Author Interview: Elisa Carbone on Last Dance On Holladay Street

Last Dance On Holladay Street by Elisa Carbone (Knopf, 2005). It’s 1878, and young Eva, 13, has lost Daddy Walter to tetanus and Mama Kate to consumption. All she has left is a name and address that lead her to Holladay Street, a half sister, and a biological mother from a house of ill repute. Desperate and indebted, Eva tries to make due as a dance-hall girl, which is still better than working upstairs. But is this the life Daddy Walter and Mama Kate would’ve wanted? A tender, thoughtful story of perseverence and loyalty. Highly recommended. Ages 10-up. Read my related blog entry.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

When I first learned about the brothels in the 1800’s and how young women and girls were coerced and pressured into working there, I was struck by the parallels with what is going on today, with young girls often being pressured into sexual activity when they are much too young. I wanted to write a story that would be empowering to young readers, that would help them see the value in sticking up for themselves. I wanted to inspire them to be strong, be true to themselves, and most importantly, NOT give in to peer pressure.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The spark alighted in fall of 2000, and the book was published in March of 2005. That is a pretty typical timeline for me for historical novels–they always take years to research, mull over, and write.

In November of 2000, I was in Arizona on a rock climbing trip at Cochise Stronghold. On a rainy day (when we couldn’t climb) my climbing partner and I decided to drive into Tombstone, the nearest town. We stopped in to see the “Shoot-out at the O.K. Corral” exhibit, and my attention was drawn to a book about the fallen women of the old west. As I flipped through the pages of the book, I was riveted by a photograph of a young girl, “Jackie.” The caption said that she began her career as a prostitute at “age 15” but the photograph is obviously of a much younger girl, probably 12 or 13 years old.

I couldn’t take my eyes off her face, so innocent and yet determined and somehow worldly. I wanted, desperately, to save her.

My mind began to race with questions: what pressures had caused Jackie to choose this profession? With the right help, could she have made a different choice? How was she like the young girls of today who, at younger and younger ages, are feeling pressured into becoming sexually active? I knew I had to write a story about Jackie, and give her a chance to choose a different path. That was how, at least in my imagination, I would be able to reach back in time and save this young girl. At the same time, I hoped to create a parable for modern young readers that would offer them the strength and insight to choose their own different path. Jackie, of course, became Eva.

I never did see the shoot out at the O.K. Corral. The small museum there in Tombstone also has a fascinating exhibit about the Tombstone prostitutes. My climbing partner, Eric, kept coming to find me and I¹d be engrossed in reading yet another plaque or article about the ladies of the evening. I told him I was thinking of writing a book about it and he shook his head in dismay, saying, “You’re a children’s author. What are you thinking?!”

I presented the idea to both my editor and my local children’s librarian, Diane Monnier. Diane hesitated at first, then said with conviction, “I think it could work. If you save her, it could work.” My editor asked for an outline, and we were on our way.

When I had finished the first draft of Last Dance on Holladay Street, I happened upon the book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher. In her therapy practice, Dr. Pipher works with adolescent girls, many of whom have been brought to her because they have slipped into depression or trouble or both. She describes a pattern she sees over and over again. At age 12 or so, girls are typically happy, interested in sports or other activities, and they talk freely with their parents. As adolescence progresses, and as peer pressure mounts for experimentation with drugs, alcohol and sex, many of these girls draw away from their parents, are tempted into destructive behavior, and in the process, lose their sense of self. The way out of this pit is through a reclaiming of their own inner strength and, with the right guidance, finding a sense of purpose through meaningful work.

As I read Pipher’s book, I was stunned to realize that in Last Dance on Holladay Street, Eva had gone through each of the stages Pipher describes. Mama Kate plays the part of Eva’s real mother, Sadie, Pearl and the others at Miss B’s create the peer pressure, and by the end, with the right help and guidance, Eva finds her sense of self and her meaningful work. As I edited Last Dance on Holladay Street, I actually molded it to fit Pipher’s paradigm even more closely.

The pressures of economic survival that plagued the girls and women of the old west are no more real than the social pressures and need for love and acceptance that young girls are faced with today. It is my hope that this story can act as a bridge from past to present, and as a springboard for discussion.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I’ll speak to research, since that’s one of my favorite parts of writing, and for me it’s the cornerstone of how I seek to bring my stories to life. I do the usual book, article and photo research, though I focus mostly on original sources rather than secondary sources because they have more life to them. Also, I’m an experiential learner, so I use a lot of fun research methods to help make the story come alive for me. For Last Dance on Holladay Street, I got a private tour of a Colorado silver mine (because one of the characters is a miner). I rode a narrow gauge railroad train up into the Rocky Mountains the way Eva did. I even got to touch an old fashioned curling iron (tongs that were placed into a kerosene lamp to heat up) in a museum, and this inspired me to add a scene where Lucille is talking to Eva while curling her hair for her evening’s work (the scene includes the smell of burning hair — those curling irons were hard to regulate!). I find that if I can touch and experience the things my characters did, I will discover the details that will make the story vivid for my readers.

Cynsational Links

Historical Fiction for Hipsters: Stories from the past that won’t make you snore from Reading Rants features a review of Last Dance On Holladay Street (among other recommendations).

The First Amendment First Aid Kit from Random House.

Author Greg Leitich Smith blogs today that Just Because It Happened Doesn’t Mean It’s Realistic.