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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.


SPOTLIGHT: Lynn Cullen on what makes a reader

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Today on the blog, I'm very pleased to host Lynn Cullen, the author of the brilliant novel MRS POE which I enjoyed immensely. Here she talks about what makes a reader: 

You are What You Read

Most authors will tell you that they grew up with a lot of books in their house, but I can’t.  

We had two bookcases in our house, one mostly devoted to a set of encyclopedias, the other full of novels my sisters had read decades earlier, books which had been popular in the 40’s, but had fallen out of favor—but not out of our bookshelves—by the 60’s.  

Other hoary tomes sat next to the Booth Tarkington and Ayn Rand novels.  In particular I was fond of a venerable medical dictionary from the turn of the century, illustrated in full color for at-home instruction.  I spent many a fascinated hour looking at the picture of the full-term baby shown in a cross section of a pregnant woman’s body.   I fervently loved that pink baby, huddling there in her magenta womb, sucking her thumb and holding the viscous purple rope of her umbilical cord like a plaything.  

There, too, was an ancient cookbook from which, at thirteen years of age, I taught myself how to prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving, once my mother, worn out from cooking for nine, threatened to heat up a pre-made frozen turkey roll for our feast.   I became a whiz at creamed peas-- I could whip up a white sauce faster than Betty Crocker.  Everything I learned about the basis of cooking came from that volume used by homemakers in the Great Depression.

Another shelf favorite was the row of Reader’s Digests, back issues which had at last found their final resting place after serving time in the bathroom and the glove box of the family car.  (It was from my dad that I developed the habit of keeping reading material on hand at all times.)  While each of these various reading sources played a critical part in my development, it was the gift set of books given one Christmas that put me on the road to who I am today.

They were meant for the whole family: eight volumes collecting literature from around the world for young people.  There was a volume on Folktales, one on Children’s Stories, another on Legends and Myths, one on Adventures, and so on.   I read them all, as I read the whole set of encyclopedias—this is what you do when the selection at home is limited and you’ve already read every fictionalized biography and novel in the children’s section in your local library.   I don’t recall my siblings ever touching the set.  They felt like a personal gift.   

It was the myths and legends that spoke most clearly, introducing me to the way people thought back in time and in faraway places.  I developed a taste for history not seen in textbooks, history that had little to do with wars and dates, but about how people have thought through the centuries.   I loved how the Greek gods were just like us—jealous, petty, desirous, yet noble, wise, and sometimes kind.   Same for the myths and legends of Native Americans, the ancient Romans, the Egyptians:  the actions of their gods and heroes ran the gamut of the best and worst in human compulsions.   They were character studies writ large.

The Illustrated Guide to Mythical Creatures

I didn’t realize it then, but through these books, I was learning everything that I needed to know as a novelist.   These “children’s tales” contained explorations of every native weakness and glory inherent to our kind.  They fed my unconscious with sympathy, horror, and love, mostly love, for our perplexing species.  They gave me the empathy for our complicated tribe that is crucial for any novelist who cares about examining how we tick.

It can be said that books have made me what I am.   Perhaps, in our individual ways, this is true of us all.


BOOK REVIEW: Mrs Poe by Lynn Cullen

Monday, January 06, 2014

Title: Mrs. Poe
Author: Lynn Cullen
Publisher:  Gallery Books
Age Group & Genre: Historical Fiction for Adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth

The Blurb:

A Writer & his Demons.
A Woman & Her Desires.
A Wife & her Revenge …

 A vivid and compelling novel about a woman who becomes entangled in an affair with Edgar Allan Poe—at the same time she becomes the unwilling confidante of his much-younger wife.

It is 1845, and Frances Osgood is desperately trying to make a living as a writer in New York; not an easy task for a woman—especially one with two children and a philandering portrait painter as her husband. As Frances tries to sell her work, she finds that editors are only interested in writing similar to that of the new renegade literary sensation Edgar Allan Poe, whose poem, “The Raven” has struck a public nerve.

She meets the handsome and mysterious Poe at a literary party, and the two have an immediate connection. Poe wants Frances to meet with his wife since she claims to be an admirer of her poems, and Frances is curious to see the woman whom Edgar married.

As Frances spends more and more time with the intriguing couple, her intense attraction for Edgar brings her into dangerous territory. And Mrs. Poe, who acts like an innocent child, is actually more manipulative and threatening than she appears. As Frances and Edgar’s passionate affair escalates, Frances must decide whether she can walk away before it’s too late...

