Lynn Cullen is the author of the new historical novel about Edgar Allan Poe, Mrs. Poe (Gallery Books/S & S).
Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing? Did you always write historical fiction?
Lynn Cullen: When you’re the sixth of seven kids like I was, you need a niche in which to shine. The title of Smartest, Wittiest, Prettiest, Most Athletic, and Funniest had already been taken so I needed to find another handle. Not long after I had learned to spell, I wrote my first story, a tale of a bear that ate so much honey that he had to roll home in a barrel. The acclaim (mostly self-) from that made me realize who I could be: The Writer. I’ve been happy in the role ever since then.
Gluttonous bear story aside, I have favored historical fiction from the start. My first published novel, for adolescents, was about a girl who found the ghost of a Civil War bugle boy in her backyard. At the time, historical fiction for kids was out of style, so I snuck in my beloved historical content by having my heroine go back in time with the ghost. In a weird twist, the year after The Backyard Ghost (Clarion Books) came out, I actually found cannonballs from the Civil War in our backyard. My story, in a sense, came true. I have since become a believer in the power of coincidences, a philosophy that I worked into Mrs. Poe.
M.A.: What inspired you to write Mrs. Poe?
L.C.: In a word: desperation. Two years ago, a year after my husband had lost his job like so many others had during the Great Recession, my then-publisher turned down the manuscript I’d been working on for a year and a half. They wanted something with a more “feisty” heroine. Feisty heroines, it seems, sold in a market that was very shaky, as was about every kind of market around the world back then. The week I got this devastating news, my husband fell ill with a life-threatening case meningitis (or encephalitis—they never figured out which). When I brought him home from the hospital, I didn’t know how we were going to survive. He had sustained a debilitating brain injury from his illness and I had no book prospect. So there I was, pacing in my office, half delirious from fear and exhaustion, thinking, “Feisty heroine, feisty heroine.” Suddenly into my dazed mind came the word Poe.
Not having read Poe’s work since high school, I raced to my computer to look him up. I saw that he was an orphan, very poor, and a lonely lost soul: just my kind of guy to write about. But I wanted to write a novel from a woman’s point of view—and a feisty one, evidently, at that—so I kept looking. Poe’s wife, Virginia, was thirteen when he married her and didn’t seem so very feisty. Then I read about his alleged affair with poet Frances Osgood just after he’d written “The Raven.” I found that Frances had been abandoned by her portrait-painter husband and was trying to support her children with writing. So here was this desperate woman trying to survive by her writing. Oh, I could so relate. And she was plenty feisty, too. As my husband healed, I set about telling the story of Frances and Edgar from her point of view. If Frances’s desperation seems real to you, it’s because her creator was living it. But I’m grateful to have gotten a genuinely emotional book out of that traumatic time, and, happily, my husband has completely recovered.
M.A.: I learned a lot about Edgar Allan Poe from reading your novel. Mainly, what I learned is that a lot of what we think we know about Poe isn’t necessarily true. I had always thought of him as an opium-infused alcoholic who wrote these brilliant pieces and died in poverty and obscurity. What did you learn about Poe from your research for Mrs. Poe, and what surprised you the most?
L.C.: It came as a shock to me that Poe’s image as a drunken madman comes to us courtesy of his rival, Rufus Wilmot Griswold. They were enemies after Poe had criticized Griswold’s poetry collections and had taken some of Griswold’s literary criticism gigs. Griswold hadn’t been able to harm Poe’s reputation while Poe was alive—everyone knew that Griswold was a hothead and a bully. But once Poe died, Griswold got his revenge. In the most bizarre twist of fate in literary history, Poe’s aunt made Griswold Poe’s literary executor, even after Griswold had written a widely-published malicious obituary about Poe. Once he got his hands on Poe’s papers, he proceeded to doctor them as he saw fit. With Poe’s tampered letters in hand, he began to spread lies about Poe’s behavior and wrote a biography full of inventive slander. This biography stood alone for the next 25 years; subsequent biographers repeated all the falsehoods in it. Our image of Poe as an addicted psychopath, therefore, is the direct result of Griswold’s smear campaign. It doesn’t help Poe’s cause that his stories were so dark, but in real life, he was a very hard worker with little time or money to feed an addiction. The truth is, he wrote his scary stories because they sold. Like so many writers trying to support themselves by their writing in any era, the man was desperate for cash.
