I recently had an opportunity to talk with Suanne Schafer whose historical fiction novel, A Different Kind of Fire, released this month. I just finished reading it and found the book very difficult to put down.
A Different Kind of Fire is the story of Ruby Schmidt. Torn between her childhood sweetheart, her forbidden passion for another woman, the nobleman she had to marry, and her dream of becoming a painter, her choices mold her in ways she could never have foreseen. A woman who doesn’t belong in 19th century America, finds herself as she—and our country—move into the 20th.
DF How did you come up with the idea for this story?
SS For years I’d wanted to write my paternal grandparents’ love story. Once I started, though, I realized that I wanted more than a family history, and the book morphed into a herstory, with a more feminist view of the 1890s. The American Gilded Age was such an exciting time for women with suffragettes, the Free Love movement, and a woman running for President of the United States. I wanted my heroine to experience that first-wave feminism while walking a tight-rope balancing her career with home and family.
DF Are your characters based on real people, or do they come from your imagination?
SS Bismarck, Ruby, and d’Este are based on family members but highly fictionalized. Some of the artists and other folks Ruby interacts with are real, but her interactions with them are, of course, straight out of my imagination.
DF I know from experience historical fiction can take quite a bit of research. What kind of research did you do for this novel?
SS The storyline obviously came from my own experiences, but I did extensive research on Buffalo Bill, the Panic of 1893, 19th century artists and academic painting, mixing pigments from scratch, Winsor & Newton art supplies, boarding houses for women, clothing, suffragettes, the Free Love movement, and women’s legal rights.
DF This isn’t a romance but it’s definitely about love. Can you talk about that?
SS A Different Kind of Fire is a love story on many levels, full of love triangles such as Ruby-Bismarck-d’Este and Ruby-Bismarck-d’Este and Ruby-Willow-Bismarck. If you add Ruby’s passion for art, these become love quadrangles and pentagons, all sides continually being skewed by strains between the people involved and art. Desire and passion are recurrent themes and a powerful force within Ruby: desire for art, desire for place (her connection to the land), desire for solitude, and passion for both her male and female lovers.
DF Your writing style feels similar to your description of Ruby’s painting style. You don’t soften or romanticize her world. Your writing is straightforward and realistic. Was that intentional? Is there some of you in Ruby Louise?
SS I can’t say I “planned” to write in a particular style for Ruby. That is just the way I write, rather lean and to the point. (I talk to patients the same way, no sugar-coating lab results, etc.) One of my Stanford professors compared my work to that of Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx—high praise indeed. Another said my prose was both laconic and elegant. I did feel somewhat constrained by the vocabulary of the 1890s. I’m not sure there’s much of me in Ruby (although I was talented enough artistically that my family thought I should follow in my grandmother’s artistic footsteps). I became a photographer instead and later switched to medicine, going to medical school at age 39.
DF Photography sounds like the perfect compliment to your writing style. In A Different Kind of Fire, you capture the essence of a woman of Ruby’s day, following her passions.
Suanne Schafer, born in West Texas at the height of the Cold War, finds it ironic that grade school drills for tornadoes and nuclear war were the same: hide beneath your desk and kiss your rear-end goodbye. Now a retired family-practice physician whose only child has fledged the nest, her pioneer ancestors and world travels fuel her imagination. She’d originally planned to write romances, but either as a consequence of a series of failed relationships or a genetic distrust of happily ever-after, her heroines are strong women who battle tough environments and intersect with men who might—or might not—love them.