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TEMPTATION RAG – Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
Check back for my full review! I give this one a solid 4/5 stars 🙂
Seventeen-year-old May Convery, unhappy with her privileged life in turn-of-the-century New York City, dreams of becoming a poet. When she meets the talented young Mike Bernard, an aspiring concert pianist, she immediately falls in love. But after their secret liaison is discovered, neither is prepared for the far-reaching consequences that will haunt them for decades. As Mike abandons serious music to ruthlessly defend his hard-won title, Ragtime King of the World, May struggles to find her voice as an artist and a woman. It is not until years after their youthful romance, when they cross paths again, that they must finally confront the truth about themselves and each other. But is it too late?
The world of ragtime is the backdrop for a remarkable story about the price of freedom, the longing for immortality, and the human need to find forgiveness. From vaudeville’s greatest stars to the geniuses of early African American musical theater, an unforgettable cast of real-life characters populates this richly-fictionalized historical saga.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard is an award-winning author of historical fiction. Her first novel, The Beauty Doctor, has been recognized by the Eric Hoffer Book Award (2018, Fiction Finalist), the Arizona Literary Awards (2017, Honorable Mention, Published Fiction), and the Book Readers Appreciation Group (Medallion Honoree). She toured for nearly a decade as a professional vocalist, flutist and songwriter. Her first album was produced by former Santana keyboardist Tom Coster. A summa cum laude Communications graduate of Northwestern University, Bernard eventually traded her microphone for a pen. She settled in California, promoting international expositions for the music trade (Director of Public Relations, NAMM). She later moved to New York City, where she was the Communications Director for the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. She was instrumental in founding the internationally-subscribed Aesthetic Surgery Journal and served as its Executive Editor. Later, she was a primary consultant to the National Cosmetic Network, in partnership with the plastic surgery program of Johns Hopkins University, and an editorial consultant for the book Be Your Best: A Comprehensive Guide to Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Currently a full-time author, Bernard lives in Arizona with her husband and their black lab, Pearly Mae.
emptation Rag: A Novel is available December 3, 2018 in paperback and e-book editions on Amazon and other retailers.
1.) What was the inspiration for Temptation Rag: A Novel?
I started writing TEMPTATION RAG about eight years ago, when I was part of a
writing group at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in New York. I knew I wanted
to write a novel, but I was still searching for a topic or theme that would really
inspire me. Then I remembered a few of the stories I had heard from my husband
Bob about his grandfather, Mike Bernard, who won the title Ragtime King of the
World in 1900. The stories were not flattering, since Mike never really owned up
to his family responsibilities and remained a shadowy figure. Nevertheless, I
sensed the raw material for a compelling story—about a man who was probably
the most popular ragtime player in New York City and about the people in his life
who were deeply affected by his single-minded quest for fame and fortune. At
that point, I still had no idea about the history of ragtime music and that history’s social, moral, and political implications. When my research led me to discover how African American musicians’ rights as the true originators of ragtime were largely overlooked, I quickly realized that their story and Mike’s were inseparable. I spent a couple of years working on the book and often feeling like I was in over my head. I wanted to recreate that amazing, bigger-than-life world of early 1900s vaudeville and musical theater in New York City but, above all, tell a deeply human story of passion, ambition, and desire with unforgettable real-life characters. The scope of the story was so vast, covering more than thirty years, and my idea to tell it through multiple points of view was pretty ambitious for a first-time author. Finally, because I wanted to do the story justice, I decided to set it aside and “cut my teeth” as a debut author on a story that I felt more comfortable with. It took me several years to write my historical thriller THE BEAUTY DOCTOR. When that book turned out to be so well-received, it gave me the confidence to come back to my first story. I thought “Okay, I can really do this.”
2.) What research did you need to do for this book?
