An Interview with Chris Beckett, Author of Dark Eden

Yesterday I reviewed Chris Beckett’s excellent new novel, Dark Eden. Mr. Beckett graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Dark Eden? What was the writing process like?

Chris Beckett Photo courtesy of the author.

Chris Beckett
Photo courtesy of the author.

CB: As is often the case with my stories, Dark Eden grew very slowly.   In 1992, I came up with a short story called ‘The Circle of Stones’, which included one of the crucial scenes from the book, was set in a sunless world, and centered on four characters who were to evolve in the book into John, Tina, Jeff and Gerry.  In 2006 I wrote the short story ‘Dark Eden’ which provides the back story for the novel (it can be found in my collection The Turing Test).   Although I had the idea from the beginning that there might be the basis for a novel here, the prompt to start work on it in earnest actually came from my daughter Nancy, who saw the title ‘Dark Eden’ and said it would be a great name for a book.  (So it is!  So good that there are at least two other books and a computer game with the same name!)

As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe the idea for a sunless world with luminous trees probably came from staring at the screen of the antiquated computer I owned in 1992: one of those ones with shining green letters on a black screen.   But at the core of the book were two things: the idea of a loss which cannot be undone (the loss of Earth), and the idea of a violent, ugly transgressive act which is nevertheless in some way necessary.  These were the things I needed to write about (for whatever reason), the incentive to keep going I suppose you could say, and the sunless world proved to be a perfect setting for what I wanted to do.   Once the book was underway, it seemed to flow pretty easily.  Perhaps you’d expect that, since it had been marinating in my head for the better part of twenty years!

You write on your website that your experience as a social worker has informed your writing. Was this the case for Dark Eden?

photo (65)CB: The book that is most obviously linked with my career as a social work is my second novel Marcher (which will come out later this year in an extensively rewritten new edition).   However, since my social work career involved dealing with unhappy families, that may well have made a contribution to my conception of the troubled Family of Eden, clinging together in their dark world.   (I don’t know though.  That could just have come from my own childhood!)

How did you go about conducting research for the novel?

CB: I did no serious research at all.   I think I’m a reasonably well-informed person, and I just relied on my own knowledge, imagination and my ability to think things through.  (I knew for instance, that bioluminescent life forms are found on Earth in the depths of the sea where the light of the sun can’t reach.)  I’m rather proud of the fact that some of the things I dreamed up back in 1992 turn out, on further reading, to have a scientific basis.  There really are rogue planets without suns, it really is possible that a planet with a hot core could sustain life and liquid water, there really are whole ecosystems, right now and here on Earth, which are powered by geothermal energy rather than by sunlight.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

CB: I don’t have a conscious strategy about what to read while I’m writing.   I guess I avoid reading anything too similar to the project I have underway, so as to avoid getting my own ideas tangled up with someone else’s.   I think it may also be the case that when I’m in the thick of writing a book, I become less interested in reading fiction generally, and more inclined to read non-fiction. (The fuel for fiction-writing should be reality, perhaps, rather than other fiction?)   Sometimes I don’t read at all.  At night, my wife will lie in bed reading a novel and I’ll just stare at the ceiling mulling over the story I’m working on.

I understand that a sequel to Dark Eden will be published in the UK this year. Are there any other writing projects on your horizon?

CB: Yes, the sequel to Dark Eden is called Mother of Eden, and is set some two Earth centuries on.   It will indeed be coming out in the UK later this year – and in the US also, though the date has not yet been fixed.

As I mentioned above, my novel Marcher will also come out in a new UK edition this year, and I have begun work on a new novel, provisionally entitled Slaymaker, which is set on Earth in the near future and deals with the politics of a hotter and less habitable world.   But it’s early days on that one, so I won’t say any more about it at present.

I have the beginnings of an idea also for a third Eden novel, but let’s see how the second one goes down first.

I hope to find time to write some more short stories too.  Short stories were what I was first known for and I love writing them, but I haven’t done many for a while.

My thanks again to Mr. Beckett for his time and generous answers. You can read an excerpt from Dark Eden here, and you can learn more about Mr. Beckett and his work on his website, http://www.chris-beckett.com/

An Interview with Helen Oyeyemi, Author of Boy, Snow, Bird

Yesterday I reviewed Helen Oyeyemi’s marvelous (in every sense of the word) new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird. Ms. Oyeyemi graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Boy, Snow, Bird? What was the writing process like? 

