Getting laid off is probably every young professional’s nightmare, but, as with some seeming disasters, often the results can prove pleasantly surprising. Writer Emily Mitchell, whose debut novel, “The Last Summer of the World,” hit shelves this week, certainly owes her literary career to the dreaded pink slip.
When the dot-com company she worked for in the late Nineties “ran out of money,” Mitchell, 32, says: “I lost my job, which is actually how I got started writing fiction….Well, you know, they said, ‘let go.'”
And good thing they did. An unemployed Mitchell, who studied English and Japanese at Middlebury College, found herself composing stories at home and decided to enter the MFA program at Brooklyn College. Her resulting novel (she also has published short stories) is a graceful, meandering portrait of famed photographer Edward Steichen and his years in France during World War I. Set in 1918, the book finds Steichen ruminating on a particularly momentous summer in 1914 when his family life with wife Clara and their two daughters was irrecoverably splintered by a possible affair he had with close family friend Marion Beckett.
“A lot of different things came together to make this project feel compelling to me. I was interested in writing about photography and sort of looking at ways in which photographs could be used in narrative,” says Mitchell, who now lives in San Francisco with her fiancé. “I came across these stories from Edward Steichen’s life and was just so fascinated by all the strange things in this particular period of his life.”
Mitchell did extensive research, including reading Penelope Niven’s biography of Steichen and trawling through Clara Steichen’s archived letters. While the book is fiction, the narrative is propelled by an actual trial in which Clara sued for “alienation of affection” in 1921. And the structure takes its lead from Steichen’s photographs: Instead of traditional chapter headings, Mitchell uses titles of his prints to set the tone.
As for why Mitchell, whose father is a trained historian and who herself clearly enjoys the research process, chose to novelize Steichen’s life as opposed to writing a nonfiction work, she is firm on her stance that the two approaches have equal merit.
This story first appeared in the June 21, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“There’s a level of emotional intimacy I think you can’t get in any other way except fiction,” she muses. “People’s ambivalent feelings about their own actions, the things which lead them to make particular choices — those realities are things we’re familiar with from our own life and we don’t tend to have a record of them….Those things, and the conversations that people have that they don’t put into letters because they’re not terribly proud of them, all are the province of fiction.”