In this interview, Jamie and I discuss Gilt, the way guilt permeates the story, the inspiration for this book and for Pavlin and Company, the hardest character for her to write, the relevance of the green cover, how book covers mark a particular moment in time, and much more.
In this interview, Jamie and I discuss Gilt, the way guilt permeates the story, the inspiration for this book and for Pavlin and Company, the hardest character for her to write, the relevance of the green cover, how book covers mark a particular moment in time, and much more.
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[00:11] Cindy: You are listening to the Thoughts From a Page podcast, which is a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network. My name is Cindy Burnett and I'd love to talk about books with anyone and everyone. While listening to my podcast, you will hear author interview, behind the scenes conversations about various aspects of the publishing world, theme discussions with other book lovers and more. For more book recommendations and a complete list of all of my interviews, check out my website, Thoughts from Apage.com and follow me on Facebook and Instagram at Thoughts from a Page in 2022. I would love for you to join my Patreon group. I offer at least two bonus episodes a month and a monthly advanced read and pre-publication author chat. For those on Facebook, I host a special Patreon Facebook group where we all chat books. Thanks so much to those who already participate and I hope you will consider joining us. Today. I am conversing with Jamie Brenner about Gilt. Jamie grew up in suburban Philadelphia on a steady diet of Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz novels. After college, she left her hometown for New York City to live like the heroines of her favorite books. Her novels include the national bestseller The Forever Summer and The Wedding Sisters booklet calls her last novel Blush, a delectable soap opera. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Welcome, Jamie. How are you today?
[01:27] Jamie: I am doing great, Cindy. Thanks for having me.
[01:30] Cindy: I'm so glad you're back. I always enjoy chatting with you about your books and I can't wait to talk more about Gilt.
[01:36] Jamie: Lots to discuss.
[01:37] Cindy: There is lots to discuss. So why don't we start out with you just telling me a little bit about Gilt for those that won't have read it yet. And every time I say gilt, I feel like it's G-U-I-L-T. So I want to clarify. Gilt. G-I-L-T.
[01:49] Jamie: Exactly. It's G-I-L-T which is, of course, sort of the gold plating on something. It could be a picture frame, it could be a necklace, so it looks like gold. Underneath is something that's far less valuable. So I use that as a title because it also sounds like guilt, which is the predominant emotion that many of the characters in the book are grappling with. And Gilt is a family story. It's about a dynasty, a jewelry dynasty. The family named Pavlin invented the idea of the diamond engagement ring. They essentially packaged the idea of love. And yet all three sisters in the family have been tragically unlucky in love. And when the book begins, a strange niece is returning to the fold to reclaim a priceless pink diamond that she believes is her birthright, and along the way, on this quest, discovers a lot of family secrets that explain the past decade of her life.
[02:57] Cindy: The idea of guilt definitely permeates the story and the way characters react to each other based on their guilt really makes for an interesting premise.
[03:07] Jamie: Yes. And it's also a feeling. Guilt is a very uncomfortable feeling, and our impulse is to run away from it. And so these women have been running away from their guilt for many years, and as a result, their lives are stilted in some very significant ways. The emotion, guilt is something really uncomfortable, and people's impulse is to run away from it and not deal with it. And that's exactly what the women in this family have been doing. And as a result, their personal lives have become really stilted. And when their estranged niece shows up this summer demanding answers, they're forced to finally face the emotion and the choices and the things that they have been in denial about for many years.
[03:58] Cindy: Well, where did you come up with the idea for this one?
[04:01] Jamie: I came up with the idea for this book when I was in SAG Harbor researching another novel called Drawing Home. And I went into this little store called Matriarch. And Matriarch only features clothes and jewelry by female designers. And the first thing that caught my eye was this display of charms for necklaces and bracelets, these large letters and numbers in gold and brass. And I said, oh, that's really interesting. And the store owner told me that is Lulu Frost, the jewelry designer. And that's her Plaza collection. And what this designer did was when the Plaza Hotel, the iconic hotel in New York City, was being dismantled for renovation, she collected all of the door fixtures, the letters and numbers, and turned them into wearable charms. And I just love that idea because it's very personal. You could pick out your initials, but you're also carrying a little piece of New York City history with you. And it made me think about jewelry and why we covet it and what we choose to wear in our bodies and what stories we're telling with the jewelry we wear. And that was the beginning of Guilt.
[05:22] Cindy: Well, I was fascinated as I was reading the book about what inspired Gemma's jewelry because it just sounded so cool. So that's interesting to learn that there's a jeweler out there named Lulu Frost that's the inspiration for Gemma's jewelry.
