Q&A with Mary Hogan
What’s the story behind THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTO? How did the book come to be?
I first had the idea for this book 24 years ago! I’m not kidding. In 1992, my husband, actor Robert Hogan, was in an off-Broadway play called On the Bum, also starring Cynthia Nixon and Campbell Scott. The play was set in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, several years after the epic flood. The characters talked about a “lake in the sky” which piqued my curiosity. A few days later, I went to the library to read about such strange geography. That’s when I read the real story of the Johnstown disaster. Wow. I was blown away. What a great story! I held my breath for 24 years worrying that someone would write my book before I got a chance to. There are other books out there about the flood, but nothing like mine.
How did you conduct your research for the book? Are any of the characters in the book inspired by real-life people?
While on book tour in Pittsburgh for my first young adult novel, The Serious Kiss, I had a free afternoon. So, I rented a car and drove two hours to Johnstown to see it for myself. I could have stayed there for two weeks. There was so much of interest for this Californian girl. Over the years, I would visit twice more. Generously, the President of the Johnstown Heritage Association gave me a day-long tour of everything I needed to tell a compelling tale, including access to the inside of the private Clubhouse which is still standing! Aside from the very real members of the exclusive club: steel titans Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, bankers like Andrew Mellon, U.S. Senator and Attorney General Philander Knox, all the characters are fiction.
How was the writing experience for THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTO different from your experience writing your previous novel, TWO SISTERS?
Two Sisters was a process of opening up my heart and spilling its contents onto the page. Inspired by the early death of my older sister, I told a tale of family secrets that I knew all too well. Writing The Woman in the Photo was a completely different experience. First, I read a gazillion historical novels. Then, I read every book I could find about Johnstown. I even read a novel called, Annie Kilburn that was written in 1889 to get a feel for the language of the day. Research, research, research. I was told that women who read historical fiction are fiends about accurate detail. So, my biggest fear about creating a main character who was an upper class woman of the nineteenth century was getting her many corsets right.
Both THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTO and TWO SISTERS center around female relationships. Why do you think readers are so fascinated by the bonds between female family members?
Ah, yes. Those bonds are complicated, indeed. I have yet to meet a woman who didn’t have a knotty relationship with her sister or her mother. Even when they are smooth, they are bumpy. In my case, my mother and I were very much alike, and my sister and I were very different. So there were a lot of crossed wires. We hurt each other even when we didn’t know it. My dad and my brothers sort of kept their heads down and watched sports :)
For me, the best characters are flawed, striving, loving, selfish, feeling, reacting, deep, curious, furious, and worried—mostly—about their hair. In other words: women.
Is there a particular message you hope readers will take away from THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTO?
One of the themes of this novel is: Is DNA your destiny? Are you born to be who you are? Or, can life itself mold you? I would love for readers to finish The Woman in the Photo with the sense that we are all on this earth to be kind to one another. To live together. Even on bad hair days.
Praise for The Woman in the Photo
“Mary Hogan expertly uses the tragic story of the Johnstown Food as background for a fascinating tale of two women, generations apart, who defy expectations to find their own paths to happiness and purpose. Awash in historical detail, this book is a real page-turner.”—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times Best Selling author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue and The Aviator's Wife
“A fascinating snapshot of two women separated by time—each compelling in her own right - who together make for a novel so appealing you can’t stop reading. Well-researched history and modern intrigue, original and heartfelt.... a thoroughly captivating novel”—New York Times Bestselling author MJ Rose
“Mary Hogan tells a wonderful story of two young women coming into their own…A beautiful work of historical fiction that pulls you into a distant time and place and makes it feel like home. Hogan does a brilliant job at weaving their two stories together to make one fabulous novel about growing up and discovering who you are in more ways than one.”—NY Daily News
“…An excellent piece of historical fiction…”—Library Journal
“A great historical selection…with relatable and charming characters and an interesting historical event”—Booklist