Helen Oyeyemi  (c) Piotr Cieplak

Helen Oyeyemi
(c) Piotr Cieplak

HO: the idea of writing a wicked stepmother story had been in my mind ever since i’d read Barbara Comyns’ novel, The Juniper Tree, which is a retelling of the fairy tale of the same title from the perspective of the wicked stepmother (poor, poor woman – i mean the wicked stepmother, not Comyns…Comyns’ narrative voice is so wonderfully eldritch, a mix of light and grit in proportions that only she can master.) it took me some time to get into Boy’s voice – perhaps i was worried about the difficulties she was going to have in terms of trying not to do harm when she’d been harmed herself.

Much of the novel takes place in a small town in Massachusetts. Was there a particular reason for this choice? Did you visit the area to get a sense of the landscape, or conduct other kinds of research for the novel?

HO: i have a dear friend who lives in boston; we drove up to worcester after i’d finished writing the book so i could see how completely imaginary the small town near worcester in my book is. massachusetts is linked to emily dickinson and louisa may alcott in my mind, so i think of it as a place where my kind of woman can flourish: a good place to send Boy to, i think.

photo (63)Boy, Snow, Bird is in part an adaptation of the Snow White fairy tale. Did other contemporary retellings of folktales and fairy stories inform your writing? 

HO: Anne Sexton’s take on Snow White, in her collection, Transformations, affected the way that i read snow white – that image at the end of the poem, the wicked queen dancing herself to death in red hot shoes. for me Anne Sexton’s retelling exposes a notion that’s woven into the story: where there are two beautiful women, one must pay a price – a price for both women’s beauty, perhaps. most of the characters in my own retelling are wise to this notion, and don’t accept it.

Boy, Snow, Bird confronts — always with grace — difficult issues of race, gender, family, and aesthetics. What’s one question you hope readers ask as they come away from the novel?

HO: i hope a reader leaves the story wondering how to get better at seeing other people, or at least seeing through our own halls of mirrors.

 As readers may know, you’re a prolific writer, with five novels and two plays to your credit already. What’s next on your writing horizon?

HO: o dear…your guess is as good as mine. but i’m looking forward to it, whatever it is.

My thanks again to Ms. Oyeyemi for her time and her thoughtful answers.

An Interview with Hailey Leithauser, Author of Swoop

On Monday I reviewed Hailey Leithauser’s award-winning debut collection, Swoop. Ms. Leithauser graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.

Your biographical note on The Poetry Foundation’s website indicates that you started writing again after a ten-year break. What precipitated your (triumphant) return to poetry? 

Hailey Leithauser Photo by Sandra Beasley

Hailey Leithauser
Photo by Sandra Beasley

HL: Actually it was more like a twenty year break. I can actually point to a specific moment when I began writing again; I was on a lunch break from work, at the National Gallery standing in front of Van Gogh’s Pieta, of all things, when a poem about the painting began streaming in front of my eyes. But those tickles in the brain had really been building for several months. My mother had died that spring, and  I think that overwhelming pain had shaken things loose. Also I was about to receive her inheritance which would enable me to retire, at least for a few years.  I knew I wanted to use that time to write again, so my subconscious had been gearing up.

How did Swoop come together as a collection? 

HL: Swoop started when my brother sent me a palindrome, and said it looked like a line from one of my poems. I agreed and I loved the idea of the music inherent in a palindrome so I started writing them and putting them into poems, and really very quickly, in maybe three years, I had a book length collection. At first when I gathered them up I didn’t see any other unifying theme, but as I read them together I saw the idea of excess, a celebration of excess, both in emotion and in linguistic play, seemed to be framing the manuscript.

When reading Swoop I noticed often that the effect of a particular poem was amplified by its predecessor — and “Zen Heaven” is such a powerful closing poem. How did you go about ordering the poems in Swoop

photo (62)HL: I wish I could take credit for that, but when I first tried organizing the book it was terrible, truly, truly awful. I had all the poems clumped together, all of the curtal sonnets next to each other, all of the Grandiloquent Dictionary poems together, the four poems “Scythe,” “Guillotine,” “Brass Knuckles,” and “Crowbar” in one string. One of my co-winners from the Discovery Prize, James Arthur, was in town for AWP and I gave it to him for critique. He wrote me a few days later to say he loved the poems but it was like eating a pizza with all the pepperoni on one slice, all the mushrooms on another. So then I broke up all the poems, sort of scattershot, and I showed that version to Sandra Beasley. She told me I was right to break them up, but now it was too random and so she did the very difficult  job of ordering the book.  I made a few changes here and there to that version, but I stuck pretty close to her basic framework. Honestly, without their help, I can’t imagine that the people at the Poetry Foundation would have chosen Swoop.

