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Lynn Cullen

Mrs. PoeBy Meredith Allard

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 At the time, historical fiction for kids was out of style, so I snuck in my beloved historical content by having my heroine go back in time with the ghost.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.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Mrs. Poe

Written by Lynn Cullen

Published by Gallery Books

Review by Meredith Allard

ARC courtesy of NetGalley

4quills

 

 

I am a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, and I have enjoyed the mysterious stories from his dark imaginings. I never knew much about Poe’s life beyond the few paragraphs of a biography you find in textbooks. The loss of his mother at a young age, his troubled relationship with his foster father, the fact that he married his 13 year-old first cousin, his problems with alcohol—that is the stuff of Poe legend. I had not heard of Frances Osgood, though I am certainly familiar with her poem “Puss in Boots.” It has been alleged that Poe and Osgood had an affair, and though most scholars dismiss the idea as rumor, Mrs. Poe author Lynn Cullen has played the old “What if?” game. What if Poe and Osgood did have an affair? How might that have happened?

Cullen paints a colorful picture of New York City in the 1840s. The literary scene was vibrant then, with soirees featuring such notables as Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Rufus Griswold, and famed photographer Matthew Brady. As Mrs. Poe begins, Poe has catapulted to the top of the literary ladder after the stunning success of “The Raven.” Everyone everywhere seems to have read the poem, and Poe—now a literary rock star—is asked about the poem wherever he turns, much to his annoyance. Poe and Osgood (a poet of some repute herself) run into each other through their literary associations, and in time fall in love. The story follows Poe and Osgood through their ill-fated love affair, along with some unfortunate meddling from someone close to Poe.

In Mrs. Poe, Cullen accomplished something important—it kept me turning pages. I was interested in reading about Poe since I know so little about him. I had no idea that Poe was such a celebrity in his day. I really didn’t know he was so admired by the ladies. Poe has never struck me as a hottie, but tastes have changed over time, I suppose.

I enjoyed the look into the New York literary society of the 1840s. I enjoyed reading about Poe and gaining a (fictionalized) sense of who he was as a person. If you take this novel for what it is—historical fiction—and you’re interested in Poe, then give Mrs. Poe a try. Mrs. Poe is an entertaining tale with interesting characters, a vibrant locale, a good dose of romance, and even some intrigue, which is what an historical novel should be.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Lynn Cullen

By Tonya Mitchell

Last year I befriended an author who was doing a local book signing in Cincinnati. Her name was Lynn Cullen. While she signed her book for me, I bemoaned the slow work of completing the first draft of my own novel.

Lynn took pity on me and took me under her wing. A few months later, she Skyped with my book club, our discussion centering around her then-newest book, the one she’d signed for me, The Creation of Eve [named among the best fiction books of 2010 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and an April 2010 Indie Next selection].

The book tells the story of Sofonisba Angissola, the first female artist to train under Michelangelo, and what happens when she’s sent to Spain to become painting instructor to the young wife of King Felipe II.

I was delighted when her newest book, Reign of Madness [Putnam] hit the shelves in August. It’s another historical page-turner, this time set during the Golden Age of Spain, and like Eve, beautifully and evocatively told.

The story surrounds Queen Juana of Castile, a woman known throughout history as “Juana the Mad” and explores the very plausible idea that Juana may not have been insane, but a victim of a smear campaign launched by her husband, Philippe the Handsome, so that he could take the throne.

Following is an interview with Lynn, Part I focusing on Reign of Madness, Part II on the craft of writing.

PART I

Tonya Mitchell: In Reign of Madness, you take a historical character, Queen Juana of Castile, a woman who’s been known throughout history as “Juana the Mad” and give us a quite different perspective of her character. What is it that drew you to Juana and her story? What elements of her story resonated with you and made you think that Juana may not have been mad, but a victim of rumor, power and court intrigue?

Lynn Cullen: To start with, I was intrigued by the legend of Juana La Loca. According to the legend, she fell so deeply in love with her husband that she went mad with jealousy when she couldn’t possess him entirely. She attacked his lovers and went on wild jealous rants. Only after he died, did she have him to herself. She then traveled around Spain at night, opening his casket to gaze upon his body–hers at last.

But that’s only half of the story. The other half is what made me write about her. I found out that her husband started calling her crazy only after he realized that he could become King of Spain that way. When they married, Juana was not expected to become queen so her husband, Philippe, had no reason to spread the rumor that she was crazy. But after several of Juana’s family members died, suddenly the crown was within her reach. Still, Philippe could only be full King if he proved her unfit to rule. So he set about making her look mad. What kills me is that people actually bought his campaign to ruin Juana when it was so obvious that he was doing it for his own gain. It surprises me that to this day there are those who believe that she was so in love with her husband that she could go insane with jealousy. In my mind, no man, not even one named Philippe the Handsome, is worth going mad over!

