I met Amanda Stauffer through our membership in a debut author group. I didn't know what she did for a living until I read her rom-com debut, Match Made In Manhattan, in which main character Alison--who charmingly navigates the world of a popular dating app and a series of, ahem, interesting dates--works in architectural conservation. I was so intrigued by the work the character was doing that I had to investigate the author's own "day job" as an architectural conservator.
Jennifer Klepper: How would you describe (in one sentence) what an architectural conservator is?
Amanda Stauffer: I restore old buildings, which means I spend my days donning latex gloves and a hard hat, wielding scalpels and syringes, attempting to save historic buildings one brick or paint chip at a time.
JK: Does being an architectural conservator present any particular challenges to being a novelist? How do you handle those?
AS: Time! Like any other job, it leaves very few hours for me to write, edit, promote, etc. To be honest, I don't think I've figured out a good way to juggle it all. I'm not sure what the magic formula or schedule is, but if I ever figure it out, I'll be sure to let everyone know :)
JK: While authors are often told “write what you know”, sometimes “what you know” is perfect for the character anyway. Why is architectural conservation the perfect profession for Alison?
AS: Conservation is multifaceted profession. A typical project begins with an on-site survey, during which you're climbing scaffolds or harnessed into a boom lift in order to be hands-on with the building: hammer sounding the facade for voids or detachment, measuring cracks, annotating floor plans and elevations and keying in areas of damage, collecting samples, etc. Then you take all that information back to the office and enter it into AutoCad drawings and write up recommendations. A testing phase might send you back to the site with a Hazmat suit and respirator to apply various chemicals cleaners, paint strippers, or surface consolidants. And then there's the lab time, when you analyze the material composition and test and develop appropriate treatments.
Alison's artsy and creative while also being outwardly a bit traditional/buttoned up. I thought the fusion of art and science made the profession a natural fit for her. Plus, she has a lot of energy and can get a bit antsy, so I thought she'd thrive in an industry that allows her to crawl over ceiling vaults and dangle from cornices every few days.
JK: I think it was a great fit, and it gave a literary balance to the storyline. Surely your job adds balance to your life as well. What superpowers as a writer do you have because of your training and experience as an architectural conservator?
AS: Gosh, that's a tough question. Conservation requires you to have painstaking attention to detail. We document cracks no thicker than hairlines; a church ceiling might get painted "Hale Navy" or "Evening Sky" based on microscopic analysis of a single paint chip the size of a splinter. I translated these stickler-y skills to part-time work as a copy editor of YA novels for a few years, so while I can't promise every reader will love my characters, plotting, or description, I can promise that there won't be any inconsistencies, plot holes, or bad grammar :)
JK: While I (obviously) think your job is fascinating, and you clearly enjoy it, it's always fun to think about "what if". If you could do a Freaky Friday swap with someone for a week to try out a different job, what (or who) would that be?
AS: This list is long. I've never met a chef, social worker, or district attorney I don't instantly envy. I guess if I had to choose just one though, it would be a glassblower. Like Alison, I blow glass as a hobby, but I'm pretty terrible at it. I have a penchant for all things Italian, and I've always dreamed of moving to Venice and apprenticing to a glass artist. . . and maybe one day becoming one myself.
JK: I love it! Will we see more architectural conservators or plots relating to architectural conservation in your future novels? Like maybe an entire book centered around the topic (hint, hint)...
AS: Highly likely. My current WIP features an architectural conservator, too. As for an entire book centered around the topic, I'm not sure how riveting that would be. I specialize in finishes (paint & murals, plaster, gilding, wallpaper) so I spend a large chunk of my time hovering over the microscope color matching the earliest existing paint layer to its contemporary commercial paint chip. I'm currently working on the paint study of a national landmark from 1895 by McKim, Mead & White. Now that I wrapped up the site work, I'll be spending the entire next month in the lab examining more than 500 paint samples under the microscope. You see how the narrative would lag here, yes? 😉
You can learn more about Amanda and her book here. If you know any other novelist-architectural conservators, let us know. We couldn't find any!
Amanda Stauffer is a Yale and Columbia grad who works as an architectural conservator in New York City. She was Editor-in-Chief of The Insider’s Guide to Colleges, 2005 (St. Martin’s Press), and she copyedits young adult novels in her spare time when she isn’t writing her own books.