The poems in Swoop are exuberantly musical — do you listen to music while writing? Who or what are your musical influences, and who are your favorite “musical” poets? 

HL: I’ve been asked this before and the truth is I would be much too distracted it I had music on while I wrote. My favorite kind of music is blues, but I don’t see that reflected in my writing. Unless you would consider bird song to be music. I do like listening to that when I’m working in the back yard.

As far as musical poets, there are so many! Off the top of my head, I love Seidel, Stallings, Szymborska, Brooks, Ryan, and Beeder.  And Stevie Smith, Terrence Hayes,  Estes, Boss, Kevin Young, Videlock.  I’ve recently gotten into Gjertrud Schnackenberg and would like to read through all of her work. And I enjoyed Carol Light’s first book, “Heaven from Steam.”

Some of your poems refer to the Grandiloquent Dictionary, and all of them showcase a rich and dynamic vocabulary. What are  some of your favorite resources for discovering new words? 

HL: I used to be a reference librarian and own a fairly decent selection of dictionaries and thesauri, and whenever I see books on interesting and archaic words I snap them up. I bought one this fall, “The Word Museum,” that gave me the word “SNOUTFAIR”  (handsome) that I put right into a poem. I recently wrote two poems about the Renaissance characters Tom o’ Bedlam and his counterpart, Mad Maudlin, and for those poems I read through a few online dictionaries of Elizabethan slang.

After the success of Swoop, what’s next on the writing horizon?

HL: I’m in between the second and third drafts of a new book, The Cannibal’s Song,, and hoping to have it ready to show to Graywolf this summer. Now that I’ve done with palindromes, my new obsession is acrostics so there are quite a few of them in Cannibal.  And about a third of it is poems that pre-date Swoop. Some of these poems first appeared in magazines ten years ago so I’m excited about finally finding a home for them.

My thanks again to Ms. Leithauser for her time and generous answers. You can read more about Swoop, and purchase the book directly from Graywolf Press, here

An Interview with TaraShea Nesbit, Author of The Wives of Los Alamos

Two weeks ago, I reviewed TaraShea Nesbit’s fascinating first novel, The Wives of Los Alamos. Ms. Nesbit graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Wives of Los Alamos? What was the writing process like?

Author photo by Brigid McAuliffe

Author photo by Brigid McAuliffe

TN: About five years ago, I was researching the creation of the atomic bomb after a friend told me about a high school that has atomic bomb imagery as part of their bomber mascot. That town, Richland, Washington, was the location of a nuclear production complex, Hanford that began during WWII, and currently a repository for nuclear waste. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki. While researching the history of the Hanford Site, I read a memoir by one female scientist. She mentioned that she never understood why one of the male scientists wives did not like her. This piqued my interest in the domestic community life of these secret Manhattan Project towns.

Simultaneously, I gave a reading on the work about Hanford, (an excerpt of which you can read at Quarterly West here: http://www.quarterlywest.utah.edu/iss_73/iss_73_nesbit.html) and a friend’s aunt, Jane Viste, came up to me after the reading and inquired more about the scientists’ wives. I think she said, “Their story would make a great novel.” These two things—my atomic history research and the aunt’s questions—came together right before winter break two years ago, and once I decided on the point of view, the writing was an urgent endeavor. A first draft was done in less than a year and I revised for another year.

The Wives of Los Alamos is written from the relatively unusual first person plural perspective. What led you to make that choice?

The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos

TN: When listening to the women’s oral histories and reading their memoirs, I observed that the women often took on the “we” voice themselves. If asked what Los Alamos was like for them, they replied with things like, “We all hated the stove,” where the “we” was the other wives. This suggested to me that their primary identity during that time was of a group member, and their secondary identity was that of an individual.

In thinking about why I was using this point of view, I read Brian Richardson’s book Unnatural Voices, and his intellectual work added to my thinking. I see the point of view as a way of exploring how our community identities often push against our individual identities.

How did you go about conducting research for the novel? Did you visit archives? The site itself? Were you able to interview any of the women who lived and worked at Los Alamos?

TN: I first read memoirs and collected stories edited by the women who lived in also Alamos during WWII, many of which were published by the Los Alamos Historical Society.  I visited Los Alamos a few times and met with the archivist there, too. Los Alamos still retains a lot of its great history, both geographically and through the preservation of Fuller Lodge and Bathtub Row. One can walk around the town and easily imagine what it was like in the 40s.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

TN: I’m often doing two kinds of reading when I’m writing. I read books related to the topic, and when doing that I’m looking for details and facts. But I also read novels and poetry collections and nonfiction books that I’m hoping to be educated by about story construction. While writing The Wives of Los Alamos I looked back at work by Joan Silber, Leo Tolstoy, Evan S. Connell and George Eliot, among others.

