September 17, 2017

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The Debut: Bethany Hagen Talks About ‘Landry Park’

Landry ParkThe world created by Bethany Hagen in Landry Park (Dial, 2014) is strange and familiar. Class structure is determined by family lineage, and while some of the lower class can aspire to move up a notch, nothing but birth or marriage can determine reaching the highest ranks. The awareness of this runs deep among the citizens of this alternate United States, now broken into city-states, entrenched in defending themselves from the Easterners who rule everything west of the Rockies.

While most people live a hand-to-mouth existence, it is quite the opposite for the Landry family, descended directly from Jacob Landry, the inventor of the Cherenkov lantern, an energy source that is only accessible to the ruling class. Madeline Landry sleeps under a silk canopy, lives on a beautifully manicured estate, and eats the finest food. These are comforts she is hesitant to give up, yet she knows that the disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is creating an ugly mood and culture across the country. The Uprisen, the group of leaders in control, would like nothing better than to crush the Rootless, the despised lowest caste—but without them, there would be no one to fill and maintain the Cherenkov lanterns.

When readers first meet Madeline, she is on a stroll in the gardens of Landry Park, her family’s estate. She stops to speak with one of the gardeners, who warns her that a stray brown tomcat has been following around Madeline’s cat Morgana. He tells her “I wouldn’t want you to have a litter of brown kittens running about, spoiling that pretty thing’s pedigree.” This is just the start of the tensions presented between the classes.

Throughout the novel, the idea of purity returns again and again. The gentry usually marry within their own ranks to preserve family bloodlines, and even the thought of touching a Rootless person arouses disgust in most people.The gentry genuinely feel like the Rootless are lesser people.

This kind of mentality seems inevitable in a society where there are structured classes, almost like people are compelled to find reasons why they shouldn’t help the underclass—like, “Oh, they’re dirty” or “They’re lazy” or “They’re less intelligent.” I think the cat shows how this idea has filtered down even to the servant level—everyone in this world has internalized this narrative.

It is completely expected that Madeline will be married to a son from one of the other ruling families, and take over managing Landry Park. Attending university is out of the question. Were you influenced by your favorite authors (the Brontës, Jane Austen) in creating this construct?

Bethany HagenI was! There’s something incredibly limiting about primogeniture, and not just for the second and third children and the other people in the social pyramid, but for the inheritor as well. What pressure it would put on a person, to have their entire destiny laid out for them from the moment of their birth! In Brontë and Austen, the heroines usually are forced to work within this structure to find agency. In Landry Park, Madeline is struggling against that same power, and wanting to find her own way.

The idea of power source and generation as a class delineator doesn’t seem like it is off too far in the future for the world as it is today. Did current research on solar, wind and nuclear power inform your development of this schema?

Absolutely. I remember watching this really powerful documentary called Earth 2100 several years back and realizing that at some point within my lifetime, things will either change dramatically for the better or dramatically for the worst. Around that same time, I remember reading an article about a suitcase-sized miniature nuclear power plant being developed to use on Mars or the Moon for colonization purposes, and I remember thinking, what if everyone had something like this in their house? What would happen if the way we consume energy and resources changed tomorrow? What else would have to change?

Uncle Stephen, missing and assumed dead, still influences and speaks to Madeline through his portrait in the Landry mansion. Yet among family members, it is clear that he is not to be a topic of discussion. In fact, many of the influential families seem to have their share of secrets, as well. Did you see this as part of the nature of an oppressive society?

I think family secrets exist at every social level and in every country and in every situation. (I used to joke that when I turned 18, I should have been given a dossier on all the things I hadn’t known about my family as a kid.) That being said, powerful families need to guard their secrets with much more vigor, because the capacity for scandal is so great. Humiliation at that social level can have lasting consequences throughout generations, and Stephen’s disappearance has left an indelible impact on Madeline’s father, even though it happened long before Madeline was born.

Madeline learns more about the Rootless through her cousin Jamie, who works in a hospital which serves the poorest and neediest. As her understanding of the Landry’s family’s part in creating this society grows, emotions start to overtake her—guilt, anger, empathy, self-loathing—which defies her relationship with her father, based on logic and knowledge.

I wanted there to be a bit of a divide between the ordered world of the gentry and the sort of chaos that the Rootless live through.  For the first time, Madeline is exposed to something that can’t be entirely reasoned away and can’t be justified with logic theorems. Suffering is raw and deeply human, and the desire to relieve suffering is not entirely rational. It comes from a different place. The key, of course, is finding a way to marry the two sides of the dichotomy.

David Dana, considered a suitable marriage match for Madeline, first comes off as a “bad boy,” but eventually is revealed to be not that, at all. His distaste for being put on display is shared by Madeline, but initially, she resists his overtures. This is echoed deliciously in the relationship between her father, mother, and David’s mother Christine. Was this part of the plan for the book from the start, or did it come to you as you were writing?

It was one of the first things I knew about the story—really even before I knew much of anything else.  The original first line to the novel was “Christine Dana was returning to Kansas City a widow, and my mother hated her for it.” I loved that—I loved the idea that there was this decadeslong enmity between the two women, and that the enmity had been formed in a ballroom, just as Madeline and David’s relationship is formed. I guess I’m in love with the idea of old wounds coming back to haunt the wounded.

What influenced you to select whist as the card game played by Madeline, David, and other gentry prior to her friend Cara’s debut?

Indulgently, I included the game because it features in Pride and Prejudice (along with a few other Austen novels.) But it’s also a convenient game for a novel, because whist is a game of luck, and it’s easy to play while you’re having characters converse or flirt. (I rarely flirt, for example, if I’m trying to rout someone in a game of Catan.)

How has working with teens in your day job as a youth services librarian affected your writing? And what can we expect from you next?

IMG_0923Working with teens reminds me exactly how discerning and intelligent they are. They are just as skilled as adults at identifying tropes or plot holes or flat characters, and so they have excellent taste in books. I get my best reading recommendations from my teens!

Next, I’m working on the sequel to Landry Park (which I’m tentatively calling Landry Park II: The Taffeta Reckoning) and then I’ve got a couple of works in progress that I’m juggling. One is kind of Hamlet meets Winter’s Bone and the other is science fiction with karate and hackers and cloud machines.

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Dodie Ownes About Dodie Ownes

Dodie Ownes left the glamorous world of retrospective conversion and disco to jump on the library vendor train. Since then, she has been learning at the feet of the masters about all things library. Dodie lives in Golden, Colorado, where even the sign which arches the main street says "Howdy."

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