“What If” Questions about My Great Aunt Led Me to Recreate Her Life in Novel Form! – by Jill Charles

“What If” Questions about My Great Aunt Led Me to Recreate Her Life in Novel Form! – by Jill Charles

My book, Marlene’s Piano, was inspired by stories from my Grandma Pearl Charles.

“My Aunt Marge could play the piano better than anybody,” she told me. “She could have had a career but her first husband wouldn’t allow it.”

Then came the stories of how Marge’s first husband beat her, and then how he died under mysterious circumstances. Family members suspected that Marge had enough of his cruelty, and struck him down. More husbands followed but none supported Marge’s dream of playing the piano on stage. I began to wonder what really happened to her, and how her life could have been different if she had found a stage. She was a pianist in the 1920s and I decided to link what I knew about speakeasies to the story, and create a fictional narrative.

My main character of Marlene Piper is loosely based on my Grandma Pearl’s aunt, my great-great aunt, Marge Stauffer. Marlene grows up in the fictional town of Laurel, Pennsylvania, and is a piano prodigy from birth. Before she graduates from high school, Marlene is playing the pipe organ at her local church. Her father encourages her to play, and promises to send her to music school after high school.

Marlene’s dreams are cut short when her father abruptly dies, leaving her family destitute. She is “farmed out,” sent to work on her Uncle Luke’s farm, and told to forget about playing the piano. The experience of being farmed out happened to my grandma’s mother, Mary Frey, in the 1920s; she was sent to live with relatives and work on their farm.

The character of Marlene’s father, Harold Piper, is based on three real people: my own father, my great grandfather, and my godfather, Uncle Joe. Harold and Uncle Joe were both history teachers. The actions of collecting black walnuts from other people’s yards, and defying Prohibition by drinking beer, are things that my great grandfather did. My dad always encouraged me to write like Marlene’s father had encouraged her to play piano, and consider a career in music.

Marlene’s practical, loving mother is based on my own mother. Marlene’s mother is an Irish emigrant who met Marlene’s father during his travels overseas.

The character of Marlene’s first husband, David Dunn, is based on Phineas Dunn, the abusive first husband of Aunt Marge. Both drink hard, fight hard, and carry darkness behind their charm.

Marlene finds the opportunity to play in a speakeasy called The Starfish with its house band, The Starfish Seven. She begins to tour, and earns enough money to help support her mother and family. But, due to Prohibition she is always at risk of being arrested. Marlene’s best friend is the daring singer Blue Maria, who records an album with her, and always tells her to believe in herself, and keep on playing.

The town of Laurel, Pennsylvania is loosely based on Lancaster, Pennsylvania where my grandmother and her family lived. One exception is the Ottoman Hotel, based on the Davenport Hotel, a grand hotel from the 1910s in my hometown of Spokane, Washington.

I have had readers ask if Marlene is me. I actually have no musical talent and failed at my attempt to learn to play the piano as an adult to better relate to my character. My writing has always been my talent and I thank my parents, Uncle Joe, and Grandma Pearl for encouraging me to finish my book.

About the Author

Jill Charles grew up in Spokane, Washington and majored in Creative Writing at Seattle University. She wrote articles for Seattle’s Tablet Magazine of Arts and Culture and poems and stories for Poetry Motel, Heliotrope and The Inlander, an independent Spokane newspaper. In 2007 she moved from Seattle to Chicago where she lives with her husband, stepson and cat. Jill edits the English pieces in the English-Bengali bilingual magazine Batayan at www.batayan.org, facilitates writers’ workshops for Chicago Writing Alliance and reads her poems at open mics like In One Ear and Wicker Mic.




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One Response to "“What If” Questions about My Great Aunt Led Me to Recreate Her Life in Novel Form! – by Jill Charles"

  1. Pamela Allegretto  June 26, 2020 at 5:14 pm

    Your book sounds fascinating. Best wishes.