Nicola Harrison is the author of the novels Montauk and The Show Girl, which hit bookstore shelves in August. The Show Girl was named a Travel & Leisure “Most Anticipated Book of Summer 2021” and a summer reading list book by Zibby Owens at Good Morning America. Booklist notes, “Full of surprises and romance, Harrison’s novel keeps readers turning the pages . . . Fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls will drink this up.” Harrison, a former fashion consultant and journalist, was a style writer for Forbes and had a weekly column in Lucky Magazine. She earned a degree in literature from UCLA and an MFA from the State University of New York, Stony Brook. After living in Manhattan for 17 years, she now lives in Manhattan Beach, California, with her husband and two sons.
In an interview with Tess Clarkson, Harrison shares where she got her inspiration for The Show Girl and how she balances being a mom with her creative work.
Tess Clarkson: Your debut novel Montauk was set in a beach resort at the tip of Long Island before World War II. In your second novel, readers step into the seduction of Roaring Twenties New York. What initially inspired you to write The Show Girl?
Nicola Harrison: I became inspired to write The Show Girl after learning about the Great Camps built by Gilded Age magnates along the rugged lakeshores of Upstate New York for an article I was writing for a luxury travel magazine. One camp in particular, the White Pines Camp, was President Coolidge’s “Summer White House,” and its original owner’s wife had been a Ziegfeld girl. My family and I stayed at the camp to learn more about it, and I learned that this owner’s wife had been known to be “a real party girl,” who had fully stocked bar carts set up on the trails so her guests were never long without a cocktail. My fascination with this woman was the launching point for me to create the outgoing, ambitious, and talented character—Olive Shine. Olive and her friends were show girls, flappers, modern women redefining womanhood, leading the charge for change, enjoying the freedoms ushered in by the end of the First World War. But these women had to work harder than I ever realized and make sacrifices to live this kind of life.
TC: While writing The Show Girl, you got married and had a baby. How did becoming a mom for the second time affect your writing process and choices?
NH: Oh my goodness, so many milestones happened while writing The Show Girl! I think I almost gave my editor a heart attack when I told her I was engaged, getting married, renovating an apartment, and pregnant. I’m pretty sure she thought I’d never finish the book, but I kept on writing, and honestly, I think all these crazy life experiences are what makes writing authentic. There’s always something to tap into. As a pregnant woman though, there were certain topics that were off limits for me. For example, I knew I wanted Olive to have a secret or a tragedy from her past that was going to haunt her and threaten to derail her success and her chance for happiness, but there was no way I was going to write about the loss of a child or an unsuccessful pregnancy. I’m quite superstitious, so there were just certain places I wasn’t willing to go with my writing at that time.
TC: What drew you to explore 1920s New York City?
NH: I’ve always loved the 1920s vibe and this glamorous era, but it was an absolute treat to delve into this decade and really understand the motivations of the flappers, the impact of prohibition, and of course the events that brought the party to a crashing halt. Wanting to escape the shadows and gloom of the First World War, young people broke away from the old-fashioned, Victorian morals of their parents and took advantage of previously unheard-of freedoms. Women had recently won the right to vote, and this emboldened them to express their opinions, dance how they wanted, dress in the daring new fashions, and even smoke. The most outspoken and daring of the lot were the flappers. Olive considered herself a flapper, and these women became a symbol of this glamorous period of time. Meanwhile business was booming, Americans were buying flashy cars and new time-saving appliances on credit, and in a lot of ways prohibition added to the fun—everyone was breaking the rules in one way or another, whether it was going to speakeasies or brewing their own beer.
TC: You give readers a heroine with struggles that can just as easily fit into 2021. Olive struggles with being true to herself, making mistakes and plodding on, forging a career, and having space for a meaningful relationship. Did you intend to have such contemporary challenges for Olive?
NH: I think that’s what I love about writing historical fiction. It’s so fun to recreate a period in time, and it can be so different from the world we’re operating in now, but I generally find that the characters have the same universal issues and needs that we have today. We all have primal needs to love and be loved, to succeed at something. We all have wants and desires. It doesn’t matter what era we’re in.
