A Bespoke Poet
Writing is a lonely business. Since we met in a writing class in 1994 my husband Lee has made it a lot less lonely. He encouraged me to write The Lake of Dead Languages even when I despaired of getting a novel published after the first two I had written had been rejected. He read each chapter as I finished it, offering advice, practical criticism (No one would have sex outside during an electrical storm! he told me about one scene in no uncertain terms), grammar and spelling correction and encouragement. It was a rough year--my father had just died of stomach cancer--and it was hard to keep going on the book. I say in the acknowledgments to Lake that I wouldn’t have finished the book without his faith in me and this is, quite literally, true. When Lee and I got married that year I quipped to my friends that getting married for the third time and writing a third unpublished book were equal leaps of faith.
I continued giving him each finished chapter while writing the next two books. When I was writing The Drowning Tree I came to a place where I wanted a character, Neil Buchwald, to write a poem. I wanted it to be about trees (trees being, obviously, an important theme in The Drowning Tree) and I wanted it to show how smart and talented Neil was--the kind of guy my narrator, Juno McKay, would fall for. Although I’ve written some poetry myself, I didn’t think I could come up with anything that would fit these qualifications--plus how could I write a poem myself and then have my characters talk about how brilliant it was? Wouldn’t that be a little vain?
Fortunately the solution to this dilemma was hanging on our bedroom wall: a framed rendition of Lee’s poem “Trees” which he had written in [date?]. It was perfect for Neil and it’s a lovely poem, one I’d have no trouble letting my characters praise in the book. I asked Lee if he’d allow me to include it in the book and let Neil claim authorship to it. He agreed and even seemed to enjoy the idea.
When I started The Ghost Orchid I had a similar problem. The book takes place at an artist’s colony and I wanted to represent a range of writers and artists. One, I decided, would be a poet, a sonnet writer, who composed while walking around the grounds of the estate--much as Lee is wont to do on what he calls his “sonnet walks.” [See Lee’s essay “Walking with the Sonnet”] In addition to stealing Lee’s composition methods (writing on a piece of paper folded in quarters, reciting aloud), I would have Lee write Zalman’s poems. In order to do this, I would give Lee each chapter as I wrote it (as I always do) and where I wanted a poem I would enclose in brackets a description of what I needed. Lee would write the sonnet--usually within a few days--and give it back to me when we went over the chapter. Sometimes the poem wasn’t exactly what I needed, but Lee was always willing to revise it. Sometimes the poem was even more than I needed and it suggested a turn in the plot I hadn’t envisioned yet. I began to realize, too, that Zalman’s poems could provide clues to the resolution of the mystery. By the end of the book, Zalman Bronsky was by far my favorite character in the book and one who had taken on such a life of his own that he’s now Google-able.
I had so much enjoyed having Lee write the poems for The Ghost Orchid that when I started to think of the next novel I knew I’d want to have poems in it. And in fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that not only would The Sonnet Lover contain poems, its story would be centered around the poems. One of the ways Lee had trained himself to write sonnets was to memorize a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets and recite them. A side benefit for me was that I got to hear Shakespeare’s sonnets a lot and also to hear Lee talking about the sonnets which he approached as a working poet, examining meter and line structure. As we talked about Shakespeare we discussed whether or not he had ever gone to Italy. I knew I wanted to set my next novel in Italy and together we began to weave a story about that possibility. The fact that Italy was the birthplace of the sonnet seemed to make it the perfect setting for a mystery centered around the identity of Shakespeare’s mistress, The Dark Lady, whom some scholars have theorized was of Italian extraction. It was a venture that I couldn’t even have begun to think about without the aid of a poet--and a talented sonneteer--to write the poems that would give voice to a fictional sixteenth century woman, Ginevra de Laura, who might or might not be writing to Will Shakespeare.
In the novel, poems are passed hand to hand at parties, left in caskets, secreted away in shawls, and stitched into century old hiding places. In our house, the poems were passed back and forth in manuscript pages, emails, folded into pockets, and displayed at dinners out. I like to think that something of the romance of two writers working and living together infuses the romance in the novel. When The Sonnet Lover came out it seemed natural to read it together and I found that this was something I loved, too. Readings aren’t lonely, but it can be a little daunting to sit alone in front of a gathering and read one’s work alone. Reading together though, hearing two voices, felt more like singing two part harmony.
I know that not every novel I write will be about poems, but poems seem to sneak themselves into the books now. This wouldn’t be true if Lee hadn’t brought poetry into my life. I hope that by including his poems in my books that we’ll both bring poetry into the lives of our readers.