The intersection of art and madness, of never giving up, children’s literature, & so much more in Laurel Davis Huber’s THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER


By Leslie Lindsay

Gorgeous rendering of the true story of a famous author mother and her equally, if not more famous visual artist daughter, THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER will capture and delight audiences of historical fiction. 

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Winner of the 2017 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction

The intersection of art and madness has always intrigued–and so when I came across THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER (SWP, 2017) I knew I needed to read it. And I’m so glad I did. Told from multiple, alternating first-person POVs, readers get a luminous insight into the lives of Margery Williams Bianco, the author of the children’s classic, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, and her daughter, child prodigy artist, Pamela Bianco. 

Reading historical fiction almost always brings to the surface lives I had little or no knowledge of, and is always such a delight. Of course, I knew of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, but never really gave its author much thought. Huber writes with such a tender hand, bringing this tale of motherhood, creativity, and mental illness to light; I loved every minute.


“. . . a masterpiece. . . . Incandescent, pitch-perfect, and destined for greatness.” 

–Library Journal, starred review


The writing is gorgeous, but it’s the themes of family, art, secrets, and more that truly enthralled. Plus, the chapters are short, giving us that ‘just one more’ quick pacing we love. Some readers may struggle with the genre–it’s not entirely historical fiction, but almost an imagined memoir–and it’s not always linear. I happened to really enjoy this technique. Huber’s research is absolutely remarkable and her characters breathe on the page. I found myself so engrossed in Margery and Pamela’s lives, I was seeking out more information on their lives.

Please join me in welcoming the lovely Laurel Davis Huber to the author interview series:

Leslie Lindsay:

Laurel, I am so, so fascinated with this story. But in all honesty, I never really gave much thought to the author of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, her daughter, or her personal life. That’s why I think historical fiction is so great. BUT—first, tell us what drew you to the story?

Laurel Davis Huber:

I never gave much thought to the author of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, either! And to tell the truth, though I was well aware of the famous children’s book, I never read it (or had it read to me) as a child. It wasn’t until I started working on my book that I discovered anything about Margery Williams Bianco. I began my journey because of a fluke, one of those wow! moments that sometimes descend on one out of thin air like a fairy cloud. I was working on another book and getting nowhere and in a fit of procrastination I reached for one of my old childhood favorites, BEGINNING WITH A. The illustrations had entranced me since I was a child. But I had never paid attention to the author’s name – Pamela Bianco. To further procrastinate, I Googled her name and found out she was a child prodigy artist in the early 20th century. Intrigued, I kept digging. I became obsessed and decided to write about her. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I discovered that her mother was the author of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT – and then the story really took off!

Leslie Lindsay:

I’m truly amazed that this story hasn’t been told before. I can only imagine what the research process was like for you. Did you enjoy diving into it? What challenges did you encounter? Are you one to research all at once, up front, or do you sprinkle it in as you write? And can you give us a sense of your timeline for THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER?

Laurel Davis Huber:

As THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is my first novel, I had no experience to go on. What ended up happening was that I would research a bit, then write scenes around the most interesting material, then I would research some more. I traveled to Indiana, to upstate New York, to Columbia University, and to lots of other places. I wrote to museums here and in London. I pored over letters and photographs in university and library archives. I spent hours staring at rolls of microfiche. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. Needless to say, there was a treasure trove out there—and the more I found, the more I became astounded, as you were, that this story has never been told before. As for my timeline…well, I’ll get to that.

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Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I’m curious about the structure, too. THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is told in alternating, multiple first-person POVs, which give it a very intimate feel. Was it always in this form, or did you go through several iterations?

Laurel Davis Huber:

That day referred above when I pulled out BEGINNING WITH A was in June of 2006. Eleven years later, and seven iterations later, I had the final version of THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER. (Note to everyone: never, ever give up.) The structure changed many times—in fact, the very first completed draft largely spotlighted just Pamela, the artist. Her mother gained equal weight only much later. The idea of alternating voices in short chapters only came to me during my very last attempt. At last I thought I had it right.

Leslie Lindsay:

As for genre, it’s probably historical fiction, but it also seems like it could be an imagined memoir. Can you talk about that, please?

Laurel Davis Huber:

I’m glad you think it’s like an imagined memoir. You mentioned the “intimate” feel of the novel, and I truly believe that could have been accomplished only after living with and writing about these characters for so many years. They were my mother, my sister. The book is classified as historical fiction (and I am happy to say it won the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction when it came out!)—but some have called it fictional biography, which is just as accurate.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Of course, I loved the art. Margery’s writing. All of that intrigued, but what really piqued my interest was the mental illness piece of THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER. Pamela suffered from bouts of depression and maybe mania, too? What did you learn about her precarious mental state—and how?

Laurel Huber Davis:

I love this question. One of the biggest surprises to me was the number of readers who wrote about the mental illness aspect of the novel. One woman in Australia said that she had always wanted to write about her daughter who suffered from depression, and now she didn’t need to because my novel was her story. Wow. It’s not that I didn’t realize that much of the book delves into the vicious grip that depression (which in those days was called “melancholia”) has on Pamela, it’s just that I didn’t think of it as a focus when I was writing. This is called being too close to your own work. I was just telling the story. But I see now that many readers like you homed in on that aspect of the book. The portrayal of Pamela’s illness is, unfortunately, quite accurate. I had both her own letters and her mother’s that portrayed quite vividly the effects of Pamela’s mania/madness/depression. There is little doubt that today she would be diagnosed as bipolar.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I could probably talk your ear off, but alas we both have other things to do. Before I let you go, what should I have asked you about, but may have forgotten?

Laurel Davis Huber:

It’s interesting that at book clubs or other presentations, I rarely get asked about Diccon, the man Pamela was obsessed with for over a decade. He has a big role in the book, but everyone is interested in the women, which is fine with me! An interesting side note, however, is that Diccon, whose real name is Richard Hughes, was the one whose fame lasted. He is still hailed in Britain as a lion of literature. I remember reading his novel, A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, in school. Although he and Pamela went their separate ways, they remained in touch. In his 60s, Diccon even came to New York with his wife to visit Pamela. And now you know something that is not in the book!

Leslie Lindsay:

Laurel, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you!

Laurel Davis Huber:

This has been such fun for me. I am so happy you invited me! (And, any readers out there—I am always delighted to answer questions at laurel@laureldavishuber.com)

photo of woman painting in brown wooden easel
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER, please visit: 

Order Links: 

authorcolorABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laurel Davis Huber grew up in Rhode Island and Oklahoma. She is a graduate of Smith College. She has worked as corporate newsletter editor, communications director for a botanical garden, high school English teacher, and as senior development officer for both New Canaan Country School and Amherst College. Ms. Huber and her husband split their time between New Jersey and Maine. THE VELVETEEN DAUGHTER is her first book.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, at these websites: 

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LOVE IT? SHARE IT!

#historicalfiction #art #NYC #Europe #TheVelveteenRabbit #TheVelveteenDaughter #mentalillness #mentalhealth 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of L. Huber and used with permission. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more images likes this]

 

 

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