By Emilie Murphy
Portrait Photography by ChiChi Ubiña

The weather has turned and the beaches are open, which means summer reading lists are back! While we might not be ‘summering’ in the usual way these days, a good book is always en vogue, and Susie Orman Schnall’s latest novel, We Came Here to Shine, is a must-read for anyone looking to escape this summer. 

We Came Here to Shine takes us back to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The story follows two women — Vivi, the lead swimmer of the Aquacade, and Max, a journalist at the fair’s daily paper — as they boldly pursue their dreams against the backdrop of this iconic event. Schnall first conceived of the idea while reading Esther Williams’s autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid. In the book, Williams writes about her time as a swimmer with Billy Rose’s Aquacade. Curious about what, exactly, an Aquacade was, Schnall took to the internet. “A couple of hours of deep-dive internet research later, I learned that Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a synchronized swimming spectacular, was the highest-grossing attraction of the 1939 New York World’s Fair,” explains Schnall. “Not only was I fascinated by the accounts of the Aquacade—its elaborate production, the behind-the-scenes intrigue—but I also became enchanted with the history and details of the 1939 fair itself.” Schnall was captivated by the idea of the Aquacade, and her story developed from there. 

We Came Here to Shine is not Schnall’s first work of historical fiction. Her last book, The Subway Girls (2018)looks at the lives of women through the lens of the famed Miss Subways advertising campaign. These latest novels are a departure from Schnall’s first two books, On Grace and The Balance Project, which both focus on contemporary female stories. “I didn’t intentionally set out to switch genres,” says Schnall, “but because I wanted to tell the story of the Miss Subways contest (for The Subway Girls), I had to write within the historical fiction genre.” 

A different genre also involves a different writing process, and Schnall spent a lot of time doing research before she began to weave together the plot of We Came Here to Shine. She began with a sweeping search of the internet. In this case, Schnall was amazed with all the information readily available online about the World’s Fair. She made use of a photographic archive from The New York Public Library, The New York Times’s digitized archive, footage on YouTube and even a site called 1939NYWorldsFair.com. But Schnall’s research was not just relegated to the digital space. “I like to round out my research in more concrete ways,” she says. For We Came Here to Shine, this included touring the fair site in Queens, reading books on the subject, and even buying World’s Fair memorabilia on eBay. Through this, Schnall was able to see exactly what Today at the Fair, the fair’s daily paper, looked like, and also get an idea of what souvenirs attendees would have gone home with. “I love going deep into a slice of American and NYC history,” says Schnall. “[The writing process] takes longer, of course. But if it makes for a rich story, then it’s worth it.” 

Schnall is interested in rich stories that look at women’s roles throughout history, and has spent a considerable amount of time examining how women find balance in their lives. This interest led her to create The Balance Project, a series of interviews with a variety of women that focuses on work-life balance. This eventually inspired Schnall’s second novel of the same name. The Balance Project was not only interesting for Schnall as a writer, but from a personal standpoint as well. “I started the interviews because I couldn’t figure out how to be the type of mother that felt right for me while also being the type of professional that I wanted to be,” she explains. “What I learned instead was that no one was doing it all and every woman is making sacrifices somewhere.” Schnall has worked to define her own priorities and build her time around what is most important in her life. “I’ve also become phenomenal at saying no,” she says, pointing to one of the most critical, yet difficult, things to master. 

Map by Silvia Gherra

While the setting of We Came Here to Shine dates back to the ’30s, Schnall still sees many parallels between women’s roles now and then. “Women weren’t afforded the same opportunities as men back in the ’30s and ’40s when my books are set, and of course, that has evolved significantly. But there are so many entrenched expectations and limitations for women,” says Schnall. This dichotomy inspires her choices as a writer. When looking at a potential setting or topic, Schnall thinks about women who have gone outside of societal expectations, no matter the era. “It’s refreshing and inspiring to see women shatter ceilings and break barriers and I try to show a bit of that — in an era-appropriate way — in my books.” 

Although the traditional book tour might be on hold at the moment, Schnall is still meeting her readers in the virtual space, and LOOK will be hosting an event with her later in the summer. For information on other upcoming events, visit https://susieschnall.com/events/. For details on We Came Here to Shine, including a curated page of World’s Fair history and a custom fair map, go to www.susieschnall.com