Novels That Move Between the Present and the Past

Three recently published novels keep some chapters in the present, then switch the point of view to explore characters who lived in the past. MARY COIN by Marissa Silver examines the ways art, language, love, and fear shape memory. Art and legacy are also themes in THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin, which considers a broader sense of our country’s past and the ways we balance pride and guilt.
THE OBITUARY WRITER by Ann Hood is about the way losses and yearning shape two lives, with the two settings about forty years apart dropping into the background.

The three main characters in MARY COIN are a historian whose heart beats hard at the sight of stacks of old letters or even financial records, a photographer whose work begins as a way to earn a living, then turns into art, and a migrant worker who tends to her husband and children with exquisite care. Reading along, I only gradually had a sense of how the three strands might intersect, but I never doubted that they would. This book has sentences that made me stop and marvel. Here and there, entire life histories seemed contained within a page or even a paragraph.

The photographer finding her subject takes up themes of who we are, where we belong, and what can or can’t be found in a portrait. While we may initially ache at the evidence of hardships we see in the photograph of the woman here called Mary Coin, inspired by a photograph by Dorothea Lange, we get to see her dancing with her husband, for instance, in a small room surrounded by hungry children, who are struck wide-eyed and silent by their parents’ love. Themes of history are developed through the professor whose story begins and ends the novel, and also in scenes like one in which we watch Mary’s grown daughter help clean her trailer toward the end of the book, taking out an old hat that makes Mary remember the complex desires of her own mother, and how these got hidden. These are erased again, at least for the moment, as Mary waves her hand and says only, “Give it away.”

The novel’s three strands wind into a loose knot suggesting that so much of what becomes history is happenstance, and like life, is beautifully elusive. In a different way, THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin, with one part told in 1852, and the other in the present, considers what we take from the past. What goes missing? What can inspire? What must be forgiven? What memories, conversations, letters, pictures do we keep and what will slip away?

This novel begins with the line: “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.” Right then and there I was on her side, while when in the second chapter we’re taken from 1852 to the present, I felt at first resistant, for Lina didn’t capture my attention in the same immediate way. How could she? The voice telling Josephine’s story is urgent, and we get smells of moss, tobacco, collards or oil paint in steamy heat, and a tone that’s both gritty and languorous. Lina’s world is often climate-controlled, her time in the law firm clocked to the minute, which increasingly bothers her. As she faces her own losses and finds her own courage, the stories came together. More voices are added by letters written during Josephine’s time that Lina reads for a reparations suit in which she considers paintings that might have been painted by Josephine and not credited. Toward the end of the novel, these letters connect the two lives and time periods more deeply. Like the book’s first sentence, the last one is astonishing, but I won’t disclose it. The book both felt complete and made me wish to pick up another book devoted to these lives.

Reading Ann Hood’s novels or nonfiction is like eating your favorite bread with your favorite jam. Maybe there’s rain tapping the windowpanes, and your tea is still hot. THE OBITUARY WRITER is a departure from her usual contemporary settings, but both the goodness of her style and themes of loss remain, the assurance that we’ll be taken through common details or somewhat ordinary people into heart-rending places. Ann Hood has a gift like Jane Austen, and the best gossips, of being able to point out oddities and foibles in a loving way. In the opening of the novel, a child disappears from a suburban street, which doesn’t strike us as entirely harrowing, for the focus is on the reactions of neighbors who arrive at the house armed with casseroles and cakes, as if shields against fate, and comment that it seems the mother of the lost child could have washed her hair at least when she knew a TV cameraman was coming. The loss is an impetus for a central character in an unhappy marriage to instigate an affair. This isn’t the first or last time I read with thoughts that rolled like waves, one after another, “Really?” and “Of course.” We’re invited to smile at human folly both in this early 1960’s setting and in alternating chapters set in 1919 about the gifted obituary writer and her lost dream, which are woven together with a similar style built from a keen eye for detail.

The Empty Briefcase

Daffodils, magnolias, and cherry trees were blooming in Amherst as I walked to the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies. I put those yellow and pink blossoms at the beginning of my sentence, and I’ll add that a kind person had set out a plate of brownies, so you’ll know that hearing my student defend her thesis on the Holocaust in Literature for Children and Young Adults was a happy occasion, despite subject matter it hurts to think about. Tylar Suckau answered questions about work by Elie Wiesel, Jane Yolen, Art Speigelman, and others who wrote directly or indirectly about the death camps, and the various powers of fiction and nonfiction, and the ways lines blur between them.

