Thursday, October 20, 2005

Wisconsin Book Festival -- Part I

Wisconsin Book Fest 2005

Friday the 14th dawned bright and warm for mid-October. A few stray leaves skidded across State Street, skipping in between the throngs of university students and business professionals in search of a late lunch. I alighted from the bus at the corner of State and Johnson, my destination the small independent bookstore just down from that intersection. A Room of One’s Own has been Madison’s “feminist” bookstore for thirty years and still going strong. Though they cater to feminist books, their stock is quite diverse. The tiny seating area was already beginning to fill as I entered, the espresso machine grinding busily as patrons lined up for espressos and cafĂ© au laits before the author event began.

The first event of the day at this venue was “Love, Lunacy, Murder, & Revenge” by authors Jane Guill and Susan Tyler Hitchcock. Guill spoke about life and romance in medieval Wales as discovered in researching her novel Nectar From a Stone, in which a woman kills her husband two years after the great plague that wiped out a third of Europe's population.

I found the second speaker to be much more interesting. Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s book, Mad Mary Lamb: Lunacy and Murder in Literary London, explores the life of Mary Lamb, sister of 18th century essayist Charles Lamb. The author became interested in Mary as she often saw her mentioned in footnotes, yet little seems to have been written about Mary Lamb herself. Her parents served a prominent judge of the time, who saw that her brothers went to university. It was rare for women to be educated at that time, but being a progressive man, he opened his personal library to Mary, seeing that she too had an education. After committing matricide, Mary was in and out of asylums her entire life, and collaborated with brother Charles on well-known volumes such as Tales From Shakespeare and Poetry For Children.

There was a half hour between the first event and the next, during which Guill and Hitchcock signed books and chatted with audience members staying for the second session. Once again the noise of the espresso machine filled the small store as people lined up for more drinks while others of us chose to quietly browse the shelves and display tables before once again finding a place in the cramped seating area.

This second event featured Melanie Rehak, talking about her new book, Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her. Girl Sleuth was twice as crowded as the previous event, and the store proprietor scrambled to set out additional chairs as a mostly female contingent filed in. One of the remarkable features of this session was how it brought so many different women of varying ages together. Is there a girl alive who has not read at least one Nancy Drew mystery? They talked about which characters they liked best, which book they remembered most, and one of the ladies at my table had brought newspaper clippings about the authors and series that she had saved over the years. Interestingly enough, the one etched most prominently in people’s minds seemed to be the first one, The Secret of the Old Clock, which is the one I remember best (I was more of a Trixie Belden girl).

The Nancy Drew mysteries were created by Edward Stratemeyer. Stratemeyer was the impetus behind many popular series, including The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Stratemeyer would write up detailed outlines for each book, then hire ghostwriters to do the actual writing. The first three books of a new series would come out at once; if they sold well, there would be another three books. The first Nancy Drew mysteries were published in 1930, and were written by Harriet Adams, Stratemeyer’s daughter. The original editions contained more descriptive and narrative passages than has become acceptable today, and the newer books changed the way Nancy dressed, and her blue roadster became a convertible. Benson was offended by a public declaration by Adams that she was the original writer of the series, but due to the contract she had signed, did not feel it her place to correct her, until the 1980 court case.

Over the years Nancy Drew has displayed a staying power like no other series. Most girls are introduced to her through a loan or a gift; few discover the books on their own. In 1960, sales of The Secret of the Old Clock surpassed $1 million, rediscovered by older readers—mothers who remembered reading the books and who bought them for their own daughters and grandchildren. Today, over 200 million books have sold in 17 languages. There have been a few movies and a TV series, but none have sustained the way the books have.

Harriet Adams was also known as the author of the Bobbsey Twins series (writing as Laura Lee Hope). She took over the Stratemeyer syndicate after the death of her father in 1930, and she herself died in 1982. Adams’ business practices were deemed quite unethical by competing publishers and syndicate writers, who accused her of under-paying her writers and not giving them enough credit for their writing. She fired and hired frequently and kept only the most lucrative titles: The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew. Benson wrote more than 130 books, including the Penny Parker and Judy Bolton mystery series, and was a journalist for 58 years, writing for the former Toledo Times and later The Blade. She continued writing despite failing eyesight until her death at the age of 96 in May 2002. It was hearing Mildred Benson’s obituary on the radio that interested Rehak in finding out more about the author and the Nancy Drew series, and it was that interest that led her to the discovery of Harriet Adams and the Stratemeyer syndicate. An interview with Rehak can be found here.

To be continued...


Jana said...

Loving this so far. I never knew all that history about the Nancy Drew author. I was introduced to Nancy Drew by my sister who discovered her through a friend. I haven't read a whole lot of them but I loved the ones I read. :)

Heather said...

Isn't it fascinating? I had heard some of this before - at least the part about the series books all being ghost written by different authors - but found the info on Adams and Benson interesting. I didn't purchase the book adn am now wishing I had. Ah well...maybe I'll just add it to my Christmas list. ;-)