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INTERVIEW: Lynn Cullen, author of Mrs Poe

Friday, January 10, 2014

Lynn Cullen joins me today to chat about her new book MRS POE, which tells the story of the tragic love affair between Edgar Allen Poe and the poet Frances Osgood. 

 Lynn Cullen

1. You’ve written nearly twenty books throughout your career. How does the publication of Mrs. Poe compare?  

Each book comes from where I was in my life when I wrote them.   When my children were young, I wrote children’s novels drawn from my own memories of being an angst-ridden adolescent.   

When my daughters were in middle school, I became interested in Renaissance history and art, and so I taught myself about it by writing picture books, a young adult and an adult novel on the subject (I AM REMBRANDT’S DAUGHTER and THE CREATION OF EVE, among them.)  Traveling to educate myself for these novels, I fell across the story of the mad Renaissance queen Juana.  The resulting novel, REIGN OF MADNESS, might look like an historical novel but was really an exploration of the relationships between grown daughters and their mothers.   Again, it came straight from what I was experiencing in my life.  

Then, in September 2011, my husband became ill with a life-threatening case of encephalitis. Already he was a casualty of the Great Recession and not working—I was on my own when it came to supporting our family and terrified.  The day my husband came home from the hospital, and I was pacing in my office, wondering how to survive, I stumbled upon the story of Francis Osgood, the abandoned young mother who fell in love with Edgar Allan Poe.   Here was the perfect character into which I could pour my own fear and determination.  Frances Osgood survived and so would I.  We’re a couple of tough birds.   

2. Frances Osgood is an intriguing figure, not least because, in her time, she was just as well known for her own writings as she was for her friendship with Edgar Allen Poe. What drew you to her? 

Frances Osgood was the perfect person for me to write about.  Not only did she allow me to work out my own fears of survival, but she gave me a chance to talk about what it’s really like to be a writer since she was a poet.   She let me pour into the pages the joys and terrors of the writing life.  I also thought it would be fun to fantasize what it would be like to fall in love with the mysterious, wounded, sensuous Poe.  I let my imagination go to work on Poe as a cross between Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff in the film Wuthering Heights, Colin Firth in Diary of Bridget Jones, and  Johnny Depp as a pirate (but sober) and voila, I understood Frances’s obsession.       


Frances Osgood Edgar Allan Poe

 His wife and cousin, Virginia Poe

3. After Frances finishes writing “So Let It Be,” she says, “I sat back, wrung out, as I always am after I have brought forth a true and honest work, regardless of its subject or length. It is as if producing a creative work tears a piece from your soul.” (p. 100) Is your writing process anything like hers? Can you tell us about it? 

Frances’s writing life is my writing life.   I tried to describe the pain and the joy of having work ripped from a part of your soul that’s mystery even to you.  I wanted to get across how when the writing works, it’s a high that makes a junkie out of you.   You have to have more—it feels almost chemical!  When the writing doesn’t come, you feel as bleakly desperate and hopeless as if all your friends have abandoned you.    To be a writer, you have to be tough as rawhide and as sensitive as an exposed nerve, all at once.   As I tell my friends, writing is my therapy and it also causes me to require therapy.

4 How do you research your books?  

Research is pure pleasure.  First I read everything I can get my hands on, not only about the main characters, but about the setting, daily life, and other people from that time.  Then, before I set out to write the book and several times during the actual writing, I visit my settings.  I go to the places my characters were known to have lived, worked, and played in real life.  I make a point of visiting the site of each scene in my book, even though the place may have completely changed.   In the case of Mrs. Poe, I tramped the streets of lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village so thoroughly one week that I tore the meniscus in my knee.  I also climbed into the clock tower of Trinity Church and stuck out my head through the rosette window, as Frances did in her book.   I walked up the steps of Miss Lynch’s home on Waverly Place.  I stood over the bed where Virginia Poe died in the Poe Cottage in what is now the Bronx. 

5 Like Frances Osgood, you have written works for both children and adults. Does the process differ? If so, how? 

There’s not much difference between writing a book for young adults than for adults—the same research, attention to detail, and time needed to complete the work is required.  The only difference is that the main character in a YA is younger and therefore the writer has to think like a teenager.   I’ve written picture books and middle-grade novels as well, and though I took the same care with each word, there are less sentences, which equals less time required to finish a draft.   In the early days of raising three girls born within a four year span, it was important to be able to write books that didn’t require the eight hours of daily writing that I put in now.  

6 When Frances tells Reverend Griswold that she has not read Margaret Fuller’s column about John Humphrey Noyes, he chastises her, saying that she must keep up with the news because “As an important woman poet, it is your duty to speak out against false prophets.” (p. 205). As a writer yourself, do you think that it is the responsibility of the artist to speak out against “false prophets” as Griswold suggests?

I think all serious writers are articulating their personal philosophies in their story, even if the book isn’t overtly about a political agenda.   I don’t know if it’s so much that artists feel a responsibility to speak out—it’s more like we just can’t help ourselves from sharing our views!

7 Since its publication in 1845, “The Raven” has become a canonical text. It has inspired other writings ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Ray Bradbury, and has even been parodied. Why do you think the poem has had such an enduring appeal? 

“The Raven” is catchy and vivid.   It’s a movie in words.  Also, Poe’s legend as a frightening, half-mad genius (thank you, Rufus Griswold!) brings a darkness to the poem that has thrilled people for more than 150 years.  In addition, its immense popularity in Poe’s day helped cement it into the American canon.  We picture Poe’s raven almost as automatically and as mindlessly of its origins as we say “OK.”  Personally, I don’t think it’s his most honest work.  For authentically expressed anguish, I love “Eulalume.” 

8 What would you like your readers who are interested in Edgar Allen Poe’s writings to take away from Mrs. Poe? 

Mainly, I hope readers will think about how his difficult life shaped his writing.  He was a wounded beast and his own worst enemy, but that he put everything he had into his work.    What I think Poe strove for hardest was simply to be loved.


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