As we settled in a room, I asked Professor James Young about a briefcase that was propped beside books in a glass case. He told me that the Institute had been given some papers from the Nuremberg trials, and the worn leather briefcase had belonged to a lawyer. Among the contents was a letter that began with the admission of responsibility for the deaths of about 1400 people, and ended with a plea that he was basically a good man, who was kind to animals.

Would I have noticed the briefcase if it were not behind glass, or even if it had been labeled? The display case gave it importance, while a little sign might have suggested the end of a conversation rather than starting one. An object in a case suggests that someone saw something worth saving. People change their minds about what matters most and what can or should be forgotten, but I’m glad that when historians sort, they preserve some ordinary old things that may provoke curiosity, perhaps especially when seen out of their usual context. I’m not planning to write about the Holocaust, but if I were to research the names of people and places, or theories on genocide, when feeling overwhelmed I might remind myself to return to that old briefcase, which made my heart thump. I’m sorry I didn’t take a picture, but here is the building that houses it.

Both a writer’s engagement and a reader’s belief often begin with artifacts. Tylar mentioned how crucial it seemed that Art Spiegelman included photographs of his parents within the drawings of his graphic novel,  MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE, as a record of a moment when fact merges with fiction, and personal into more generalized history. What she calls paratexts and I more often call the afterword or the stuff at the back of the book, are also fairly ubiquitous, often as a way to suggest the context or point readers to the vastness beyond this story. Sometimes an author’s method is described. At the end of NUMBER THE STARS, Lois Lowry shares her factual inspiration, including a friend upon which she based the main character, how she walked the cobblestone streets in Copenhagen where her characters walked, considered a photograph of a face so young it broke her heart, and used a hand-hemmed linen handkerchief, taken straight from history, as a major plot point.

In a discussion of how the Holocaust may best be presented to children, naturally we considered the ways authors balance a terrible reality and hope, how lines were kept or crossed between truth and evasion, depictions of evil and sentimentality. Just as many caregivers today put on emphasis on rescuers and others who do good even during times of horror, most of the earliest introductions to the subject feature people who saved lives. I NEVER SAW ANOTHER BUTTERFLY introduces young readers to concentration camps by showcasing the poetry and paintings of children, few of whom survived imprisonment at Terezin. These were less often pictures of barbed wire and more often of dandelions painted on scraps of informational paper. James Young pointed out that thinking about better days was sustaining, with Primo Levi reciting Dante from memory, and singing, and talk and thoughts of past warmth and beauty. When we confront pictures of the death camps, it’s important to remember that we don’t see everything.

There’s often some part of us that doesn’t want to see the worst, or which we let ourselves glimpse only from the edges. I was horrified to read the letter that had been in the briefcase, written by the man who was good to animals -- not that he shouldn’t be, but I was stunned that he thought it right to include that in his admission of killing innocents. I can’t understand, but that small window of his letter gives me some insight into a time and place that is in many ways incomprehensible. I’m glad that historians do so much more than tally losses, but continually uncover and rescue, sometimes one briefcase at a time.

We congratulated Tylar on her thorough study and her graduation, then passed through the kitchen on the way out. A string from an overhead light brushed my head. The linoleum and speckled Formica evoked the 1950s, closer to the time of what’s studied here, back when classes on the Holocaust didn’t exist, and this building was used for something else. Which would be another story.

Historical Portraits

I’ve been writing a novel based on a woman from history who’s known, but not as much as I think as she deserves. I have my own answers to the question of why and how one would one turn a real life not into fiction rather than biography, but I’m always interested in other approaches. Three books published within the past year suggest different possibilities of ways people might be remembered.

