Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Interview with Lynn Cullen, author of Mrs. Poe

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Lynn Cullen to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her much celebrated release, Mrs. Poe. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Lynn. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Mrs. Poe.
Told through the eyes of Poe’s lover, poet Frances Osgood, Mrs. Poe traces the rise and fall of the mysterious author the year after he wrote ‘The Raven’ in 1845.

What inspired you to write this story? Where did it begin?
It all began with trauma in my own life.  The week that I heard that the book that I’d been working on for 18 months wouldn’t be published, my husband, who’d been unemployed for a year, came down with a life-threatening case of meningitis which resulted in a brain injury. The day I brought him home from the hospital, I was worrying about whether he would ever be well again and how I might support us, when Poe popped into my mind. When I looked up Poe, I liked that he was an underdog—I love writing about underdogs—but when I read about his affair with Frances Osgood and her struggles to support herself with her writing after her husband left her, alarms went off. I knew I had to write about her. 

During my race to tell Frances’s story, my husband began to slowly heal. Although he couldn’t read a sentence after his injury, he put in several hours each day trying to decipher a novel. After a few months, he started to talk to me about the plots and characters of the book he was reading. I knew he was back. You could say that novels healed him.

Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe is an interesting individual. How did you approach characterizing him for your novel and how do you hope he comes across to your readers?
The Poe that most people think of today—gloomy, unattractive, a bit mad—was not the Poe of 1845. The creepy Poe of legend is a product of the worst smear job in literary history, thanks to his archrival and literary executor, Rufus Griswold. It became my mission to correct this image in Mrs. Poe. The real Poe of 1845 was handsome, gentlemanly, and sought after by the ladies.

This portrait, drawn from life in 1846 by John A. McDougall, is said to be an accurate depiction of the writer. Along with this and a few other portraits from around the year of the Raven, I shaped my Poe on both contemporary descriptions and modern biographies.  I then tossed in things I find attractive in a man--a dry sense of humor, a wonderfully wide kind streak, and keen intelligence--as well as evidence for the capacity for passion, running just below the surface, a la Colin Firth. I literally pictured Ralph Fiennes in the BBC Film version of Wuthering Heights when I needed a visual boost. It was fun creating my idea of the perfect hunk.

Frances Sargent Osgood was a popular writer and poet in her own right, but contemporary readers are probably less familiar with her work and/or character. Can you tell us a bit about your interpretation of her?
I drew a lot from my own experiences as a mother and writer while creating Frances’s character, and hoped to include the fears and joys for both. I tried to get a sense of Frances’s personality from her poems, which I had also done with Poe while I was developing his character. Frances’s way of thinking is much like my way of thinking if I had been in her shoes and falling in love with Poe. I tried to be as honest and forthright as possible, letting real human emotion guide my plot as opposed to letting my plot drive her character.

I read and reviewed Mrs. Poe in August of 2013 yet I remain impressed with your treatment of Samuel and Virginia. Did you find it difficult working with the spouses of your star-crossed lovers? 
I remember your kind review last year and I thank you very much for it! In truth, it was fun to write the Samuel and Virginia characters because even though they were flawed, I loved them. One of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever received, delivered to me in my twenties by my high school friend and distinguished writer, Michael Martone, is to always love your characters. Don’t mock them, don’t scorn them, and do try to understand them. Michael was talking about main characters but since then I have even applied that maxim to my villains. I delight in them all.

Rufus Wilmot Griswold
Another figure that stands out in my mind is Griswold. Can you tell us a bit about his role in your story? 
Oh, Griswold! If anyone was truly mad in the real-life drama surrounding Poe, it was Rufus Griswold. This is a guy who actually dug up his wife a month after she died so that he could clip her hair and hug her once again.  Relatives had to pry him off her decomposing body, yet while she was living, he wouldn’t give her the time of day—he refused to even live in the same city with her. He applied the same intensity of madness to his determination to destroy Poe. He was obsessed with Poe after Poe criticized his poetry anthology, and made it his life’s work to besmirch Poe’s name. How this sworn enemy of Poe came to possess Poe’s literary papers after Poe died became one of the central questions that I asked myself as I wrote Mrs. Poe.

