Podcast Episodes

The Second Mrs. Astor

September 7, 2021

The Second Mrs Astor by Shana Abe

Today on the podcast, Victoria speaks with author Shana Abe about her historical fiction novel, The Second Mrs. Astor!  We talk about her inspiration and hopes for the novel, played some fun games, learn more about her reading and writing life, plus lots more.   

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Victoria Wood (00:11):
Welcome to The Reader’s Couch, a podcast that brings you lively conversations with some of your favorite authors and bookish personalities. Over here, the couch is always booked, but I’ve moved some books to the side table and fluffed some cushions. So I can welcome a guest or two to come lounge with us.

Victoria Wood (00:34):
Today on the couch, we have Shana Abe an author who is transporting readers to New York, Egypt, and aboard the ill-fated Titanic through her historical fiction novel inspired by the scandalous real-life love story between America’s richest man and a beautiful teenage debutante. Stay tuned.

Victoria Wood (01:04):
A collection of poetry to keep on your radar is I Hope This Finds You Well by Kate Baer. The author of the number-one New York Times bestseller, What Kind Of Woman returns with a collection of poems created from notes she’s received from followers, supporters, and online trolls. At first, the darker messages and vitriol from online trolls crowding Kate’s inbox resulted in an immediate delete and block. Until one day, Kate decided to transform the cruelty into art and create fresh and intriguing poems. These pieces along with ones made from notes of gratitude and love, as well as words from public figures have now become some of her most beloved work.

Victoria Wood (01:56):
I Hope This Finds You Well is a book of poetry birthed in the darkness of the internet that now offers light, hope, and empowerment by showing how we too can turn bitterness and what’s ugly or painful in our own lives into something beautiful. I Hope This Finds You Well by Kate Baer is being published by Harper Perennial and books go on sale on November 9th, 2021. So be sure to visit your local bookseller or library so you can get your hands on a copy. Again, it’s entitled I Hope This Finds You Well by Kate Baer.

Victoria Wood (02:42):
Hi, readers welcome again to The Reader’s Couch. I’m your host Victoria Wood. And here on the couch with me is the award-winning New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of more than a dozen novels, including the Sweetest Dark series and the Drakon series. But she’s here to talk to me about her latest novel The Second Mrs. Astor. Please welcome to the couch Shana Abe.

Victoria Wood (03:12):
Hey Shana! How are you?

Shana Abe (03:14):
I am very well. How are you?

Victoria Wood (03:16):
I’m doing good, and I’m so excited to have you here on the show. Really thrilled about your new novel, The Second Mrs. Astor. It’s out in the wild now, readers can get their hands on a copy, on a scale of 1 to 10, how are you feeling? How excited are you?

Shana Abe (03:35):
I’m so happy. I’m so happy. This book has been three years in the making and I’m just like, thank God. It’s finally out finally.

Victoria Wood (03:44):
So tell our listeners Shana. I really want them to hear it from you. Tell us about your novel, The Second Mrs. Astor and what can readers expect going in?

Shana Abe (03:54):
Okay. The Second Mrs. Astor is my historical fiction debut and it features Jack Astor the fourth, or actually he’s John Jacob Astor, the fourth known as Jack and his very young, very scandalously young teenage wife, Madeleine Force. And it is their brief and somewhat tragic story that ends with the Titanic. So as soon as I say Titanic, you know, what’s going to happen. It’s like, as soon as you say Romeo and Juliet, you know, what’s going to happen, but you’re still kind of drawn to it anyway, cause it’s just such an iconic part of our past of our world history. And, uh, so it is basically the story of them meeting and falling in love. And her becoming instantly, horribly, kind of catastrophically, really famous for being in love with this wealthy older man.