FEVER Mary Beth Keane is an imagined recounting of Mary Mallon, who came down in history as Typhoid Mary, the first person in the United States believed to be a carrier with no symptoms. I love the first line: “The day began with sour milk and got worse.”  We read of the general sense of loneliness any outcast might feel, underscored by Mary’s particular tenderness, and get harrowing descriptions of how this fever took hold. As Mary moves from kitchen to kitchen in search of new jobs as cook, we’re shown how some servants help each other out within the upstairs-downstairs of grand houses, or view one another as competitors.
Mary Beth Keane’s list of sources is fairly spare, suggesting that much of her obviously extensive research was done on New York and its immigrant population in the early twentieth century rather than biographical material on Mary Mallon, who was developed through a novelist’s queries. She’s shown as sometimes sensitive and sometimes a spitfire, often generally oblivious, as we all are sometimes, blocking evidence of what we don’t want to see.

The life of Zelda Fitzgerald -- debutante, dancer, painter, writer, and wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald -- has been long documented by herself and others. She was famous in her time for her wit, beauty, stays in mental institutions, and accusations of being destructive to her husband’s career, sometimes in almost the same breath as she was called an asset. Who was she? We can’t really know, but in Z: A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD, author Therese Anne Fowler takes a well-informed and imaginative stab at an answer. Lots of journals, letters, reportage, photographs, and the subject’s own stories and paintings were available, so well-informed, Therese Anne Fowler structured the book partly around some of the hidden motivations within any life. She writes in the afterword of the many myths that were passed down, and took it as her job to look for truths and motivations behind them. For instance, she knew that Zelda and Ernest Hemingway did not get along, and wrote to discover an answer as to why, which appears toward the novel’s send.

Jennie Fields wrote THE AGE OF DESIRE, a title which is a play on that of Edith Wharton’s THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. The voice that Jennie Fields created, sometimes sensitive, sometimes assured, fit what I imagined Edith Wharton’s voice to be. The novel’s texture is thickened by being told alternately from her point of view and that of Anna Bahlmann, who was first Edith’s  governess, then became her secretary and a friend who knew her perhaps better than anyone. The time period focuses on the years when Edith was in her forties, with the plot taking shape around Edith’s affair with journalist, Morton Fullerton. The points of view of the two women show the tensions between rapture, guilt, hope, fears, and hiding. I was pulled in! As with the case of Zelda Fitzgerald, Jennie Fields had extensive biographical material to draw from, including many newly found letters, and she notes that she often began her daily writing by reading a few pages of Edith Wharton’s exquisite prose. And her study showed. I felt as if I understood parts of Wharton that I hadn’t understood before. And this novel, like the others, widened my sense of the lives of women from the past.


Historical Fiction

I’m speaking on a panel called “Sculpting Stories from Fact: Four Writers of Historical Fiction Share Strategies” on May 5 at the NE-SCBWI  conference. What a treat to speak with three smart friends -- Sarah Lamstein, Pat Lowery Collins, and Padma Venkatraman, -- who have written about a 1950’s childhood (and whether or not you lived through that decade, we’re calling it history now), Venice in the 1700’s, and India at the time of World War II, among other subjects. As I consider the hows and whys of delving into the past, I’ve been immersing myself in historical fiction and thinking about the purposes of each novel, which not only depict different times and places, but suggest different answers to why the author chose to set the work in a particular era.

A crisis in CASCADE by Maryanne O’Hara is based on a historic event in Massachusetts, when towns were flooded to make a reservoir to supply water to Boston. The threat of rising water and drowning is used as both plot element and metaphor. Desdemona, named by her theater-loving father, reacts to pulls of love, money, power, and other events that seem beyond her control, while keeping some sense of stability by painting. I loved a scene in which she breaks lots of eggs to make tempera paint, and her sense of her own recklessness is underscored by this taking place in the Depression. How many breakfasts would be missed because she wanted to paint? I also liked learning about the role of government support of art during the New Deal, which made me think about ways art is important, and supported or not, in the lives of people I know now.

THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake came out a few years back to both acclaim and good sales, but though I’ve been advised as often as anyone not to judge a book by its cover, that wrinkled purple rose suggested to me something more romantic than what I cared to read. There is love in the novel, but not of the beyond-belief variety, and the effects of war on three strong women are prominent as their lives are gradually laced together. The setting is integral for many reasons. One character is loosely based on Martha Gellhorn, and we learn about foreign correspondents during the war and the role of communication gone astray. This theme is echoed in a missing letter, which, like a missed phone call, is unlikely to cause a crisis in our times: one can so much more easily try again. The ante is also up because the missing mail is no accident: the postmistress chooses not to deliver the letter. In the afterward, Sarah Blake explains that she conceived the novel after the September 11 attacks, trying to understand the ways that public and private grief and fears intersect, as so many people experience during a war.

