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Hello and welcome. I’m Carol Cram, host of The Art In Fiction podcast. This episode features Lynn Cullen, author of Twain’s End and Mrs. Poe .
Lynn Cullen’s novels have received numerous awards, including selections as People Magazine Book of the Week and Oprah Book of the Week for Mrs. Poe, and People Magazine Book of the Week and Indie Next selection for Twain’s End. Lynn’s novels have been translated into seventeen languages and she has appeared on PBS's American Masters. She lives in Atlanta with her large family when not on the road researching her next book.
Welcome to The Art In Fiction Podcast, Lynn.
Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here.
So first off, I am in awe of your novels. I love the way in which you combine fact and fiction, the way you write about interactions of real historical figures with larger-than-life people like Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain, who is one of my particular favorites.
So today we’re going to focus on two listed on Art In Fiction—Twain’s End and Mrs. Poe, both of which are in the Literature category. So let's start by talking about Twain's End. Could you give us a quick overview of Twain's End?
I always like an underdog and I like that Twain had this tragic childhood and that he was always trying to prove himself. Actually, Poe is the same deal. Maybe all great writers are the same, have the same issues that they're trying to prove themselves and try to be loved.
Anyhow, this is Twain's need to be greatly loved. And he created this persona, Mark Twain. Mark Twain's not a person, that's his pen name. It's Samuel Clemens. And the more I read about him, the more I found it really intriguing that Mark Twain is this dream person. It's not Samuel Clemens at all. And that, you know, that hooked me. But then what I read about in his later life, how he had the secretary, Isabelle Lyon. She was everything to him. She was the perfect secretary. She didn't just do secretary stuff. She ran his life, his social calendar. She dealt with the reporters. She built his house. She built his house!
So here she went from being everything to him and even managing his daughter's affairs for her. And then all of a sudden, he turned on her and in a major way. He dragged her through the mud, said the most vile, just almost unimaginably vile things about her in the press. And, you know, I wondered what turned him against her and he never changed. He never recanted. And the funny thing is she never took him to task for it. Her husband did try to briefly, but she died alone and reviled in a little basement apartment in Greenwich Village years later.
In fact, Hal Holbrook knew of her and contacted her, and that's how Hal Holbrook developed his Twain act.
I remember seeing Hal Holbrook quite a few years ago do his Twain act. That was amazing.
And he got his mannerisms from talking to Isabelle Lyon. So I was just intrigued by who was this woman who was everything and Hal Holbrook even knew enough to consult her. Who was she, that she went from everything to nothing for him. Why was that? And that's what got me going in the story. I found that he's a deeply troubled man. People who really admire him will probably be shocked.
Yes. Well, I wasn't shocked because I have actually done a lot of research about Sam Clemens and Mark Twain. As I told you before, I did my thesis on him many, many moons ago. So, I did know that there was a big difference between two. And actually I think it was fascinating that you explored that so much because maybe it was this complexity that made him so compelling as a writer, you know, this disparate, these two people.
Probably so. And I mean, and he wrote some great things and had some great thoughts. He had this side that was so tender and you know, was champion for the little man. He always was. He didn't suffer fools. I mean, I really, there's a lot of things I really admire about him. And yes. So that makes it even more poignant that the man is so flawed too.
And I remember when I was studying him, actually the works that I loved the most were the ones that he wrote towards the end. And you actually touch on those sometimes in the novel, his really dark satires. He was such an anomaly, wasn't he, because sometimes he was very tender and almost sentimental and other times he was just raging.
Right. We're more quick to apply a DSM label on people these days, but I suppose he’s bipolar. What do you think?
Oh yes. I was thinking that all the way through, what would he be? Would he be a narcissist? Would he be bipolar? Would he be depressive? I don't know. He would, yeah. We'd give him some kind of label. But he was also a genius, you know, for his work is wonderful.
How do we reconcile that? I think we're actually having that problem a lot lately, aren't we, like reconciling the bad things they did in their lives because, you know, he was not a particularly nice dad, was he, with his girls.
No. This makes me think of when I was at Twain House, the Mark Twain house in Hartford. And I was in the little bookshop that they have there with every book that he's ever written. And it's a great little bookshop. I was going to speak there, and some guy came up to me and said, I guess he'd read my book. And he said, are all geniuses horrible people?
And you know, at the time I said, no, but you know, I think there might be something to that, you know. There's very few, or tender and wonderful people, you know, all the way through.