Another surprise was that in 1845, the year of “The Raven” and of Mrs. Poe, Poe was considered to be quite appealing and attractive. Reports from those days called him “elegant” and “handsome.” As one man said, “He had gentleman written all over him.” Poe was not the morose and sketchy-looking specimen of the daguerreotypes which with we’re most familiar. Those photos were taken a few months before he died, when he was not well—not a good time for one’s close-up. Yet these photographs stand since they fit Griswold’s creepy image of the man. A more appropriate portrait has been done by Frances Osgood’s husband, who even though well aware of his wife’s close relationship with Poe, painted this winsome portrait of his wife’s alleged lover.
M.A.: I write historical fiction myself, and my main characters are always fictional while I keep the real-life people as secondary characters. What are the particular challenges of writing an historical novel where your main characters are real people, and not only real people but famous authors? After all, Edgar Allan Poe is a legend in American literature.
L.C.: The challenge of writing about Poe was different than it would be if I’d written about someone who had been at least somewhat fairly assessed throughout history. My challenge—and delight—was to bring to light the man who I think is the real Poe. Even though my Poe is a fictitious character in a novel, he has to be more accurately drawn than the fictitious product of Griswold’s lies. Yet I will be the first to admit that I’m a novelist, not a biographer. My Poe is my own interpretation of the man after I’d done my research. I shaped his character around my story. I saw him as being much like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights—an orphan whose unkind treatment in the hands of his foster family instilled in him debilitating self-loathing. Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff in the BBC Films version of Wuthering Heights provided a handy visual reference—sexy, brooding, and vulnerable beneath cool silence.
M.A.: Mrs. Poe definitely kept me turing pages because I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next for Poe. How would you describe Mrs. Poe to potential readers?
L.C.: It’s an interesting challenge to reduce to one sentence a story that is the result of two years of intense work, but here goes: Mrs. Poe traces Poe’s rise to prominence with “The Raven,” to his utter ruin within the space of one year, through the eyes of his alleged lover, poet Frances Osgood.
M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?
L.C.: I started out by trying to write children’s books when my daughters were young. My three girls had been born within a four year span, so while they were growing up, the most I could manage was shorter fiction, especially since I always had to work at least part-time to contribute to the family finances. Later, I trained as a teacher but as soon as I was certified, gave myself a year to get published or throw my lot entirely with teaching. I had no idea how naïve a goal that was but miraculously, I made it. Twelve children’s books were a result of that hectic period.
Once my kids were older and I’d seen my father through his final illness, I was able to devote the longer hours necessary for writing historical fiction. My young adult novel, I am Rembrandt’s Daughter (Bloomsbury), served as a bridge from children’s books, and then after publishing two more adult books about misunderstood figures in history, Reign of Madness and The Creation of Eve (both Putnam), I arrived at Mrs. Poe (Gallery Books/S & S). It has been an interesting trip, the best part of it being the people I’ve met along the way.
M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?
L.C.: Penelope Lively is my go-to author when I’m stuck in my writing and simply to refresh my brain. I must have read her Heat Wave a dozen times. She also inspires me because she went from writing children’s books—all fabulous—to winning the Booker Prize. I am also inspired by Stephanie Cowell. Her Marrying Mozart is astonishing in its exuberance and veracity. As a historical novelist, I really respect what she achieved in that book.
M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?
L.C.: Don’t let all your hard-won research blind you to your main goal: telling a believable story that sheds some light on the human condition. And have fun. Although historical fiction might be the most difficult genre to write, it’s also the most fascinating. Enjoy the people you meet on your trip back into time!
M.A.: Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
L.C.: When a door closes, a window opens. Really—I thought my career was over during those dark days of 2011. Yet from that trauma, the book of my dreams was born. I was given the chance of a lifetime. I am so thankful.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.