The events of model-turned-photographer-turned war correspondent Lee Miller's life are so extraordinary that they almost seem fictional. Wandering around the exhibit of Lee Miller and Man Ray's art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts in 2011, Whitney Scharer had just that epiphany. "I had the sense [her life] could be a book right then and there," Scharer told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. "But I didn’t know if I necessarily could write it."
Eight years later, and we have proof that Sharer could, indeed, write that book. Scharer's debut novel, The Age of Light, out February 5, sold to Little, Brown for seven figures after a massive bidding war. The novel braids together the three major strands of Miller's life: Her blossoming as photographer in Paris under the tutelage of surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray; her travels through a ravaged Europe as a war correspondent for Vogue; and her alcohol-soaked end of days among the English gentry.
More than a coming-of-age story, The Age of Light is a coming-of-self story. It's also a necessary tribute to a woman that history forgot. When Miller died in 1977 at the age of 70, she didn't get an obituary from the New York Times, despite her art, her contributions to photography technique (she and Ray invented the "solarization" effect), and her critical coverage of WWII. In addition to being a simply gorgeous novel, The Age of Light introduces you to a woman you'll wish you'd known about ages ago. Read The Age of Light, meet Lee Miller. You'll be happy you did.
We spoke to Scharer about her charmed writing group with Celeste Ng, the price of beauty, and her trick for outlining novels.
Refinery29: You wrote your debut novel about a woman going on a creative journey. While writing, did you feel connected to Lee?
Whitney Scharer: “Absolutely. She was inspiring to me in so many ways. Here is this woman who wanted so badly to be an artist in her own right that she gave up this incredible life that she had created for herself in New York, and struck out on her own. I definitely felt this kinship with her. I wanted to do her justice in that way, just because she herself had been so bold and amazing.”
Were you searching for a book subject when you came across Lee Miller at the museum?
“Not really. I was half-heartedly working on this other, not-very-good novel. At the time I thought I was going to continue on with this other project, which is now in a drawer, and no one will ever see. But I had just joined this new writing group, and was thinking of committing myself to writing more. Part of why I dug in and started writing about Lee was because I had a deadline for my writing group. I said, ‘It’s now or never.’ I wrote a first chapter to hand into them. None of that chapter actually made it into the final book. I just had to rip the Band-Aid off and get going on it.”
“It’s the coolest and most amazing group of people [members include Celeste Ng, Grace Talusan, Chip Cheek, Sonya Larson, and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich]. We realized there are five of us with books coming out this year or early next year. We’re going through a charmed period for sure. Celeste Ng had sold her first book when she joined this group but it hadn’t come out yet. One of our first meetings she was like, ‘My first novel is coming out in a few months,’ and it turns out to be this unbelievable success. It’s one of those, ‘I knew her when’ kind of things.”
How’d you all find each other?
"There’s this nonprofit creative writing center in Boston called Grub Street. We’d all been connected to it in different ways. I was on the staff for a decade. A couple of us had gotten together and said, ‘What we really need is a writers group.’ Something based on the workshop model, but can go on forever and where other people are going to give us good feedback. We put together this dream team, basically."
I was awestruck by how vivid each stage in Lee and Man Ray's relationship seemed. What was the experience of turning something that really happened into something so intimate?
"I spent a lot of time thinking of Lee Miller's life as plot. Here’s what literally was happening to her at this point — but where was she emotionally, and how would that manifest in the relationship? How would it manifest in the imagery that I was using to describe a certain scene?"
She has two major arcs — one of her falling in love, and one of her becoming an artist. There were a lot of things to juggle. Did you graph them out?
"I did graph it out, actually. When I was writing the first draft, I remember talking to my writing group and saying, 'I don’t know if this is a love story or an artistic journey story.’ I felt like I had to choose in some way — but it is both. They’re so intimately entwined for her. When I was revisited the book, I made this thing that I called 'the Grid.' It’s this giant spreadsheet. I have the plot points for each chapter and scene, then the emotional resonance for each scene, and the image or smell or sound — scene by scene — that I want to use to bring those emotions to life. It’s crazy. I’m kind of super proud of it."
Could this be the secret to novel writing?
"I’m interested teaching a class on revision and using my Grid in the class. I don’t know if it would work for everyone."
Lee's beauty functions as an engine to the plot of her life. It opens doors for her. Even just meeting Conde Nast and launching her career. Did writing this book make you rethink beauty — the power it can wield for a woman?
"I thought a lot about what it would mean to be that beautiful. I had to think about what this would be like. The constant downside of it, even as it’s creating opportunities. Other people create your identity for you. They create ownership for the beauty. That was one of the primary struggles of Lee's life. Taking back her own identity from all of these objectifications that people did of her."
Do you think Lee had a suspicion her story would be told one day in novels like yours, as well as movies and biographies?
“There’s no way she couldn’t have known that her life was extraordinary. She is on the cover of Vogue magazine and was on the front-lines of WWII. But she was also downplayed her on achievements in this way that's really weird and sad, though this makes sense given the time she was alive in. I don’t know if she would’ve thought a book would be written about her, but she would’ve wanted one.”