Shana Abe (04:43):
He was nearly 30 years older than she was and when they met, she was 17 and he was not. And he was also the richest man in America. And she was just this young sheltered teenage socialite. And they met in Bar Harbor in 1910. And apparently according to nearly everyone that I could find records of, they were instantly smitten with each other, like genuinely infatuated with each other. Jack was, uh, I would say recently divorced, but he was actually divorced over a year previously, but it was still very shocking and scandalous even just to get a divorce back then it just wasn’t done. But he and his first wife were married for like 19 years. They had two children and they were miserable together. She was apparently this extremely gorgeous and well connected woman. And they just, they load each other. They loved each other. It was an arranged marriage. And so as soon as Jack’s mother Lina Astor who was known as the Mrs Astor, the leader of high New York society, as soon as she passed away, they got divorced. They weren’t going to do it in her lifetime, but they did it almost right away. So that was scandal.

Shana Abe (05:50):
And then him meeting and starting to court, the 17 year old socialite, the sheltered teenager was even more of a scandal. And then the press noticed. And as soon as the press noticed, oh my God, her life was just uppended. She was followed wherever she went, she was in the paper. Her picture was published. Anything she said was published and frequently, you know, misquoted. And she was just, her world turned upside down, but she stuck with it. She stuck with it. She stuck with him. They fell in love and slowly they maneuvered their life around this fishbowl of attention, this unrelenting scrutiny of attention. But when they got married, which was about a year after they started dating or dating is a very modern word after they started their courtship, let’s say they got married and then they still could not escape the press because the press just hounded them wherever they went.

Shana Abe (06:40):
So finally, just to get away from it all, they decided to take an extended trip to Europe and to Egypt. And they went with a very good friend of theirs, whose name was Margaret Brown today we call her the unsinkable Molly Brown, but that is not what she went by in her lifetime. That was just something that was made up in the fifties. I think for the musical, the authors thought that Molly would be an easier thing to sing than Margaret. So they really truly went with Margaret Brown to Egypt and they were there for months going up and down the Nile and seeing the ruins. And they were so happy. Everything was beautiful. Madeleine discovers that she’s pregnant with their first child. So they decide to go back to America on the most luxurious state-of-the-art steamship that was ever built, which was Titanic. And after that, you know, the Titanic happened, the iceberg happened, everything happened. And so that is the story.

Victoria Wood (07:34):
Absolutely. So for me, I’m super excited but also, I’m really intrigued about this story. I mean, what inspired you to write this book, where did you find this story? Because it’s just, you know, something I didn’t hear about it. It was a complete unknown to me. So tell us your inspiration for the novel and how did you discover this story?

Shana Abe (07:57):
Yeah. You know, it is actually very shocking to me that Madeleine is not more famous than she is right now. The truth is the story originally came about through my publisher. They contacted me and said, Hey, I’m going to write a story about Titanic. And I was like, isn’t that kind of done? But they’re like, no, do something new. So I started thinking about it and I’m like, I remember Madeleine Astor her and you never really read anything about, or even though I had her time in 1912, she was the most famous widowed mother in the United States. And maybe in the world really. I mean, she was considered, what I would say is a young princess Diana of her time. So it is very surprising to me that we don’t know that much about her today and doing the research about her. I basically had to piece together period articles mostly from the New York Times, because that was kind of her hometown paper about where she was, what she did.

Shana Abe (08:47):
The earliest article I could find about her was she was like five years old and she was playing bells in a Christmas choir. And I’m like, oh, that’s so sweet. But then yeah, she just, she was always in the press, but we don’t really remember her anymore. And I thought she was a very compelling character. I’m like, here’s this teenager who’s insanely famous and married to this man. And then, you know, it’s not a spoiler alert, Jack dies on Titanic, but he dies a hero. He dies saving other people. And he even saved the dogs, which sort of broke my heart a little bit. He was known to go as the ship was sinking and there were no more boats. He had stayed behind and he went to the kennels and released all the dogs so that they would have a chance to live. Hopefully that didn’t happen. But so sorry, that was a bit rambling, but that was my story. I decided upon Madeleine Astor as my protagonist, because she was real, she was interesting. And we don’t know that much about her anymore. She just has sort of faded from our collective memory.

Victoria Wood (09:43):
Absolutely. Because again, prior to reading your book, I had no idea this woman was. I had no idea about her story.