[05:34] Jamie: Yes.
[05:35] Cindy: And I'm assuming she has a website.
[05:37] Jamie: Yes. Lulufrost.com. And if you look, you can click on the Plaza Collection and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about, and I guarantee you're going to fall in love with it as well. So beware. And she's a fabulous woman. She literally began her jewelry collection out of her dorm room in college 20 something years ago. And now it's a brand that everyone from Lady Gaga to Michelle Obama has worn. And it really is a great example of how the most valuable jewelry is things that we feel personal connection to. It's not necessarily the most expensive diamond or the biggest gem. It's things that have meaning. And in Guilt, the family who created this jewelry empire has lost the sense of what's important. They've gotten so caught up in the monetary value of things that they've forgotten that what's most important is the foundation of the family, behind the family business. They've become too much about the business, not the family. And that's what I sort of just suppose between a young jewelry designer who takes things that are antique or have meaning and turn them into jewelry, versus the old guard who is still mining for diamonds and trying to sell people uncostly and sometimes unattainable things.
[07:09] Cindy: I thought the way Alan created this instant sibling rivalry between his three daughters was just horrific. Those poor girls are all competing for the Electric Rose, so whoever gets engaged first will end up winning this beautiful Electric Rose diamond that Pavlin and Co. Is known for. I just thought that was an absolutely terrible thing for a father to do.
[07:29] Jamie: Yes. So the father, Alan, is third generation in this company. And like so many big businesses, the first generation or two are the innovators, and they've broken new ground and they've created something iconic. And then often subsequent generations don't bring as much to the table. And that's the case with the family generation. We start with in guilt. His grandfather invented the idea of the diamond engagement ring, which actually did happen with a company, de Beers. Diamond engagement rings were just a modern day marketing invention. This was not something that was tradition from antiquity. It was a ploy to sell stones that are not inherently valuable. And so, Allen, this is his family legacy, and he cannot reinvent the wheels. So what he does instead is he says, well, I have these three daughters and the press is really interested in them. So he has this ill-conceived idea to say, the first of my three daughters to get engaged is going to get the most valuable family gem, this 30 carat pink diamond called the Electric Road. And once he sets this in motion, the family is never the same.
[08:49] Cindy: I just felt so bad for those daughters because he just put them in a terrible position.
[08:54] Jamie: Yeah, he puts him in a terrible position. And it's sort of an exaggerated version of, I think, everyone with siblings experiences some rivalry or some tension or some sense of jockeying for position growing up or even into adulthood. So this is just a hyper realized version of that. And I needed to do something extreme to show how far astray people can go when they're led by greed and superficial things instead of staying close to what really matters. And I had the idea to go down that path because I read a lot about cursed diamonds and from Marie Antoinette till today, some of the largest stones in the world have come at great cost to people who find a way to acquire them. And one of the theories that was posed in a nonfiction book I was reading called stones is that the greed that it takes to have one of these diamonds also comes along with some personality traits that might make misfortune a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that's what I wanted to explore with Alan and his desperation to stay relevant and make a terrible decision to use his daughters in that way.
[10:20] Cindy: That's fascinating because I've always been intrigued with these diamonds, like the Hope Diamond and others that are said to be cursed. And that's an interesting premise or reason why they might be considered that way is that the owners are actually just doing things that would end up making them seem like they were cursed.
[10:36] Jamie: Right? Like there's a reason you and I don't have the Hope diamonds. Maybe it's because we have not made decisions along the way in life to put herself in that position. But I learned the Hope Diamond was originally Marie Antoinette's stone, which is called the French blue at the time of her death. And then it disappeared resurfacing in 1823 as what we now know as the Hope Diamond. And every subsequent owner has had some degree of misfortune. Not the dramatic ending that Marie Antoinette had, but certainly nothing that any of us would want to experience. And that's just one of several examples. So it really is a phenomenon, and to me, something I had to explore in this discussion of jewelry and the lengths people go to to acquire certain pieces.
[11:28] Cindy: Well, and I think back to your sibling rivalry comments. I think it's an interesting way of looking at siblings and the link they will go to sometimes when they feel like they are jockeying for position. And of course it's exaggerated. But I do think that even the further decisions they make, with no spoilers here, really are made because they are so unhappy with the way they feel they were treated or compared to a sibling or one of their sisters, and that it really just leaves several of them to make bad choices.