You’ve studied at The Ohio State University (Go Buckeyes!) and Washington University in St. Louis. Which professors and writing courses stand out to you as particularly influential in terms of your growth as a writer?

TN: I began this book in my first year of the Ph.D. at the University of Denver, and specifically, in a fiction class led by Laird Hunt. I did not think of myself as a fiction writer then, but Laird’s reading list and approaches defied my previous conceptions of what a novel could be. We read Open City by Teju Cole, Aliss at the Fire by Jon Fosse, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns, and Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník. But I’ve been fortunate to have so many great teachers: Brian Kitely, Selah Saterstrom, Eleni Sikelianos, Kathy Fagan, Andrew Hudgins, and Mary Jo Bang.

What kinds of writing projects are you planning next?

TN: I’m working on a fiction project set in the 17th century from the perspective of lesser-heard voices, which is also exploring a major narrative of America’s history.

My thanks again to Ms. Nesbit for her time and generous answers. You can learn more about The Wives of Los Alamos and TaraShea Nesbit on her website, tarasheanesbit.com.  

An Interview with Daniel Price, author of The Flight of the Silvers

Yesterday I reviewed The Flight of the Silvers, Daniel Price’s new novel, which is out now from Blue Rider Press. Mr. Price graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.

When and how did the idea for The Flight of Silvers come to you? Did you know then that it would become a multi-part saga?

Daniel Price Photo courtesy of the author.

Daniel Price
Photo courtesy of the author.

DP: I’ve been developing the story for fifteen years now. I can’t even remember what originally inspired the idea. All I know is that the ending came to me first. Everything else—the world, the characters—sprang backward from that.

It wasn’t long before I realized that the plot was too big to contain in one book, which scared the crap out of me. I’d never written a series before, much less one about superpowered people on an alternate Earth. If I got it wrong. I’d be spending years of my life on a saga that either no one saw or everyone hated. Who wants that?

So I pushed the idea to the back burners and moved on to other projects. But the Silvers story kept poking at me. It took a brief bout with cancer to remind me that there were worse fates than trying and failing at something. I finally started writing Silvers in 2009, and it turned out to be the best decision of my life. Now on hindsight I wonder why the hell I was so nervous.

 

How was writing a sci-fi-action-suspense novel different from writing non-sci-fi fiction, like your first novel, Slick?

The Flight of the SilversDP: Like night and day. My first novel is a comedy set in the world of public relations, which I’d never personally been a part of. I was determined to research the hell out of it and get the details right. It was constraining, but I loved every minute of it.

With Silvers, I had more freedom than I knew what to do with. I could change the rules of reality, invent new history. It was unbelievably fun to dream up this stuff. The hard part was introducing the world in a way that didn’t make people go cross-eyed.

Fortunately, my alpha readers kept me honest. The earliest drafts of Silvers were littered with plot-stopping info dumps. My friends helped me smooth them over.

 

How did you go about conducting research for The Flight of the Silvers?

DP: As far as the science went, I didn’t go nuts. I read some extremely dumbed-down books on temporal physics until I had a good enough grasp on the new rules of my world. And with each manner of timebending I introduced, I did some speculation into the side effects and limitations, which led to some interesting new details.

But when it came to the worldbuilding, I did a ton of research. My alternate Earth exists in a timeline that drastically changed after a cataclysmic event in 1912. So I studied the culture of that era and then rebuilt world history, decade by decade. That also led to some fun new details.

The third aspect of my research was etymology. Every new word I introduce has a traceable origin. I didn’t want to make up stuff just because it sounds good.

 

Which other time-travel books/movies/shows would you recommend to fans of The Flight of the Silvers?

DP: For alternate history, nothing inspired me more than Watchmen. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons paint a world that’s completely recognizable and yet terrifyingly different. It blew me away when I first read it in 1986. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve devoured it since then.

In terms of temporal hijinks, I can’t say enough good things about Slaughterhouse Five. Kurt Vonnegut was the first writer to truly mess with my perception of time. And like all of his books, he wraps his craziness around a strong and beautiful character story.

 

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

DP: Sadly, I can’t read other people’s fiction when I’m writing. It screws me up. I do take the occasional sanity break and tear through my read pile. The top two novels of my list right now are The Waking Engine, by David Edison and The Martian by Andy Weir. Looking forward to both of them.

