It took me a long time to decide to write a nocel about Lidian and Waldo. At first, I just had a lot of questions about Lidian, especially about why she was relatively absent from so many biographies of her husband, so I did a lot of research just to satisfy my curiosity. Then I began writing poems about Lidian, and short fictional scenes. When I finally realized I really wanted to take on the challenge of writing a book about Lidian, I discussed my options with my agent, and she was the one who encouraged me to write a fictional account rather than straight biography, because that’s what I most enjoy writing.
2. Is Mr. Emerson’s Wife your first book? What made you decide to take on such a project and how long did it take to research and write it?
Actually I wrote several novels before I wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife. Most of them weren’t very good, but a couple were published as light-weight romances back in the 1980′s when my children were young. (They’re out of print now.) Mr. Emerson’s Wife was my first foray into historical fiction and I became totally obsessed with it. I loved doing the research and weaving it into scenes that made the characters come alive in my head and on the page. I guess the only reason I took it on was because it was so absorbing and after awhile I beame obsessed with bringing Lidian out of the shadows. It took me about nine years to research and write and revise – but of course I was doing other things, too, including getting my MFA degree.
3. Does a fictional account require the same level of research that a non-fiction or biographical account requires? How is it different writing a novel versus a biography?
Well, I haven’t written a straight biography, but I would say that a good work of historical fiction requires nearly as much research as a biography does. One difference is that, as a novelist, I let my curiosity lead me. And, of course, I also allowed my imagination to “fill in the cracks” of the historical record. There’s so much of anyone’s life that’s hidden from public view, and, while the non-fiction historian can speculate, he or she must be very cautious about putting out information that isn’t documented or verified. I tried to stay within the historical record for the most part, but I allowed myself to fully imagine many details of personal relationships that were never documented.
4. The balance between sticking to the facts and venturing into your imagination must be delicate. What gives you the confidence to take off from the facts into your imagination?
I don’t know if it’s confidence or folly. Seriously, though, I think it’s simply the novelist’s drive to fully understand the characters – from the inside out. I think many of us, when we read a biography on someone who interests us, do the same thing, though we may not think of it as fictionalizing. For example, we may read about the Alcott family moving so often from one place to another and think about the toll that took on Mrs. Alcott – we may imagine how exhausted she must have been, perhaps as we recall our own experiences of moving. So my “confidence” comes from a belief that the human experience is universal and that we can understand each other (over time and space) by extraoplating from our own experience and empathizing with someone in different circumstances. In other words, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes – which is, fundamentally, an act of the imagination. (And also a spiritual discipline, in my opinion.)
5. Mr. Emerson’s Wife was more than a love story or a story of fancy about famous real-life characters. What other elements did you weave into the story? For example, was it a commentary on marriage?
Yes, I conceived it as the story of a long-term marriage. A story about how a woman negotiates the disappointments and challenges of marriage over time. One thing that struck me as I researched and wrote Mr. Emerson’s Wife, was that these people – just like us – changed over time. So evaluative statements about them may only apply to a few years of their lives. And I believe the same was true of the Emerson’s marriage – some biographers say it was “happy” – and I think that is basically true of its last two decades. But it was pretty rocky from about 1837 to 1850. In fact, I think Lidian and Waldo might likely have separated if they’d lived in another time and place.
The other thing the book is about is Lidian’s inner conflict. It’s the same fundamental conflict reflected in Little Women (which is why I think Louisa May Alcott’s book is timeless) – the conflict between domesticity and independence, between a woman’s mind and her heart. I frankly think this is an inner conflict for most women, even today. I don’t see Lidian as just a victim of her husband’s domination. (In fact, Emerson was, for his day, unsually respectful of women.) But I think she struggled with herself – torn between what she felt was her “duty” and what she felt as her “calling.” Brenda Ueland, in the 1930′s addressed this issue when she wrote (addressing women), “Menial work at the expense of all true, ardent, creative work is a sin against the Holy Ghost.” But how many of us put aside our creative work to clean the bathtub? We may have shining tubs, but at what cost?
6. Have you written a new book? What is it about and when can we expect to see it?
I have written a new novel. It’s set in Massachusetts during King Philip’s War in 1676, and revolves around the story of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity by Native Americans at war with the English settlers and her reentry into Puritan society. One of the reasons I wanted to write about the Puritans was to explore the mindset the Transcendentalists were rebelling against. It turned out to be fascinating. The manuscript is currently with my agent.
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