Victoria Wood (09:53):
But now I kind of want to play a little game with you, Shana. Reading the story, and I’m sure readers can gather from the book summary as well, that Jack and Madeleine had somewhat of what they call a May to December romance.

Shana Abe (10:09):
Yes. Yes.

Victoria Wood (10:11):
So, quick question. Do you think their relationship was romantic or dark?

Shana Abe (10:18):
From my point of view, as an author, it had to be romantic. But as an author, I, I have to admit, I was like, you know, if this was really an older man going after a teenager, a very powerful and wealthy older man. And, and in that sense, I tried to address this in the story, actually, with a conversation between Madeleine and her father. That Jack seemed to have all the power. There was a great imbalance of power. And her father replies, you know, honey, you have power too. You have the power to walk away, but she didn’t do that. And again, she was not poor. She was filming very solidly upper-class family. She had money of her own. She didn’t need to marry anybody. She would have been perfectly fine. She was an heiress and she wasn’t in the Knickerbocker group, but she didn’t really want to be because they were really mean to her. They were super mean. So I’m going to say romantic because otherwise I don’t know why she would have gone through what she did on purpose.

Victoria Wood (11:12):
Romantic. Okay. So for the game, we’ve agreed, that for Jack and Madeleine’s relationship, we’re going to say romantic. I’m with you on that one.

Shana Abe (11:22):

Victoria Wood (11:22):
But now I’m going to list three May to December romances in literature. They’re classics because they’re the first things that came to my mind. And then you’re going to let me know whether they’re romantic or dark. And I’m also going to answer too. So it will be fun.

Shana Abe (11:38):
Okay. I hope I know who they are.

Victoria Wood (11:39):
Well, I hope so too.

Victoria Wood (11:42):
Alright, so Jane and Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Romantic or dark?

Shana Abe (11:50):

Victoria Wood (11:50):

Shana Abe (11:51):
Sorry, I just hear Bronte and I’m like dark, dark.

Victoria Wood (11:54):
I vote dark too.

Victoria Wood (11:56):
Ok, the second Mrs. de Winter. And Mr. de Winter from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Romantic or dark?

Shana Abe (12:06):
Oh Man. That’s a good one. Uh, I mean, boy, I’m torn with that because I was so upset with her for being such a doormat. And I just wanted her to fire that housekeeper so bad, but she didn’t, she didn’t, she just got bullied and bullied. So I don’t know. But then she stayed with him at the end, even after everything burned down. So, uh, can I say both?

Victoria Wood (12:32):
I’m happy you said that because I wanted to say both too. And to be fair, Rebecca is my favorite. That’s my favorite book. I love it. It’s a running joke. If there were to be a house fire, knock on wood, I would grab my edition of Rebecca, my Folio Society edition of Rebecca. I’d chuck other classics out the door, other contemporaries out the door, but I would hang on to Rebecca before I go out the front door. So you can say both, only because it’s Rebecca.

Victoria Wood (13:04):
All right, so our last may to December romance. SoJo’s obsession with professor Baer in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Was that romantic or dark?

Shana Abe (13:18):
The professor that she ends up with?

Victoria Wood (13:29):
Yes, yes, yes, yes.

Shana Abe (13:32):
You know, the thing about little women is I know a lot about the history of why that novel was written and so I’m going to say dark.

Victoria Wood (13:40):

Shana Abe (13:40):

Victoria Wood (13:43):
Okay. I’m going to say doc too. So we are both on the same page. Yeah. Thanks for playing with me.

Victoria Wood (13:55):
So even though we’re here, obviously to talk about The Second Mrs. Astor readers always want book recommendations. So what books are on your nightstand right now, but if you don’t remember, what books are you looking forward to reading?

Shana Abe (14:11):
Okay. I have to say right now I’m in the midst of research. So it’s not books that anybody else is really going to want to read. I’m researching my next story. And fortunately, it’s also set in the Gilded Age. So I, I have all my reference books ready. But I will say recently a fiction novel I read was The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu. Gosh, I hope I’m saying her name. Right. And it’s a collection of very dark fairytale stories that I was just like, that’s good. She’s really good. I love that. I think that’s the last thing I read recently.

