East End author Sheila Kohler loves doing public readings from her books. She admits that an author is always taking a chance in making an appearance after all the promotions. “They can be scary because one never knows if one will have an audience,” she said in a recent interview. “The funniest story I heard happened to a famous writer who had two people in the audience, and when he went to shake their hands, one of them, it turned out, was dead.”
It’s hard to imagine this happening to Kohler—her author readings tend to be packed with fans, students, and her many writer friends. It is only hard to imagine how she gets it all done, given her writing and teaching careers. She got her M.F.A. in writing at Columbia University after raising three daughters, published a first novel (The Perfect Place, Knopf, 1989), went on to produce a dozen books, developing a circle of admirers, and has maintained a busy teaching career at top colleges and universities, including Bennington College and Princeton University.
At a reading of her latest book, Love Child, at BookHampton in East Hampton, Kohler offered some insight into how this novel came to her. “When my mother died, she was a very wealthy woman, having been left a fortune by my father. But she did not leave her fortune to her only daughter.”
Those gathered for the reading wondered why. Friend and fellow writer, Edmund White, asked half-joking, if perhaps her mother didn’t leave her the money because she was jealous of her daughter’s beauty.
Of course, novelists find ideas for their books in their own lives, often turning a perplexing, even haunting memory into a story that can end up bearing a great deal of, or only some, resemblance to the actual event. Of her own situation, Kohler responded to White that she didn’t believe there was any kind of maternal jealousy going on, just, well, who knew for sure?
Kohler explained how the novel took shape in her mind. All her life, she said, “I took this for granted, but people seemed very surprised and shocked when I told them. I had always said I didn’t really know why my mother did this. ‘Who got the money?’ people would ask. My answer is that the novel was a way for me to find out, and though it is fiction, there is a lot of my mother’s life in it. By the time I had ended the book, I felt a great deal more love and sympathy for my mother, whose life was difficult and who had made brave and loving choices, at least in my imagination.”
The book, her ninth novel, is set in South Africa, where Kohler grew up, and takes place in the 1950s with alternating chapters set in the 1920s. In it, an unmarried teenager is forced to give up her first child, a girl. Then, after marrying a wealthy man and raising more children, she sets out on a quest to find the child she gave away. A critic for The Historical Novels Review wrote, “With a spare, beautiful prose full of unexpected turns of phrase and psychological acumen, step by heartbreaking step, Sheila Kohler discloses the transformation of a love-struck young girl ‘with so much hope, so many expectations,’ into a latter-day, middle-aged South African Scarlett O’Hara whose aspirations to leave poverty behind and to help her family exact a tremendous price from her. A beautifully written novel with an unforgettable protagonist.”
Another of her novels set in South Africa, Cracks, published in 1999, was made into a movie in 2009 starring Eva Green. Both the novel and the film are sublimely beautiful as well as disturbing. Cracks concerns a school coach abusing power, a topic that certainly continues to make news—one only has to look at the recent Penn State scandal—and the end result is disaster. In the film, the location is changed to England, and the ending is different, but Kohler especially praises the director, Jordan Scott, daughter of Ridley Scott, for capturing the theme. She adds, “The acting was terrific—all the young girls are excellent, particularly the girl who plays Fiamma,” a pivotal character.
Other lives inspire Kohler’s writing in her historical novels. In Becoming Jane Eyre, published in 2009, she draws from extensive research and visits to the north of England to imagine scenes from the lives of the famous Bronte sisters. Fans of Charlotte, Emily and Anne have attended Kohlers’ many reading appearances to soak up more and more of these sisters, who lived a secluded life with a drunkard brother and a parent who died too young. In Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness, readers relive, along with Kohler, events leading up to the French Revolution and what court life for a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette might have been like. The protagonist is drawn after the real-life Henriette Lucy Dillon, a young woman who, like many of Kohler’s other leading characters, is an incredibly strong and brave woman struggling through an era when men ruled.
Kohler lives in New York, but spends much of her time in her home in Amagansett. “It’s a lovely place to work,” she says. “My bedroom has a big table and opens onto the garden and the sound of water running in the pool. I love being out here—the quiet and the sea. I have frequent writer friends visit as well. A.M. Homes has a house on the East End, and Amy Hempel has often come to stay with us in the summer. Kaylie Jones is on the East End, I discovered, when she asked me for a story for her Long Island Noir book.”
Her husband, psychiatrist Bill Tucker, is one of her biggest fans. Sure to be in the audience at her appearances, he is also a great editor and reader of her works-in-progress. A daughter, Sasha Troyen, has published two novels, and writes when she is not teaching.
Whether they’re pursuing a degree or just want to pick up some insights into what might make their own manuscripts publishable, writers can find seminars and classes all over the map where Kohler discusses the elements of fiction (the biggies being conflict and scene). Currently she is teaching at Princeton University, where she has the support of writers like Joyce Carol Oates and White. Oates and White, along with J.M. Coetzee, also of South Africa, are among her inspirations.
Her advice to anyone seeking fame and fortune: Don’t become a writer—it’s too hard and the money isn’t there. “Unless one is driven by a strong desire, then it is the only way to go. That’s how it has been for me—I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I have been very fortunate to be able to spend long hours engrossed in what I am doing, being taken out of the humdrum of life into another place. There are heartbreaks continuously in this profession,” she said, adding, “as there are in most, I suppose.”
And a great deal of satisfaction, especially when a writer has had as much success as Kohler. The favorite of her books, she says, “is always the one I’m working on.”
That would be The Bay of Foxes, which comes out in June.