Set amidst the fascinating world of New York’s literati, this smart and sexy novel offers a unique view into the life of one of history’s most unforgettable literary figures

What I Thought: 

I have always thought of Edgar Allen Poe as being a strange, moody, melancholy drunk, prone to irrational rages, with a mind like a dark cabinet of curiosities. This novel bursts open those misconceptions and shines a bright light on his life, through the eyes of the woman who loved him. But no, not his wife. Mrs Poe is told through the eyes of his lover, the poet Frances Osgood. 

It is mostly set in 1845, the year Poe wrote his most famous poem, ‘The Raven’. There is a Mrs Poe – Edgar’s wife was his first cousin and they were married when she was only 13 – and Frances finds herself torn by love for Edgar and guilt over hurting his naïve and childlike wife. 

Virginia Poe

I found this part of the book really fascinating – I did not know Poe had married his 13 year old cousin – and the psychology of their marriage was really interesting and well-done.  I also loved the portrait of Frances Osgood as a woman struggling to be both a good mother and a good writer (a struggle many women I know share, including myself). 

One of my favourite scenes occurs just after Frances reads ‘The Raven’  for the first time, before she meets the poet himself, and she talks about it with her two young daughters: 

“That’s it!” I dropped the magazine.

“What Mamma?” asked Vinnie 

“This silly alliteration – it’s clinkering, clattering claptrap.”

Ellen’s face was as straight as a judge’s on court day. “You mean it’s terrible, trifling trash?”

I nodded. “Jumbling, jarring junk.”

Vinnie jumped up, trailing shawls like a mummy trails bandages. “No it’s piggly, wiggly poop!”

“Don’t be rude, Vinnie,” I said.

The girls glanced at each other. 

I frowned. “It’s exasperating, excruciating excrement.”

Love it!

A final comment from Edgar Allan Poe himself:
"Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night." 

Edgar Allan Poe

Lynn's website 


BOOK LIST: Books I Read in November 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Books Read in November 2013

I read 9 books this month, with an interesting mixture of historical fiction, contemporary suspense, and philosophy. It was also AusReading Month in the blogosphere and so I made an effort to read some of the books by Australian authors in my tottering pile of books to-be-read. I managed four – Kelly Gardiner, Sara Foster, Jenny Bond and Damon Young – and I can recommend them all. Proof that we have an exciting degree of writing talent here in Australia!

1. Mrs Poe – Lynn Cullen
I have always thought of Edgar Allen Poe as being a strange, moody, melancholy drunk, prone to irrational rages, with a mind like a dark cabinet of curiosities. This novel bursts open those misconceptions and shines a bright light on his life, through the eyes of the woman who loved him. But no, not his wife. Mrs Poe is told through the eyes of his lover, the poet Frances Osgood. It is mostly set in 1845, the year Poe wrote his most famous poem, ‘The Raven’. There is a Mrs Poe – Edgar’s wife was his first cousin and they were married when she was only 13 – and Frances finds herself torn by love for Edgar and guilt over hurting his naïve and childlike wife. This novel is a really fascinating read – it brought the world of 1840s New York vividly to life, taught me a whole lot I didn’t know, and made me want to go and read Poe again. 

2. The Girl on the Golden Coin – Marci Jefferson
The Restoration is one of my absolute favourite periods of history and I have read a lot of books set in that period. However, I had never read about Frances Stuart before and so I found this novel of her life by Marci Jefferson utterly fascinating. Frances is a distant cousin of Charles II whose family lost everything in the English Civil War and their subsequent exile with the royal court.  Frances has only her beauty and her wit to help her survive in the decadent Restoration court, but she uses both to high advantage. Spying for the French king, Louis XIV, on the one hand and keeping a sensual King Charles II on a short leash with the other hand, Frances must keep a clear head without losing her heart –which proves far more difficult than she imagined.  A wonderful read for anyone who loves historical fiction. 