Though, I have to admit that as, the older I get and, you know, it's been a few years since this book's come out, six years, I actually have more sympathy for him than I did. I was mad at him about Isabelle Lyon, to tell you the truth. He was so awful to her and she did not deserve that. Because he was jealous of her, of her getting married. I really do believe that's why he went ballistic on her. It wasn't right.
But what I do appreciate more and more as he got older, he was more and more disappointed with humans. He even was afraid that everybody would think he was a misanthropist and he was misanthropist. But, but he was right. He saw these foibles and he called them out. And I appreciate that as I age. I'm getting to be, I guess, less able to suffer fools too well.
Also, I think it's really good that we do acknowledge the complexity of life, as we were talking about earlier. I mean, he was a great writer. He was also not a great guy all the time. Sometimes he was. That's life. You know, I think we want everything to be too simple in a way, but things are complicated.
Yeah. I agree. And I think that's really important for all my characters that I don't want them to, I don't want people to expect anyone to be perfect. And when you're writing about famous people, I wish people didn't have these expectations that made these people godlike. They're people. They're just like us. They just happen to have something catch.
Like Poe, for example. I don't even know if some people call him a genius and I don't know. He did kind of really introduce a genre with his, you know, detective stories and he was such a good psychological writer. But, like, The Raven for example, I don't find a work of sheer genius and I don't think he did at first. And after a while he is, like, oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I meant to be a genius.
So let's talk about Mrs. Poe, which of course is about a romance between Frances Osgood and Edgar Allan Poe while sort of a long drawn-out one. So what was the genesis of that novel?
Well, like I said, every novel comes from a question that I'm trying to answer. Back in the recession, the great recession, and I had some books under contract and because of the recession and everything, I didn't have this publisher I want with the book that I was working on.
And I was in this office I’m sitting in here and looking at my books and thinking I’ve got to write something. I need a feisty heroine because that's what they told me they didn't like about my book, that the heroine wasn't feisty. I was in here thinking feisty heroine, feisty heroine. And it had to be someone from history because I love, you know, doing these famous people and like getting down to the bottom of them.
Poe popped up in my head and I had a single Poe book in my shelves. I don't even know why Poe popped in my head, but I ran over to my computer because there was, like, alarm bells were ringing and I looked him up and I saw that he was very poor. He was orphaned, unloved by his foster family. And he was trying to prove himself with his writing. And finally in 1845 with The Raven, all his dreams came true. He was, like, the most famous guy in, really writer, in the world.
People knew him around the world. Kids followed him on the street, pretend like they were ravens. They did parodies of The Raven. Even Abe Lincoln wrote a parody of The Raven. It's called Pole Cat.
So here he was all sudden huge and you know within one year's time he lost it all. He was kicked out of society. He was the society's darling. He was asked to go to all the literary parties. Anyhow, he was kicked out of everybody's home. And he ended up with his wife dying in Fordham, New York, you know, in the Bronx now. It was the countryside then. And I thought, what made this guy go from having everything to nothing in one year's time?
So I was reading around and I saw that in that year some people thought perhaps he had an affair with Frances Osgood. And I thought, oh, okay. And so I looked her up and I saw that she was essentially single, She was married, but her husband had abandoned her. He was a portrait painter and he tended to bed the women that he painted and would just take off and leave his wife and two children. And so she was trying to support her family with her writing, which, you know, it's not so easy for women now to support their families with writing. It's really hard.
But back then, it was unheard of. So here she was doing this and when I read about her trying to make a go of it with her writing, the hair just stood up on my arms. I just thought, I know you, I know you, and I wrote that book. It just was like a dream. It came fairly quickly. And it was just, it was really a turning point in my career. It was just such fun too. I just had so much delight in discovering New York from that period.
I think that's what comes out in it too, is that I kind of could feel that you were enjoying writing that book. You know, the way you described New York, and also it's very well plotted and you know, these little bits that you have in there from Edgar Allen Poe's stories. I know his stories better than his poetry. Years ago, I used to teach the stories because they were always on the curriculum, you know, The Tell Tale Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum. And the way those, you worked those in here and there was really clever. And I just sort of felt that as an author, you were enjoying yourself and that really came through. It sounds like you were.
Thanks. I was enjoying myself because it really was great fun to write. I don't know. It just all came. You know, I felt like, thank you, whoever you are above, for dropping this on me.
This was your breakout novel, wasn't it? Because you'd already written several before. So that's encouraging news for authors. You just never know which novel's going be the one.
One of the most interesting characters I found in the novel was the character of Mrs. Poe, Virginia, who is such a child, but you know, also very much suffering. She was fascinating. And first off, why did you call the novel Mrs. Poe?
