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Lectures from the Allen Room and the Wertheim Study: Taxidermy of a Novel : The History of Dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History and the Relationship between Research and Fiction

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January 15, 2015

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Why does a novelist engage in research, particularly when writing a contemporary novel?  Are we looking for clues?  New ideas? Believability?  Thematic resonance?  Chace’s new novel, Something Like Happiness, is the story of a love affair that is either deeply romantic or terribly perverse, depending on how you look at it.  In the end, this novel may be less about the protagonists' love for each other than their longing for their irretrievable past.  It is also a meditation on the way human beings try to recreate what they have destroyed, both in memory and with art and technology-- including the grisly craft of taxidermy.  The protagonist is a background painter at the American Museum of Natural History, and the research is the history of dioramas, taxidermy and the establishment of museums of natural history, specifically the collaboration of the artists and scientists who created these dioramas in the early to mid-twentieth century.  This novel, while grounded in the highly individualized narrative of a love affair, looks through an imagined lens of the diorama artists who created the great halls of the museum, as well as those who would like to see the end of this stained history.  As a result, the characters’ personal history is intertwined with questions of extinction and preservation, the history of science and the museum’s uneasy collaboration with lingering colonialism of the early to mid-twentieth century.  The lecture will include the reading of an excerpt from the work-in-progress.

Rebecca Chace, a writer in residence in the Library’s Wertheim Study, is the author of three books: two novels, Leaving Rock Harbor (Scribner, 2010) which was chosen as an "Editor's Choice" by the New York Times Book Review, an Indie Notable Book by the ABA (American Booksellers Association) and a finalist for the 2010 New England Book Award.  Capture the Flag, (Simon and Schuster, 1999) was adapted as a short film by Ms Chace and director, Lisanne Skyler, and received the Showtime Tony Cox Screenwriting Award for Best Short Film at the 2010 Nantucket Film Festival.  Her memoir, Chautauqua Summer, (Harcourt-Brace, 1993) was also chosen as an “Editor’s Choice" for the New York Times Book Review.  She is the director of the Creative Writing Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.