its previous ownership and steps out into the wider world.
Occasionally, I’ve disagreed with or winced at remarks from readers and reviewers. But more often, I’ve enjoyed reading some really well-written summaries and analyses of my novels. Nearly always, there are surprises: readers liking and responding to things that I, the author, wasn’t so sure readers would like, or taking away a different message from the one I intended. Or the one reader in twenty who is particularly critical, but in a way that makes me think, “I agree!” – not that I want to add any ammunition. Or the readers who gravitate to a certain character, not the one I expected. Or the readers who assume I’m a man, or European, or much older, based on what I’ve written. Or the reader who finds some very nifty symbolism that I didn’t intend. (I’m willing to accept credit, of course.) Or the reader or interviewer who digresses from my plotline into a larger philosophical or historical question or argument and I think: Yes, go there. I’m thrilled to hear how this relates to something else happening in the real world, especially if it’s something you’ve personally experienced.
Perhaps I’m supposed to stay in my bubble, but frankly, I find these comments and reviews and conversations more interesting and encouraging than not. Do I prefer five-star reviews over three- or four-star reviews that argue or quibble? Actually, I like them both. What encourages me most is the idea that people are taking the time, not only to read, but to respond, to recommend, to talk back, to advocate or disagree, to grab a book and give it a good shake, to make it their own.
Whether we meet elsewhere, at a book event or online, I’m glad you stopped by. I look forward to hearing or reading your side of the conversation, whether it’s about a book I’ve written, or about books in general.
OK, twist my arm. Make me consider which actors I wish would play my fictional characters. Marshal Zeringue of the website “My Book, the Movie” asked me to do just that and it took me, oh, about five minutes to comply.
For Feliu, the main character in my first novel The Spanish Bow (originally inspired by Pau a.k.a. Pablo Casals), I chose Paul Giamatti. And why wouldn’t my favorite actor, star of “Sideways” and the John Adams series, not want to play a Catalan cellist? Picture this man holding a cello bow and flirting, however inexpertly, with the Queen of Spain.
For Ernst Vogler, the 24-year-old (and later 34-year-old) narrator of The Detour, I’m plugging for Leonardo DiCaprio. I know– everyone wants Leonardo– but I think there’s something extra cool and coincidental about the fact that DiCaprio is both Bavarian and Italian, and that he first kicked (inside his Mamma’s belly) while she was touring an art museum. Miracolo!
Set against the background of impending war and Nazi reprisals, Romano-Lax’s delicately atmospheric journey of discovery is, of course, a metaphor for life, with all its unaccountable and uncontrollable diversions and demands. A gently haunting work of subtle and surprising wisdom.— Carol Haggas, Booklist, Feb. 1.