Gervais Hagerty believes there are two kinds of novelists — the plotters, who plot out story lines before they really get going on writing, and the “pants-ers.”
“I’m apparently a pants-er, writing by the seat of my pants,” said the 40-year-old, whose first novel is just days away from publication. “I’m just making this up as I go along — that’s what I do.”
But she’s done it well enough to get the attention of prominent publisher HarperCollins. In Polite Company, which comes out Aug. 17, is the story of a young Charleston debutante who grows while working at a local television station. She tilts at the blueblood society in which she was raised, struggling between what is expected of her and trying to find the courage to do what is best for her. Along the way, readers meet an aging grandmother whose backstory pushes along the narrative and blends the past into the present. Interspersed is a little sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. (Readers will also find the main character enjoys reading the Charleston City Paper!)
Hagerty, who grew up in Charleston society as a student at Charleston Day School and Porter Gaud followed by a stint at a school in New Hampshire, admits she’s a little anxious about her book’s reception, which is getting a lot of early press attention.
“I’m definitely nervous — it’s the other side of excited,” she said during an interview in the Hampton Park home. “I don’t know how people will take it.”
Art, bikes, activism
Hagerty, daughter of poet Barbara G.S. Hagerty and retired surgeon and modern artist Richard Hagerty, shares her Huger Street home with her husband, two daughters and dog. It’s a comfortable two-story, 2,700-square-foot brick built house in 1915 from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. kit. It’s got wide hallways and sturdy wood floors with a rich, brown patina. The kitchen, as with many homes, offers a gathering place around a huge island. On the walls are bright bursts of yellows, reds and greens from surrealist paintings by her father.
Toward the back of the house is a utilitarian room where husband Anthony Del Porto, COO of a local financial human resources technology company, brews beer. Behind that is a more elegant office where Hagerty works. She’s proud of cabinets she built during the pandemic to modernize the space.
In the front yard is a bike with a cart attached. Hagerty is an avid cyclist who doesn’t own a car — she really didn’t need one during the six years she coached Citadel students on being effective public speakers. She’s forever filling up the cart with stuff or kids and scooting around town. She’s so passionate about biking that she’s on the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
The new book … and the next one
Hagerty started In Polite Company in 2016 when her grandmother was in hospice care. Agnes Louise Mengedoht Street, 88, died that July. Writing the novel was cathartic. It also pays homage to her grandmother, who inspired the grandmother in the novel, a ballet dancer named Laudie.
Hagerty worked on the book during summers and holidays while working at The Citadel. Along the way, her mother, the poet, read pages and made suggestions, helping Hagerty to grow as a writer.
By 2019, she learned another writer leaned on local bestselling author Mary Alice Monroe for help and encouragement. Hagerty thought, “I know Mary Alice.” So she reached out.
“When she read my book, she invited me over for coffee and gave me an hour and a half of her time and gave me the strengths and weaknesses of the book,” Hagerty recalled.
“I needed to get to the heart of a character,” she said. “I wanted to create a character that had a spirit that was crushed because of the social circumstances” of the time.
The meeting was a huge help. Monroe became Hagerty’s literary hero. The criticism helped her to focus the work and more fully develop Laudie into an inspirational character that’s vital to the book.
Today, as Hagerty waits on pins and needles to see what Charleston readers think of the book — it’s already gotten good reviews from a summer-long media blitz — she’s hard at work on a second novel. It’s set on Wadmalaw Island and focuses on three characters.
Her goal is to write about 1,000 words each weekday — about four double-spaced pages. It may not sound tough, but penning 5,000 original words per week is demanding. Hagerty says if she doesn’t make the goal by Friday because of family stuff, marketing stuff, community stuff or other stuff, she works weekends to keep things moving.
What’s great about writing, she says, is that she’s still learning. An editor at the publishing company is helpful because she makes helpful suggestions before Hagerty — remember that she’s a “pants-er” who is writing by the seat of her pants — goes too far in a direction that might not be optimal.
“Writing is so capricious,” she said. “Like many a character, sometimes I really think about it and sometimes I am trying to get my 1,000 words in.”
Previous coverage: Gervais Hagerty lifts the veil on Charleston society in debut novel (June 30, 2021). Check it out at charlestoncitypaper.com.