 

I understand you’re working on the sequel to The Flight of the Silvers. How many books can we expect in the saga? And what other kinds of projects are on your horizon?

DP: I wish I could answer that second question, but I can’t see an inch beyond Silvers at the moment. I have a few ideas percolating, in both the sci-fi and “real world” genres, but it’ll be a long while before I get to touch any of them.

As for your first question, the Silvers series will fall somewhere between three to five books. The final number hasn’t been determined yet. Whatever happens, I promise the story will be resolved in a most definitive way. The whole thing began in my mind with an ending. I have every intention of getting there.

What’s a question that you wish interviewers would ask you,  and how would you answer it?

DP: Well, if I can’t get people to ask me how I got to be so awesome, then I suppose the next best question is “What puts you in a good mood these days?”

The answer is feedback. I love getting thoughtful comments from readers, whether it’s praise or constructive criticism. It’s just great to know that my stories are out there spinning gears in people’s heads. I encourage everyone who reads The Flight of the Silvers to let me know what they thought about it. Shoot me an e-mail. Post a review on Goodreads or Amazon. I write for the love of writing, but smart feedback is a major perk of the job. It’s the five-dollar bill in my tip jar.

My thanks to Mr. Price for his time and thoughtful answers! You can learn more about The Flight of the Silvers, and Daniel Price, on Mr. Price’s website, and you can follow him on Twitter: @SilversGuy.

An Interview with Lindsay Hill, Author of Sea of Hooks

Yesterday I reviewed Sea of Hooks, Lindsay Hill’s first novel, which was published in 2013 by McPherson & Company. Mr. Hill graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.

Lindsay Hill Photo by Adrian L. Smith

Lindsay Hill
Photo by Adrian L. Smith

How and why did you begin to write Sea of Hooks?

LH: The book was begun on a trip to Bhutan in 1994.  I was traveling with the poet and anthropologist, Nathaniel Tarn, and carrying a notebook.  My intention had been to make a limited written record of the trip and to record any thoughts or lines (for possible poems) that came to mind.  During the course of our travels, we learned of the Terma Tradition within the Nyingma school of Buddhism.  This tradition concerns the scattering of Terma (spiritual treasures) in earth, water, air and mind, for future discovery, in proper sequence, by treasure–finders called Terton.  I was spellbound by the beauty of this tradition and by the idea that such treasures lay hidden among us, waiting to be discovered.  As we traveled through the stunning Himalayan landscape, I started to write the outlines of a story. From the beginning, the themes were going to include the emergence of compassion and the spiritual transformation of a traveler.  Even so, having written only poetry, I had little idea of how to proceed.

Did you approach writing Sea of Hooks, your first novel, differently from the way you approach writing poetry?

LH: The trip to Bhutan, completely inadvertently, began a new phase in my life as a writer.  I began to carry, and fill, small notebooks with thoughts as they occurred to me.  This was very different from sitting down to write, or intending to compose, a finished poem.  I found that I had embarked on the composition of a continuous open text.   Very soon, I began titling the individual entries and letting the threads find their way.  Perhaps because I am severely dyslexic, I subvocalize everything I read.  Also, I am only able to read very slowly.  This combination of conditions led me, very early on, to a passion for reading poetry.  Every concussive syllable, every shifting rhythm, every lyric leap, enthralled me.  At Bard, where I was lucky enough to go to school, I started with Middle English (The Pearl Poet and Chaucer), and finally arrived at the 20th century in my senior year.  In essence, I apprenticed my ear to the arc of great poets in English, and a bit of that rich tradition couldn’t help but rub off!  So, in writing anything, I find myself attentive to sound and rhythm.  Also, I like the difficulty and the challenging associative leaps that often occupy the best poems.  Combine these preferences with my short attention span, and you end up with a novel of titled fragments that carry, at least to some degree, the stylistic characteristics of poems.  The difference lay in the particular demands that the novel, as an artistic form, places on any writer.  The necessities of finding and sustaining “voice” over an extended text; the demands of constructing a compelling plot; the challenges of developing plausible characters; all of these were extremely daunting to me, and any success that I had took hundreds upon hundreds of pages of missteps.  Ultimately, what I hope I was able to accomplish with Sea of Hooks, is a genre–spanning work that employs poetic methods, and architectures, to strengthen narrative structures.  Certainly, this is nothing new or unique, but for me, it was an entirely marvelous adventure of learning how a story could become the wetting stone of lyric language.