Well, because I felt like it was the two of them, I guess, competing, but both of them wanting to be Mrs. Poe and, like, who is the real Mrs. Poe? Because Virginia, you know, married him when he was young and well, when she was super young, when she was 13, but they were both kind of desperate. It was a marriage to cling to each other. Actually, her mother, well, I should say her cousin, she had a wealthy cousin who was going to take her and raise her as his ward because she was still young enough to be a ward. But at that time, little Edgar, little, he was in his twenties. He was afraid. Edgar was living with Virginia and her mother and he thought, oh, this, he's going to lose her. The only way to keep her would be to marry her.
So it was very, it was not the usual thing to marry at 13. Some people think, ah, back then they married younger. Thirteen was a little young, and to make it your cousin even weirder. But it was just because I think he loved her as a sister. He called her sis. And I think that was their relationship even though I think Virginia, from what I could tell, though very little is known about her, but I imagine her just being crazy in love with her older dashing cousin. Because he was not gloomy and ugly when he was young. You know, when we, the pictures we're so familiar with are when the man was dying. That's never a good look for anybody. And so, when he was young and so handsome and you know, so smart and she just adored him.
She was the legal Mrs. Poe, but Francis was really more in his league, you know. She was a poet and I just imagine that the two of them just really got each other. And you know, if he had married later, he would've married her, but he was already married. So that's why, you know, it's Mrs. Poe, like, who is the actual Mrs. Poe?
Yes, that's what I was thinking when I was reading it. And I was thinking poor Virginia Poe must have been so incredibly jealous, which of course is what you did bring through.
Yes. And you know, this is a point in the favor of going places, going to the scenes of your books. I knew that she was jealous, but I went to where she lived on I believe it's Fourth Avenue in, no Fourth Street in Greenwich Village. I went to where they lived. It's still there. You can go, actually, all that's left is, like, the banister of the stairway. It's part of NYU now, but you can go to where that building is. And I looked down the street, I looked up to where Frances Osgood was staying. Virginia could look out her window and see him go in there. And when I saw, when I looked out and saw, there's just, you know, a matter of six houses or so, and around the corner that she could have actually seen him pretty much disappear into that house.
It broke my heart for her. How awful to see your husband every night, you know, whistling off to the Bartlett's house. And the reason I knew that there was actually an affair because a lot of people, Poe scholars, some people say no, there was no affair, but it was Mr. Bartlett saying, yes, when Frances Osgood was staying with us that summer, every night Poe would come and stay until after midnight. And I thought, woo. You know, things happen after midnight.
So that was pretty telling. That and the letters. It's recorded how there were letters that were, at least Frances's friends believed that there were letters that Frances and Poe exchanged because they wanted those letters back when the affair came to light. They wanted to save Frances's good name and get those letters back. So I think back in the day, I think everybody knew about this affair and there was no doubt. And that's what got him kicked out of society.
Actually, one of the elements in both of your novels that really fascinated me is how you depict the complexity of romance. I mean, both of your heroines love complicated men. I mean, their romances are not straightforward. So, what are you wanting to communicate about the nature of love with these novels?
Well, I think one thing that goes through my mind is how we are so attracted, you know, we're animals, it sounds terrible. We're organisms. We're organisms, we're animals. We have drives. And I think it works on us all the time that we're attracted to people. It's just part of being an animal, and I think that's why we so many rules in society and in my books, people keep running into these rules and they break them and they get ruined, but those rules are there because I guess there has to be some kind of order because we have these desires all the time and I just feel like it's just so human to want the wrong person, I think, or always just to, just to want, period.
Just to want, period. That's very, very true. You know, even though for both women, these were not good ideas, these, um, relationships. But all the way through with Mrs. Poe, I kept thinking really, you shouldn't be doing this. This is not gonna end well, but she couldn't help herself. I mean, she loved him so much and the same with Isabelle and Samuel Clemens, even though, you know, as you said, even at the very end, when he was so awful to her, she didn't ever speak badly of him, did she?
No, never. And you know, I ended up making that constant craving, which, that's a title of one of my all time favorite songs by…
KD Lang, yes. Good Canadian girl.
Yes. KD Lang. I love that song, Constant Craving, because I feel like that is the core of our existence. What we fight about. I don't know why we have this, but it's part of us and we can never be happy with what we have. We always are craving something else. And I think this, you see this in every book I write, it's like the core of every book I write and it became even more, like my last one out, The Sisters of Summit Avenue. It's played out because it's about advertising a lot and how advertising takes advantage of that craving. You know, that we want more.
