Recently, I’ve received a number of messages asking whether (and some assuming that) the Eloise portion of The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla is autobiographical.
Here’s the short answer: it’s not.
There are certainly elements of my world woven into Eloise’s story. The descriptions of Cambridge in 2004 are as true as my memory can make them. Just as I loaned Eloise my basement flat in London, I also made her free of my studio apartment in Cambridge, in a building that no longer exists as it was then: 1306 Massachusetts Avenue. The year after I left (2006/7), the building was completely renovated, doing away with my old apartment, the mustard-colored hallways with their rust-red trim, and, sadly, the Toscanini’s on the ground floor.
Likewise, Campo de Fiori, where Megan and Eloise have their pre-class lunch of potato pizza, was a real place. Like 1306 Mass Ave, Campo de Fiori is long gone, but those plastic tables once took up a corner of the Holyoke Center, and, like Eloise and Megan, my friend Jenny and I used to meet there for sustenance before marching off to tackle Western Civ sections.
They say to write what you know. At one point, I knew the History department, Hist and Lit, and Dudley House (the grad student social center) rather well. All of them are as true to their 2004 selves as I could describe them, from the faculty sky-boxes in Robinson Hall to that annual Halloween party.
And now we start moving into fiction….
Once we get past the physical descriptions of Eloise’s world, we’re purely in the realm of make-believe. Eloise and I are very different people. We didn’t even study the same thing: in my academic life, I was an early modernist, focusing on the 16th and 17th centuries.
Unlike Eloise, I had an ulterior motive in going to grad school. My goal was always, in the end, to use my education to write perfectly accurate historical fiction, preferably a great big doorstop novel set in Scotland in the 16th century. Of course, along the way, I discovered there’s no such thing as undisputed historical accuracy, and, ten years after my first book, I have yet to write anything set in either the sixteenth century or Scotland, but…. Details, details.
So (not to give too much away for those who haven’t read it yet), for everyone who has asked me if the conversation Eloise has with her adviser in Midnight Manzanilla is drawn from the life… it’s not. Not even close. I will say that, unlike Eloise’s, my adviser was extremely supportive and made clear that I was still a member of the history department, always welcome to return, when I announced that I was making the switch to law school.
(If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry. Eloise doesn’t go to law school.)
For those who are curious as to why I decided to leave grad school, I discuss it a bit in a book that just came out last week: Rebecca Peabody’s The Unruly PhD: Doubts, Detours, Departures, and Other Success Stories.
I tend to discuss it rather more frankly after a few drinks, but, even in that version, it’s nothing like Eloise’s story.
It’s called fiction for a reason….