‘The sound of a typewriter brings me happiness’ – historical fiction and non-fiction author Cordelia Biddle @AuthorBiddle

When Cordelia Biddle was nine years old, a schoolteacher told her she could never become an author. Cordelia has proved that teacher everlastingly wrong with two works of non-fiction, five Victorian mystery novels and two standalones. Also, 12 murder mysteries written with her author husband. Her latest release is They Believed They Were Safe, set in the 1960s, published at the end of 2022 by Vine Leaves Press.  

Let’s rewind to that teacher. What did she say?

She said I didn’t ‘possess sufficient imagination’ to become an author, which was my dream. It’s needless to say that I presented the wretched woman with a copy of my first published novel.

And you teach creative writing now too.

She’s the reason. No one should have a dream squashed. I share that story with my students. Sadly, it often resonates because they’ve also experienced rigid, judgemental educators.

Can you pinpoint where the dream started?

My dad, Livingston Biddle, was an author. He spent hours sequestered in his third-floor office, typing and chain-smoking. The sound of a typewriter still brings me happiness.

Although he wrote novels, poetry was one of his passions, which he passed to me. Many of my parents’ friends were in the creative arts; I’m endlessly thankful for that early exposure.

You describe yourself as a historian as well as an author.

I’m rigorous when it comes to historical research. Every detail must be correct: locales, choices of language, clothing, the creative arts and popular culture. I admit to being a research geek and will pore over archival materials analysing an era’s zeitgeist.

I’m currently working on a novel, I Remember You, told from the perspective of a house (in second person, which is a challenge). The story encompasses 200 years of American history. I want each decade, each cataclysmic historical event to resonate, and I want to place readers squarely within the action.

What an interesting concept. Send a copy to the wretched woman.

I notice the name Biddle in the title of one of your non-fiction works – Biddle, Jackson and a Nation in Turmoil. Do explain!

In the late 1830s the financier Nicholas Biddle – my ancestor – battled President Andrew Jackson over the issue of central banking in the US. The fight was fierce and played out in politics and media. Biddle represented a cultured, educated elite. Jackson was his opposite, a frontiersman who loathed ‘the moneyed aristocracy’ – bankers and their banks. His adherents were self-made Americans, many with little to no education. Rightly, they believed they’d been disregarded within the upper echelons of politics and commerce. Jackson supporters pilloried his opponents and physically attacked voters. One senator carried loaded pistols into the Halls of Congress.

What I found fascinating were the similarities between the 19th and 21st centuries. Yes, banking was the core question, but it devolved into vitriolic attacks that leapt across political issues and polarised the nation.

Give me the complete works of Cordelia Biddle. How many books have you published?

I’ve published two works of non-fiction and seven novels, five in the Martha Beale Victorian mystery series in 1840s Philadelphia. I found the societal issues compelling, as well as dismaying. Philadelphia wasn’t incorporated into the city it is now; it was a compilation of districts and townships, which allowed lawbreakers to escape across internal lines. I created a strong, iconoclastic woman protagonist who must battle classism, racism and sexism while solving crimes and working towards social justice for the oppressed. Child sex trafficking is one of the evils I address, as is the grinding poverty that encouraged it. And, of course, the status of women of all classes.

They Believed They Were Safe, your latest novel, seems a departure from Martha Beale.

Again, there’s a crucial historical aspect: 1962 in a peaceable, small New England college town. President Kennedy’s assassination hadn’t yet cast a pall over the nation, and the northern US existed in a 1950s feelgood haze. I felt compelled to depict the dichotomy between appearance and reality. Mabel Gorne, my protagonist, is naïve despite her age (she’s just entered graduate school) and begins boarding with a seemingly upstanding older couple. All seems blissful, but she carries dark secrets she hasn’t yet acknowledged; and the husband possesses clandestine longings of which his wife is unaware.

What are you wanting to explore?

The novel revolves around sexual trauma. It’s blunt and terrifying. Mabel copes with rape at a time when perpetrators were often excused and the victims blamed – reactions that, tragically, continue to this day.

What makes a Cordelia Biddle book?

My purpose in writing each of my novels is to expose psychological and physical attacks on the vulnerable. If readers cringe, I feel I’ve succeeded. If they respond to their outrage with actions, better yet. The #MeToo Movement provides a vital link to current issues of abuse and ones that had been buried.

All my books are female-centric. All have a moral to impart. One of the reasons I enjoy using differing historical periods is that I can examine women’s lives and allow readers to make connections between present and past. I also love existing within earlier timeframes. I feel as though I’m taking the reader by the hand and saying, ‘Look at what I discovered! Shall we keep exploring?’

What’s next?

You’re the first to hear the news. I plan to continue Mabel Gorne’s story. She survived sexual assault as well as hideous emotional betrayal. I want to discover where life next takes her.

