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Interview: Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky

Two historians pen a bodice ripper
By CLEA SIMON  |  December 2, 2008


Long-time friends Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky didn't set out to write a bodice ripper in Blindspot (Spiegel & Grau). But when the two historians – Lepore is the David Woods Kemper professor of American history at Harvard and Kamensky is chair of Brandeis' history department – started drafting a two-character sketch for the 70th birthday of their mentor, historian John Demos, the characters carried them off. Six hundred pages later, their personae – "a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise," as the subtitle explains – have involved themselves in murder, scandal, slave stealing, and some very hot sex, all in Boston on the eve of the American Revolution.

How did you come to write Blindspot?
: We share a graduate mentor [John Demos] and he's somebody who among other things cares a great deal about the writing of history, and we were putting together a conference for his 70th birthday that was going to be a nontraditional fest conference, a capstone conference, and we asked some people to do some nontraditional writing and we were going to do some ourselves. We started out to write a sketch in the voices of these two characters. 18th-century characters to give to him and to read at this conference. It was done in competing first-person narratives. I think we first pictured it as something that would take 20 pages.

Lepore: And then we got started and we each took a turn, and that was fun and it didn't take that long and it was more nourishing and fun than it was a chore, so we took another turn and we did a couple of more turns and pretty soon we had a 100 pages and we thought, maybe we should see where this will go. We got together, we had done this all by email. We had this totally fun day reading through it and trying to imagine it as a whole model, where the story would go, doing story boarding. It was just an incredibly fun day.

Kamensky: I remember my older son was home sick that day and we got to a part of the manuscript where there's a kind of ribald joke. He just heard us laughing so hard about the punchline of the joke. He will still say, "Remember the joke about the donkey and the two chickens?" He never heard the rest of the joke, which would not be appropriate for a nine-year-old. He'll be 10 soon, but he was eight then.

Lepore: Remember him coming in and out and saying , Are you going to do the one about the chickens again?

Kamensky: It was just this sort of laughter ringing through the house, which was true of a lot of the working on the novel. I'd read countless interviews with novelists where they talk about the characters writing them and it was a truism that suddenly felt true.

Did you edit each other? Did you each take a voice? How did the writing work?
: We edited each other a lot. We did each take a voice and defended a character, that was the way we drafted the book. But each time that we sent in a draft, we sent it back with suggestions, so we were rewriting each other as we went.

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