I had a lot to learn about the people who inhabited the world of ragtime. Names
like Ben Harney, Will Marion Cook, J. Rosamond Johnson, Abbie Mitchell, and of
course Mike Bernard. My novel encompasses the entire ragtime era, beginning in
1895 and ending in 1929, though the decline of ragtime had already begun a
decade earlier. To start with, I needed to ground myself in what was going on in
the world at that time, what were the social mores, what were people concerned
about, and how did life change over the course of thirty years? As far as the
music, I knew there would always be people far more knowledgeable than I am
about ragtime. But I did my best to understand the evolution of this truly
American musical genre as well as its eventual demise when jazz became “the
next big thing.” I read a lot of books, listened to music, talked to people who were
acknowledged experts in the field. I pored through the family documents that
were relevant to Mike Bernard who, as I’ve already mentioned, was my
husband’s grandfather. I let these real-life characters I had learned so much about—these incredibly colorful figures from vaudeville and early African
American musical theater—tell me their stories. The synthesis of all that is partly fact, partly fiction.
3.) Are all of the characters in TEMPTATION RAG based on real people?
Not all of them are based on real people, but most of the important characters
are. A notable exception is the book’s female protagonist, May Convery. May’s
rejection of the social mores of the era is what readers love about her, but I have
no idea if the real May Convery was anything like that. There really was very little
historical information on her, other than the record of her marriage to Mike
Bernard at a very young age. Yet she is the central character of TEMPTATION
RAG. I wanted May’s emotional journey in finding her voice as a poet, as well as
her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement, to capture the spirit of an
era in which women were beginning to demand freedom and the right of self-
4.) Who has inspired you most in your life?
First, my family. They helped me to believe I could do or be anything I wanted.
As far as my writing life, I have a special love for early 20 th century authors like Daphne du Maurier, best known for her haunting novel Rebecca, and Edith
Wharton, author of The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and the first
woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921. Two of my favorite
contemporary authors who write consistently compelling historical fiction are
Sarah Waters and Megan Chance. In my spiritual life, I’ve been inspired by the
oracle, I Ching, of which I’ve been a student for many years. I find it to be a
constant source of wisdom. When writing my novels, I often turn to it for
inspiration and as a way to tap into my subconscious mind.
5.) Can you describe your writing process?
For my first novel, I was a “seat of the pants” writer, meaning that I had no
interest in mapping out my story in advance but preferred to let it evolve as I went
along. I had a general idea of where I was going, but the plot twists and turns
along the way were often a surprise to me. I find it very exciting to write that way, but inevitably one ends up going back to the beginning and making a lot of
adjustments. For TEMPTATION RAG, there were actual historical timelines to
consider, so I couldn’t be quite as freewheeling. But I doubt that I will ever be the kind of methodical writer who starts out with a strict outline of a book, beginning to end. I write just about every day, but I don’t necessarily aim to write a certain number of pages. I simply write until I don’t feel like writing anymore. That can be two hours or twelve hours.
6.) What is your most important goal as a writer?
I love to hear from readers who say they learned something new from reading
one of my historical novels, that they felt immersed in another era, and that they
loved the characters. If someone tells me that my book made them think about
things they’d not considered before, or think in a different way about something
important, that is very exciting. Of course, creating characters that readers
connect with emotionally is probably the top goal of every fiction writer. Several
of the advance readers of TEMPTATION RAG have said to me about the
character of Mike Bernard, “I loved him, then I despised him, then I loved him” or
“I liked him even when he was being a jerk.” That makes me feel great, because I
had hoped to create a character who was complex and deeply flawed but was in
some way redeemable.
7.) What is next for you in your writing career?
My next novel will explore two parallel stories, one taking place in the early 1900s
and the other in present-day. The split timeframe is a technique that I have found
interesting in other historical novels. A couple of my favorites are The Last
Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith and The Fortunate Ones by Ellen
Umansky. Though the switching back and forth can be tricky, and sometimes
even annoying, it has the potential to add additional layers of meaning to a story.
I’m looking forward to trying it.