Now Batting for Team Edith: Denise Kiernan

You know us. We have a tendency to wax poetic about the power of a great novel, like Young Jane Young (watch for it in paperback!) or A Gentleman in Moscow (watch for it on your television!). But a good piece of nonfiction? Now that will really get us going. There's something extra magical about reading a propulsive tale full of complex characters and shocking plot developments—and knowing that all of it actually happened.

Author Denise Kiernan is a modern master of the nonfiction form—she's responsible for undisputed staff favorites like The Girls of Atomic City and The Last Castle. The latter of those two is celebrating its paperback release in May, and Denise herself is swinging by the shop on May 8 to share its story and sign copies. If you haven't read it already, do yourself a favor and snag a copy—you have just enough time to savor it before the event. If you have read it, well, we have a feeling we'll be seeing you there. In the meantime, tide yourself over by checking out our illuminating Q&A with Denise below.

We're all fans of narrative nonfiction here—we love stories that make history come alive. You did that so beautifully with The Girls of Atomic City, and now again with The Last Castle. Did you grow up reading history?

Thanks so very much. Yes, I have loved history since I was a kid, and have always enjoyed reading about other times and places. However, one significant event in my childhood—and I’m dating myself a little here—had a big impact on me as a history fan as well: the bicentennial celebration in 1976. I was quite young, but I remember all the celebrations and realizing that history wasn’t just about who did what to whom on what date, but that it was also about what people ate, what people wore, what kids studied in school… It was the immersive aspect of it all that really struck me and hooked me, and that transporting immersion is something I love about Biltmore House and that I tried to convey to readers in The Last Castle.

Everyone who has ever visited the Biltmore has been blown away by the majesty, the engineering, the sheer scope of the project. Tell us about your first visit.

My first visit to Biltmore was many years ago when I was just 14. My family was stationed in South Carolina at the time and one weekend my mother suggested we visit this historic house in North Carolina. I was already a little history nerd, so the idea of visiting a historic house was right up my alley, even at 14. I remember two things most about that first visit. First, it was much quieter. Walking through the gardens, we felt like we were totally alone. Second, stepping through those front doors was like stepping into a giant time capsule. A lot of historic homes have to rely on hunting down period-appropriate furnishings to fill out their spaces, but part of the magic of Biltmore House is that so many of the family’s items are still there. It really does feel as though you are visiting someone’s home at the turn of the 20th century.

The Last Castle gives life to a member of American royalty, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. What intrigued you most about her? At the end of the day, are you a fan?

Edith was one of the biggest inspirations for me to write this book, and I start the book with her and in her life, before she was Mrs. George Vanderbilt. I really felt it was important to show her as a young woman, an independent woman and a single woman before she becomes the mistress of Biltmore House. I knew she had endured hardship as a child and was intrigued by the lives she and her sisters led prior to marrying. They were a fascinating group of young women.  She grew so much and evolved as an individual in so many different ways over the course of her life. Also, she really suffered some difficult personal losses and faced extreme financial challenges. Her philanthropic activities were also very inspiring. She gave of herself, not just of her bank account. She weathered a lot, and did it with style and grace. I am a HUGE fan. Team Edith!

Are you staying in the Blue Ridge Mountains for your next work?

Physically, yes, my body will be located in the Blue Ridge Mountains as I write my next book. As far as the subject of the book…no. And now, the veil of secrecy descends! Narrative nonfiction history is all I’m saying about my next book for the time being. It’s still too early in the process to say much more, and if I try it will come out unclear and jumbled and elements of the book will of course change before it’s ready for public consumption. I promise to let Blue Willow know as soon as I’m talking more about it!

What are you reading?

I recently finished Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and loved it. It’s a long process, but I am finding it very helpful, especially creatively. Now, however, I am actually reading a manuscript by my husband, Joseph D’Agnese. It is a fantastic novel. We are each other’s first readers and editors, which is a really advantageous situation to be in as a writer. I like reading fiction a lot, actually. It exercises a different muscle in my writing brain.

Author photo by

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation's Largest Home Cover Image
ISBN: 9781476794051
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Atria Books - May 1st, 2018

A New York Times bestseller with an "engaging narrative and array of detail” (The Wall Street Journal), the “intimate and sweeping” (Raleigh News & Observer) untold, true story behind the Biltmore Estate—the largest, grandest private residence in North America, which has seen more than 120 years of history pass by its front door.

The story

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II Cover Image
ISBN: 9781451617535
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Atria Books - March 11th, 2014

The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback—an incredible true story of the top-secret World War II town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the young women brought there unknowingly to help build the atomic bomb.

“The best kind of nonfiction: marvelously reported, fluidly written, and a remarkable story...As meticulous and brilliant as it is compulsively readable.

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