Leadership, loyalty, and change are at the heart of author Stephen Davenport's upcoming novel, Saving Miss Oliver's, which takes place in an all-girls school. Emotionally charged, and politically fraught, the novel also contains valuable content for aspiring leaders who want to overcome resistance to change. We asked Stephen to share his perspective and inspiration on this aspect of the book.
|Q: You wrote Saving Miss Oliver’s after a long career in schools like Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. Why did you decide to write a novel instead of a memoir?
A: It never crossed my mind to write a memoir. I didn’t want to write about what happened to happen to me. I wanted to write about the universal—about what always happens. What happens in Saving Miss Oliver’s happens over and over again in organizations, and always will. To watch how it unfolds in a specific organization is to glimpse human nature.
Q: Besides its universality, what is it about the natural resistance to change that fascinates you so much that you put it at the heart of the novel?A: As I begin to answer that question, a memory returns: It’s July. I’m on the staff of a ten-day workshop designed to impart wisdom and understanding to independent school professionals who have just been made head of a school. In the middle of a discussion which I am facilitating about pace, how speedily a leader can expect an organization to adopt to new ways of operating and new goals, one of the new heads, a woman in her thirties, bursts into tears. The discussion stops. Concerned, everyone turns to her. “I’ve just learned there’s no way I can succeed,” she says.
“I’ll be gone by June.” She was right. She had no more chance than Fred Kindler had.
One of the reasons she had been chosen for the job, over several more experienced candidates, is that she had sagely pointed out to the school board what they should have known before they began the search: that significant changes needed to be made for the school to thrive. This woman had been so excited by the prospect of leading the school toward those changes that she hadn’t realized they were changes in the culture of the school, traits, ways of doing things that its members rally around, not just because “this is how we’ve always done it,” but because those things expressed the nature of what they had created. But the board expected these changes to be made right away.
Q: How did the characters come to you? Are they modeled on people you know?
A: None of them are modeled on people I know. Marjorie Boyd came to me when I was trying to craft a charismatic woman, and she fully emerged when I imagined her declaring that the graduation ceremony would start exactly at noon. I saw her then and knew that she would never invite some celebrated outsider to make the graduation speech.
When I started writing the novel, the only things I knew about the new head who would replace Marjorie was that he was male, younger than his predecessor, both a good educator and financial manager, and he had a limited time to turn the situation around to save the school. I didn’t know whether he was savvy enough to understand the odds against him, nor if he would succeed. I didn’t even know his name. I had found that out by writing the story.
It wasn’t until I had him stand next to Marjorie that I thought Fred seemed like the right name for such a man, and I put him in a very un- preppy polyester suit. Then the other characters slowly revealed themselves to me as I built Fred’s story.
Q: A good part of the plot takes place miles away from the school— Francis’s trip westward, his experience with the aborted archeological dig, and then his return. Why?
A: To show Francis Plummer only on campus is to show the reader only those qualities that Fred Kindler can see. I wanted to put Francis out of Fred’s sight, into a much larger, unconstrained world than the hermetic world of Miss Oliver’s school that has consumed every minute of his adult life. I wanted the reader to understand and appreciate that the failed archeological dig on Mount Alma on the other side of the continent is, for all of its absurdity and failure, Francis’s legitimate, even admirable attempt to fulfill a vision quest at the same time as it is a sneaky escape from the responsibility to stay at the school and show Fred Kindler how to avoid the rocks and shoals that will otherwise surely undo him.
Q: I understand that the only type of independent school you didn’t work in was an all-girls school, and yet you set the novel in that kind of school. Why?
A: I wanted to charge the narrative with an extra dose of passion. So I gave the school a mission that inspires passion, the empowerment of young women. The name of the school is Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. That’s the reason it exists. It is a feminist organization, at war with systemic male dominance, where the operating slogan is “anything a boy can do, a girl can do better.” Anybody who messes with that idea is the enemy, and here he comes in the person of Fred Kindler, a male, from the outside, who everybody suspects will try to save the school by admitting boys, thus eliminating the reason for its existence.
Q: What does Saving Miss Oliver’s say about teaching as a profession and a way of life?
A: I am so passionate about education, so I wanted to show the reader how much of himself or herself a masterful teacher brings to the classroom day after day. You can see this in Francis Plummer when he’s operating in his classroom, adjusting minute by minute to the needs of each individual girl, needs that only the most fine-tuned antennae would pick up, as he leads the class to a full appreciation of Robert Frost’s “Home Burial.” The passion for his subject and the skill with which he purveys that passion is one model for the students of how to be authentic in the world. At the end of the class he knows that no one in this class will ever be the same. How many better-paid practitioners of other professions can make that claim?