Backstory: Hearts Upon a Fragile Bough

I did not grow up with Goldilocks and the Three Bears, though I read the book. Little Red Riding Hood was introduced to me at a sleepover, and if I remember correctly, I thought it was “okay fun.” The stories in my childhood were stark, but always told with tenderness and humor. My mother was the quintessential story teller, very much like the main character in my novel, Hearts Upon a Fragile Bough. Mom was a showgirl and worked for Billy Rose in the 1940s. She had a bevy of fascinating characters in her past, with lives far more interesting than Grandma’s house, or an empty bowl of porridge to fill my young ears with. Surprisingly, my mother’s chronicles of eccentricity, art scams and Mafia buffoons, remained and festered in my memory until I decided to write my first novel. It was then that those tales that had defined my youth as poignantly as acne, first crushes, menstruation and the heartbreak of my father’s early death, dared me to find more fascination, pathos and hysterics in any other imaginary, fictionalized creation, than in my own family.

Once I started writing novels, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I had to write the history of my mother’s outrageous reminiscences, but not as nonfiction. My novel is not a memoir. But I like to refer to it as making sense out of all the blarney. My mother’s most poignant tales were mostly about my grandmother. She immigrated to America from Ireland in 1912. In my novel, I refer to her as Hannah. My Irish grandmother’s story was a sad one and my mother often cried when she told it. I wove together whatever I could garner from my mother’s memories, especially how much my grandmother loved her piano. My grandfather came home one day and sold it. Nice guy! No one really knows what he did with the money but at least, in the rewrite, I gave him a purpose for his cruelty. Fictional granddaddy Wade became a bootlegger and invested the money in a distillery. Wade does eventually pay for his sins; he dies of asthma; he goes to sleep and dreams of his beautiful Hannah, breathes a bit too deeply, and like a blanket from God, Hannah’s hair lies across his lungs. Revenge is sweet!

I grew up with bits and pieces of my grandmother’s painful life, and my mother’s flamboyant one. Each woman was defined by a history they couldn’t escape any more than I could escape being a teenager in the 1960s. My grandmother never knew the freedom of slacks or a world in which marriage is not altogether necessary. I grew up with a complexity of choices; my mother grew up believing that beauty was the only ace in the hole a woman had.

Hearts Upon a Fragile Bough is a family saga that pretty much spans the twentieth century. I like to think of it as a study of history and how the choices women make are often limited by the times in which they live. Hearts Upon a Fragile Bough tells the tale of three very unconventional generations of women. I needed to understand my grandmother’s youth in order to write the book, and I needed to revisit my relationship with my mother in order to end it. My main character, Vita, was created in my mother’s likeness. Vita lives a glamorous life, one that puts her at the periphery of danger, exposes her to the eccentricity of cross dressers, the allure of easy money, the peril of art scams and the revenge of the Mafia. My mother gave me the material for the book, there’s no doubt about it, but my mother had a vivid imagination, so there is no way of substantiating the tales she told, and that’s a good thing, because for me, fiction is more fun than fact.

But there is always a bit of truth in fiction. While writing Hearts Upon a Fragile Bough it was important to both discover and appreciate my roots and honor the women who crafted me with their choices and their sacrifices. When I finally sat down to write my novel I wanted to tell the stories that were passed down to me by my mother. The Irish are great storytellers, always finding humor in the most macabre of subjects. I am, after all, a byproduct of this tendency. I’m also a survivor of imperfect heroes. I hope that both my mother and my grandmother will forgive the liberty I took in sharing the narrative, and embracing the “blarney” with all the heart I could give it.

Hearts Upon a Fragile Bough is Vera Jane Cook’s second published novel. Her first novel, Dancing Backward In Paradise, was published in November 2006. The book received rave reviews from Armchair Book Reviews and Midwest Book Reviews, as well as an Eric Hoffer and Indie Excellence award in the Literary fiction category in 2007. Vera’s next book is a sequel to Hearts Upon a Fragile Bough, and will be published in 2010. The sequel, At the End of a Whisper, will be the contemporary culmination of three generations of women. Vera Jane Cook has completed five novels and is also working on a non-fiction book about getting creative in corporate America. Vera plans to give seminars on the subject. To learn more about her books you can visit her web site at www.verajanecook.com. To contact the author send an email to jane@verajanecook.com

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