Faculty Spotlight: Mash-Up Artist
Fantasy, history, and science fiction collide in English professor Bethany Schneider’s new novel.
By Joanna Corman ’95
Bethany Schneider, a professor of 18th- and 19th-century American literature, never fancied herself a novelist. But after a summer spent working on a complicated essay about Abraham Lincoln, she needed a writing project with levity. So she turned to Nick Davenant, a character she created seven years earlier and had almost forgotten about.
At that time, she was living in a Vermont farmhouse she called the “1970s–1790s house,” after the year it was renovated and the year it was built—a juxtaposition that made it partly quaint and partly “psychedelic ski lodge.” The idea for Nick arose as she wondered what would happen if a person jumped two centuries ahead. The character was fully realized in The River of No Return, the time-travel adventure novel Schneider wrote under the pseudonym Bee Ridgway. She plans to make the book, which will be published in the United States (Dutton, April) and Great Britain, the first of a trilogy.
The novel tells the sweeping story of lovers who hurtle through time and travel from modern-day Vermont to London of the Regency era in a quest to bring down a secret society that controls time travel. Schneider calls the book’s genre a mash-up … think A Wrinkle in Time meets Harry Potter meets Jane Eyre, with a sprinkling of the apocalyptic. It’s a page-turner with a complex plot and political underpinnings.
Here, she gives us a glimpse into how her debut in the world of fiction came to fruition.
A rose by any other name: On her author website, Schneider writes, “I sat down to write my novel a week before my 40th birthday. The first thing I wrote was not a title or a first sentence. The first thing I tapped into my computer was a name: Bee Ridgway.” Bee is Schneider’s childhood nickname. Ridgway was her beloved grandmother’s maiden name, and the “Ridgeway” is a Neolithic road in England along which she would walk and picnic when she lived there. “It was almost as if I needed to put on a different hat in order to write this very different kind of thing,” she says.
Haven’t I read that before? Schneider transported her readers to 19th-century England, in part, by weaving in dozens of text fragments, including literature she teaches such as a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” poetry, and nursery rhymes. “What I wanted to do was evoke for my readers (an) almost unconscious sense that there’s a history of literature under the surface of the book,” Schneider says. “I don’t want that to be pedantic or name-droppy, but I wanted to give you a whisper from some other time.”
Mix and mash: Schneider’s first draft was a love story with a time-travel flavor, but her agent saw its potential as a “genre mash-up,” a book with Regency romance at its core but also one that could include other genres such as mystery and historical fiction. “That really excited me because I think about genre a lot; I’m really interested in how genre makes stories—how the rules that we follow in making stories determine the kind of stories we can tell,” Schneider says.
The fictional is political: Power struggles over the control of time travel are central to the novel, but they are grounded in real-life politics. Schneider drew on her scholarship of 19th-century land rights battles between native and white populations as well as the Occupy Movement, which started during her writing, to highlight issues of power and class.
Anassa kata: When a student couldn’t make it to class because she broke her leg playing quidditch, the Harry Potter series’ sports game played on broomsticks, Schneider figured she needed to read what her students were reading. Her novel, she says, is “completely and utterly” influenced by Bryn Mawr. “Bryn Mawr is about giving women permission to be amazing, brilliant, incredible, intellectual, creative people,” Schneider says. “Any Bryn Mawr student that I can remember, if I had said to her, ‘I’m thinking about writing a crazy time-travel adventure novel,’ would say, ‘Do it!’ If I’m going to be teaching these people, I better have the courage they have.”