The Next Chapter

Why journalist Katherine Ashenburg wanted to explore the nature of female friendships in her debut novel

The author of Sofie & Cecilia talks about blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction.
Katherine Ashenburg has written four books of award-winning nonfiction. Sofie & Cecilia is her first novel. (Joy von Tiedemann/Penguin Random House Canada)

There's a difference between the intimacy of marriage and the intimacy of a close friendship. Katherine Ashenburg offers a nuanced and sharply observed depiction of both in her debut novel. Sofie & Cecilia is about two women, each of whom is married to an artist in early 20th-century Sweden. At the time, marriage was considered to be a woman's aim in life and her role was to be a good wife and mother, but Sofie and Cecilia have greater aspirations — even as they act as helpmates to their famous husbands

Playing with fiction

"I never want to write another nonfiction book. I have stayed pretty true to that. I love the research — that's most fun part for me. But writing a novel is more like playing. I wanted to make a Sweden in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that seems real because I love the sense of place when I read books. You have the facts, but you've also got this sense of freedom in a novel. Nonfiction doesn't just have to be a well-built sentence, it has to be true."

From tourist to novelist

"Sofie & Cecilia took 10 years. For decades, I had loved the watercolours of the Swedish painter Carl Larsson. I toured his house and learned some things about what lay beneath the beautiful surface of Larsson's paintings. Although his wife had been educated in the Royal Academy of Art, just as he had, he would not allow her to paint once they got married. I went back to Sweden two more times to do research. I had never in my life thought about the possibility of writing a novel — I did that by inches."

Revealing readers

"I have this belief that, until pretty recently, intimate friendship was quite rare for women. They were so schooled in keeping the family's secrets private — not betraying anybody and not washing their dirty linen in public. I wanted to do that with Sofie and Cecilia. Part of the way I did that was to do certain things between the lines when they talk about books. They're both great readers of English novels — they could say things to each other when criticizing Vanity Fair or Jane Eyre that could be interpreted as being a comment on their own lives or the other woman's life."

Katherine Ashenburg comments have been edited and condensed.