Victoria Wood (14:42):
Is there a book you’re looking forward to reading maybe in the year ahead? It could be a new book, old book, it really doesn’t matter. But what are you looking forward to in your downtime when you’re not researching?

Shana Abe (14:51):
I am going to read something by Barbara O’Neil because she’s a friend of mine and she’s a fantastic novelist. And I love her stories because they’re just, they’re so real feeling. And yet they have a little tiny hint of like magic threaded through the background, but it’s very subtle and they always have happy endings, which make me happy too.

Victoria Wood (15:12):
Oh, I love it. That’s awesome. So you mentioned you’re researching right now. So I just think it appropriate to ask right now. Are you working on any other books? What projects? You said Gilded Age. So that gave me an idea. Are we getting another historical novel. And when can we look forward to it? If you have an idea.

Shana Abe (15:29):
Yes, it is another historical novel. It is also starring a real life person from that era who was quite wealthy. I don’t want to say too much. That’s annoying. I know, but she was a very real person who it was, it’s basically a rags to riches story, but like rags to rich, rich richie, rich, rich richedy, rich, riches. And she had this very mysterious background that she worked her whole life to obscure. So my historical novel about her is going to be a lot about where she began rather than where she ends.

New Speaker (16:01):
I opened with the ending kind of like I did with The Second Mrs. Astor when Madeleine is writing a letter to her newborn son after Jack’s death. But with this one I opened with her when she’s already super established, super wealthy, super famous. And then I go back to her teenage years like, well, how did she get there? It’s a mystery. And the interesting thing about this character, this woman is that she was known to lie about her age. She was known to lie about where she was from. She was intelligent and fierce and cunning as, as anything. So I found her very interesting and it should be coming out, I think in 2023, although I don’t hold me to that. I’m not sure.

Victoria Wood (16:39):
Yeah, for sure. For sure. So on writing, if you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be.

New Speaker (16:45):
Run away. No, I’m kidding.

Shana Abe (16:49):
Let’s see. I would just tell myself persistence persistence. I wrote, I think I wrote my first book when I was 17 and I was living in Japan and I was modeling and I would take this notebook with me to jobs. And during the downtime, I would just start scribbling. This romance is terrible, terrible romance that I would just wanted to write and that got put away and lost. Thank goodness. But yeah, my first, I think two manuscripts got rejected by agents and publishing houses and I did not give up. I went back and tried one more time and it was the third time it was a charm and I got an agent and then I got it published. So persistence is the key persistence. Believe in yourself, believe in your story and just keep going.

Victoria Wood (17:29):
Just keep going, awesome.

Victoria Wood (17:31):
So we’re big fans on this podcast, newsletter, social media, everything we do, we love all local indie bookstores. So share with our listeners some of your favorites. It could be local, childhood favorite, something you discovered while traveling. Yeah. Just share with us some of your favorite bookstores.

New Speaker (17:48):
Well, my childhood and my local bookstore is the Tattered Cover in Denver, which is this very iconic place. It was a real treat to have my mom take me there when I was a kid, because it was just so many books. And you could just have any book that you wanted. Although I couldn’t because I was on an allowance, but it was a, it was just this beautiful, amazing place. And it still exists. I mean, it’s been there since the seventies, so that’s how good they are. And I love it. I love there. But right now I don’t live in Denver. I live in this very tiny little mountain town called West Cliff. I spend my summers here doing community theater actually. And there is a local bookstore, but they won’t stock my books because they see I’m not local enough, but I still really like them, because it’s run by like some very nice people. And I’m sure I can someday sweet talk them into putting my books out.

Victoria Wood (18:37):
Yeah. Someday I’m here rooting for you. It’s going to happen.

New Speaker (18:40):
Aww thank you.

Victoria Wood (18:43):
All right. So I love games. Okay. And it’s obvious. Cause here I go with a second one.

New Speaker (18:48):
Another game!