[11:56] Jamie: Yes, and we all make some bad choices in life. And I think the lesson is that I try to explore in many of my books, if not all of them, is that it's not too late to undo the correct course, even when you make bad decisions in life. So out of the three sisters, one dies young. This is not a spoiler. You'll find this out on page three. And the two surviving sisters make complete opposite choices about their lives. One is hyper focused on taking the helm of the jewelry company Pavlin and Co. To the point that she has no personal life to speak of. Her other sister, Celeste, opts out of the entire business and the family, and she moves to Cape Cod Provincetown and she lives a very quiet life away from the glamorous world that she was brought up in. When the book begins, the sister who died, her daughter has now grown, and she returns the two surviving ants looking for answers, and that ultimately brings these estranged sisters back together again.
[13:10] Cindy: I just thought it was interesting, some of their choices and the way it resonated down their lives based on being unhappy with their siblings.
[13:18] Jamie: Yes. For example, Celeste, the one who moved to Cape Cod, she's really acted out of fear. And I think a lot of people make bad decisions when they make decisions based on fear. And one of her biggest problems is not feeling willing to fully invest in a wonderful relationship she has with her longtime partner. And she's holding back because she's traumatized by what she's seen in her parents' marriage and her sister's relationship. And she has sort of fallen into this superstitious feeling that she could never have luck and love because of what her parents have done and her sister did. And so she holds a part of herself back, and it keeps her from living a fully realized romantic life. And her sister Elodie is the opposite. She thinks the answer is just to gain more and more power, to be more and more invested in the family name and the brand to the exclusion of any love life of her own. And both extremes prove to be very unfulfilling and something they have to reckon with over the course of the summer.
[14:34] Cindy: Definitely. But I also feel like Elodie is very bitter about what she feels like happen to her. So she make some choices that she wouldn't have otherwise made.
[14:43] Jamie: Definitely. I mean, when you make decisions out of resentment, your heart closes a little bit. And she shut herself off from people she could have cared about and who could have cared about her. And even though her priorities, the business, it even prevented her from making some of the best decisions for the company itself. So, yes, guilt, bitterness, anger, regret, none of these emotions lead to positive action. And these are all things that have to be corrected through the events of the summer in Provincetown.
[15:20] Cindy: Absolutely. She had very clouded judgment, and she needs to kind of come around and understand how she was acting and how to move forward in a more positive manner.
[15:29] Jamie: Yes.
[15:30] Cindy: Well, did De Beers Inspire Pavlin and Company or was it a combination of jewelry companies? Where did you get the idea for Pavlin and Company?
[15:37] Jamie: It wasn't. De Beers didn't realize until I started diving into research how important they were in defining the diamond market. I really was thinking about Tiffany or Cartier and the feeling of walking into those showrooms on Fifth Avenue and just sort of the wonderland that's created for people. It really feels like a fantasy. And of course, Tiffany's had Breakfast at Tiffany's and all of these stores and the advertisements spin this narrative that the diamond ring is the most important piece of jewelry you'll ever own, and more than that, that the most important piece of jewelry you'll ever own has to be bought for you by someone else. And I realized as I progress through life that some of my favorite pieces of jewelry are actually things that I bought for myself to commemorate milestones or special summers and not necessarily the most technically valuable. And I wanted to sort of give some counter programming to the way we've all been sold this idea of what is the most important jewelry. And Gemma, who is the next generation of jewelry maker, already understands this. She's making jewelry from found objects and antiques and repurposed material. And even though she's seeking this priceless diamond that connects her to her mother, she's looking to the future of jewelry as something that women can really take ownership of themselves from the beginning. And that's a big part of the story where jewelry represents not just objects, but the way we look at our own passages in life.
[17:32] Cindy: Well, responding first to the inspiration for Pavlin and Company, I thought of Tiffany and Company the entire time I was reading your book, so I figured it was probably them. But then you mentioned De Beers with the diamonds, so I wasn't sure if I was off course there or if it was just a combination of a couple of different things.
[17:46] Jamie: No, it's definitely I pictured Tiffany when I described Pavlin Co, and in the beginning of the book, there was this big party, this 100th anniversary party, and I was very much picturing the Fifth Avenue showroom of Tiffany when I described that room. But as I was reading about the history of diamonds in this country, I learned that the Bears was the one with their marketing campaign, a diamond is Forever, who really set us on course for the contemporary way we view diamonds as being integral to marital engagement.
[18:24] Cindy: And that's the beauty of fiction. You can merge the two.
[18:27] Jamie: Exactly.