Yeah, it's true. I mean, yeah, we are never really satisfied as human beings.
No, no. And you know how we were talking about how we don't read our novels when we're done, we should. We should go back and go, wow, I did this, but being human, you don't. You go on to the next, you want the next one. But if there really is something that it should be said about respecting your own work, and I'm the worst offender of that, and it, you know, that's just part of this whole, always looking ahead, we're always looking ahead.
And part of that, too, is being hard on ourselves. I don't know about you, but I mean, I've looked at the novels I've written and yeah, yeah, they're fine. But all I can think about is I need to write another one that's better and better and whatever I did wasn't good enough. And even if it did well, it doesn't matter. Like, we're never satisfied.
Actually that leads me to a question about the creative process because that figures prominently as a theme, I think, in both of these novels. And I would imagine in some of your other ones as well. The idea of the creative process, of what it takes to create and how sometimes you can't and sometimes it works well. How similar was it to your own process, what you depicted?
Well, actually, Mrs. Poe in particular was very honest about what it's like to be a writer, at least from my experience. There's a line in there about how when something really good comes on the page and you know what, I never, whenever something really good comes, I never can even claim credit for it. I always say, where did that come from? I'm shocked. And it doesn't happen, but like once a month, you know, it's not all the time. But when it happens, I describe a scene where Frances has this happen in a poem and you have to sit back because you feel like, like you've opened this wound and you have to let it bleed a minute. It's a very physical feeling. You know, when something's really good, those few times.
I'm always surprised about where did that come from? So, we were talking earlier that you would like to do a reading from Mrs. Poe.
Ah, yes. And I have a passage here from the fifth chapter. And it's really just a little shout out to writers. This is where Frances is going to meet Poe for the first, well, she's met him before, but this is a personal meeting that he has called. So this is 1845 New York.
Two weeks later, I was tucked beneath a thick buffalo robe riding downtown in Miss Fuller's carriage. I had been too nervous to enjoy the trip or to appreciate Miss Fuller's carriage pulled by a clapping bay. That Miss Fuller was the only woman in New York to support herself by writing, let alone to have enough left over to buy her own buggy mattered little to me at that moment. Why had I agreed to meet Poe and why would he want to meet me?
He had already made and broken that appointment the previous week. I had been relieved by the cancellation only to become agitated once more when he set up a different date. As suddenly and inexplicably as he had championed my poetry at the New York Society Library, he could withdraw his support if I said something wrong.
Who knew what triggered the man's tomahawk. Miss Fuller jerked on the reins.
“Here we are.” She looked at me expectantly as if I should climb out of her trim little gig without her.
“Shouldn't we wait for the doorman to take your reins?” I ask.
“Take my reins? Oh, did you think I was coming with you? No, no, dear. I'm off to investigate a slum on Hester street. You really thought I was coming with you? I only meant that I would take you here. I thought your husband would appreciate my escorting you since he is, um, as you say out of town.”
“Would you rather I came with you to the slum?” I ask.
“And have you jilt Mr. Poe? I wouldn't dare.” Miss Fuller steadied her horse, then waved me toward the hotel. “Go on. It'll be good for your books.”
Reluctantly, I climbed out from under the heavy robe. I held my breath as a carriage rattled away. I found myself on a sidewalk before the hotel contemplating an immediate about face up Broadway when I felt someone's presence behind me. Before I could move, a man said, “Lord help the poor bears and beavers.”
I turned to find Mr. Poe, his black-lashed eyes trained upon the building before us. Without a hello, he said, “Davy Crockett's words upon first seeing this pile.”
I hesitated. “Because of Mr. Astor’s fur trade?”
He continued as if I had not spoken. “But Crockett was mistaken. It wasn't the bears and the beavers that made Astor's fortune. It was the opium he bought from the Chinese.”
I looked at him in surprise. “Mr. Astor deals in opium?”
He kept his gaze upon the hotel. “Whenever you see this much wealth, assume that someone has dirtied his hands. Fortunes don't come to saints.”
“I've never thought of that.”
He gave me a sharp glance. “Really?”
I drew back.
“Mr. Astor prefers to be known for the slaughter of animals rather than for his association with opiates. I wonder why that is.” He lowered his sights to me. “Shall we enter, Mrs. Osgood?”
So he did recognize me. I proceeded him inside into the hot maw of the lobby. As we walked past impressive people dressed in beautiful clothes, I felt low and insignificant, a n’er do well’s abandoned wife although my gown was as fine as anyone's. What a sham I was. I stopped to face him.
“Congratulations on the success of The Raven.”
