Ten years ago, Key West writer Joanna Brady came across an article about a U.S. Coast Guard cutter being named after a woman called Barbara Mabrity. Intrigued, Brady decided to find out more about her. What she discovered served as the inspiration for Brady’s first published novel, The Woman at the Light.
Brady, a native of Canada, had always been interested in writing and history. After she had her children, she got a job writing ad copy in Toronto. She made a few attempts at a novel, but they were unsuccessful. Her decision to move to Florida in 1995 would change all that. “I left Canada because I hate the cold,” she says. “I picked Key West because my husband and I had vacationed there, and we love the town. It’s an unusual place. It’s not just a party town. It has a certain sophistication that attracts a lot of creative people.” Brady’s experience as a freelance writer and copywriter led to writing weekly freelance articles for the Key West Citizen. A few years later, Brady’s fascination with Barbara Mabrity would take her from journalist to published author.
For Brady, lighthouses have always had a magical quality, especially the Key West lighthouse (which now serves as a museum.) According to Brady’s research, Barbara Mabrity was married to the keeper of the Key West lighthouse in the 19th century. After her husband died of Yellow Fever, she took over the job. “I discovered that Barbara was part of a sisterhood of women who had taken over as lighthouse keepers after the deaths of their husbands or fathers,” Brady says. “There were at least four of them in the Key West area, but Barbara was the most well-known.” Brady started out with the intention of writing her biography but couldn’t find enough information. “Researching and fact checking were difficult because none of the early Key Westers wrote much down, and many of the books I read contradicted each other,” Brady explains. “For example, a hurricane blew down the lighthouse in 1846. Some versions of the story say that Barbara’s children were killed in the storm. Other versions say that was impossible.” Given these difficulties, Brady decided to write a fictional short story based on Barbara Mabrity. She soon realized that the story had the potential to become a novel. “Fictionalizing Barbara Mabrity and turning her into Emily Lowry opened up a lot of possibilities,” Brady says. “But we do meet Barbara Mabrity as a minor character in the book.”
The Woman at the Light tells the story of Emily Lowry, whose husband tends the lighthouse on an isolated island off the Key West coast. One afternoon in 1839, he disappears, leaving a pregnant Emily to take over his duties in order to support herself and her children. When an escaped slave washes up on the island, Emily finds herself in a relationship that puts her at odds with society’s rules and changes her life forever. Brady doesn’t think Barbara Mabrity would have been too pleased with the book. “Miss Barbara was pro-Confederate,” Brady says. “She would have been appalled by an inter-racial romance.”
The Woman at the Light was released in April, 2010 as a Print-on-Demand book but was eventually picked up by St. Martin’s Griffin, a big six traditional publisher, who re-released the book in July, 2012. This left Brady wondering, “Okay. What do I do for an encore?”
It was a challenge for Brady to find the time to write every day in addition to her newspaper columns, so last year, she dropped her weekly columns and now does occasional freelance work. This has freed her up to write another book, which she completed this summer. “This one,” she says, “though not a sequel, has a similar title – The Woman at the Chateau. It will be exciting to people who enjoy ghost stories, romance, and World War II history.” She says it was a big challenge, but it was fun to write and early readers have found it fun to read. The story takes place in Brooklyn, Key West and Southwestern France. Felicia Milford, a young American artist with an art gallery in Key West, spends a summer in a village in France. Gifted with ESP since childhood, she meets the ghost of a beautiful French aristocrat, Colette de Montplaisir, who has been haunting a nearby chateau where she was murdered by the Nazis in 1944. Colette is still mourning the loss of her husband and daughter. Felicia traces her daughter, now an elderly woman, and helps locate her, bringing about a reunion by channeling their conversation. With it comes love, forgiveness and redemption. “I know it sounds crazy, but it really draws people into it,” Brady says of the emotion-filled story. This novel, hot off Brady’s computer, is not yet in print, but she hopes it will be soon. Meanwhile, she is exploring ideas for yet another book, set in West Berlin after the war. Stay tuned.
Brady’s Florida book The Woman at the Light, is still her published “baby,” and she hopes more readers in Florida will discover it. “It occupies a special place in my heart,” she says. “I’d like readers to come away from it thinking that their time reading about Key West’s glorious and nefarious past was well spent. I hope they can say they enjoyed the story and learned a lot about the oldest settlement in South Florida. I read all the reviews posted by readers and some of them send my spirits soaring. It’s very satisfying for me to think I’ve struck a chord with people who read my novel.”
For more about Joanna Brady, visit her website at www.joannabradysite.com.