I understand that you composed Sea of Hooks over a period of more than twenty years. When you began the work, did you think or know that so much time would pass before it would be finished?

LH: I had no idea.  Originally, I intended to write a simple story.  Eventually, I had to be willing to be completely, even relentlessly, patient as complexity intervened.  Especially in the last eight years of its composition, I was working every day on the novel.  It was a completely joyful enterprise, and I was honestly unconcerned with when it would wrap itself up.  Many times, I truly doubted that it would ever “come together.”  By the time I started editing, I had over 5,000 titled sections from which to select and with which to assemble a coherent book.  The editing took three years and, in the final year, I did no other work.  Basically, four out of every five “sections” were thrown out.  Clearly, I’m not a very efficient novelist!

One thread in the narrative finds Christopher exploring Bhutan and Buddhism. How did you come to this choice?

As mentioned above, this thread originated with my trip to The Himalayas and with my learning about the Terma Tradition.  Christopher, the book’s protagonist, is following an inquiry into how a shattered world can be reassembled.  Everything is at stake for him in this.  Philosophically, Buddhism has much to say about the topics that preoccupy his thinking: the nature of the construction of the self, the puzzle of desire and suffering, the meaning of emptiness and liberation.  One of the book’s central images, that of a mother running armless beside a river where her child is drowning, came from Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher, and is among the most powerful I’ve ever encountered.  In Rinpoche’s teachings, this image represents a paradigm of compassion: not simply as empathy, but as the practice of staying steadily with suffering that cannot be fixed.  Through the lens of Christopher’s experience, this understanding is key.  So, Buddhism had an extremely generative affect on my thinking and writing and, above all, on my ability to perceive, from the heart, the possibilities that suffering offered for transformation in Christopher’s life.  Of course, Sea of Hooks is a story, and in no way presumes to be a scholarly explication of Buddhism or to reveal the depths of its great traditions.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

LH: I still, primarily, read poetry.  While writing Sea of Hooks,  I spent time with a wide range of work, from Donne’s Satires (...as streams are, power is...) to Gerard Manley Hopkins (…like shining from shook foil…), to the works of contemporaries like Tarn (The Beautiful Contradictions, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers), and Palmer (Six Hermetic Songs, Thread), and many younger poets as well.  Also, I read a good deal of philosophy, from the Pre–Socratics to Wittgenstein.  Mostly, I like to read work that poses interesting questions and that approaches them in innovative ways.  I like to read work that takes risks.  This doesn’t really change depending on what I’m writing but I do try to avoid work that may offer “solutions,” to questions I’m wrestling with in my own writing.  I like to stay with difficulties until they reveal their own underpinnings; their own “ways out.

What kinds of writing projects are you planning next?

LH: I strongly believe that a writing project deserves to have authentic urgency behind it: something at risk for the writer in writing it, and for the reader in reading it.  At least for me, that urgency, that necessity, isn’t something that can be “put” into a work.  It’s not an “ingredient.”  It’s the ground from which the work grows, and around which it organizes itself, as it takes shape, and strives to inhabit a living space.  Sometimes you just have to wait for that urgency to arrive.  In the meantime, my intention, and practice, is to maintain a constant relationship with writing.  This means that I continue to keep a small notebook in my back pocket and write as often as something of potential interest occurs to me.  I do this without any expectation that my jottings will be “good,” or used later in any way.  It’s just a practice to keep the dialogue open with my work.  The result has been that I have a joyful and relaxed approach to writing.  All that aside, I have, with some trepidation, started a new novel.  I envision a simple story…

My thanks again to Mr. Hill for sharing his time and generous answers. 

An Interview with Melissa Pritchard, author of Palmerino

Yesterday, I reviewed Palmerino, Ms. Pritchard’s latest novel, out now from Bellevue Press. Ms. Pritchard graciously consented to be interviewed via email. 

How did you first learn about Violet Paget/Vernon Lee, and what led you to write a novel about V.’s life?

