Friday, May 24, 2024

An Afternoon at Home with Author Laura McNeal on “The Swan’s Nest”

Laura McNeal will be presenting at the Coronado Public Library on Tuesday, April 23 at 7 pm.

Tucked in a charming nook overlooking the Coronado Golf Course, local author Laura McNeal has spent the last seven years researching — and in many ways, becoming — “The Swan’s Nest,” her newest historical fiction novel. Set in the beginning of the Victorian Era, “The Swan’s Nest” is a brilliant retelling of poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning falling in love without meeting in person. Their story unfolds through an archive of surviving letters, which McNeal used to catapult into and recreate their world.

McNeal has been a Coronado local since 2005. Her love for the island is in its simplicity — “riding my bicycle to do errands!” — and its community-centric nature, making Coronado one of the perfect settings to pen “The Swan’s Nest” (2024). (Courtesy photo. Photo by Kel Casey)

In early April, I sat with McNeal to discuss the inception of “The Swan’s Nest,” and tumbled joyfully down the Barrett-Browning rabbit hole with her. Touring her office filled with handwritten maps of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning’s families, copious research notebooks, and a portable Victorian writing desk, it became clear that Laura’s project is more than a hobby. As she shared, her dedication to canonizing the Brownings’ lives “will be my material for the rest of my life. The marketplace will of course determine whether I can publish related books, but I can write them and I will.”

How did you first come to choose such a niche subject?
“Seven years ago, a friend from college sent me a recording of a tour in England, where someone told the story of their romance. I heard it, and that was it: I was like, ‘I cannot believe they fell in love with each other’s poetry, then through five months of letters without seeing each other. That is a recipe for disaster.’ Elizabeth was 38 when she started corresponding with Robert, and she’d been sick a long time. She felt like her best years were behind her, that she was going to die an invalid, and that poetry was her life. Yet Robert told her he loved her in his first letter, and he stayed true to his word. Their romance truly was a meeting of two souls and I was moved by their eloquence, fidelity, and grace. They simply are what their letters say they are, and it’s hard to achieve that.”

McNeal began her research at the Coronado Public Library. She devoured Elizabeth’s biographies, poems, poets she loved, and later stumbled upon a “treasure trove” maintained by Philip Kelley, a man who has meticulously documented Elizabeth and Robert’s lives for over 66 years of his own. Kelley became a literary ‘guru’ for McNeal, and after a twelve-hour drive to meet in person, even recommended McNeal for an fellowship at Baylor University. There she was granted access to “the largest Victorian literature archive in the world. I could research everyone I was trying to write about by name, date, and subject. It was everything I love in one place, and it inspired a certain responsibility in me to be true to who Elizabeth and Robert were. Of course, every thought and conversation in the book I had to make up — thoughts and conversations disappear the moment you have them — but my goal was not to contradict the historical record.”

There’s something beautiful about being able to translate their human experience into ours now. Why did you feel their story was important for modern readers?
“It took me years to really feel I understood what Victorians wanted out of literature, and once I understood it, I realized I’d been raised the same way. There’s a psychological reason I’m drawn to this material.

“We often think Victorians are prudish and restrained in a way we can’t bear anymore, but they made the world we live in. Looking through the lens of everything I learned helped me understand why things are the way they are now. I see traces of it, and I think instead of wholesale rejection of their actions, many things we could use a little of. Duty to family and society was their core, and in comparison to that, we seem pretty selfish. Many women spent their lives taking care of others, and felt fulfilled to the ends of their lives. We often lose that nurturing instinct because our world is based in instant gratification. So there’s something beautiful about recognizing the stillness that can come from taking care of other people for love and duty alone.”

That sentiment is echoed in “The Swan’s Nest” through the incorporation of Elizabeth and Robert’s sisters, whose “memories survive in the archives because of their relation. I learned through their letters what it was like to be an ‘ordinary’ woman in these times. And I felt, ‘What could I learn about this in my time?’ It gave me a more hopeful way of looking at the world, to be less personally depressed. I hope the book brings that same comfort to someone.”

McNeal describes “The Swan’s Nest” as “the story of two people who were true to their ideals about love and poetry until the moment that they died. It’s history through people’s lives.” She will be presenting on their history and her writing process at the Coronado Public Library on Tuesday, April 23, at 7 pm.

To touch more on your psychological connection to this material, I read that you grew up with a tight-knit family in small, rural towns. How would you say your childhood impacted “The Swan’s Nest,” if at all?
“I am truly Victorian. For many generations my family has been Mormon and the rest of my family is still devout. I left the church at 26, but I didn’t leave all the things it gave me growing up. The charitable structure of the church was similar to the Victorian structure of everyone caring for one another. Elizabeth and Robert were religious and they make references to Biblical things all the time. I knew those verses, so I understood what formed them; there was a kismet. Truthfully, Robert was a good son, father, husband, and brother; I have a loving brother, father, and husband. I found supports in my life, in part because I was fortunate to have it modeled in my home.”

“The Swan’s Nest” is your newest novel, but you have eight published novels between your own and those co-authored with your husband. How do you maintain a creative spirit while you undergo these projects, which can often become demanding?
“I love writing by hand. When I first started creating the narrative for this novel, I used a notebook and an antique dip pen I bought when I was 22. Because I was intimidated by the material and how high my hopes were, I wanted to feel how I felt when I was young, like, ‘I could write anything!’ The archives made me appreciate the value of physical copies; I felt the existence of these people through the papers they left behind. I want us to leave things behind too, things that have intrinsic value. Technology can make me feel panicked existentially; when I’m using watercolor, paper, and ink, I don’t feel that panic. I feel, ‘We do this while we’re here and it stays for a little while,’ and I just feel better. It’s cathartic.”

Warm-hearted and enthusiastic, Laura McNeal is a delight to speak with and listen to, and San Diego and Coronado locals will soon have the opportunity to sense her passion for “The Swan’s Nest” as well. On Tuesday, April 23, at 7 pm, McNeal will be presenting at the Coronado Public Library. This is a free evening, with books available for purchase following the event.


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Caroline Minchella
Caroline Minchella
Caroline was 15 years old when her family moved to Coronado. Though she was a “transplant”, Caroline found a home in the Coronado community near-immediately: she became an intern for “The Coronado Times”; helped reinstate the CHS newspaper, “The Islander Times”; was a volunteer dog-walker for PAWS; and a faithful Concert in the Park attendee.After completing her BA in English at the University of California Santa Barbara, she went on to craft answers for Amazon Alexa devices and write creatively on the side. Fast forward seven years, Caroline is thrilled to return as a Reporter for “The Coronado Times.” Have a story for The Coronado Times to cover? Send news tips or story ideas to: [email protected]

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