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Acclaimed author’s new novel steeped in family mystery

September 16, 2014
detail image of abook cover illustration shows the silhouette of a man falling off a boat

As a child, University of Rochester professor and noted author Joanna Scott played with figurines collected by her great-grandfather, Armand de Potter. He was believed to have disappeared off the coast of Greece in 1905, leaving behind a family on the brink of financial ruin. But after unearthing a trunk filled with diaries and documents from de Potter and his wife, Scott realized her great-grandfather wasn’t the man that he seemed. This disquieting discovery became the basis for her new novel, De Potter’s Grand Tour.

Told from the perspectives of both Armand, and his wife Aimée as she struggles with his presumed death, the novel explores what might have happened to the self-proclaimed scholar and antiques collector after he disappears.

“After looking through photographs, diaries, and documents from the mid-19th to early 20th century, I began to understand that the story I was told was likely a cover for what appears to have been an intentional act,” said Scott, the Roswell Smith Burrows Professor of English at Rochester and New York Times best-selling author. “The fact that he was lost at sea always haunted me a bit and I wanted to explore that concept in this book.”

According to Scott, the project started out as a family biography, but too many pieces were missing for her to complete the project. That’s when she decided to write a novel about actual events but with a conclusion based on the information she found. “I tried to be as honest to the historical material as I could while still trying to honor the mystery of the story.”

Her research also included tracing de Potter’s steps on his last tour from Marseille to Sicily, Istanbul, and eventually Greece, and by visiting various spots throughout upstate New York where the story both begins and ends.

“This is one of my most historically based books,” said Scott, whose acclaimed work spans both fact and fiction. “I’m like my great-grandfather, in search of lost treasures. In my case, I go looking in the past for the treasures of lost stories.”

Throughout the book, Scott includes photographs of de Potter’s tours around the word and of his collection of Egyptian artifacts, which is part of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection of ancient Egyptian art. Many of these images will be on display in a special exhibit in Rare Books and Special Collections in Rush Rhees Library, Jan. 9-May 1. Also included in the upcoming exhibit are diaries, documents, and other research materials used by Scott when crafting De Potter’s Grand Tour.

historic photograph shows man in top hat walking away down a crowded street

Scott is the author of 10 books, including The Manikin, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Various Antidotes and Arrogance, which were both finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award; and the critically acclaimed Make Believe, Tourmaline, Liberation, and Follow Me. She is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Award.

In addition to teaching courses at Rochester in creative writing, modern fiction, and contemporary literature, she works with CP Rochester on The Inspiration Project, which pairs students with people with disabilities to help them write stories.

For additional information about De Potter’s Grand Tour and the family history behind the book, visit http://www.fsgworkinprogress.com/2014/09/chasing-the-past-re-writing-the-history-of-a-mysterious-antiques-collector/.

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Category: Society & Culture

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