Gervais Hagerty talks her upcoming novel on Charleston’s elite

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Gervais Hagerty, author of "In Polite Company
Gervais Hagerty, author of "In Polite Company" | Photo provided by Gervais Hagerty

This is a part of our Q+A series. Know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.

A new novel on Charleston’s elite class will hit shelves Aug. 17, so we spoke with author Gervais Hagerty for the inside scoop on “In Polite Company.” Gervais grew up in the Holy City, earned her M.B.A. and worked at The Citadel, and today serves on Charleston’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. We asked her 15 questions about Charleston and her upcoming debut novel, which includes everything from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to serious #metoo moments.

If you were to sum up “In Polite Company” in one sentence, how would that go?
I think it’s harder to do this than write an entire novel. Fortunately, I’ve spent probably the last — I don’t know — 8 months trying to figure that out, and I’m still not in love with it. But our pitch line is “a peek behind the veil of Charleston aristocracy, where a former debutante learns that sometimes good decisions lead to bad behavior.”

As a new author, what surprised you most about the book writing process?
Probably how much it is about a business. Writing, I’m by myself, I’m in coffee shops, I’m just kind of doing my own thing, making up like, I don’t know, sex scenes — it’s great. And then all of a sudden, my time is taken up by marketing materials…Just working with an agent, or like an editor, publicist, marketer, the assistants, it’s just a lot to do. And I’m just thankful I have a great mentor, who’s Mary Alice Monroe. She’s a writer in town. And so that’s been incredibly helpful.

Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to write a novel about life in Charleston? Describe that moment.
My grandmother was in hospice…my grandmother Aggie and I were very close. In this book, it really is a story about a woman and her grandmother, and Laudie, the character in here, is not Aggie — my grandmother — but my grandmother inspired that. It really is a question about women, culture, and feminism, and what boundaries a lot of times the culture and the time place on you. So, it just really got me thinking about what her life would be like. That’s when I started writing, it was very cathartic. But it was never initially to write a book about Charleston… Charleston, it’s our home. You write what you know.

Who did you show your work to first?
That’s my mom. We’re from here, my mom’s family’s been here for a really long time. And she was a poet. She’s kind of retired, she says. So now she’s my full-time ‘momiter.’ …So she’ll take a look and just tell me, like, ‘Gervais, this sentence is terrible. You need to do something about it,’ you know, and it’s great. And it makes me a better writer.

Gervais Hagerty
Gervais Hagerty | Photo provided by Gervais Hagerty

Convince a friend to move to Charleston in 15 words or less:
Live big and be where you want to be, and Charleston is one of those places.

What is your favorite book and why?
“The Invention of Wings”…I would probably say it’s my favorite of hers [Sue Monk Kidd]. And it is based in Charleston. It’s about the Grimke sisters who became abolitionists, but this woman, Sarah Grimke…she was given a woman and enslaved person as her own slave. And it just felt wrong. And she did something about it. And it’s a fascinating historical fiction. It’s beautifully written. I find it a page-turner. I think it’s soulful. She’s just an incredible woman.

Tell us about an obstacle you had in the writing process and how you overcame it.
It’s one thing to write a book, it’s another thing to get it picked up. And I owe a huge part of my success and where I am now with just one book under my belt to Mary Alice Monroe…she gave me just excellent, long range, very different advice than what my mother does, and she told me, just like I said, I wrote the book when my grandmother was in hospice, and she goes, “All she does is die, Gervais. Give us more about this woman.”…I didn’t even know that’s what I needed. But that’s what mentorship can do for you.

Tell us about the writing process.
For me, my process is kind of quick and dirty. I’ve got to get it on the page. I don’t allow myself to think, “Is this good enough?” because that’s not going to move me forward. And plenty of people are gonna like it, and plenty of people aren’t gonna like it, and I can’t worry about that. I get it all on the page, and then I let it sit. I let it get cold. So I can look at it with fresh eyes. And it’s way better. Way better later.

Do you see yourself in Simons Smythe, the story’s protagonist?
Simons is not me…The things that happen in the book, that’s all made up, but the feelings are honest.

Is there a moment, detail, or character in the book that was directly inspired by your own life?
I guess a lot of the scenes take place in places I’ve experienced similar things. But I mean — and this is like, kind of ridiculous — but there is a scene when Simmons is on Morris Island, and she was swimming and she got caught in a riptide…and she hangs onto the swim ladder. And this woman just pops over to her, pulls down her pants, and starts peeing. And that has happened to me. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I am face-to-face with a stranger’s labia. 

Describe Charleston’s personality in 3 words.
I would say gorgeous, fabled. Gervais later added: endangered

What’s something every new Charlestonian ought to know?
Take a walk downtown and stay away from the market area when you want to go purchase something, and just do only local things. Really try to get the flavor of this rapidly-changing city.

Is there a tidbit or detail from the book that you can share?
It is a book that takes you to, like we said, behind the fabled walls of Charleston’s elite homes…And so you get to go to, like, fancy parties and see a lot of the beauty that I want to showcase because it’s gorgeous. But there’s also grit in here. There’s definitely sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. And I’m proud of that. I like it. I think it’s funny in some places, I’d like to think, but it also has, I want to make very clear, there are also some like #metoo moments here, and it’s a feminist book. And I hope that when readers get it, they’ll understand that I’m trying to get across some important messages, but also, mostly you’re having a fun time reading it.

You mentioned another book that you’re working on. Can you share anything about that now or not yet?
Hopefully, I’ll get to that point where I can’t say anything, but no, right now, it’s a story based on Morris Island. And it has 3 different narrators. It has to do with this kind of old crumbling house where this kind of matriarch is about to sell it, but she didn’t really tell everybody in the family, and they all kind of come crashing to the house. I’m 200 pages in.

What do you hope Charleston is like in 10 years? 20 years?
I hope it’s like the next Copenhagen, with bicycles. I really do. I’m like, what are we doing? Why are we dedicating so much land to roads required to be on parking spaces for cars to park in parking lots?…We just have to really think about smart infrastructure that could get people to where they want to go, and building in ways where you have multi-use systems where you don’t just like live in one area, and shop in another area, and work in another area. It’s destroying the planet.