What’s your process?

I start with a barebones idea and follow the characters’ leads. On good days, I feel like I’m taking dictation from these fictional folk. I’m demanding with my wordsmithing, so I edit each morning before jumping into the subsequent phase or chapter. I’m never certain what may occur next, or who will walk into a story, which makes for a thrilling ride. When I finish a first draft, I return and deepen the narrative and then return and return again. My favourite questions are: What if? And: What couldn’t possibly happen next?

You teach creative writing at Drexel university in Philadelphia. What do you think can be taught and what can’t?

Some students have natural gifts; a few struggle but their progress is all the more rewarding for being hard worn. Drexel attracts students from Asian and African nations. Those differing voices and cultures make for a dynamic mix. My goal is to enable intimate knowledge of fictional characters, whether within assigned weekly readings, or critiquing their classmates’ work or analysing their own. I encourage my students to keep writing no matter where their careers take them, and to remember they have a friend and ally who will read future works in progress.

It’s exhilarating when a science major decides writing a novel is a goal. None have published yet, but I’m convinced they will. Hint: look for a riff on Jane Austen set in Lagos, Nigeria.

Have you any formal qualifications in writing?

My training was as an actress. I studied in New York City, and started writing my first novel while appearing on the daytime drama, One Life To Live. I had a tiny part and plenty of time in an empty dressing room. Scripts for the soaps were fairly conventional. I railed against the lack of anything remotely literary and commenced what would become Beneath The Wind – a standalone set on a world tour in 1903. Marital discord, an illicit love affair, a rebellion in Borneo, and the death of a child. I found my voice as an author as well as my love of dark and intricate tales. I still can’t revisit that child’s death without weeping, which makes me wonder whether I invented the story or channelled it. Either way, the scene remains vivid and harrowing.

Acting must surely have set you up for writing…

Acting, I believe, is perfect training for a writer. As authors, we inhabit other characters, exist within their brains and bodies, probe the fears and wounds everyone hides. Authors become playwrights, performers, set and lighting designers; we create the narrative and the physical and emotional mood, but we also live within those complex lives.

How do you decide whether an idea needs to be non-fiction or a novel?

The subject matter makes those decisions easy. I would never have fictionalized the lives of Nicholas Biddle or Katharine Drexel (in my other non-fiction work, Saint Katharine, the life of Katharine Drexel); both possessed drama in abundance. However, non-fiction requires complex characterizations and cliffhangers just as fiction does. I call my approach ‘informed conjecture’. I read personal correspondence, ponder relationships and consider motivations. Why did Nicholas Biddle or Katharine Drexel make certain choices? What brought each joy or sorrow? What infuriated them? In Katharine Drexel’s case, racism made her rage. I felt myself reliving her fury as I wrote her biography.

My latest novel They Believed They Were Safe began as a short story, but the characters pushed me to lengthen the tale, which indicates how deeply I’m involved in the lives of the people inhabiting my keyboard and brain.

You’re married to Steve Zettler, also an author. How does it work, a house of two authors?

I can’t imagine anything better! Our dinner conversation always circles around works in progress. We each provide willing ears as well as useful observations and queries. Because we met as actors, we relish the collaborative process. We challenge each other to grow. His last novel, Careless Love, made me sob at each reading.

You’ve co-written a series of mysteries with Steve under the name Nero Blanc.

Steve and I penned 12 murder mysteries. They’re crossword mysteries, thus the black-and-white themed pen name. In each, readers help solve the crime by doing crosswords alongside one of our protagonists, a crossword editor, Annabella Graham. (Say it fast and it becomes ‘anagram’.) And, yes, our marriage survived. Probably because Steve has a quirky sense of humour and I’m grim. We did, however, discover that we needed a strong outline, a device neither of us employs when writing solo.

Some quick-fire questions:

Writing solo or writing as a duo?

For me, they’re entirely different. Solo is for moodiness and internal drama. Duo makes for a more manageable narrative line.

Three books you’d grab if your library was on fire.

My battered copy of War and Peace, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (signed to me), Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renascence (signed ‘her book’).

The oldest thing on your writing desk.

My mother’s Estabrook fountain pen – useless now, but I can still picture it in her hands.

The thing you do when you’re procrastinating (as a writer).

Extremely nerdy, but I love to read the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. I’d always hungered for a set. Steve found one and surprised me. Forget gold and gemstones. Give me words.

The thing you do to unwind.

Walk through the city and stare into upper windows, imagining previous inhabitants’ lives. I also practise piano (I’m a new learner), and go to the gym, although my motivation is finding time to read. On the bike machine, novel in hand and I’m lost to the world. Woe betide the person who interrupts to ask me what I find so fascinating.

Find Cordelia on her website, tweet her as @authorbiddle , find her on Facebook and Instagram

Find They Believed They Were Safe here.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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