Zeldis, Kitty. The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights. New York: HarperCollins, 2022. 345 pages.
Writing the Past (WTP): What motivated you to write Dressmakers of Prospect Heights?
Kitty Zeldis (KZ): I had long been interested in New Orleans, a place that figures importantly in the background of one of the central characters, Beatrice Carr. I first visited the city in 1988 and fell instantly in love. The look of it, the melange of cultures—Southern, French, Spanish—the food, the music, the history, all contributed to its appeal. After that trip, New Orleans was on my radar so when I came upon the book Empire of Sin by Gary Krist, I dove right in. It was from Krist that I learned about Storyville, or The District as it was also called—a designated area in which prostitution was legal during the years 1898-1917. Not only legal, but on full and lavish display, as Basin Street, which was across from the railroad station, was lined with brothels, one more opulent than the next. Their owners—often women—became celebrities of the demi-monde, important individuals who wielded influence and power. Prostitution was a huge business that in turn helped fuel other businesses as hundreds of musicians, cooks, waiters, servants and more were needed to keep the wheels turning. Guides to sin city were published and these so-called Blue Books, widely available, were designed to inform the constant influx of tourists and pleasure seekers about the vast array of choices that were available. Although filled with ads for the various houses of ill repute as well as for restaurants, cafes, clubs etc. the Blue Books were chiefly a listing of prostitutes. One of the entries read like this: Caucasian, twenty-one, Jewish. Jewish! This was news to me. As an Ashkenazi Jew myself I had heard many immigration stories, stories in which those who were chased out of the old country found their way to a new one. But the story of a Jewish prostitute in New Orleans was not something I’d encountered before and since I am a novelist, not a historian, I decided that I wanted—no, needed—to imagine my way into such a life and in doing so, write it.
The other strand of this story came from my grandmother, Tania Brightman. She was an unhappy, difficult woman, prone to terrifying outbursts of rage. She was also a troubled and even traumatized soul who did not fully understand the impact of her tragic past and how it had shaped her, much less expect any help or solace. I did not like her and as I grew up, found it easy to distance myself from her; we lived in different states. So when she died, I was wholly unprepared for the flood of grief and regret I felt. I wished I had been more patient, more understanding, more loving. Of course, it was too late to make amends to her. But writing, as I have long thought, is a form of redemption, and it was through my writing that I could reframe her story, giving her the dignity and the compassion that I’d withheld from her in life. I looked at her life and used significant events in her past, particularly from her youth, to shape the backstory of my character. And although my grandmother never became a prostitute or madam, and never even visited much less settled in New Orleans, it is her spirit that animates Beatrice Carr and I can only hope I have done her justice.
Author Kitty Zeldis
WTP: How did you conduct research for this book–the time period, New Orleans, dressmaking, just to name a few areas?
KZ: I did a lot of reading and made a research trip to NOLA for that section of the novel. I had wanted to see that row of mansions I described but alas, every single one had been torn down and not a brick remained. I also looked at photographs—New Orleans, Russia, Brooklyn—as I find they help to bring the period and characters to life. I love to look for details of dress, architecture etc. to fill out the vision in my mind.
WTP: What were the challenges? The satisfactions?
KZ: Writing a novel set in the 1920s was harder than I had anticipated. There is less visual information readily available and something about the time period seemed more resistant to my inhabiting it. But when I felt I succeeded, it was especially satisfying especially given the difficulty.
WTP: Please describe any vetting practice for this book. How has accuracy been ensured?
KZ: I did my best to fact check and consult people I’d met in New Orleans at both the historical society and elsewhere to verify information. The publisher, HarperCollins, also employed a copy editor who did question certain facts and I addressed all those questions seriously.
WTP: I was particularly struck by the pacing of the narrative. Please describe your writing process. Do you start with the character? A problem? Do you write an outline?
KZ: I generally start with a voice—it’s as if someone is speaking to me, telling me her story. When the writing is going well, I feel as if I am transcribing rather than inventing; it’s as if I’ve become a conduit for someone else’s experience. While this doesn’t happen all the time, it’s thrilling when it does. I don’t like writing outlines but since this novel was bought on sample chapters, I did have to write a synopsis which is kind of an outline. However, the final version of the novel was quite different from the synopsis; the story I thought I was going to tell did not turn out to be the same as the story I ended up telling.
WTP: You write historical fiction for both adults and young readers. Are there differences in your approaches? Your research? The writing process?
KZ: Actually, the process is pretty much the same for both genres. I started writing historical fiction for kids before I turned to writing it for adults. Something about the past calls to me; it always has. So it felt natural, and even inevitable, to start writing historical fiction for adults as well.
For more about Kitty Zeldis, please visit her website.
This interview is simultaneously published Writing the Past, February 2023.