Bird Sisters paperback cover

“Used to be when a bird flew into a window, Milly and Twiss got a visit.” From that first sentence, I would have been happy to stick around with the two elderly sisters in Rebecca Rasmussen’s THE BIRD SISTERS, rather than being sent back decades in the second chapter. But the games of Truth or Consequence, the yellow cakes, and shell-shaped soap all came together as a man with a box of framing nails and tin of black licorice escorted Milly from the general store to her car, where Twiss was reading the Farmer’s Almanac and drinking a cream soda. Love and sacrifice come together in a way that might be most believable in1947, and along the way we’re treated to moments of beauty and humor such as when Twiss asks a teacher about women during the Revolution, and is told that Betsy Ross sewed a nice flag. The novel examines happiness from more than the birds, who are often a symbol, but who the sisters well know have fleeting lives. In the first chapter, they run out of their mother’s old handkerchiefs that they used for burials of birds they couldn’t save.

A long ago sentence spoken to a boy who mows the lawn can change a life as definitively as a photographer chooses what will go in or outside a frame, a reference to the imagery in another wonderful novel, Marissa Silver’s MARY COIN, which I’ll write about next week, along some other novels that cross between scenes in both the present and the past. And I’d love to know the titles of some of your favorite historical novels!

Homes and Other Places We Remember

Inspiration often begins for me when someone’s inner life resonates with mine, no matter the variations of time and place. If a setting stirs my curiosity, and actions offer at least an edge of a plot, I read to find out more about what someone did and where she lived. Sometimes we don’t know why we’re drawn, but write to understand the pull, finding buried connections that may not matter to readers, except, perhaps, from traces of feeling left by our search. The details of houses, landscapes, and private drawers or boxes, the places where someone rested her head and put her hands, often give me a framework to work within. Places and old things don’t tell time or have calendars, but we can use them to create a sense of order by asking where someone was when she heard some kind of call to adventure, found hope, or felt her belief in her family, who may be almost all she knows of her world, break.

Setting may a good place for writers to begin because while it doesn’t seem as glamorous as theme, which we can argue about all afternoon, it also seems less threatening. Maybe we can’t always write deep, edgy, fantastical, or funny characters but, hey, we can put down what can be seen. We can let rooms, towns, or woods that haunt our characters haunt us, too, until we understand not so much what they mean, but where they fit in a story. They might begin adventures from fairly ordinary places, such as the wardrobe Lucy finds in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is stuffed with fur coats. We hear something crunch under her feet – mothballs? – then touch something soft, powdery and cold. Instead of furry coats brushing her face, Lucy feels prickly fir branches. The transformation of the particular lets us believe in the magic, just as the description of the barn that begins chapter three of Charlotte’s Web acts as a portal leading to the animals talking together for the first time. The development of the farm animals as seen by Fern to characters in their own right happens so seamlessly that we blink only when some people call this novel a fantasy. The old barn is a place of refuge as much as The Secret Garden, with its hidden bulbs, overgrown briars, rotting swing, and rugged bluebells, which let two angry children discover love. Childhood sanctuaries and haunts behind sofas, under the stairs, in tree houses or forts may evoke both a sense of safety and traces of fear that foster imagination.

Beloved places of the past are often a source of inspiration, as they were for C.S. Lewis, whose mother died when he was ten, bringing about a temporary loss of faith and him being sent to a boarding school that he remembered as being worse than his stint as a soldier in World War I. His friend J. R.R. Tolkien moved from his home in South Africa when young, and spent much of his adult life creating new worlds. Even after P.L. Travers moved from Australia to England, she carried an early memory of telling fairy tales to a younger sister when her widowed mother left the house after having announced some sort of plan to jump off a bridge. In some ways P.L. Travers never stopped telling those tales, creating new worlds that fit better than the places her mother chose for her.