[18:28] Cindy: Second, I really like the messaging that jewelry that you want to own does not have to be purchased for you by someone else. And the idea that we can buy our own jewelry and that a lot of times the things we pick out do really carry meaning to us and show something about us. I mean, my favorite pieces of jewelry that people comment on the most are things that I have picked up, and there are things that have resonated with me, and I really like the way they look. There's some meaning to me. And then those are the ones people are always like, oh, that's absolutely beautiful. I love it. Where did you get it?
[18:57] Jamie: Yes, exactly. And I realized that jewelry tell stories the same as books tell stories. We are telling a story to the world by what we choose to put on our bodies. So I thought it was a really great mix of narratives to play around with together, and probably why we feel so strongly about both books and jewelry, because it is a reflection of ourselves and the way we make sense of the world.
[19:23] Cindy: I think that's exactly right. Well, tell me about the Provincetown setting, why you set most of the book there.
[19:29] Jamie: So this is my third novel set in Provincetown. The first was the forever summer then summer longing And I wasn't sure from the outset writing this book that that was going to be the setting. But circumstance really pushed me in that direction because I was writing the spring and summer of 2020 and it was such a chaotic time that my husband and I decided to move to Provincetown, which is at the very tip of Cape Cod. It's very remote, very beautiful, and to me, really the loveliest place imaginable. And we chose to sort of ride out the pandemic there. So, of course it became the setting of this book. But I realized, aside from the fact that I was living there, it's really the perfect contrast to the opening of the book in New York City. And New York is so much about glamor and commerce and all things glitter, and I was really thinking a lot, all the glitter is not gold. And then you go to Province Town and it's just the most literally down-to-earth place. They call it Lands End because it's literally the end of Cape Cod and it's full of artists and it's a place where people go to be their true selves to reinvent themselves. If you had to pick a place to start over or course correct, Provincetown is the perfect place to do that. So it really was the ideal setting for the journey these characters had to go on.
[21:01] Cindy: I like that, a literal setting for it. And then their actual journey that they have to take themselves on.
[21:07] Jamie: Yes.
[21:08] Cindy: The three sisters are very different from each other. Who did you identify with the most in the least? And who was the hardest and the easiest to write?
[21:15] Jamie: I identify a little bit with each of them and I have to in order to be able to write them. The hardest one to write was probably Celeste, and she's the one who moved to Provincetown. And the reason she was the hardest to write is because her way of dealing with the world is very different than the way I deal with the world. She turned to astrology and she avoided a lot of emotional entanglement and she didn't want any part of the world that a lot of people would find attractive. And I understood all of her motivations. I just had to keep reminding myself what decisions Celeste would make and not fall back into things that would seem more rational for myself. But I had a lot of fun with her, too, once I went down the rabbit hole of astrology. It was a great thing to play with in the book. And she seeks answers in the stars, and she has a tarot card reader she goes to, and we tend to look for answers in any form when we can't figure things out for themselves. So I loved being able to go on that journey with her through the world of Tarot and astrology and believing that things are out of our control.
[22:39] Cindy: I really like Celeste and I felt for her because you could just sometimes literally feel her fear.
[22:45] Jamie: Yeah, I mean, fear, it's interesting because I think about what changes happen being young versus being older, and I feel like fear is something we definitely acquire in life. It's sort of our emotional baggage because some things haven't worked out and then we start thinking, well, they're never going to work out, or I can't do that again, or this was bad, so I have to avoid it. And I think that's a dangerous logic trap, although it's very tempting. So when I write characters who are older, fear is often a part of it because they have been burned and they have suffered loss, whereas I feel like younger characters in their 20s have a little more idealism and a little more even hubris when they go about trying to get what they want.
[23:37] Cindy: A more carefree approach. Yes, I think that's exactly right. But I think the flip side of that, as well as I have gotten older, is some of the things that really did bother me or might have scared me or made me anxious as I get older, a lot of that has fallen away. I've realized some of these things are not important anymore or weren't important at all. And so I have to kind of reshift my priorities. But I think that as you get older, you also learn, OK, some of these things are just not worth being stressed out about.
[24:05] Jamie: Definitely. I remember when I was early in my career, I was interviewing the writer Francine Prose, and she said to me, Jamie, you realize in your 50s that when you walk into a room, no one's looking at you. And that's very liberating. And that stayed with me all these years. And there is a certain freedom that comes with being older and letting go of the things that made us self conscious or we put way too much energy into. So I agree there is a lot of freedom that comes with the wisdom.
[24:40] Cindy: I think so. But there's also fear that comes from being burned. So it's an interesting balance. Well, what about how the title came about? We talked a little bit about that, but I'd love to talk a little bit more about it and the cover.