Melissa Pritchard photo (c) John Beckett

Melissa Pritchard
photo (c) John Beckett

MP: In July 2008, while visiting Florence, I was introduced by an Italian friend, Giuditta Viceconte, to Federica Paretti, a member of the Angeli family, current owners of Villa il Palmerino, Vernon Lee’s former home.  At the time, I had been thinking of starting a writer’s residency, and Giuditta immediately decided I should meet Federica to discuss possibilities. On the afternoon I met Federica, I felt an immediate kinship with her and strangely, with the Villa itself. I had a deeply comforting sense of having “come home.” As I learned of Vernon Lee from Federica, I began to sense and to “see” things around the villa and the property that caused Federica to regard me strangely, until she finally said, “You may be meant to write a book about Vernon Lee. Perhaps that is the real reason you have come here.” For example, as I was looking out of a upstairs window onto the terrace, I  “saw,” as in a film, a puppet show for children being performed there. I turned to Federica, saying “this would make a wonderful space for a children’s puppet show!”  She then told me that was the exact place where Vernon Lee performed puppet shows for the children of the peasants or contadini. But it was after I learned about Vernon Lee’s supernatural tales, about her fascination with genius loci or spirit of place, and about her being one of the first writers to explore the notion of empathy in art, that I began to connect with her on a deeper level, and feel “called” to write about her. It’s also true that I fell in love with Villa il Palmerino itself before I fully committed to researching and writing about Vernon Lee. After our first meeting, Federica invited me to return, and one year later I did, renting out one of the spacious rooms. I would return three more times, each time for a longer period, to do research on Vernon Lee and to write the first and subsequent drafts of the novel. I completed Palmerino in Switzerland, at Chateau Lavigny, a writer’s residence, in the autumn of 2012.

What was the writing process for Palmerino like? Do you share writing traits with Sylvia?

MP: I embarked upon over a year of research, visiting the Vernon Lee archives at Colby College, Maine, and returning to Florence several more times. Once I felt prepared, I then had to begin to shape the novel’s perimeters, determine its structure. Once I decided to largely focus on Vernon Lee’s emotional life, specifically her two great love affairs, I began the actual writing. I designed the novel in three alternating threads, Vernon Lee’s ghostly voice, Sylvia’s voice, and the story that Sylvia was telling. Writing is a risk, a gamble, a running through the darkness, so I could only hope this unconventional design would work. One of my literary inspirations was Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the other Vernon Lee’s own highly regarded supernatural tales, particularly “Amor Dure.”

If I share any writing traits with Sylvia, it may be that I always write in longhand first, and that I love to have food around me when I write. I also tend to isolate myself when I’m writing, particularly when working on a first draft – it’s the only way I can “hear” the book. It is a lonely phase, but also a thrilling kind of pilgrimage into the life of the imagination, into other lives and worlds.

V. dismisses modern scholarship about her life and, particularly, her sexuality (pages 127-28). Do you share her assessment of current scholarly efforts to understand, or analyze, Vernon Lee’s/Violet Paget’s life?

MP: In the last ten or so years, there has been a tremendous resurgence of scholarly interest in Vernon Lee. There is a wonderful online journal, The Sibyl, that is richly and entirely devoted to current studies on Vernon Lee. In September, 2012, I was fortunate to be a part of the first international seminar on Vernon Lee, held in Florence. I went to many talks by scholars dedicating their academic lives to aspects of Vernon Lee’s extraordinary and prolific life. I was honored to close the seminar with a reading from Palmerino, a reading held at twilight, in one of the many hidden gardens on the grounds of Villa il Palmerino. It was a magical way to close a scholarly seminar, and while reading,I seemed to feel Vernon Lee’s presence nearby. My sense is that she would both be critical of all the research being done on her, the published books, papers and articles, the seminars, but that she would also be deeply pleased.

How did you go about conducting research for Palmerino?

PalmerinoI started with Vernon Lee biographies, relying mainly on two, then read many of the books Vernon herself had read and admired. I visited Colby College, Maine and in the archives room, sat for hours poring through correspondence between Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Edith Wharton, Clementina “Kit” Anstruther Thompson and Vernon Lee. I cannot describe the feeling of holding a letter written by Henry James, addressed to Vernon, in my hands. And while reading Kit’s immensely charming letters, illustrated with whimsical figures, I understood exactly how and why Vernon fell in love with her, needed her, and was devastated when she left Vernon. In Florence, I found the two places Vernon and her family had lived before moving to Villa il Palmerino. I visited the British Institute where there is a room filled entirely with a large portion of Vernon Lee’s extensive library, and was able to look through her books, see her pencilled annotations and marginalia, written with a bold, energetic hand. And at the famous Gabinetto Vieusseux, I was able to read more of her letters, many in Italian or German, and see the progression of her emotional state through her handwriting from the firm, bold hand of her middle years to the weak scrawl of later years, the intelligence still evident but the infirmity of a failing body sadly taking hold. And of course, I found much to read online, scholarly papers, other references.

Which writers do you read while you’re writing, if any? Do they change from book to book?

