Here’s something you may not know: Margery Williams Bianco, author of beloved children’s book THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, had a daughter whose fame once eclipsed her own. When Laurel Davis Huber ’73 stumbled on the story of Pamela Bianco, a child prodigy artist who struggled with mental illness, she found she couldn’t leave it alone. Her new novel THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER, out today from She Writes Press, is the result of her fascination with this largely forgotten life story.
THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is rich in primary source material and vivid in its depictions of early-20th century Italy, Wales and New York City. Together, Pamela and Margery recount the artist’s rise to fame and fragile state of mind, with appearances by Picasso, Eugene O’Neil, and other luminaries of early 20th century art and literature. This book is a treat for lovers of art history and great historical fiction, and anyone who treasured a well-worn copy of Margery Bianco’s childhood classic.
**Giveaway open to US residents only. Sorry, international folks! We’ll make it up to you.**
||**UPDATE**|| CONGRATULATIONS to Lucy Sprague ’75, who won our giveaway! Thank you all for entering!
Writing THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER:
An Interview with Author Laurel Davis Huber
Laurel, thank you so much for talking to us about your book! THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is going to tick a lot of boxes for Smithie readers — two brilliant women, a sparkling historical setting, and complex characters make for a very engaging read.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience at Smith?
I lived in Emerson House, otherwise known as “The Gateway to the Quad.” It also could have been named “Little Quadder”—an arch was carved out of our building so we had a smaller entry/living area than other quad houses. I loved every minute of my time there. My freshman roommate, Lindsey Lang, remains my very best friend!
THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER tells a true story that few are familiar with. How did you come to write about Margery Williams Bianco, author of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, and her daughter, child art prodigy Pamela Bianco? Can you tell us a bit about your research process?
Some of the very best discoveries in life occur accidentally, like the guy who was looking for energy sources for radar equipment and then the chocolate bar in his pants melted—voila! the microwave oven! I found my story one morning when I was bored and I reached for a book, “Beginning With A,” which was a childhood favorite. I Googled the author—Pamela Bianco—and when I read that she had been a child prodigy artist at twelve I was drawn in. Each clue led to another and I was obsessed. It took a long time before I discovered that her mother was the author of The Velveteen Rabbit. I knew then that I had to write the story.
What are the ethical implications of writing about real, historical figures?
Wow, did I agonize over this. From the very beginning, I knew I didn’t want to stray very far from the truth. I wanted Margery and Pamela (and the minor characters, too) to be portrayed as accurately as possible. Though I had to make up scenes and dialogue, there is nothing in the book—looks, clothes, ways of expression, events—that is not based on personal letters, biographies, photos, or newspaper articles. Also, I made sure to include notes at the end of the book which detail what is fact and what is fiction.
THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER imparts a sense of the urgency of art-making. As you researched and wrote this novel, did that sense of urgency impact your own work? Did you find yourself identifying with either of the main characters — or both?
The sense of urgency was with me constantly, as I wanted so badly to tell this story and tell it right. Unfortunately, a sense of urgency doesn’t translate into swift (or good) writing! Although Pamela was able to draw exquisite pictures very quickly as a child, when she was older she sometimes took three years to finish a painting. I didn’t particularly identify with Pamela, possessing neither her crippling mental fragility nor her genius, but I could certainly identify with Margery’s sensibilities. As a writer, of course, but more as a mother who never stops worrying about her child. My own mother, at 80, would call me to see if I was still drinking that poisonous diet Coke. (I was.)
After THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER, readers are sure to want more from you. Are you working on something new, or do you need a breather before diving into a whole new set of lives?
I have three ideas for my second novel. Two, like The Velveteen Daughter, are historical fiction. The third, and the one I have started to work on, is a huge departure: a contemporary novel with elements of magical realism. I have no idea which one of these, if any, will become my second novel.
One last question — is there a book by a Smith alumna you have especially loved and would recommend to our readers?
In 1984, when my son was small, I spent a good deal of time in the children’s section at libraries and bookstores. One day in a store I happened upon a book called, Neptune Rising: Songs and Tales of the Undersea Folk. It drew me in immediately. When I was young, the story of Undine, the water nymph who loved a human, had mesmerized me. I loved The Little Mermaid, too, and Water Babies was among the first novels I ever read—a chimney sweep runs away into the ocean and becomes an underwater creature. How thrilling is that! So to find a book filled with stories of mermaids, selchies, and sea gods was a real find. The author of this beautiful book was Jane Yolen. Only years later did I discover that Jane was a Smithie!
Thank you, Laurel! Books By Smithies wishes you the best success with this terrific novel. Smithies — go grab a copy today!