[24:51] Jamie: So the title came to me very early in the process, which is a blessing and not always the case. And I wanted to play around with the idea of surface. Again, returning to the idea all that glitters is not gold. Gilt is a gold coating over something that is not really gold. And again, the play on the word gilt because the Pavlin sisters have a lot of regret and a lot of things they wish they could have done differently. The cover is for anyone who hasn't seen it, it's green. It's predominantly green, which I learned through jewelry research. Emeralds were really the diamond of their day, and by their day, I mean antiquity until just about maybe 100 years ago. And we are physiologically hardwired to seek out the color green. It signals to us abundance. It's trees and grass. It's the color of our currency in this country. So I didn't express that to the art department. But they ended up coming to me with a green cover, which worked out really well. And then there is a large pink diamond circling the Empire State Building. So it's a little bit of everything and it has a little sparkle. And it's a beautiful cover.
[26:19] Cindy: It is. And you pivoted last book, Blush, to a single word title and a different type of cover than your earlier books. And this one is really in line with that. Another single word title and a cover that really complements Blush.
[26:33] Jamie: Yes. Thank you. Well, it's a different publisher than the books with the women on the beach, so it's just a different packaging. But the stories have a lot of similarities. They're all set in the summer in a beautiful beach town. It's family at a crossroads. It's mothers and daughters and secrets and love affairs. So the covers vary. And I do love that Gilt and Blush match each other aesthetically as a little set. But anyone who's read the earlier books that have a more beachy vibe are going to get the same reading experience.
[27:13] Cindy: Oh, absolutely. I think it's really interesting when covers and titles switch themes. Your books have stayed the same. And I agree completely. I've read all of them and I really enjoy them. But it's a different vibe for the cover and the title.
[27:25] Jamie: Yeah. And you just don't forget the writers aren't really in control of the cover. We have some input, but that is where the Art department is telling their version of the story. And it is really interesting to see different interpretations of the story that lives in our mind and that we work so hard to get down on the page. And usually we see more than one version of the cover and it's an evolution. So by the time you're seeing a cover, I might have seen two or three other versions, but I like to just sort of let go because I'm not the most visual person when it comes to art and design. So I'm happy to let another artist take the lead in that part of packaging the book.
[28:12] Cindy: Absolutely. Someone who's an expert at that part of it.
[28:15] Jamie: Yes.
[28:16] Cindy: I think authors often pivot after a few titles so that they're not stuck eight books later all looking the same. Unless it's a series.
[28:24] Jamie: Yeah. And also trends in cover design across the whole industry fall into these patterns. So there's a lot more graphic design versus photo realism today. And the way color is used. And it's like sometimes titles are dominant, and sometimes an image is dominant, and these things tend to come and go in waves. So I still look back at books from the love those old covers. So if you look at books through decades, you can see them marking time just the same way certain types of music mark a particular moment in time. And that's something that it's not in our control. It's just the way art works in our culture.
[29:11] Cindy: That's such an interesting thought, that covers are really a snapshot in time. What was happening then in terms of design and, as you said, color and all of it?
[29:19] Jamie: Yes.
[29:20] Cindy: Well, before we wrap up, what have you read recently that you really liked?
[29:24] Jamie: Oh, my goodness. It's been a really busy, amazing summer of books. I Loved On Gin Lane by Brooke Foster. That's her new one. Jennifer Weiner's new book, The Summer Place is fantastic. I think that's her last in her summer trilogy. And, of course, I just started Elin Hilderbrand's The Hotel Nantucket. And I look forward to her books every summer.
[29:47] Cindy: Those are all three great recommendations, and I haven't read any of them yet, but I've been seeing all sorts of great things on Instagram.
[29:54] Jamie: Oh, you won't be disappointed.
[29:56] Cindy: Well, Jamie, thank you so much for joining me today on the Thoughts from a Page Podcast. I really enjoyed chatting about Gilt.
[30:02] Jamie: Thanks so much. Cindy, thank you for having me.
[30:06] Cindy: Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage. Consider joining my Patreon group to access bonus content and support the podcast. Tell all of your friends about the show and read it or subscribe to it. Wherever you listen to your podcasts, I would really appreciate it. The book discussed in this episode can be purchased at my bookshop storefront, and the link is in the show notes. I hope you'll tune in next time.
Jamie Brenner is the author of six novels, including Blush and The Forever Summer. She grew up in suburban Philadelphia on a steady diet of Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz novels, and later moved to New York City to live like the heroines of her favorite books. Jamie now divides her time between Philadelphia and Provincetown.