TC: One scene in The Show Girl with Mr. Ziegfeld and Olive foreshadows the Me Too movement. Is there a historical basis for this scene?
NH: Olive is told that if she does something for him, he’ll do something for her. It’s nothing new. It was worse in the 1920s because no one was calling it out. But it’s an abuse that women have been facing privately and shamefully forever. This particular scene is not something that I read about happening in real life, but Ziegfeld, though loved and adored for all he did for Broadway and the women in his shows, was also known to be sleeping with many of them, whom he held to a strict standard of beauty. His show ladies needed perfectly symmetrical faces (he held up a symmetrical mask to check for it), a short upper lip, rosy cheeks, and golden hair.
TC: Did any of your research impact your story’s trajectory?
NH: Yes, I thought I was going to write a story that took place at the Great Camps in the Adirondacks, but during my visit and stay at White Pines Camp, I was so fascinated by this character Olive and her role as a show girl for Ziegfeld that I began imagining what her trials and tribulations were getting to this point. I had so much fun imagining her life that it took me from Upstate New York to the theater district in Manhattan. I had no idea when I set off on that research trip that I’d end up on the stage in Manhattan. Also, giving birth to my second son influenced my story and Olive’s secret and torment. Becoming a mother again was unplanned but important research for this novel.
TC: In both Montauk and The Show Girl, you give readers surprise endings. When you were developing Olive’s story, did you anticipate the drama and dilemmas? What came first, the character development or ending idea?
NH: In both novels I knew, generally, how they would end, but I didn’t know exactly how I would get to those points. It might sound silly when you hear authors say the characters take on a life of their own, but in some ways it’s true. I’ll be writing, and I’ll have a “conscious” idea that she’ll do a certain thing. The characters develop into real people in my mind, and sometimes as I’m writing, it’s as if I’m watching a movie, watching and writing down what they do. It’s a good writing day when that happens. There are also the days that it just doesn’t come to me, or I try them doing one thing, but it doesn’t work, and I have to try a different angle.
TC: Can you share how you balance your writing career with being married and a mom of two boys, ages eleven and two?
NH: In normal times and before my youngest was born, I would write when my son was at school. But when COVID-19 hit and I had a one-year-old at home, it was almost impossible. My husband and I would alternate two-hour shifts, which was the only way I could write. But now, we are getting somewhat back to normal. I’m trying to get back to the “write while the big kid is at school” schedule. We are fortunate to have two sets of grandparents nearby to help out. I think I’d better dedicate my next book to them because truthfully having them around to help out with my wild toddler is the only way I can get anything accomplished. I do sometimes find myself wishing that I had more time to write, but really it’s the messy, busy, emotional parts of life, of being a mother and a wife, that help me write the struggles my characters face. So, this whole “life” thing is probably a necessary part of the process.
TC: How does motherhood and its themes figure into your fiction writing?
NH: It’s absolutely ever present. I don’t think that everything an author writes has to be autobiographical in order to feel real, but there are certain aspects of your life that are going to find their way into your writing. When you’re in the thick of motherhood, like I am with a toddler and a middle schooler, it feels right to include such a big part of where I am in my life. In The Show Girl specifically, I wanted to explore the ideas of ambition and determination and passion, and how they can and do exist at the same time—and butt heads with—feeling maternal and yearning for a family. In my case motherhood and finding success in my dream job (as an author) all happened at the same time, and I’ve had to find a way to make it all work. The same is true for Olive in The Show Girl.
I love to write about strong female characters, even if they don’t feel that way when the novel starts. Whether I’m writing about motherhood, marriage, friendship or ambition, I want women to relate to the characters. My hope is that at some point along the way, they’ll feel heard or seen or acknowledged. There also seems to be an underlying message of strength in my books, that if you believe in yourself, you can make it on your own.
TC: Can you share any details about your next novel in progress?
NH: It takes place in Southern California immediately following World War II. It tells the story of Hazel Francis, a former “Rosie the Riveter,” who worked in a Los Angeles airplane plant during the war, but then finds work as an artist’s assistant and sometimes model in Laguna Beach, and gets caught up in the magic and scandals of the art world.