T.M.: You mention in the author’s note at the end of the book that many of the people of Tordesillas, the place of Juana’s imprisonment for nearly 50 years, do not believe to this day the tales of Juana’s madness. Are historians divided on the issue of her sanity?

L.C.: Some historians still seem to cling to the myth, although they modernize it by trying to diagnose her illness. Some have even claimed that she’s bi-polar. Bethany Aram, in her book about Juana de Castile, was the first historian I’ve read who wondered if Juana had a reason for allowing herself to be locked up and removed from power. Aram suggested that Juana wanted her son to have her throne. I ran with that idea. Here was her son Charles, born with a deformed jaw that made it difficult for him to eat or speak clearly. As a mother myself, I could believe that she wanted her son to rule so that no one would mock him for his deformities. Also Aram was the first to suggest that readers take the court reports of Juana’s madness with a grain of salt. The courtiers had every reason to report evidence of Juana’s illness–it made them look good to their bosses!

T.M.: Philippe is seemingly affable in the beginning of his marriage to Juana, but as Juana matures, Philippe remains more boy than man, given to excesses and petulance. You foreshadow this early on when Philippe’s grandmother, Margaret of York, says, Philippe is “a man whose appetite grew more voracious from eating.” Explain how this played into your plot.

L.C.: It was easy to imagine how someone like Philippe could grow cruel over time. His mother had once been the richest woman in the world. But she died when he was four and his father was rarely with him, and all he was left with were tales of the splendor of Burgundy, once a land of boundless wealth. By the time he inherited the title Duke of Burgundy, it was all show. There were very few lands left and no power. So here’s this young man who believes that he’s entitled to fame and glory, and the more he tastes it, the more he hungers for it. His desire for power was growing even as Juana was maturing into her role as mother. I saw their diverging aims as a source of unbearable tension…and we all know that tension is good for a book!

T.M.: And you show the tension so well. Poor Juana had few allies, less and less as the years passed.

L.C.: Her allies definitely abandoned her. The problem was that the Spanish court in which she grew up and Philippe’s Burgundian court were wildly different. Her Spanish courtiers fled the Burgundian Netherlands soon after arriving. They couldn’t stand how hedonistic and decadent the Burgundians were. Being Spanish was all about moderation–the Burgundians took the opposite approach in that they were very hardy partiers. They still have that reputation today in Europe. People of other countries sometimes kid Belgians (where the court of Burgundy reigned) about being “Burgundians.” I saw this myself in Amsterdam when our Dutch waiter teased my Belgian friend for ordering a huge steak and strong drink. He said, “Ah, Burgundy!” and my Belgian friend laughed, understanding the joke.

T.M.: Speaking of Amsterdam, you have the luxury of traveling to many of the places you write about to do your research. What’s it like to follow, many hundreds of year later, in the footsteps of the characters you’re writing about? Any cool stories to share?

L.C.: When I was a kid, I used to pretend I was a pioneer girl when I walked to school. I did that for way longer than I should admit. Now traveling to where my scenes are set, I get to pretend in my mind that I’m someone from long ago again. Spain and Belgium are perfect for this as there are so many little towns that are unchanged in parts since Juana’s time. My favorite moment though was in Tordesillas, Spain. I was in a tiny restaurant that is now where the palace was in which Juana was imprisoned. I was looking out at the Duero River, thinking Juana would have had the same view, when the waitress inexplicably brought me a branch of lilacs. I was stunned. Lilacs are my favorite flower. A bush grew in the yard of my childhood home, so the scent of them instantly brings back bittersweet memories. That this person whom I’d barely spoken to would give me lilacs at that moment brought tears to my eyes. And then I realized how my book would end, with Juana smelling a flower that brought back memories. The scent, the happy tines in her life, were fleeting, yet so sweet.

T.M.: In The Creation of Eve, you also tell the story of a 16th century woman of high birth who, upon marrying, becomes unhappy, yet is bound by duty. You have a knack for digging into history, finding a female character, and taking a different perspective of events than historians have. You explore what might have “really happened.” What do you look for to find these gems? What says to you, ‘Now here’s something to write about, here’s the real story.’ ”

L.C.: I usually have some theme that I’m trying to work out for myself. In Reign of Madness, one of the themes I was interested in exploring was why mothers and grown daughters have such a hard time understanding each other. I thought it would be interesting to see how Juana dealt with trying to see her mother, Isabel, the most powerful woman in the world, as a real person. I came to realize that daughters don’t want to see their mothers as less than perfect–it’s scary that this person you depend upon is actually scared herself of making mistakes! And mothers want to reach out and share what they’ve learned, especially when they see their daughters making the same mistakes they did, but their daughters don’t really want to hear it. Maybe my conclusions don’t apply to all mothers and daughters, but exploring Juana and Isabel’s relationship helped me to think about my relationship with my own three daughters.