As we wonder why a story or place haunts us, we may find a way toward theme. C.S. Lewis wrote, “We do not write to be understood. We write to understand.” What does the main character learn?  What insight about life does she need to understand by the end that she doesn’t know at the beginning? While we want to be able to say somewhere in our process what our book is about, and make sure each chapter if not each scene somehow address that, theme is not our job to state. The right setting may suggest a way.

I’ve been thinking about time, place, and plot as I prepare for the NE-SCBWI conference where I’m leading a workshop called “Nests, Rooms, and Gardens: Using Setting to Structure Fiction.” If you’re interested in more ideas and exercises, I hope you’ll consider coming. The conference is filled but if you’ve signed up for May 3, I understand seats are still available for this workshop. I hope to see some friends!


 edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call is a treasure trove for writers with any interest in narrative. The opening piece by Jacqui Banasynski brought tears as she shifted from describing effects of famine in Ethiopia, including digging shallow graves, for not much dirt was needed to cover thin babies, to an account of the starving people singing stories every night, through the coughing and keening. I loved Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo’s remarks about how her career developed in part from having never learned to drive, so she took the bus, looked out the windows, and made unexpected stops. She mentioned that while it’s painful to omit stories that took hard work to find, she’s learned that “three well-articulated, nuanced examples – backed by sharply documented evidence of a broader problem – are far better than twenty examples that raise more questions than they answer.”

I learned something from almost every writer in this collection, but what struck me was that while none mentioned fairy tales with three bears, three beans, three spins around, or three wishes, several alluded to the power of that number. In "What Narrative Writers Can Learn From Screenwriters,” Nora Ephron tells us that Martin Scorsese says that the dream movie scene is three people in a room, and how she used this writing the film Silkwood, focusing on the whistle-blower Karen, her roommate, and her boyfriend, while piecing together where to begin and end and ways to keep up tension through the middle.
Jon Franklin writes about the three layers of stories: the events, ways the characters react to what happens, and a rhythm that evokes the story’s universal theme. He writes of how this seems backed by the work of neuroanatomist Paul MacLean with what he called triume brain, finding that we all have a brain that is cognitive, another that registers emotion, and another rhythm. Other writers here also mention layers of what happens and an emotional response, but instead of something musical they cite a hope to evoke why the story matters, what it all means, perhaps how the particular tale connects to the greater world.

Three objects on a page can give us the satisfaction of symmetry, but is also dynamic, whereas two by two, side by side, can leave us unmoved. Three is a good number to remember and isn’t just for those who like magic, trilogies, the trinity, tercets, sky-land-and-sea, or the Fates. I’ll be thinking of ways layers can unfold as I look ways for concrete and abstract to meet, while getting back to my own untrue story. It strikes me that triangles can have the enduring nature of circles, while being less cozy. Have you encountered the tug of three in an unexpected place?

Writing through Hesitations to Certainty (Or Close Enough)

I don’t think many writers would suggest this is a profession for the timid. We’ve got to set up sentences and stand by them. We may look as if we’re the sort of people who can’t be pushed around, but we have to be off the ground before we find sure footing, maybe off track to appreciate the one we finally make. Inspiration makes as many traps as footholds. While I shuttle between excitement and fear about a new path, my muse gets distracted, craving too much salt or sugar. It’s hard to settle down.

In The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugowrites, “To write a poem you must have a streak of arrogance – not in real life I hope. In real life try to be nice. It will save you a hell of a lot of trouble and give you more time to write. By arrogance I mean that when you are writing you must assume that the next word you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because you put it there.” We follow the mind’s inclinations, even when they first seem random, trust change to reveal connections that seem permanent.

While a sentence may look like it stood as long as a mountain, and never have been written any other way, we can remember the sprawling or skimpy strands of words, the rehearsals with syntax, that went into its making. A sentence may look as inevitable as the shape of a life does when looking back, but look deeper, and we recall the mire of opportunities, setbacks, decisions, and whims that went into its making. We take one sure step, the next tentative, but within that hesitation we may find our best prizes. We first imagine, then impose.

