Channeling bootleggers, gamblers and roaring-twenties mystique, a novelist paints a steamy new portrait of H-Town and its founding family.
The year was 1975. Saigon fell. The Houston Oilers went 10-4 in the Astrodome but missed the playoffs. Rock legends The Who kicked off their U.S. tour at a local venue called the Summit. And Houston-born author Duncan Alderson left the city where he’d been raised to discover the world. But after experiencing the expat life in England and spending nearly two decades teaching school in Toronto, the 72-year-old novelist found his Houston roots were the perfect fodder for his first published book, the new Jazz Age-set Magnolia City.
“It really had the feel of a small Southern city,” recalls Alderson, speaking from Lancaster, Pa., where he now lives with his wife Isabel Lark, a noted arts dealer. Alderson’s own interest in the arts goes back to his H-Town boyhood. “We had real culture. I still remember going to Dominic de Menil’s house; she would have these parties for the students.”
Magnolia City gives Houston the Great Gatsby treatment—with bootleggers and Galveston gambling dens aplenty. It focuses on Hetty Allen, a fictional great-granddaughter of city founding fathers the Allen Brothers, based in part on Alderson’s own mother Dorothy May. A key plot point is Hetty’s decision to marry for love, not money. “My mother used to drive us by a big mansion and say that was where this other fellow lived—he was her other suitor, but she married my father.”
Decades later, photos of his mother, dressed in a flapper gown and pearls, helped inspire the book, which took him nearly 10 years to complete. “The woman in those pictures was so foreign and exotic, I had to write the novel to figure out who she was,” he explains, noting that, despite his desire for historical accuracy, Magnolia City remains primarily a work of fiction—one he hopes will attract hometown fans. Alderson will sign copies at Brazos Bookstore (2421 Bissonnet St.) April 10, and Blue Willow Bookshop (14532 Memorial Dr.) April 12.
Told primarily from Hetty’s point of view, Alderson confidently conveys a woman’s perspective while evocatively capturing a bygone era: “She opened the car door and snaked out a ghostly leg, smooth and white with its silk stocking,” he writes. “The rest of her followed and floated up out of the blue dusk like an apparition, white from head to toe, dripping with fringes and jewels, her eyes deep and beguiling.”
Alderson demurs when asked about writing in the voice of the opposite sex. “Even though it’s my mother I was writing about... the character is really me. It’s like Flaubert said, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ Hetty is me.”
The author also makes Houston itself a fascinating character, at once steamy and humanizing. “Sometimes you need to get away from a place to write about it,” says Alderson. “I really didn’t know my hometown. It’s like Downton Abbey-meets-Dallas, and that’s not what you think of when you think of Houston.”