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Kansas Writer Laura Moriarty Explains How It Felt To Watch The Movie Version Of Her Book

Meg Kumin
Lawrence novelist Laura Moriarty's book, 'The Chaperone' has been made into a film.

When Kansas-born actress and dancer Louise Brooks wanted to travel to New York City in 1922 at the age of 15, she could not go alone. She needed a chaperone.

Brooks' five-week trip is the basis of Lawrence novelist Laura Moriarty's 2012 book "The Chaperone," which has now been made into a movie of the same name. Moriarty was at the New York City premiere on March 25 and says it was exhilarating.

"I was like, 'Wow, I wrote that line on my living room couch, and now a character is saying it.' Or, 'That's how I described that scene, and all these people have worked to make it look that way,'" she says.

"The Chaperone" is the fourth of Moriarty’s five novels.

Elizabeth McGovern of "Downton Abbey" fame voiced the audio version of the book and told Moriarty that she felt a connection to the character of the chaperone, Cora Carlisle.

McGovern asked "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes to write a screenplay, and then helped produce it. She stars as Norma Carlisle (Cora's name was changed for the film because McGovern's "Downton Abbey" character was also named Cora).

The real-life chaperone was named Alice Mills. Moriarty says she changed the real woman’s name in the novel to allow herself leeway in creating a character and her movement within the plot, which was based on facts from Brooks' life. Information about the real chaperone has been lost to history.

"The only lines in Louise's memoirs for the entire summer they spent together when Louise was 15 was: 'I tolerated Ms. Mills' provincialism because we shared a love of theater,'" Moriarty says.

Because that's the only information Moriarty had, she stayed true to it, making Cora Carlisle a fan of the arts, the theater in particular.

As for the chaperone's provincialism? Moriarty made the character a 36-year-old Wichita housewife who might have been more provincial than Brooks, but her desire to be less so is what spurs her to volunteer to spend the summer in New York with a precocious and irreverent teenage girl.

And Moriarty doesn't think Kansans are especially provincial. She's a transplant to the state who has lived all over the country.

"I would make an argument that the Midwest is in some ways less provincial because we know we're the Midwest," Moriarty says. "We know where we are. We know we're not New York, we know we're not California."

Moriarty came to Kansas as a 17-year-old to study social work at the University of Kansas and says she loved the area as soon as she saw it.

"I loved the rolling green hills of the Flint Hills. I loved that you could see the sky."

She was pre-med for a while, trying to ignore the part of her that wanted to write because she didn’t think writing was a practical occupation. Eventually, she says, "I started to look for things I actually loved doing."

But making the conscious decision to move back to Kansas following the sale of her first book, 2003's "The Center of Everything," was both practical and about what she really wanted. 

"It's just easy to live here, and ease of life can translate into more time and money and less worry to focus on your art, whatever that may be," she says. "On a less practical note, I just really clicked when I came here."

And moving to Kansas led her to Louise Brooks.

The Chaperone screens at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 18 atLiberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts Street, Lawrence, Kansas 66044, and at 5 p.m. Saturday, April 20 at Glenwood Arts, 3707 West 95th Street, Overland Park, Kansas 66206. Moriarty will be in attendance at both events for a post-showing Q&A.

Laura Moriarty spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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