Posts Tagged Cordelia Frances Biddle
‘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?’
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 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.
How I made my writing career – novelist, playwright, photographer, actor Steve Zettler @szettlerauthor
How do you become a fiction writer? For some people, it’s almost by accident. That’s how it was for Steve Zettler, but after a series of cosy mysteries, another series of thrillers and a play, he seems to have found a good groove. His latest title, Careless Love, puts romance and thriller together, and is released today.
Roz Steve, you’re a photographer, actor and author. And according to your website you have an even wider CV. In the great tradition of adventurous arty folk, you’ve done an encyclopaedia of jobs. To pick a few: bricklayer, bartender. And that’s just the Bs.
Steve Ha! I read this as BS.
Roz I had a feeling you would.
Let’s continue being predictable. Those jobs must have given you great material.
Steve It’s been an interesting ride, which has left me penniless on more than one occasion. I’ve always travelled in whatever direction the wind is blowing, even from an early age. There’s never been anything that vaguely resembled a master plan; I’ve never once considered where I might be, what I might be doing, at age 40 or 50. Thus the endless list of assorted occupations – I get bored easily and don’t like going in reverse, so it’s always been something different, a new way to pay the bills. It’s put me in close proximity with a whole gaggle of very interesting people.
In the early 70s no one had come up with the term PTSD (they were still calling it shell-shock), but if they had labelled it PTSD I could have been one of their poster-boys. Seventeen months’ combat duty in Vietnam had left my brains resembling scrambled eggs and I found photography to be the perfect escape. I was a freelancer in NYC and it allowed me to live a life where I spoke to almost no one. It took me about seven years to become a socially acceptable animal.
The downside of freelancing; I was broke most of the time and needed to tend bar, drive a taxi etc to pay the bills. But photography forced me to become a consummate observer, which I’ve been to this day. So with all of the twists and turns my life has taken I’ve been able to study a very divergent assortment of people and landscapes. And I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by what I see and hear.
I ended up doing a lot of photography for theatre companies and taking headshots for actors. One theatre company was doing a children’s show and an actor injured himself. They were in need of a warm body and asked me to take his place. They neglected to tell me that the Handsome Prince was blind as a bat and we would have a sword fight, but I lived through it and this kicked off my acting career.
So I was now a new person with a new title; the wind had taken me elsewhere. I threw all my black and white negatives in the trash and sold my cameras.
And by the way, acting is a fabulous training ground for writers. I’ve often suggested just that to fellow writers; take an acting class, get to know your characters from the inside out, live their lives.
Roz Yes! I’ve often thought this while polishing dialogue. You have to know what it’s like to be the character. Also, know why it’s good to be them, especially if their actions aren’t nice. But I’ve never had the chance to discuss this with an actor. Glad you raised this.
Steve Anyway, I worked as an actor for a number of years in NYC and Los Angeles. My wife was an actor as well but when we moved to LA she began to write. Her first novel was published by Simon and Schuster, and her agent was the infamous Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar. We moved to an island off the coast of Connecticut. The wind just blew us back east. But there wasn’t a lot there, acting-wise, so I started to write. And this will annoy the hell out of every writer who reads this: I simply gave my first novel to my wife’s agent and he got me a two-book deal. I remember thinking, holy crap, I’m going to have to write another book.
Roz Holy crap, indeed. So that’s how writing became ‘the thing’?
Steve I never did give up acting and photography altogether; I bought another camera when things went digital. I now live in Philadelphia. My passion for stage acting has left me but I work with young filmmakers getting their careers off the ground and the occasional independent film shooting in the area. It’s more of a desire to mix it up with the younger generation than anything else. Their energy is contagious, even though the money’s short.
Photography-wise, I generally do stuff for free, unless it’s a commercial entity. Since everything is now digital it’s easy enough for me to help an organization, or author, or actor, with photos and send jpegs. There’s no longer the cost of film or the annoyance of darkroom work, so why not help people?
Roz Were your family artistic in any way?
Steve Not remotely. My dad owned a bar/restaurant and we lived above it. It was in the county north of Philadelphia and was basically a country inn. It was a very rural and very charming place along the Delaware River and essentially a shack-up spot for New York writers, actors, directors and producers. Some crazy people drifted through when I was a kid. I would never mention who spent the night there, but I still have the guest registry from 1936 through 1965. Regular customers at the restaurant included Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Robert Frost, James Michener, Oscar Hammerstein and the like. I was much too young to know who they were, let alone converse with them, but they attracted quite a bit of attention when they walked in for dinner. It seemed like the life I wanted to live.
Roz What would you tell your 16-year-old self?
Steve I’m afraid the 16-year-old Stevie never listened to anyone or took anyone’s advice. He’d look at me and say. ‘What the hell do you know?’
I’ve made some really bad decisions in my life and had to live with them. In a strange way that has become a blessing. I don’t lie to myself. I guess if I told Stevie anything it would be to slow down a little. There’s a wonderful Billy Joel song called ‘Vienna’. I’d tell him to listen to it over and over. Unfortunately it wasn’t around when Stevie was 16.
Roz Your novels are mainly suspense thrillers – the Joe Bradlee series (Double Identity and The Second Man), also Ronin, a standalone thriller. Why that genre?
Steve I really enjoy the format, both in reading and writing. You know from the beginning who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, and most likely, by the end, the good guy is going to crush the bad guy.