Maybe we look particularly arrogant when we slip through the details of history to bring back a voice from the past. I do such work with what I consider humility, feeling respect for what I find and a sense that this work carries a great chance of error.  But when has it not been so? I loved reading this from poet Eleanor: “I am in the habit of saying, when people wonder about the chutzpah of revising biblical stories, that they should imagine the chutzpah it took to write them in the first place.” Before paper and screens, stories were passed along by mouths, and literary sorts would step in with their own renditions of, say, a girl who lost her glass slipper or animals lining up two by two before an ark. Sources that seem certain to some are a puzzle to others. Scholars still unwind strands of what has been published as the Bible, the Torah, the Old Testament and other titles, trying to figure out who first wrote down what from a panoply of sources. Stories about Adam, Eve, Noah, Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, and others have long inspired poets and fiction writers, including those in the present day such as Sena Naslund, Anita Diamant, and Alicia Ostriker. Some see ancient stories as invitations, not lectures, a beginning and a place to stand together, not an end or spot to sit alone. And for me, history holds a similar poetry, presenting holes and questions as much as facts. History bends, depending on where one stands when looking. I try to leave pictures of how something once leaned toward me or whispered, what was pure chance, a narrow escape, a glance at just the right time, and make a frame with a hint that it could crack.

Intruders at the Laptop

A writer friend invited me to meet her this morning at a café, where we talk as a little girl and her dad at the next table sing “Itsy-Bitsy-Spider,” running their fingers up each other’s arms. Spring-starved people drink coffee at picnic tables, pointing at small green shoots. I’m glad to be warm inside, opening my laptop and hearing the tap-tap of my friend’s new novel being born.

This rhythm of getting back to normal is just what I need. Yesterday my desk was crowded with spirits pressing me with sweet or sad memories and as many rogue conversations as I’d recently fielded in the church basement where I’d tried to thank people who should be thanked, see that hungry people ate soft sandwiches, stop people from apologizing for things that need no apology, listen to people I love, and people I never met before, and my neighbor who told me about her goat, Stinky, and another neighbor’s clothesline and a rifle. Maybe not the most appropriate funeral story, but then did I cross a line speaking about the fraught, fragile beauty of my last conversation with my father-in-law? Well, I told this to a friend I later learned had given Peter a small box of totemic figures not part of the pantheon of this old New England church, telling him the names or purpose of each being, which of course he promptly forgot. It was all we could do to hold onto stories from the woman who said she seated my in-laws at the same table sixty-five years ago or a man who joined the entire Clarksburg Baseball Team at their wedding.

It’s hard to leave such days behind. Writers may have it both harder and easier than people returning to tasks with boundaries that parallel those we’ve been performing, such as picking up flowers or tracking down a missing prayer shawl. Such tasks can steady us, but grief pounces when my hands hover over a quiet keyboard, wanting to set old characters in new motion. It’s tricky to get back to work when grief, like life, sets its own schedule. Memories spiral, offering revelations with each re-telling,  or burrow in, creating the sort of richness we expect from compost. Or sometimes they just lead to places dim as the early drafts of my fiction. Such murkiness doesn’t rise just because we can’t find the right words or structures, but reflects our minds, which pull in all that we don’t know, overwhelming what seems certain. Letting thoughts stray and puddle may make new connections or ideas. The wandering mind is also the creative mind. We might need to dwell in what’s uncomfortable, trying not to bat off sadness or even loving gestures in an effort to hold on to a world that has changed. We have to respect everyday time and ritualized time, when we may contemplate cycles and fit the everyday into bigger patterns.

And there’s a time to rein in wandering thoughts, and no clock to announce when to use a little force to separate waves of plans and waves of mayhem. Just as kind friends try to figure out how much quiet and how much company the bereaved might need, we also try to figure out how much we should sit or nap with sadness and how much we need our feet on what we guess is normal ground.

Now it’s lunchtime at the café and I smell grilled cheese sandwiches. I look up to see people carrying bags of hot cross buns and braided bread. A baby in a green sweater gurgles. Those people at the picnic tables aren’t quite as hunched as they were; one even unwinds a scarf. I’ve put together a blog post, which may be a step back to my novel. I’ll take a walk through snow-melt and mud, then see what’s waiting at my desk.


Beyond Broken Lines: What Makes a Verse Novel?

