Breathing life into history: Whitney Scharer reads from her novel ‘The Age of Light’
By Raena Doty
Asst. Arts & Features Editor
As spring starts to roll out on FSU, the time for the annual Miriam Levine Reader Award comes around again.
At 4:30 p.m. on March 30, author Whitney Scharer came to the Heineman Ecumenical & Cultural Center to read a passage from her novel “The Age of Light” and answer questions from the FSU community about the story and her process writing it.
“The Age of Light” is a historical fiction novel about Lee Miller, a model and photographer for Vogue and later a war photographer during World War II.
Patty Horvath, a professor of English, introduced Scharer. She began talking about her own introduction to Lee Miller’s story as an undergraduate student, and how she learned about a type of photo called the “rayograph,” invented by Man Ray - and his muse and creative partner, Lee Miller, often left out of the story.
“‘The Age of Light’ is a story of erasure and exposure - those photographic concerns. The near erasure of a woman from our history and her exposure as a talented artist and documentarian of post-war Europe,” Horvath said.
Scharer said she began writing “The Age of Light” when she saw an exhibit of Miller and Ray’s work together at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Like Horvath, she had learned about Ray’s work in photography classes, but the teaching never included Miller.
“What fascinated me was Lee Miller - her work was absolutely incredible and her spirit was just infusing the whole exhibit, because it’s just this confident, ambitious energy,” Scharer said.
She cited her frustration with the way Miller was overlooked in history as the starting point for her research.
Miller started as Ray’s model, but like Ray, she was a surrealist in her own right, and eventually went on to produce unique and distinct photography separate from Ray, Scharer said.
She shared one story about Miller’s time as a WWII photographer, when she went to Munich, Germany, and visited Adolf Hitler’s apartment. Allegedly, she took a nap in his bed, drank his cognac, and took photos of herself in his bath.
Scharer said Miller had incredibly complicated feelings about the events of her life. She was 22 years old when she met Man Ray, who was 17 years older than her, and they were romantically involved with one another.
“He was very well-known, and yet she just had this hold over him - he fell in love with her very quickly, and he was kind of consumed by his love for her,” Scharer said.
Scharer said she was driven by curiosity for what type of woman Miller had to be to have that power over Ray, and that guided a lot of what she wrote for “The Age of Light.”
“There’s a … fair amount that’s been written about her - different biographies and essays. And I knew that was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to breathe life back into her,” Scharer said.
She said Miller went through many traumas in her life - she was raped at a young age, she was exploited by her father for nude photographs from when she was 13 years old into her 20s, she saw the horrors of WWII up close - and eventually, she stopped making art all together.
“How could somebody who had started out with so much promise, so much confidence, so much ambition, become this person who just stops making work?” Scharer asked.
She said that question drove her to write her novel, and it was the question she wanted to give her readers at the beginning so they could see it unfold throughout the story.
Scharer said she had difficulty figuring out the structure of the story, because while most of the novel took place in Paris, some parts did take place in Germany during WWII, and she didn’t know how to write action like that and fit it into the main story.
She said it was after reading “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk that Scharer realized the story would be told through the perspective of Miller trying to tell one story, but other stories about WWII keep cropping up because she “started to think that these memories from World War II were sort of lodged inside her body.”
Scharer read a passage from the novel which she said was about halfway into the story about Lee and Man going to see an erotic dance performed by Kiki de Montparnasse, who formerly had a love affair with Man. Along the way, she met Jean Cocteau, a man who created “The Blood of a Poet,” a film in which Miller played a statue that eventually comes to life.
Scharer was able to see a showing of “The Blood of a Poet” while on her book tour in Paris, which she said was unplanned and coincidental. She and a journalist traveling with her didn’t know exactly where they were going, just that there were many posters for this event, and when they got to the showing of the film, they were shocked.
She said she didn’t get to spend much time in Paris before publishing her novel, but spent time sightseeing. She described the city as very similar to how it appeared in her book despite the 60 year difference.
One of the biggest challenges in researching and planning the novel was not having access to many of Miller’s writings, particularly informal and personal writings like letters, Scharer said.
She said had she had access to those writings, “I would have never finished my novel, because I would have honestly researched it forever.
“There’s something magical that happens between the alchemy of the research that you do and then the imagination that you bring to the story,” she added.
Scharer said when writing the novel she created a philosophy for what she was and was not allowed to write, because historical fiction is allowed to be as accurate or inaccurate as the author wants, but having a philosophy helped to guide her choices.
She also gave advice to aspiring authors. She said fiction writers need to have a polished draft before finding an agent, and being comfortable with the format of writing is important, adding she wasn’t good with short stories despite writing them for a long time.
Scharer said she wrote her novel as a way to give voice, feeling, and connection to a woman who lost her artistic will and was written out of history in favor of a man who did no more work than her.
She added that writing this novel helped her to claim her own identity as an artist.
“I was like, ‘I’m writing this novel about this woman who wants to claim her identity as an artist and she’s having trouble doing that,’ and I am going, ‘No, no, no, I’m not a writer,’ you know? That’s so stupid,” Scharer said.
“So I think by getting to know Lee Miller and by going on that journey with her, I was able to be like, ‘I need to claim my identity as what I am.’ So that was when I started saying that I was a writer, and I have not stopped,” she said.