He frowned as if insulted.
“People love it. I hear talk of it everywhere I go.”
“People have no taste. Don't tell me you think it's a work of genius.”
Was this a trick? When I did not answer, he said, “Thank you Mrs. Osgood. You're the first honest woman I have met in New York.” He shook his head. “It is my luck that I will become famous for that piece.”
Still not sure I shouldn't be gushing, I switched to safer ground. “May I ask what you're working on now?”
“A book on the material and spiritual universe.”
I laughed. He watched me coolly. “I'm sorry. I thought you were joking.”
“I never joke.”
“Oh, of course not. Excuse me.”
“Although I wish I were. It never will sell.”
“Your work always sells.”
“Not any of my works with a true idea in them. People want to be titillated or frightened. They don't want to think.”
I smiled hesitantly. What did he want with me?
“This is why I singled out your poems in my lecture,” he said. “They have real feeling in them. If one reads between the lines.”
I could not help but be disarmed. “Thank you. I find that the thoughts spoken between the lines are the most important parts of a poem or story.”
“As in life,” he said.
Thank you. That was great. I was totally taken back. I remember that scene. I was really struck too when you talked about Mr. Astor, is there such a thing as a wealthy man who didn't get his hands dirty getting his wealth and that seemed very timely
I got such a kick too out of the whole thing with The Raven in that novel. I confess I had never read The Raven and you start the novel with it, the entire poem, and I couldn't actually see what was so great about it, I have to say
I know it's heresy for me to say that in particular, but you know, it was just catchy.
It was very catchy and never more, never more. And, so it was interesting because when I first, because I listened to it, of course, listened to it being recited and I went okay, this is supposed to be like a really, really great poem. I'm not so sure. And then all the way through the novel, it keeps coming up and he's sort of ambivalent about it himself because it made him famous, but also he doesn't think it's all that great.
I think that his Imp of the Perverse is a more honest and interesting piece. That's actually my favorite. It's maybe not the most well written. It's not catchy at all like The Raven. I feel like again, he captured human nature by saying, it says, in a nutshell, that you're your own worst enemy and why is that? Why when you have everything. And Imp of the Perverse is actually the theory of this whole novel because he had everything. And why would you stand on the precipice and jump? Why would you, when you have everything, why? And he knew better. And that's what the story was about is, you know, somebody who did in his own self and knowing better. There's a lot of guilt and that kind of thing in a lot of his stories, which I think is a much more honest thing than The Raven.
And I think just seeing the similarities a little bit between Poe and Twain, you know, quite tortured characters and never satisfied.
They're actually way more alike than I even thought of as I was writing them. It was only afterward I thought they truly have much in common from their sad childhoods to their adulation and their own discomfort with their adulation. Though, I'd have to say Poe liked his adulation more. No, I take it back. You know, Twain, he loved being famous.
Mark Twain liked it too. Yeah.
I take it back. I take that back.
So do you have one piece of advice for authors? I know that's a big question. I'm sure you're asked quite often, you know, what would be your one piece of advice for aspiring writers?
To always keep learning.
Definitely good advice.
If something doesn't work, listen to the editor or people who have looked at your work, if something's not working, listen, listen. Two heads are better than one. And I just think it really helps to question, you know, where you could improve. I've been at this a long time and I am always questioning and there's so much to learn, but the learning's fun. So I'm not suggesting something horrible. I'm suggesting isn't it fun to discover what we have?
To embrace the learning that's and it's really part of, of the joy of writing. I know I've heard a few authors say this and I totally agree. What really motivates us is trying to get better and better and better. Maybe that's why we don't like to read our books, the ones that are already published. We want to go forward.
When you discover a piece that works in your book, you've been hitting your head on the wall and it comes to you. That's our reward.
Absolutely. That's totally the reward. Not the publication, not the, you know, the sales, those are all great, but it's yeah, it's when it works.
Yep. That discovery or something, a piece that you were missing that you never dreamed of and it pops into, everything works out that, I don't know, just the discovery part is our joy and I hope people stick with writing because that joy is, I feel sorry for people who don't have it because it's so fun.
It is. I know, I know. Thanks so much for chatting with me today, Lynn. This has just been delightful.
I've really enjoyed speaking with you too. Great discussion. I hope we get to discuss things in the future.
I’ve been speaking with Lynn Cullen, author of Twain’s End and Mrs. Poe in the Literature category. Be sure to check the show notes for links to more information about Lynn Cullen. Please follow Art In Fiction on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to The Art In Fiction Podcast and give it a positive review or rating wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks so much for listening!