T.M.: Juana’s mother, Queen Isabel, is a fascinating character. At times Juana is intimidated by her and even put-off by her mother’s strength and resolve. Yet Juana also seems to be grasping for her acceptance and seems to understand her mother better at the end of the book.

L.C.: I loved writing about Isabel. Such a no-nonsense gal. I shouldn’t admit this, but I cry every time I read the scene where Juana learns that Isabel has died. She’s just begun to understand her mother, and now she’s gone.

T.M.: Can you give us a hint what’s coming up next? What are you working on now?

L.C.: I’ve written a book about Rembrandt as an old man [I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, a young adult novel which was a 2007 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, and an ALA Best Book of 2008]. Now I’m working on a story about the young, sexy Rembrandt and Judith Leyster, the first woman to have her own painting workshop in Europe.

PART II

T.M.: What’s a “typical” writing day like for you? How many hours do you work?

L.C.: Typical day? I spend at least 6 hours trying to write. About 3 of them are actually fruitful. The other three I’m just trying to get into the story. If I’m lucky, I write a page a day. Sad, isn’t it? I should add that I often work more than 8 hours a day. Still don’t produce more than a couple pages even on the best days.

T.M.: How complete is your research when you begin to write?

L.C.: If I’ve been to the place where my scenes are set, I will start writing just a few weeks after I’ve started reading about my subject. I don’t have the whole book in mind, just an ending. I keep reading as I write, and when the first draft is nearly done, will go on location to see if I’m getting things right. The research doesn’t end until the book is in print.

T.M.: Do you write with an outline or is it more nebulous than that?

L.C.: Much more nebulous! I write with Post-it Notes stuck to my desks, my books, my nightstand, etc.

T.M.: Do you ever have to overcome writer’s block? If so, how?

L.C.: I have writer’s block from time to time. It means that something is wrong with the story. I read other authors I adore, like Ian McEwan and Penelope Lively, just to hear my idea of a perfect storyteller’s voice, and go back to my research books. Then I go back to the last point where the story was working and try to start from there again.

T.M.: Your research was extensive for Reign of Madness. What is your process?

L.C.: I buy tons of books, not just about my characters, but about the history of the country, customs, wildlife, artists from the period, etc., and then buy tons of books that I’ve found in the bibliographies of those books. Travel to the scenes is really important. Before I go, I comb through travel books. I love the travel books that combine history with travel like those by Rick Steves and Lonely Planet.

T.M.: Writing fiction based on history must be a slippery slope. How do you decide when to take creative license? Is it a matter of filling in the gaps or re-working events to make the story more compelling?

L.C.: Filling in the gaps, for sure. It’s my game to write a story that fits within the known historical events. Everything that happens in my books could have happened.

T.M.: How have recent changes in the publishing world (Borders bankruptcy, the introduction of e-readers) affected you as a writer?

L.C.: As a writer, I keep on doing what I’ve always done. But I feel bad for the people who are losing their jobs at bookstores and for bookstore owners. The publishing industry is a mess. But I keep on writing. It’s my therapy.

T.M.: Let’s talk platform – Facebook, website stuff, blogging. What is your advice for new authors in building one?

L.C.: First, you had better absolutely love your subject because as a novelist you’re going to be spending several years of your life on each book. I don’t have any pearls of wisdom (about platforms) other than to do them. My agent told me, though, writers don’t necessarily have to have their own blog. It’s not time-effective.

T.M.: If you could give just one pearl of wisdom to an aspiring author, what would it be?

L.C.: Don’t ever stop listening and learning. Writing is not a craft that can be learned overnight, so one should be prepared to work and to be in it for the long haul. You have to love the work. But having those magic moments when everything comes together on the page are definitely worth the effort.

For more on Lynn Cullen and her books, see Lynn’s website.

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Tonya Mitchell’s stories have appeared in The Front Porch Review, The Copperfield Review, and firstwriter magazine, as well as in the anthologies Welcome to Elsewhere, and Glimmer and Other Stories and Poems. She lives with her husband and three boys in Mason, Ohio, a quiet little suburb of Cincinnati, and is editor of Rough Draft, the newsletter for a motley group of writers who call themselves the Cincinnati Writers Project. From time to time, ideas for short stories come to mind and pester her, temporarily stalling progress on the first draft of her novel. She writes them anyway, to get the monkey off her back. “Writing is a form of salvation,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like an escape from the world, but at its best moments, it’s an act of rescue.” You may contact her at tmitchell.2012@yahoo.com.

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