I love the ride of a thriller. You can go wherever you want. People walk into the story out of nowhere and you have to deal with them; give them a life and a purpose for being there. You can’t disregard them. You can’t tell them to get the hell out of your book because they won’t. They stay there and pester you until you give them that purpose. I think writing thrillers is as much of a joy ride for the writer as it is (hopefully) for the reader.
Roz What’s the characteristic flavour of a Zettler thriller?
Steve I take nothing too seriously. My protagonists are always self-deprecating and I can’t seem to prevent myself from pointing out some of the lunacy that exists in the world. Hypocrites are often my favourite target.
Roz What’s the Steve writing method?
Steve I have to admit, I’m not a consummate writer. I can go a long time without writing a thing and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have that burning desire to write. My wife does; I don’t. At some point I seem to get visited by a spirit that tells me to write and if that spirit is off fishing in Alaska I’m not going to write a damn thing. But then the spirit shows up and gives me the first sentence of a novel and informs me where the novel’s going to end and tells me to fill in the middle. If I don’t have that first sentence, I’m not going anywhere.
And interestingly the first sentence never remains anchored as the first sentence, but it always shows up in the novel somewhere; it becomes the driving metaphor.
Roz You also write crossword mysteries under the name Nero Blanc, with your wife, Cordelia Frances Biddle.
Steve There are 12 Nero Blanc titles. Each book contains a series of crossword puzzles – solve the puzzle, solve the crime. Crossword puzzles are black and white, thus the pen name; nero is black in Italian, blanc is white in French.
The mysteries fall into the ‘cosy’ category, meaning no swear words, no sexual situations. There’s a cute couple who solve the crimes, with sort of a Nick and Nora relationship. They have a lot of fun with one another, which is pretty much how Cordelia and I travel through life. More often than not at book signings people would say they didn’t bother with the puzzles; they only read the books as romance novels.
Roz Doh. Why didn’t I spot that?
Steve Cordelia and I had, for quite a while, been scouting for something we could write together; anything, travel books, cookbooks, whatever. Remember we were on this island with a lot of time. We were having lunch one day, sharing the crossword puzzle, when she got so frustrated she threw down the pen and said ‘Someone should just kill this guy’, referring to the person who had edited the puzzle. We were off and running.
Roz So it’s good, working with your spouse?
Steve Cordelia and I worked together as actors; that’s how we met. I’ve always maintained that acting teachers should understand that if they assign students a scene from La Ronde, those students are going to end up sleeping with one another to properly research their characters.
But once again, this acting background was invaluable when it came to collaborating as writers. As actors we had become very comfortable with taking direction. Directors can be very blunt. Actors need to listen and make it work, no matter how biting the criticism might be. Often Cordelia and I would act out dialogue scenes and write them as we had improved them. And the main characters were simply a reflection of our own relationship. We had a great time writing Nero Blanc together, but eventually wanted to get back to the swear words and sexual situations.
Roz Your latest novel, Careless Love, is published by Vine Leaves Press. How did you end up there?
Steve My thrillers and mysteries were published by big houses, and quite often, as I’m sure you know, literary fiction and poetry get the short end of the stick from the big boys. And their editors can be somewhat, shall we say, mercenary? They want you to stay on the horse you rode in on.
But it seemed with each book the editors became more and more hands off. I wanted a smaller, more personal, literary publisher, so that’s the direction I went. Vine Leaves Press was the first to respond to my query. They did so very quickly, which was tremendously encouraging. They were very positive, and I have to say they’ve proven to be far more supportive than my previous editors and publishers. Other publishers have since contacted me about Careless Love. There is something wonderful about being able to say, ‘Sorry, that ship has sailed’.
Roz What inspired Careless Love?
Steve It came from my soul. It’s been bouncing around in there for decades. The spirit finally visited me, gave me the first sentence, and told me how the novel was going to end.
Roz What would readers of your previous work recognise in Careless Love?
Steve Oddly, it does almost have that thriller format, and I think readers of my previous work would enjoy it for that reason. But I would call it literary romantic suspense – is that a category? It is inspired by true events. Every incident in Careless Love has happened to me or someone I’ve been very close to.
Roz Why that title?
Steve It was inspired by a blues song written in 1921 by WC Handy. It’s been recorded by almost every blues singer since, but Madeleine Peyroux’s cover just brought it all home for me. There are some blues songs that really must be sung by a woman to hit the mark, and this one of them. It’s just two words, but they can be interpreted so many ways. My novel is very much a woman’s story. Like the song, I’ve interpreted careless love to mean that love is careless, it will grab your heart, rip it out and stomp on it if you’re not careful. But when you’re deeply in love it’s not so easy being careful.
Roz What’s coming next?
Steve I’m halfway through a memoir focused on the year I was eight years old, discovering my great aunt dead in her bedroom, living above my dad’s restaurant and rubbing elbows with the celebs out front and the down-and-outers who worked in the kitchen. It was a wonderful way to grow up.
Roz Rich material indeed. Give me some unzettling final words.
Steve A seminal moment was the day I returned to the US after my months of combat duty in Vietnam. As the other Marines filed into the terminal I dropped onto my knees and kissed the tarmac. This brought on a fair amount of laughter from the others, but I stayed there, on my knees, for some time. Eventually a lieutenant joined me and did the same thing.
He then said, ‘You know we’re a couple of lucky bastards, you and me’.
I said, ‘I’d guess we all are, sir’.
He responded by saying, ‘No, you and I are luckier that the rest’.
‘How’s that, sir?’
‘Because we know how lucky we are. They don’t.’
And tweet him on @sZettlerAuthor
Find Careless Love here
If you’re looking for writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.