As part of my research for Palmerino, I read a great many of the books Vernon had been strongly influenced by. I also read books and articles relating to that time period in Florence, to the Anglo-American cultural community of 19th century Florence. On my author website, on the Palmerino page, I have put a partial list of these books. I also listened to classical music, particularly music Vernon Lee had liked. She was, among other things, a respected authority on eighteenth century Italian music.

When I write a book, it becomes an immersion experience. If it is an historically based novel or short story, I intentionally surround myself with the books, art and music of that time period, as a way of spelling myself back into that time and place. In writing contemporary fiction, I mainly read poetry and contemporary fiction I find compelling and hugely exciting. Steeping myself in the best literature is, I have found, a pleasant way to keep standards for my own writing as high as possible.

What kinds of projects are you planning next?

I’d like to finish editing a book-length collection of essays I’ve written, all of which have been individually published. After writing historically inspired fiction and a few humanitarian journalism pieces for the last three or so years, I’m starved to return to writing contemporary fiction – as a way of balancing, I think. But my next big project will be another historically based novel about a nineteenth century British Shakespearean actress who was also an abolitionist. The big, ambitious plan is to write a series of historically inspired novels, beginning with Vernon Lee, on three nineteenth century British women, a writer, an actress, a medical reformer. All three of these women defied the constraints and conventions of their time and forged, not without sacrifice, accomplished and brave lives.

My thanks again to Ms. Pritchard for her time and generous, thoughtful answers. You can read more about Palmerino, and Melissa Pritchard’s other published works, on her website, and you can follow Ms. Pritchard on Twitter: @PritchardMeliss. 

An Interview with Rachel Pastan, Author of Alena

Yesterday I reviewed Alena, Rachel Pastan’s latest novel. Ms. Pastan graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the novel and her writing. 

Rachel Pastan  (c) Carina Romano

Rachel Pastan
(c) Carina Romano

When and how did you conceive of writing a book that responds to Rebecca? Was the writing process long?

RP: I had taken a nine-to-five office job—a different kind of job than I’d ever had before. The woman who’d worked there before me, Elysa, had left months before, so I didn’t have anyone to train to me, and I kept making mistakes. People would say, “Elysa used to do it this way.” I felt inadequate, and a little in awe of this unknown Elysa. And then I thought: It’s just like Rebecca, only in the workplace! And then I thought: That’s a good idea for a novel. I wasn’t able to start writing it for a while, but once I did, it went quickly. It took me only about eighteen months to finish a draft.

Much of Alena‘s action takes place on Cape Cod. Was there a particular reason (or reasons) for this choice? 

RP: My family used to spend a month in Cape Cod every summer when I was little, and the landscape has always stayed with me. For years I used to have dreams about the ocean there. Rebecca takes place on a coast—probably of Cornwall. The atmosphere of Cape Cod seemed like a good parallel to me, and I was happy to revisit its beaches in my imagination.

Was it challenging to avoid giving the narrator a name?

RP: Actually I gave her a name while I was writing—I figured I just wouldn’t be faithful to that part of Rebecca. But afterwards I saw I could take the name out. Du Maurier had a few advantages; people could call her narrator “Mrs. de Winter.” After I took out the name, I did go back and make one of the characters call my narrator Cara—Italian for “darling.” That helped.

AlenaHow did you go about learning about contemporary art, which is so critical to Alena? Did you discover a favorite contemporary artist along the way?

RP: For last few years I have worked at the ICA—the Institute of Contemporary Art—in Philadelphia, writing and editing. This has been a fabulous immersion course in contemporary art. I don’t have a favorite contemporary artist—any more than I have a favorite contemporary writer—but the discovery of Anne Truitt was a wonderful and memorable moment. She made very simple, tall sculptures that are somehow incredibly moving and evocative. She wrote a terrific memoir, too, called Daybook, The Journal of an Artist, which talks about her struggles in her work, and with trying to combine work and family life.

Which writers do you read while you’re writing, if any? Do they change from book to book?

RP: I often read a little every morning before I start working, a few pages by someone whose sentences I love. Alice Munro is a favorite, as is Margaret Drabble. Other than that, I might read books that address a subject I’m writing about to see how other people handle it. When I was writing Alena I read a bunch of novels that deal with contemporary art in one way or another: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham and “A Thing of Beauty” by Steve Martin were a couple.

What kinds of projects are you planning next?

RP: I have a very different project in mind: a novel based on the life of a real person, which is something I’ve never done before. It’s exciting—and daunting—to think about how to shape a real life into a compelling narrative.

Many thanks to Ms. Pastan for her time and thoughtful answers!