Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Q&A with Maryka Biaggio

The below is a Q&A with Maryka Biaggio, the author of Parlor Games. It isn't by me and came from the publisher. I try to avoid these kind of 'canned' interviews but as many of the questions echo the ones I normally ask, and as the answers are fascinating and detailed, I'm excited to share them. Check out my review of Parlor Games and be sure to enter the giveaway to win a copy of this fabulous novel!

Author Maryka Biaggio
When did you first stumble upon the story of May Dugas?

In the summer of 2010 my parents and I were traveling through Menominee, Michigan, and decided to stop at their Information Center. Prominently displayed on a shelf was a pamphlet by Lloyd Wendt entitled Life of May Dugas of Menominee. It started with this line: “She was down in our files as the most dangerous woman in the world.” That got my attention! We straightaway drove to the Menominee Historical Society to purchase the pamphlet. When I expressed interest in May Dugas, the attendant showed me the only memento they had of her—a gorgeous bejeweled black gown. May was not only dangerous—she possessed a sense of style as well as the money to afford the best of attire.

What about May intrigued you?

Once I read Wendt’s write-up of May’s life (as told by his Pinkerton detective informant), I knew I had to write about her. The story posed so many questions: How much of a challenge was it for her to break out of societal expectations of the time? What motivated her? How did she feel about the men she extracted money from? Was she a victim of powerful men or did she lure them in with blackmail in mind?

Did writing this novel require special research or travel? Have you been to many of the places May visits in the book?

I did a great deal of research online about the period, customs, and events. But I also traveled. For instance, I visited the National Archives in Washington, DC, to search for May’s passport and travel records. While I was in San Francisco, I checked out her stomping grounds at the historic Palace Hotel. In Chicago I studied buildings that were in existence when she frequented the city. I had traveled in China in 1985, not too long after it opened up to outside visitors, and I drew on that experience in portraying May’s sojourns in the bustling cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai. A professional meeting had taken me to Mexico City in the 1990s, so I was familiar with its sights and the surrounding geography. I also arranged a trip to the south of France while I was working on the novel. I paid the requisite fee to enter the exclusive gambling lounge at the Monte Carlo Casino, where I was able to soak up the ambience of the scene—the beautiful, inviting decor, the serious expressions of the gamblers, and the shuffling of chips—just as May did during her visits there.

Which place that you haven’t visited would you most like to see?

The Chateau de Pallandt, the country estate of the Dutch Baron who May wed, is still in existence. May and the Baron were married on the grounds and lived there for many years before moving to London. This gorgeous property is now a luxury bed and breakfast owned by Baron and Baroness d' Hooghvorsis. I would love to go for a stay and gift a copy of my novel to the current proprietors.

How much of the novel is based on historical record?

All the key events in the novel are based on actual occurrences as reported in either Lloyd Wendt’s pamphlet or newspaper reports of the time. I wanted to be true to this woman’s fascinating life, which I hope heightens the reader’s interest in her. Of course, the daily events and conversations are my constructions, albeit designed to paint a picture of the larger events.

Without giving anything away, what were your favorite scenes to write?

Writing about May was such a delight! Once I found May’s voice, the story flowed rather easily. I especially enjoyed writing about her first big adventure in Chicago. It wasn’t easy going, and she really did need to call on her wits and wiles to avoid the pitfalls that many young women succumbed to in America’s big cities at that time.

May is quite a unique character. Do you see yourself in her at all?

I’d like to think I have a bit of clever resourcefulness about me. My family moved around a great deal during my childhood and adolescent years, so I had to learn to adapt to strange places, meet new people, and foster fresh friendships. Perhaps I gained some measure of adaptability and resourcefulness from that experience. I did have great fun trying to figure out how May pulled off her many exploits, but I myself am too encumbered with a diligent superego to ever attempt such intrigues.

How has your background as a professor of psychology helped you in your writing?

I hope that after eight years of study and thirty years of teaching clinical psychology I have translated some of what I know into my writing. Since I am knowledgeable about human development, personality functioning, and diagnostic categories, I tried to bring that understanding to bear in imagining May’s formative years, motives, and some of the self-delusions she may have operated under.

Was this your first writing effort outside of academia?

No, from an early age I was fascinated by fiction and have always wanted to write a novel. During my academic career I took some university courses in creative writing and dabbled in short stories. But it wasn’t until the year 2000 that I decided to take the leap into novel writing. I toiled over and submitted three novels for publication before I wrote Parlor Games. I view those novels as my proving ground. With each one, I felt my mastery improve, and I want to keep pushing myself to ever-greater writing challenges.

What’s your writing routine like?

I rise early, take a brisk walk, breakfast over articles about writing, and read the daily newspaper. Then I steal away to my study and write all morning, blocking out, as much as possible, the distractions of e-mail, phone, and doorbell, as well as the neighborhood children squealing at the school bus stop. I don’t schedule appointments during this time if at all possible. I like to immerse myself in writing for a good three hours every weekday. That time flies by, and my usually astute stomach sometimes forgets when lunchtime has arrived. I often use afternoons and weekends for research and other writing-related tasks.

Are there any authors, writing in either historical fiction or other categories, whom you’ve looked to for inspiration?

Barry Unsworth is one of my favorite authors. I had occasion to meet him at a writer’s conference a few years before his passing. We talked about two of my favorite books by him—Sacred Hunger and Sugar and Rum. He was charming and personable, and I will forever remember the wonderful conversation we shared. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel of a missionary family in the Congo, Poisonwood Bible, influenced me a great deal, particularly the skill with which she captured the voices of her varied characters. One of my favorite books about a real person is Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, a fine literary work that brilliantly evokes Marilyn Monroe’s complex personality. It’s my favorite book by Oates and she, in fact, has divulged that it’s one of her favorites as well.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Parlor Games to one lucky reader. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 2/15. Be sure to check out my review for another chance to enter!


  1. I love that she visited so many of the places that May haunted, and that she was so tempted to write about her after seeing that pamphlet. I am ever so excited about reading this one now that I have read the review and the interview. I loved getting the author's perspective!

  2. I just read about this one last week. It sounds good.

  3. I love the author's comment about her desire to replicate May's exploits! "...I myself am too encumbered with a diligent superego to ever attempt such intrigues." Great interview; great insight into author based on her responses. Definitely a "must read."