Today, bestselling author Kristina Riggle stops by to talk about her 2017 novel Vivian in Red. A historical mystery and tangle of family drama all wrapped up into one and set in the 1930s, Vivian in Red explores the ties that bind two people across generations and through a love of music and theater.
"With Vivian in Red, Kristina Riggle proves herself a master storyteller. Her expertly drawn characters and New York City itself pulse with life in this stunning novel loaded with family secrets, passionate love, and the magic of Broadway. An absolute joy to read.”
What drew you to the genre you write in?
I’d been writing contemporary mainstream fiction about family conflict for years, and my agent challenged me to widen my scope to something more grand and expansive. I figured one way to do that was to write about a family over multiple generations, a family with a clouded legacy. That drove me to writing about the mid 1930s, and 1999. I got hooked on historical fiction. I used to be a journalist, and applying my research and interview skills to the 1930s world of Broadway, first generation Jewish-Americans in New York, and songwriting, was like an independent study. I loved it.
I don’t know that I miss it, but I had a painful cut from Vivian in Red. I had one character in the contemporary timeline make an out-of-state journey, and that section covered forty pages in the manuscript. An early reader told me she loved the world I’d created, and didn’t want my characters to leave it, that she was impatient to get back to my New York City setting. I resisted, but my own rule of thumb with a difficult critique is to sit with it at least overnight, and then walk myself through the process of making the change, to at least try it on for size. So then I did a “save as” and whacked out the offending section. I could stitch the book back together around those missing pages so easily that I knew immediately my savvy friend was right. Dammit. But anytime you can take out 40 pages without much damage…yep. It’s gotta' go.
How do you handle writer’s block?
I used to be a newspaper reporter, and there is no such thing for reporters. There is a story-size hole in the paper waiting for your words. Even if they suck, when deadline hits, you turn it in. (OK, this story-size hole thing only existed in the days of physical newspapers I guess. But stay with me.) Because of this, and the amount of writing I had to produce in a given day (on top of research and interviews), I don’t get hung up on quality in a first draft. Which is why I produce many, many drafts. I just keep my fingers moving even if I think I’m only producing garbage. Chances are, in the cold light of dawn the next day, the words won’t be half bad. It only felt terrible in the moment. Hard work is like that. Self-doubt is like that, too.
But sometimes you do get stuck where you can’t even make your fingers type garbage. In that case, I’ll talk a walk. Fresh air and exercise do wonders. Or I’ll switch to handwriting in a notebook. Something about not having the pressure of an official formatted manuscript breaks the logjam, and reminds me of the days before I even learned to type, when I was a kid with a notebook and a Bic.
What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?
I am so proud of Vivian in Red. I really stretched myself for this book, and had to research so much I didn’t know. I created a male Jewish Broadway songwriter protagonist who came of age in the 1930s. I am none of those things. I didn’t even know which Gershwin brother was the lyricist when I started (it was Ira). I had to teach myself lyric writing in the style of the day. I set the book in New York City and I live in Michigan. I’ve only been to New York once, for 48 hours. But I took a deep breath and went for it, and I’m so proud of the result.
Did the novel have any alternate titles?
So. Many. Titles. The folder on the computer is still called “Tin Pan Alley” and I referred to it as “the Milo book” (for my protagonist, Milo Short) for the entire time I was writing it. Various titles I tried and rejected myself or were nixed by others include: Lyrical, It Had to Be You, Someone to Watch Over Me, Love Me I Guess and Dreaming of a Song (still rather like that last one). I pleaded with my agent to just send it out with a filler title, reasoning the publisher would change it anyway. She (reasonably) argued that a better title would give it a better chance with a publisher, too. She threw out, via email and off the cuff, “What about something like Vivian in Red?” And I gasped. Trouble is, Vivian never wore red that I specifically noted. But I pulled up the manuscript, changed her dress in the opening section from green to red, fixed the title page and headers, and we were off to the races. It went out to publishers the very next day.