Author Laura Moriarty once had to chaperone 30 teen girls through a summer program at a residence hall.
“All of them (were) smart, some of them very wealthy, some of them from other countries — with different views on drug and alcohol use by minors — and away from home for the first time,” the Lawrence-based writer and University of Kansas associate professor recalls.
“One thing I remember is ‘Coyote Ugly’ was constantly playing on the DVD player in the lobby, so much that I think hearing the dialogue in an endless loop, against my will, made a permanent imprint in my brain.”
Fortunately, Moriarty’s latest experience with movies and chaperones has provided a far more enjoyable imprint. The film version of her 2012 novel, “The Chaperone,” opens in the Kansas City area this week — her first-ever cinematic adaptation.
This historical fiction centers on future film legend (and Kansan) Louise Brooks. In 1922, a 15-year-old Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) travels from Wichita to New York City to study at the prestigious Denishawn dance academy. In real life, the free-spirited teen was accompanied by a chaperone. Moriarty fictionalized and fleshed out the older woman as Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern), a Wichita society matron hoping to carry out a life-changing mission of her own in the metropolis.
“It all happened because Elizabeth McGovern performed our audio book,” Moriarty says. “While she was practicing reading it, she thought, ‘I’d love to play this role.’”
The Academy Award-nominated actress, best known for playing mom Cora Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” also decided she’d like to try her hand at producing. She recruited her “Downton Abbey” team: Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (who also wrote “Gosford Park”) and Emmy-nominated director Michael Engler (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”).
As someone far removed from Hollywood, Moriarty admits she had little to do with the picture itself, which took seven years to develop.
“To me, you’re just selling the rights, like you’re selling a house. But I felt like it was in really good hands. I wasn’t worried about what they’d do with it; I was more curious how they would tell the story differently in an entirely different medium,” she says.
Moriarty turned down an invitation to visit the set. “I was really busy, and I live in Kansas,” she says. “It was being shot in New York in August, which didn’t sound like the vacation of my dreams.”
She did attend the premiere, however. “I was surprised how true to the book it was,” she says.
“They did a fantastic job with it. I was so impressed with the performances. They did a lot of things I couldn’t achieve as well in the book. They did a ton of research on Denishawn – the dancing scenes were particularly beautiful, bright and colorful.”
Moriarty’s inspiration for her New York Times best-selling novel came when flipping through Joshua Zeitz’s “Flapper” in a bookstore. That’s when she learned international star and fashion icon Brooks (1906-1985) was born in Cherryvale, Kansas, and later moved to Wichita.
“I’d never thought of her as someone who’d even be a Midwesterner. I didn’t think of writing about her until I read she went with a chaperone in 1922,” Moriarty says.
“Was she really headstrong, already an alcoholic, smart, beautiful, a little full of herself, arrogant? What motivated her at this point? Whenever you start asking questions like that, it’s a good place to start a novel.”
The 48-year-old writer believes what makes the book — and movie — so potent is its conflict between generations.
“Things were changing for women so fast. Prohibition. Everything becoming more modern,” she says. “That type of intergenerational tension is always with us. I feel that with my daughter, Vivian. You’re always struggling to catch up. Also interesting is the push-pull between the Midwest and New York.”
That push-pull has deep resonance in Moriarty’s own life.
Born in Hawaii to a military family, she came to Kansas at 17 to earn her bachelor’s in social work at KU. She went on to complete a master’s degree in creative writing there. It landed her a fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. From there she moved to Portland, Maine, working as a social worker while pursuing her own writing.
“When I sold my first novel, I thought, ‘I can live anywhere now.’ I wasn’t married. I didn’t have kids. I decided I wanted to go back to Lawrence. Out of all the places I lived — and I’ve lived so many — I really love the town. I feel supported, emotionally and creatively. There is a vibrant artistic community, but at the same time, it’s pretty cheap,” she says.
She also returned to KU. She’s now in her 11th year of teaching as a full-time faculty member in the English Department.
“A degree in social work … perhaps goes some way toward explaining the deep sympathy and compassion revealed in her portrayal of her characters,” says Marta Caminero-Santangelo, a KU English professor and interim director of the Hall Center for the Humanities.
“Her characters are always human beings with reasons for what they do. And because you really care about the characters, you keep reading. She also has a truly wise understanding of the complexity of human beings and of life’s twists and turns.”
Caminero-Santangelo first read “The Chaperone” during what she calls a “pivotal time” in her life.
“I remember reading it by flashlight, late at night, in a tent, in the middle of the desert in Arizona. Here is my favorite line — and it’s not a spoiler: ‘She was grateful life could be long.’ You have to read the novel to find out what the line means and why it is so powerful.”
Moriarty concedes it’s tricky keeping a professional balance between teaching and writing.
“It’s hurt (my career) in that I don’t publish as often,” she says. “It’s really hard for me to jump into a novel because there’s always work to be done, an email to return, a dissertation to be read. But I feel like I learn so much. With any student, when you’re trying to articulate what is going well and what isn’t, you can’t just dismiss it: ‘Well, this is crap.’ You have to pinpoint it. When I do, I’ll recall the phrasing when I’m looking at my own work.”
Her latest novel, “American Heart,” came out last year, generating controversy over whether its Muslim protagonist was overshadowed by a “white savior.” Her 2007 novel “The Rest of Her Life” got optioned by Hollywood, which means it could be her next film to hit screens. Both books feature a teenage female protagonist, with the latter hinging on a fragile mother-daughter relationship.
Will life imitate art? Is there a chaperoning excursion to New York in Moriarty’s future.
“I have a 15-year-old now. I was just thinking about taking her on a little trip and what that would entail,” Moriarty says. “But I think that might be a lot more challenging with someone else’s kid.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Meet the author
“The Chaperone” opens in the Kansas City area on April 19. Author Laura Moriarty will be on hand for a Q&A after these special screenings:
▪ 7 p.m. April 18 at Liberty Hall in Lawrence. See libertyhall.net.
▪ 5 p.m. April 20 at the Glenwood Arts in Overland Park. See fineartsgroup.com.