3. Act of Faith – Kelly Gardiner
Act of Faith is an intoxicating mixture of history, adventure, romance and philosophy. It is, I think, one of the cleverest books to be published for young adults in the past few years, yet it wears its scholarship lightly. The novel is set in 1640. England is in the midst of the English Civil War, a time of extraordinary political and religious upheaval. The heroine of the tale is Isabella Hawkins, daughter of an Oxford don and philosopher. She has been taught by her father to read Greek and Latin, as well as many other languages, but she has to hide her brilliance for, in the mid-17th century educated women were considered quite freakish. When Master Hawkins is imprisoned for his ideas, Isabella helps her father escape but sets in chain a sequence of events that will end in tragedy and exile. She ends up alone, in Amsterdam, working with a printer who is publishing seditious books and smuggling them all over the world. Danger is all around her, but Isabella is determined to work for political liberty and intellectual freedom. With a gorgeous cover and interior design from the Harper Collins designers, this is a book both beautiful and brilliant, and one I highly recommend. 

4. Death & Judgement – Donna Leon
I always enjoy Donna Leon’s murder mysteries set in Venice and featuring the unflappable Commissario Guido Brunetti. This book is No 4 in the series and not one of her best, but its still very readable. In this case, Brunetti is investigating the murder of a prominent lawyer. As he digs deeper, Brunetti discovers a sordid web of corruption, prostitution and lies which ends up hurting his own family. Donna Leon has now written 22 books, and apparently a TV series is being filmed. I’d recommend starting with No 1 (Death at la Fenice) and reading your way through. 

5. Beneath the Shadows – Sara Foster
This contemporary suspense novel begins with a really intriguing premise. Our heroine Grace is living in an old Yorkshire cottage with her husband and newborn baby. One evening, her husband takes the baby out for a walk and never comes back. The baby is found on the doorstep in her pram. One year later, Grace returns to the cottage in an attempt to put the pieces of her life back together. She finds herself troubled by strange happenings and gradually comes to realise that she and her daughter are both in grave danger. The suspense is a little unevenly handled, but the setting is truly creepy and evocative and the story kept me turning the pages. 

6. My Brother Michael – Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my all-time favourite authors, and I like to re-read at least one of her books again every year. My Brother Michael has never been one of my favourites, but its been a long while since I last read it (at least six years!) so I felt it was time to revisit. I’m so glad I did. Her books are such a joy to read – effortlessly graceful, suspenseful, character-driven and this one made me want to go to Greece so badly. My Brother Michael was first published in 1959, yet it has not dated at all. I wish she had written many many more books!

7. Goodbye, Marianne: A Story of Growing Up in Nazi Germany – Irene N. Watts
A novel for children inspired by the author’s own childhood, this is a beautiful and very moving account of life for a young Jewish girl in Berlin in the early days of World War II. Marianne, like the author, escapes on the Kindertransport to Great Britain, leaving her family behind, so the book does not contain any great atrocity, making it a perfect read for a thoughtful and sensitive child. 

8. Perfect North – Jenny Bond
This historical novel is the first book from Jenny Bond and illuminates a little known expedition to conquer the North Pole by hot-air balloon. Although inspired by true events - the 1897 hydrogen balloon voyage by Swedish explorers S.A Andrée, Knut Frænkel and Nils Strindberg to the North Pole and the discovery of their frozen remains in 1930 – the story is much more focused on the inner life of Strindberg’s fiancée Anna. An intriguing and unusual book.

9. Philosophy in the Garden – Damon Young
What an unusual and engaging book! Damon Young is Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, which makes him sound rather musty and dusty. On the contrary he is young, hip, and has a very readable style. His premise is very simple – he looks at the lives and works of half-a-dozen authors in relation to their garden (or lack of garden) with a particular focus on their philosophies. I was very familiar with some of the writers’ work (Jane Austen, George Orwell, Emily Dickinson), had tried and failed to read some of the others (Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre) and had never heard of one (Nikos Kazantzakis). Each chapter was full of illuminations and insights. I knew Jane Austen loved her garden but did not realise that her writing suffered when she was away from it. I didn’t know Proust kept bonsai by his bed, or that Friedrich Nietzsche lived in a ménage a trois (this was one chapter when I’d have liked to have none a whole lot more!) I loved discovering Emily Dickinson was a gardener and that her poems were full of flower symbology. Each chapter made me want to know more, and sent me on little expeditions of googling and looking up other books. And I’m now off in search of books by Nikos Kazantzakis (he sounds so brilliant, how could I never have heard of him?) I’d really recommend this for anyone with an enquiring mind (even those who, like Sartre, hated gardens). 

How many books did you read last month? Did you beat me? Any good recommendations?


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