Victoria Wood (18:48):
I know. But I got thinking right. Titanic is in play here. And some folks haven’t been able to travel. Some have been lucky and they’ve gotten out there. But for folks who haven’t traveled, I think this novel is very transportive. We get to see different places.

Victoria Wood (19:05):
I mean, Madeleine and Jack, they went on a honeymoon to Egypt. They are living life here. So the game is if we could hop on a plane or in this case, a ship, definitely not the Titanic. Where would we go?

Victoria Wood (19:23):
So I’m going to give both of us two destinations. I’m telling you, I just thought of this right now. I Googled some big cruise destinations and we’re going to choose either or or.

New Speaker (19:36):

Victoria Wood (19:36):
So Shana. Would you go to the south of France or Bora Bora?

Shana Abe (19:41):
I haven’t been there. I’ve been to the south of France and it’s awesome. But to try something new, Bora Bora.

Victoria Wood (19:45):
Same here. I’ve been to the south of France, but I’d definitely do Bora Bora because I need something new.

Victoria Wood (19:50):
Okay. Alaska or Vienna?

Shana Abe (19:53):
Oh, uh, Hm. Hm. I have not been to either of those places. I’m going to say Vienna.

Shana Abe (20:01):
I’m going with Alaska. Cause I’ve been to Vienna.

Victoria Wood (20:03):
So alright next stop. Ooh. Okay. Singapore or Scotland?

Shana Abe (20:12):
Oh, I’m going to say Singapore, because again I’ve been to Scotland. But if you go to Singapore, you have to be very careful not to spit on the sidewalk or tochew gum or anything because they have some pretty strict laws. So be careful when you go to Singapore, but it’s supposed to be amazing.

Victoria Wood (20:27):
They do. Okay. So here are two places I’ve never been to. So are we going to Hawaii or Japan?

Shana Abe (20:37):
Oh see, I’ve been to both of those. I actually lived in Japan, but I love Hawaii. Can we go, can we go to both? Because it’s just, if you stop in Hawaii, you can just keep going to Japan.

Victoria Wood (20:48):
That’s a good idea. I’m going to take your advice for Japan and then just scoot on over to Hawaii and then come back to the states. All right. I like that.

Victoria Wood (20:59):
And the last one. I’ve been to these two now. Greece or Turkey. Where are you going?

New Speaker (21:05):
Greece. Greece. Because I love to tzatziki so much.

Victoria Wood (21:08):
You are a woman after my own heart. I love, love, love tzatziki. You just give me some pita bread. I’ll sit down with a big bowl and I’ll eat, eat, eat, eat, eat. I love it.

Shana Abe (21:21):
I know it’s so it’s so good.

Victoria Wood (21:25):
I don’t know why I was just so inspired by the fact they went to Egypt. The Titanic thing happened. I know it’s tragic, but they were seeing the world here. They were living.

Shana Abe (21:35):
They were, I mean, and you know, what’s surprising to me is that here is the richest man in America and he doesn’t have like really an entourage or body guards or anything. They just go. It’s him and his wife, her maid and his valet. And that’s it.

Victoria Wood (21:48):
You know, some things are so wildly different from present day. But one thing I thought was quite the same and a bit sad was the media, the press, the scandal, you know, and, and writing these salacious stories.

New Speaker (22:02):
Right. Yes.

Victoria Wood (22:04):
That’s still, you know, a big thing today, but you’re right. They could just live, travel, no entourage, no security crew, right? Nothing like today. But at the same time, I thought the press’ handling of the situation was a bit extreme.

Shana Abe (22:21):
So in the book I actually have excerpts that I am going to confess, I made these up, but it’s from this tabloid scandal sheet called Town Topics, which was a real thing. It was run by this man named Colonel Mann. And his deal was, this is so evil and so smart. He would uncover scandals about the elite, the elite of the elite. And then he would print a story about that person without ever using their name. But just saying a certain debutante who was known to drink too much champagne at certain parties did such and such. And then he would contact the party and say, if you pay me this much money, I won’t print the story. And he, that’s how he got really, really rich. And so the Astors were known not to pay his, his thing. Oh. And the way he would make it so that he couldn’t be sued. Is that again, he would never print their name, but then on the other side of the page, he would have a picture of that person. So it was really obvious who it was.