New York is very much a character in the novel. How did you bridge nearly 170 years of history to recreate the vibrant backdrop of this growing metropolis for your story?
It was easy to bridge the gap from 1845 to the present in Manhattan because much of Poe’s New York from the time of ‘The Raven’ still exists. City Hall Park and Washington Square are still there as is Battery Park, although they have changed some. I consulted city guides and insurance maps at the New York Historical Society Library, among dozens of other books, to correct these and other places to their actual 1845 appearance. Fortunately, the house where Poe and so many literary figures met for “conversaziones” still exists at 116 Waverly Place. It’s a private home and can’t be entered but the exterior has been restored and you can imagine Poe and Frances treading up those porch steps. We are lucky, too, that a perfect model for both the exterior and interior of the Bartletts’ home in which Frances stayed exists today in the Merchant House Museum in Greenwich Village.  My tours of this home, built in 1830 and furnished as a gentleman’s home would have been in Poe’s time, provided fodder for and verification of many scenes in my book. It’s open to the public and absolutely fascinating if you want to see what it was like to live in New York in 1845.

One of my favorite aspects of the story is that it’s brimming with literary references. Why did you chose to include these in Mrs. Poe?
Reading about Poe’s attendance at literary salons in New York led me to Anne Charlotte Lynch Botta, which in turn opened the world of the artistic leaders in the city at the time. Anne Lynch began what I think of as the forerunner of the book club in her home right around the time ‘The Raven’ was published. Her unpretentious gatherings, called “conversaziones,” were open to anyone who wanted to discuss literature, art, and ideas. They were an instant success, attracting everyone from Poe to Hawthorne to Louisa May Alcott. Lynch’s Saturday night book clubs quickly became a who’s who of important or soon-to-be-important New Yorkers. From the list of attendees over the years, I pulled the famous characters who would have been in the city in 1845. These luminaries gathered together each Saturday night at the conversaziones just as surely as movie stars gather today at the Academy Awards. 

Trinity Church, New York
You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
Frankly, I had a blast writing the entire book but the scene up in the bell tower of Trinity Church was extra fun to put on paper.  As I do with every scene in my books, I visited the setting to make sure I got the details right. The lovely man who rings the church bells took me high into the tower to see the little windows set in the face of the clock: Yep, a head can fit through them…

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
One of the harder scenes to write was the scene in Boston, when Poe and Frances steal a moment together. I wanted to be very honest and very real—I weighed every word carefully. The ending was also tough because I had to write through tears each time I worked on it.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I was very interested in the changes in the natural environment in New York in 1845. Along these lines, I loved the theme of how man is always trying to conquer nature but how nature will always have the final say. We try to impose our will upon human nature as well, making rules for ourselves that we so often break. These ideas are in Mrs. Poe but I couldn’t make a huge point of them without slowing down the action, although Frances and Poe are example of what happens to two people who should naturally be together but are bound by cultural rules to remain apart. 

Historical novelists frequently have to adjustment facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Mrs. Poe and if so, what did you alter and why? 
The game I like to play with myself in writing historical fiction is to take known facts and to weave a story within any gaps in the history, while never allowing myself to alter the facts. For example, there’s a lot of evidence of Poe and Frances’s affair in their poetry, in eye witness accounts of Poe visiting Frances past midnight many nights, in accounts of their behavior together at parties, and in the New York literati’s rage toward Poe when love letters from Frances were purported to have been discovered at his house.  I took the evidence, factored in where Poe and Frances were each day as gleaned from contemporary reports, then imagined what happened between them. But I don’t play with timing or geography or other things like that to make the facts fit my story. I fit my story around the facts.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Virginia Poe. Her character was drawn largely from my imagination because so little is known about her. While that was fun, I’d like to see how close I got to being right.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast of actors to play the primary roles in a screen adaptation of your work, who would you hire? 
My dream cast is Leonardo DiCaprio as Poe, Kate Winslett as Frances, and Jennifer Lawrence as Virginia Poe. But there are plenty others who would be fantastic. Who would you pick?

Way to put me on the spot! I guess if it were up to me I'd cast Edward Norton as Poe, Michelle Dockery as Frances and round out the group with Sarah Bolger as Virginia. 

Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process? 
I write every day or am miserable. I like to write outside on a lawn chair with the birds singing and my dog nearby, or indoors with my cat on my lap—they take the sting out of the hours put in behind the computer screen. I write 6 – 8 hours a day although about 90% of the time is spent spinning my wheels or revising what I wrote the previous day. If I’m lucky, I produce a page a day—I’m not exactly a speedster. On the other hand, I love revision.

Who are your favorite authors?
Penelope Lively, Ian McEwan, Jess Walters.

What are you currently reading?
I just reread Beautiful Ruins. What a masterpiece! There’s even fantastic historical fiction in there.

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I walk every day and love to hang out with my grandkids. As much as I adore traveling, I also love being home with family.  But travel is a real draw—I feel most alive when learning new things and meeting nice people.

