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December 5, 2018

Q&A with Elizabeth Hutchinson Bernard, Author of Temptation Rag

Elizabeth Hutchinson Bernard is celebrating the release of her new historical novel this week. She was kind of nice to give an interview to let you know more about her and her novel Temptation Rag.

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Temptation Rag
December 2018; Belle Epoque Publishing
978-0998440644; ebook, print (409 pages)
biographical, women's fiction
What was the inspiration for Temptation Rag: A Novel?

I started writing TEMPTATION RAG about eight years ago, when I was part of a writing group at the Hudson Valley Writers Center in New York. I knew I wanted to write a novel, but I was still searching for a topic or theme that would really inspire me. Then I remembered a few of the stories I had heard from my husband Bob about his grandfather, Mike Bernard, who won the title Ragtime King of the World in 1900. The stories were not flattering, since Mike never really owned up to his family responsibilities and remained a shadowy figure. Nevertheless, I sensed the raw material for a compelling story---about a man who was probably the most popular ragtime player in New York City and about the people in his life who were deeply affected by his single-minded quest for fame and fortune. At that point, I still had no idea about the history of ragtime music and that history’s social, moral, and political implications. When my research led me to discover how African American musicians’ rights as the true originators of ragtime were largely overlooked, I quickly realized that their story and Mike’s were inseparable.

I spent a couple of years working on the book and often feeling like I was in over my head. I wanted to recreate that amazing, bigger-than-life world of early 1900s vaudeville and musical theater in New York City but, above all, tell a deeply human story of passion, ambition, and desire with unforgettable real-life characters. The scope of the story was so vast, covering more than thirty years, and my idea to tell it through multiple points of view was pretty ambitious for a first-time author. Finally, because I wanted to do the story justice, I decided to set it aside and “cut my teeth” as a debut author on a story that I felt more comfortable with. It took me several years to write my historical thriller THE BEAUTY DOCTOR. When that book turned out to be so well-received, it gave me the confidence to come back to my first story. I thought “Okay, I can really do this.”

What research did you need to do for this book?

I had a lot to learn about the people who inhabited the world of ragtime. Names like Ben Harney, Will Marion Cook, J. Rosamond Johnson, Abbie Mitchell, and of course Mike Bernard. My novel encompasses the entire ragtime era, beginning in 1895 and ending in 1929, though the decline of ragtime had already begun a decade earlier. To start with, I needed to ground myself in what was going on in the world at that time, what were the social mores, what were people concerned about, and how did life change over the course of thirty years? As far as the music, I knew there would always be people far more knowledgeable than I am about ragtime. But I did my best to understand the evolution of this truly American musical genre as well as its eventual demise when jazz became “the next big thing.” I read a lot of books, listened to music, talked to people who were acknowledged experts in the field. I pored through the family documents that were relevant to Mike Bernard who, as I’ve already mentioned, was my husband’s grandfather. I let these real-life characters I had learned so much about---these incredibly colorful figures from vaudeville and early African American musical theater---tell me their stories. The synthesis of all that is partly fact, partly fiction.

Are all of the characters in TEMPTATION RAG based on real people?

Not all of them are based on real people, but most of the important characters are. A notable exception is the book’s female protagonist, May Convery. May’s rejection of the social mores of the era is what readers love about her, but I have no idea if the real May Convery was anything like that. There really was very little historical information on her, other than the record of her marriage to Mike Bernard at a very young age. Yet she is the central character of TEMPTATION RAG. I wanted May’s emotional journey in finding her voice as a poet, as well as her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement, to capture the spirit of an era in which women were beginning to demand freedom and the right of self-expression.   
What is your most important goal as a writer?

I love to hear from readers who say they learned something new from reading one of my historical novels, that they felt immersed in another era, and that they loved the characters. If someone tells me that my book made them think about things they’d not considered before, or think in a different way about something important, that is very exciting. Of course, creating characters that readers connect with emotionally is probably the top goal of every fiction writer. Several of the advance readers of TEMPTATION RAG have said to me about the character of Mike Bernard, “I loved him, then I despised him, then I loved him” or “I liked him even when he was being a jerk.” That makes me feel great, because I had hoped to create a character who was complex and deeply flawed but was in some way redeemable.

Buy Temptation Rag at Amazon

About the Author

Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard is an award-winning author of historical fiction. Her first novel, The Beauty Doctor, has been recognized by the Eric Hoffer Book Award (2018, Fiction Finalist), the Arizona Literary Awards (2017, Honorable Mention, Published Fiction), and the Book Readers Appreciation Group (Medallion Honoree). She toured for nearly a decade as a professional vocalist, flutist, and songwriter. Her first album was produced by former Santana keyboardist Tom Coster. A summa cum laude Communications graduate of Northwestern University, Bernard eventually traded her microphone for a pen. She settled in California, promoting international expositions for the music trade (Director of Public Relations, NAMM). Currently a full-time author, Bernard lives in Arizona with her husband and their black lab, Pearly Mae.

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  1. It's turning out to be a great publication week for TEMPTATION RAG. Thanks for inviting my blog tour to make a stop at Girl Who Reads.

  2. This is a new author to me. I love the cover and the book sounds good. Interesting q & a!