A few days ago at the Associated Writing Program conference in Boston, I was lucky to attend several panels about writing poetry. The question of what a verse novel is was raised in a session called “It Could Always Be Verse.” Helen Frost, author of the forthcoming SALT, answered poetically, comparing verse and prose to water and land, and saying that a verse novel is neither one nor the other. She cautioned about how narrative’s need for clarity can weigh down the poetry. Lesléa Newman mentioned how verse is a good fit for intense subject matter and that she chooses the form when it can do something she can’t do in prose. She gave the example of how in her collection OCTOBER MOURNING, which is a response to the murder of Matthew Shepard, as a poet she could personify the fence and stars and let them tell stories that a journalist, for instance, could not. She noted that the repetition some forms call for let her go deeper with each round.

Marilyn Nelson, author of books including CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS, said that she does not write verse novels, but considers herself a verse historian, a title she was given by a seventh grade girl. She said that as a formalist her definition of verse has to do with rhythm that’s intentionally made different from prose. This combined with being book length gives the double pleasure of narrative and verse. Meg Kearney,   whose books include THE GIRL IN THE MIRROR about a teen dealing with wanting to know her birth parents, felt the form was right for this as poetry’s white space reflects the silences of a family who could talk about some things, such as the moment the mom and dad got a call that a baby was waiting, but not at first the daughter’s wondering about her birth parents. She spoke of each poem representing a scene or emotional state that moved the story forward, using “the tool of the line break, which layers meanings, creates tension and rhythm, and undercuts expectations.” 

In a session called Staggered Tellings: Immediacy, Intimacy, and Ellipses in the Verse Novel, Kevin Young, author of ARDENCY: A CHRONICLE OF THE AMISTAD REBELS, spoke about wanting to reclaim the word epic as used by Ezra Pound, and noted that one important thing about poetry is that there is no division into fiction and nonfiction sections. Poetry naturally lets us move back and forth between truth and imagination. Rita Dove, former poet laureate and author of SONATA MULATTICA, told us how this book was inspired by seeing a lone black violinist on a biopic of Beethoven, wondering who he was, finding the bare bones about George Bridgetower’s life via Google, then becoming obsessed with a story she first resisted telling, not wishing to spend years with men from eighteenth century Europe. She was pulled in for about five years, and felt bereft when she finished the book. She spoke of knowing the basic plot points, so that her work became an “excavation of a life.”

I didn’t speak on a panel about poetry, but in the hallway, some friends asked me about what I think makes a work poetry. I muttered this or that, but now that I’m before my computer hope I can be clearer about why I love to read history and poetry together. The elevated language of poetry can shed light on what’s wrongly been forgotten. In BORROWED NAMES, I worked around big moments that made the women famous, and focused more on what happened before and after them, which may be as important as what might happen in a family between posed snapshots. I used common moments to frame poems and let us see bigger ones from a more intimate angle than one usually taken by historians. These ordinary moments can connect an extraordinary person with the rest of us, and using devices such as alliteration or metaphor, repeating sounds or imagery, was a way to suggest those links. Each line should have a weight and a reason for being there. A clunky sound may be forgiven in a novel in which readers are gripped by characters, but a thud in a poem may stop the reader. Line breaks can offer a way to enter silence that may tease out a feeling.

I like beginning with facts, and using them as a framework, then inviting in my imagination and that of readers. Poetry gives me a license to do this, for as Kevin Young pointed out, this is a form that historically blends fiction and fact. I read primary and secondary sources with an eye out for things such as who quarreled with brothers, messed up on tests, or kept a spectacularly untidy room. I read a lot and select ruthlessly, like a person who spends a long time in attic and returns with one small, revelatory object. A biographer or historian would be on more of a lookout for general patterns, which I watch for, too, but I depend upon small moments. Looking for the right word is like approaching possible treasure with proper reverence. As I polish until it shines like something sacred, I may find my way deeper into theme or plot.

We know the rules of grammar for sentences and the beats and sounds of meter and rhyme in formal verse, but we may feel uneasy with free verse in which we get few clear ways to measure. Some say a definition of verse novel isn’t so important, but all of us working in the regions where verse and narrative cross should struggle to define what we do and why we do it.  What does the form tell us about the speed with which someone might read? In yet another panel, David Levithan, who both writes and edits verse novels, mentioned that all publishers seemed to have placed the form as sold to young adults under novels, which seems a good decision, as it’s likeliest to find readers there drawn to story but who may be invited into poetry.

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