Title: Temptation Rag
Author: Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: December 3, 2018
Seventeen-year-old May Convery, unhappy with her privileged life in turn-of-the-century New York City, dreams of becoming a poet. When she meets the talented young Mike Bernard, an aspiring concert pianist, she immediately falls in love. But after their secret liaison is discovered, neither is prepared for the far-reaching consequences that will haunt them for decades. As Mike abandons serious music to ruthlessly defend his hard-won title, Ragtime King of the World, May struggles to find her voice as an artist and a woman. It is not until years after their youthful romance, when they cross paths again, that they must finally confront the truth about themselves and each other. But is it too late?
The world of ragtime is the backdrop for a remarkable story about the price of freedom, the longing for immortality, and the human need to find forgiveness. From vaudeville’s greatest stars to the geniuses of early African American musical theater, an unforgettable cast of real-life characters populates this richly-fictionalized historical saga.
Temptation Rag: A Novel is available December 3, 2018 in paperback and e-book editions on Amazon and other retailers.
Historical fiction has always been a genre that I’ve really enjoyed. When I was getting my undergrad, I studied for a degree in secondary education, with an emphasis on History. I loved my history classes, and excelled in the program. It also cementated by infatuation with all types of historical literature (including historical romance…those books are full of well researched facts about the time period!). I don’t read nearly as much historical fiction as I used to do to time constraints and just general business, but I’m always excited when a chance to review one comes across my desk.
The first thing I noticed when I received Temptation Rag was the stunning cover. It immediately drew me in and made me want to know more about this story. I’ve always been a sucker for a good cover, and this was no exception. Needless to say, the story inside this beautiful packaging is just as well put together and stunning. Temptation Rag tells the story of May Convery and Mike Bernard while intertwining itself around the story and uprise of Ragtime music. It was an addicting read, that had me hooked from the very first page.
Temptation Rag was partly inspired by the author’s husband’s own family, and I loved knowing that detail. It made the story seem even more real, and I could picture all the happenings in my head. In addition, the author’s character development is fantastic. Her characters are honest, and far from perfect, especially our male protagonist Mike Bernard. There were times throughout this book that I loved him…and then there were other times that I despised the man. It says a lot about an author’s writing when they can create that type of internal push and pull around a character’s personality and life. It kept me reading late into the night, trying to see how these character’s lives would turn out. Would they get a HEA? Would the get what they are all hoping to find here on earth? I’m not going to give away any answers, as you’ll have to read it yourself to find out!
Temptation Rag is a great read for anyone who wants to read about how life was at the turn of the 20th century, especially for woman and minorities. It also offers a rich insight into the history of music, and taught me a lot of things that I had no ideas about. Overall, this book was fantastically written, a quick read, and an addicting page turner.
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.
Who has inspired you most in your life?
First, my family. They helped me to believe I could do or be anything I wanted. As far as my writing life, I have a special love for early 20th century authors like Daphne du Maurier, best known for her haunting novel Rebecca, and Edith Wharton, author of The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921. Two of my favorite contemporary authors who write consistently compelling historical fiction are Sarah Waters and Megan Chance. In my spiritual life, I’ve been inspired by the oracle, I Ching, of which I’ve been a student for many years. I find it to be a constant source of wisdom. When writing my novels, I often turn to it for inspiration and as a way to tap into my subconscious mind.
Can you describe your writing process?
For my first novel, I was a “seat of the pants” writer, meaning that I had no interest in mapping out my story in advance but preferred to let it evolve as I went along. I had a general idea of where I was going, but the plot twists and turns along the way were often a surprise to me. I find it very exciting to write that way, but inevitably one ends up going back to the beginning and making a lot of adjustments. For TEMPTATION RAG, there were actual historical timelines to consider, so I couldn’t be quite as freewheeling. But I doubt that I will ever be the kind of methodical writer who starts out with a strict outline of a book, beginning to end. I write just about every day, but I don’t necessarily aim to write a certain number of pages. I simply write until I don’t feel like writing anymore. That can be two hours or twelve hours.
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.
What is next for you in your writing career?
My next novel will explore two parallel stories, one taking place in the early 1900s and the other in present-day. The split timeframe is a technique that I have found interesting in other historical novels. A couple of my favorites are The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith and The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky. Though the switching back and forth can be tricky, and sometimes even annoying, it has the potential to add additional layers of meaning to a story. I’m looking forward to trying it.
About the Author