Novelist Paula Martinac has established herself as one of Charlotte’s leading lesbian writers, but she is also known for her well-researched historical fiction. Over the course of her career, she has written several novels set during the middle decades of the 20th century, such as Testimony, a novel about a professor who teaches at a private college for women in rural Virginia in the early 1960s. However, Paula’s most recent novel, Dear Miss Cushman (Bywater Books), is her first work of historical fiction that is set during the 19th century.
Dear Miss Cushman takes place in New York City during the 1850s. It is told from the point of view of Georgiana “Georgie” Cartwright, a young woman who aspires to be a professional actress. Georgie’s role model is Charlotte Cushman, who was a real 19th-century American actress. In Paula’s novel, Georgie initiates correspondence with Charlotte Cushman, which explains the title of the novel. In many ways, this novel is a coming-of-age story in which a young woman forges an identity that transcends the confines of traditional, 19th-century gender roles. It is also, however, an immersion into the colorful theater scene as it existed in antebellum America.
For more information about this novel, please click on the following link: https://www.bywaterbooks.com/product/dear-miss-cushman-by-paula-martinac/ For readers who would like to learn more about Paula and her publications, please click on the following link: http://paulamartinac.com/
I contacted Paula and asked her how she went about researching and writing Dear Miss Cushman. Here is what she sent to me:
Dear Miss Cushman grew out of my awe for people of the distant past who pursued same-sex relationships or presented as physically different from the sex assigned them at birth—even though there wasn’t any queer identity as we now know it. The self-awareness and self-reliance they must have had amazes me. For example, real-life American actress Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) not only forged her career playing roles written for men, like Romeo and Hamlet, but engaged in long-term romantic relationships with equally accomplished women. How were these women able to discover who they were?
I’ve always loved theater and I’ve had some plays produced, so Cushman seemed like a ripe topic for my fiction. Even so, I didn’t want to be confined by her biography. When I read that she had a following of adoring young female fans, including aspiring actresses, my character Georgiana “Georgie” Cartwright was born, along with the idea that Georgie might write Cushman letters asking for advice.
I’d never written a novel set in the 19th century, and it required a daunting amount of research. As I wrote, I kept having to go back and do even more research, digging up little details to make Georgie’s world feel real. Still, the process went quickly and was a lot of fun, aided by a 2019-2020 Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts and Science Council. The fellowship allowed me to turn down a few teaching gigs, giving me time to devote to the project. I was also able to make a research trip to Wilmington to visit Thalian Hall, one of the only remaining mid-19th-century theaters in the country, which still has its original painted curtain and a “thunder roll” once used to simulate storms. Standing center stage, I could imagine what Georgie saw and felt when she looked out over the footlights and that added texture to the book.
Toward the beginning of Dear Miss Cushman, Georgie writes her first letter to Charlotte Cushman. In her letter, she writes, “I had the pleasure of accompanying my uncle to The Broadway last night to see your performance of Romeo. All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you!” Well, following Georgie’s lead, all I can say to Paula is thank you, thank you, thank you for the memorable contributions to Storied Charlotte’s ever-expanding library.