“Wait, so you just made her Jewish?”
When people hear that I based my most recent novel, Enchanted Islands, on a real person, they immediately want to know how much I made up and how much is true to life.
Here’s what I know about the real Frances Conway: she wrote and published two memoirs about her time in the Galapagos before and after the Second World War. She died in 1968 in Los Gatos, California.
I attempted to research her, but was unable to find out much about her other than where she was buried. (There’s a rumor that she and her husband were spying on the Germans who lived there, but it’s unsubstantiated). That’s it. Not a lot to go on.
Frances’s memoirs are interesting both because they are the story of living on a deserted island, but also for what they leave out: any personal information. Nowhere does she mention her motivation for moving to an island in the middle of the Pacific. Nowhere does she talk about how she and her husband—who was 11 years her junior—met or got together, and she gives only the vaguest sketch of their lives before the islands.
I have no evidence that she was Jewish, though her books are dedicated to “Rosaline and Clarence Fisher.” So why make her Jewish? I was interested in the rivalry between German and Eastern European Jews at the turn of the century in this country. What it would mean to this character to have to hide her religion for the sake of her job; what tensions would that create within her? I was also interested in exploring the two women’s changing attitudes toward Judaism— Rosalie, raised without much religion, becomes observant, while Frances, raised in a traditional household, abandons many of the traditions she grew up with.
At readings and online, people want to know why, if I knew so little about the real Frances Conway, did I not just change her name? I wanted to honor the spirit I discovered in her memoirs—an intrepid woman who lived during a tumultuous time in history and whose sense of adventure (and humor, and ability to laugh at herself) buoyed her through. I’m hoping that a renewed interest in her memoirs allows others to fall in love with her as I have.
A graduated of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Allison Amend is the author of Things That Pass for Love, Stations West, and A Nearly Perfect Copy. She is currently on tour with her new book, Enchanted Islands, for the 2016 – 2017 through the JBC Network.
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