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate? 
Coffee! (she says while she takes a sip.)

Oh, I am so with you on that one. Confirmed coffee addict here.

Last question, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
I’m working on a book about the women in Mark Twain’s life. 

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Lynn Cullen grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the fifth girl in a family of seven children. She learned to love history combined with traveling while visiting historic sites across the U.S. on annual family camping trips. She attended Indiana University in Bloomington and Fort Wayne, and took writing classes with Tom McHaney at Georgia State. She wrote children’s books as her three daughters were growing up, while working in a pediatric office and later, at Emory University on the editorial staff of a psychoanalytic journal. While her camping expeditions across the States have become fact-finding missions across Europe, she still loves digging into the past. She does not miss, however, sleeping in musty sleeping bags. Or eating canned fruit cocktail. She now lives in Atlanta with her husband, their dog, and two unscrupulous cats.

Lynn Cullen is the author of The Creation of Eve, named among the best fiction books of 2010 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and as an April 2010 Indie Next selection. She is also the author of numerous award-winning books for children, including the young adult novel I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, which was a 2007 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, and an ALA Best Book of 2008. Her novel, Reign of Madness, about Juana the Mad, daughter of the Spanish Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, was chosen as a 2011 Best of the South selection by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and was a 2012 Townsend Prize finalist. Her newest novel, MRS. POE, examines the fall of Edgar Allan Poe through the eyes of poet Francis Osgood.

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“Is it true that Edgar Allen Poe cheated on his tubercular, insipid young wife with a lady poet he’d met at a literary salon? Cullen makes you hope so.” –New York Times

“This fictional reenactment of the mistress of Edgar Allan Poe escorts you into the glittering world of New York in the 1840s…A bewitching, vivid trip into the heyday of American literary society.” –, Book of the Week

“Vivid…Atmospheric…Don’t miss it.” –People

“Nevermore shall you wonder what it might have been like to fall deeply in love with Edgar Allen Poe… Mrs. Poe nails the period.” –NPR

“A page-turning tale…Readers who loved Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife will relish another novel based on historical scandal and romance.” –Library Journal, starred review

“Immensely engaging…Set upon the backdrop of a fascinating era…this is not only a captivating story of forbidden lovers but an elaborately spun tale of NYC society.” –The Historical Novels Review

“A must-read for those intrigued by Poe, poetry and the latter half of nineteenth-century America.” –RT Book Reviews (4 stars)

"Spellbinding and seductive." –Flashlight Commentary

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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: October 1, 2013
Released by: Gallery Books
ISBN-10: 1476702918
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Check Out All the Stops on Lynn Cullen's Mrs. Poe Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, May 19
Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, May 20
Interview & Giveaway at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Wednesday, May 21
Interview & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, May 23
Review at A Bookish Affair
Monday, May 26
Review at 100 Pages a Day
Guest Post & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Tuesday, May 27
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Wednesday, May 28
Review at Turning the Pages
Friday, May 30
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Monday, June 2
Review & Giveaway at Book Lovers Paradise
Guest Post & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Tuesday, June 3
Review at Kelsey’s Book Corner
Review at Let Them Read Books
Wednesday, June 4
Review & Giveaway at Reading Lark
Thursday, June 5
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Interview at Jorie Loves a Story
Friday, June 6
Review at Jorie Loves a Story
Interview & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection
Monday, June 9
Review at Historical Tapestry
Wednesday, June 11
Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Tapestry
Thursday, June 12
Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict
Interview & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Friday, June 13
Review at Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, June 16
Review at Unabridged Chick
Review at A Bibliotaph’s Reviews
Tuesday, June 17
Review & Interview at Layered Pages
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, June 18
Review at Svetlana’s Reads and Views


Anonymous said...

I loved Mrs. Poe! It was a wonderful book with some interesting and complex relationships. Thanks for the great interview.
-Flirting with Fiction

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Colleen Turner said...

Fascinating author post!!! I will be reading this one soon for review and the more and more I read about it the more and more I want to just pick it up and start!

Lynn Cullen said...

It was such a pleasure chatting with you at Flashlight Commentary! Thank you for asking such interesting questions--I had a great time answering them. By the way, I love your choices for the cast of MRS. POE: The Movie. I can see them all in those roles. Hollywood, do you hear us?


Anonymous said...

It is a wonderful book Colleen. You won't be disappointed.

Lol. It was so hard to think of someone I liked for Poe Lynn! Ultimately came down to Norton or McAvoy. I love the idea of Kate and Leo too, they have chemistry.