Victoria Wood (23:13):
Oh, wow.

New Speaker (23:13):
And he got away with that for a long time. And he is known actually now as the inventor of this scandal sheet style of reporting and that’s, you were speaking about how that’s the same today. He started that with Town Topics and that’s also going to be in my next book.

Victoria Wood (23:29):
I love it. I love it. I love it. Okay. I definitely love seeing connections sometimes between books, but yeah, that was the one thing that stood out to me, just how the press operates.

Shana Abe (23:40):

Victoria Wood (23:41):
But it was also very transportive to kind of go back to the Gilded Age.

Victoria Wood (23:44):
But on that note, Shana, I mean, how do you want readers to feel after reading The Second Mrs. Astor? What reactions are you hoping for? Or just maybe some takeaways or just some thoughts you’re hoping readers might have?

Shana Abe (23:57):
Oh, you know, I’m going to just straight up say, this is a bittersweet love story. And life is like that at times it’s not a romance novel, which is what I’ve known for. It’s it’s definitely has a, you know, a bittersweet ending. I just, gosh, what do I hope you feel? I hope you feel uplifted and transformed and enlightened and know that resilience is, is possible even after a great tragedy strikes.

Victoria Wood (24:23):
Right. Right. Absolutely.

Shana Abe (24:25):
Shana, thank you so much for coming on the show and speaking with me and playing my quirky games, even though one was just right off the fly. I promise you all.

Shana Abe (24:34):
That was awesome. I really loved it. Thank you for having me.

Victoria Wood (24:38):
Awesome. You guys, Shana’s latest novel The Second Mrs. Astor is available in bookstores now. So get your hands on a copy.

Shana Abe (24:48):

Victoria Wood (24:52):
Readers, I had so much fun with author Shana Abe and I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank her again for coming and lounging on the couch with us.

Victoria Wood (25:03):
This week will be a huge publication week for so many authors. There will literally be a flood of books gracing bookshelves on Tuesday, September 7th, but I’m going to spotlight 15 new and noteworthy titles for you to keep on your radar.

Victoria Wood (25:20):
So if you’re in the market for literary fiction, keep an eye out for Fault Lines by Emily Itami, The Archer by Shruti Swamy, and the most anticipated Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.

Victoria Wood (25:34):
If you’re looking for historical fiction, keep an eye out for The Royal Correspondent by Alexandra Joel and the highly anticipated Matrix by Lauren Groff.

Victoria Wood (25:45):
For our scifi and fantasy readers, No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull will be available this week.

Victoria Wood (25:54):
And if you’re looking for short fiction and a story collection, check out Hao by Ye Chun.

Victoria Wood (26:02):
For readers looking for thrillers, I have four books to spotlight. We have Friends Like These by Kimberly McCreight, Nice Girls by Catherine Dang, Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney, and The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell.

Victoria Wood (26:20):
A memoir I’m looking forward to is Forever Young by Hayley Mills. There’s also a young adult memoir entitled We Are Not Broken by George M Johnson.

Victoria Wood (26:30):
For our romance readers and someone looking for a feel-good read. We have The Shaadi Set-Up by Lillie Vale and Mom Jeans and Other Mistakes by Alexa Martin.

Victoria Wood (26:42):
You can find a list with all these books and their summaries along with the show notes over at thereaderscouch.com.

Victoria Wood (26:51):
Thank you so much for tuning into The Reader’s Couch. You can find out more about the show and submit your questions for all guests by visiting our website, thereaderscouch.com. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @thecouchisbooked.

Victoria Wood (27:12):
If you like the show, please subscribe, share, and take a few seconds to leave a rating and review.

Victoria Wood (27:18):
Next week, I’ll be back with new guests, more books, and some fun games we can play, but until then stay lounging, stay reading. And whenever you’re in doubt, go straight to your local bookstore or library. Thanks for listening and happy reading.

Speaker 2 (27:44):

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