Saturday, October 15, 2011

Oscar Wilde’s Birthday: How About a New Book?

Today in celebration of Oscar Wilde’s birthday, I am interviewing Joy Shannon, author of The First Counterculture Celebrity: Oscar Wilde’s 1882 North American Tour released this past September.

Carol Denbow: Welcome Joy. Please start by telling us a little about your book.

Joy Shannon: I wrote this book originally as my thesis for my masters in American Studies at Cal State Fullerton. I am primarily an artist and musician but I have always been fascinated by cultural history and how the arts influence culture. I am especially interested in how the arts are often associated with countercultures that are ahead of their time and affect cultural shifts in the mainstream often years later. I chose Wilde’s 1882 tour as the subject for my thesis because Wilde was a perfect example of an artist who deeply influenced culture and was part of the Victorian countercultures which influenced the 20th century mainstream.

Carol Denbow: Statistically, most people who write “biographies” write them about themselves or a family member. Why Oscar?

Joy Shannon: Oscar Wilde wrote in the Picture of Dorian Gray that “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” This is very much true for my book. I chose to write about Oscar Wilde because he has so deeply inspired and influenced me in my development as an artist. I chose to write about his 1882 tour which was at the very beginning, devlopmental stage of his career when he was 27 years-old, because I am at that stage in my own career and I was 27 when I wrote the book. I really wanted to learn more about him and his humanity and learn from him in how he handled his career.

Carol Denbow: Oscar Wilde; what a character of his time! Why did you choose in particular, his North American Tour?

Joy Shannon: This tour has not been researched and written about as much as the rest of Wilde’s career, especially the sad end of his career. Additionally I chose to research the 1882 tour for practical reasons; it is a contained period of time with a contained amount of primary source evidence, so I could wrap my head around it. As a musician who has performed and worked on tours, I also found the idea of Wilde going on a tour of North America fascinating. When we think of tours, the general image that comes to mind are 1970s rock bands touring during the height of the area rock era, so thinking of Wilde going on a Victorian-era tour was so interesting!

Carol Denbow: Did you find it difficult to write an entire book about one celebrity?

Joy Shannon: May be it would have been a challenge if I wrote about anyone else, but Oscar Wilde just abundantly inspires and makes me laugh. Continually while I researched, I found hilarious moments that I just wanted to share with everyone I know! In the end, I could have written a book twice as long!

Carol Denbow: Your book is loaded with some amazing photos and trivial stories; where did you find all these?

Joy Shannon: Most of my research was from the interviews of Wilde during his 1882 tour and the letters he wrote that year. I started with those primary source materials and then would research people Wilde wrote to or mentioned in interviews and just expanded my research from there. As there is not a comprehensive book written solely about this tour, only articles and books about certain aspects of the tour, I found my research all over the place. I also found a great deal of information online, at university archives and the online historical archives of various cities that Wilde travelled to. The Oscar Wilde Society of America has a website that helped me a great deal too. They are continually working to compile a comprehensive archive of research about Wilde’s 1882 tour, so if I ever found references to Wilde doing something or going somewhere that I only found in one source, I double checked with OWSOA to see if they confirmed it. Some of the writing about Wilde in 1882 was like reading a gossip magazine, so I wanted to make sure I figured out what was really true. This tour had rumors and legends built up around it-- and I did not shy away from reporting on these legends-- but I wanted to make sure I did so in an historically responsible way. What this research taught me is that in the end, we might never know about certain moments of history. Like the much speculated-upon meeting between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde in 1882-- we know it happened but we do not know much more about it! Oh to have been a fly on the wall!

Carol Denbow: This is a pretty extensive book; may I ask how long it took to write it?

Joy Shannon: I researched and wrote the book in one year between 2010 and 2011. I did most of my research in the first 6 months and then wrote for the next 6 months. I had loved Wilde since I was 13, so I already knew a lot about him and was not starting from scratch. The first chapter was the hardest to write and took me about two months, and then after that, I wrote about a chapter a month. Since I wrote this as my thesis, I had the additional help of a committee of three professors who read the first drafts of my chapters and gave me feedback. This book really owes a huge debt to my professors John Ibson, Michael Steiner and Joanna Roche at Cal State Fullerton. Ibson and Steiner are professors in the American Studies department and Roche is an art historian in the Visual Art department, and they each lent their unique expertise and questions to challenge me in my research and writing.

Carol Denbow: What can readers learn from this book?

Joy Shannon: Readers can learn an interesting way to look at history from this book. I applied my American Studies background, which focuses on tracing cultural trends and beliefs back to their historical sources, to Wilde’s counterculture attitudes and the mainstream reaction to him. In order for readers to fully understand why Oscar Wilde was so revolutionary, I detailed the mainstream fashions and gender- role ideals of the Victorian culture that Wilde was defying. I also traced where the counterculture beliefs, that Wilde was expounding upon in his 1882 interviews, were coming from and what they were reacting to in mainstream society.

Carol Denbow: Do you have any advice for writers who are writing a biography, either about their selves or someone else?

Joy Shannon: If I can give any advice to other writers, artists, musicians, or dreamers of all kinds, it is to go for it! If you have the desire to do something- whether it is writing a book or traveling the world- seriously do it! I believe we are given our desires like maps to our own fulfillment in life. The greatest fulfillment I have felt in my life is from dreaming up something, feeling intimidated or scared to take the risk to do it, and then actually doing it! I have learned my greatest lessons and grown most as a person this way. Researching Oscar Wilde reminded me to keep going on my path of doing my music and art, because I saw how human Wilde was and how the creation of his career was a choice he made to believe in himself and just go for it! I guess we are all most afraid of failing when we pursue our dreams, but Wilde is a great role-model in this, because he totally fails in lots of very human ways, and he still makes such an important mark on this world by being himself. I think we love him more because of his humanity and ultimately his “failures” are not necessarily failures at all. The only thing about Wilde I could criticize is his not writing more plays, poetry or novels in his lifetime. So my advice to all aspiring writers or dreamers of any kind, is go for it!

Carol Denbow: Joy, you are also a very talented musician. Does this tie in with the book in anyway? Including marketing your book?

Joy Shannon: Thank you! I think that everything I do ties back into my music, as it’s my main career. All I know is that researching and writing this book personally inspired me and thus inspired my music. I have received a lot of interest in this book from the fans of my music, which has been an interesting surprise! From that, I can deduce that my music attracts history nerds like me! Perhaps this means I need to market my music to the band “the Decemberists’ ” crowd?!

Carol Denbow: May we ask where we could find this book to purchase?

Joy Shannon: You can order the book in paperback or Kindle most readily online from

Carol Denbow: As long as I mentioned your music, where might our visitors learn more about that?

Joy Shannon: My band Joy Shannon and the Beauty Marks is on, and of course my official website: You can also see our music videos at our youtube channel: “” and find us on facebook here: “!/JoyShannonandtheBeautyMarks

Carol Denbow: Well Joy, all I have to add is “Happy Birthday Oscar!” Thanks for joining us!


Nancy MacMillan said...

Carol - Your interview with Joy Shannon in celebration of Oscar Wilde's birthday inspired me to reacquaint myself with Oscar and step where she has been. I was surprised it took her only a year to write this book from beginning to end.

Nancy MacMillan @

Unknown said...

I just adore his famous children's story.

Tasha Seegmiller said...

I love Oscar Wilde - off to add this book to my to read list. Just found your blog - love it! Thanks for the work.

Ann Summerville said...

Great post - I love hearing about how books took shape.