“My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan….”
—opening lines of FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters
The novels of Sarah Waters came to my attention soon after I finished writing my first draft of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS (aka The Novel Formerly Known as THE LILY MAID). My reading of Waters arrived in an inadvertent manner, as many momentous things do: my literary agent had given me a recommended reading list to aid my transition into writing historical fiction. Sarah Waters was not on her list. Even so, that first reading list spurred me into looking beyond for something I couldn’t quite name yet. And then I happened upon Sarah Waters’ FINGERSMITH—and knew I’d found what I was looking for. Here was a historical novel encompassing stunning language, richly realized characters, an immersive sense of time and place, narrative tension, intense sexuality, and deep sense of humanity. And I haven’t even touched on Waters’ masterful use of plot to propel her novels.
I read the rest of Waters’ five novels soon after in a grateful rush. They offered me a roadmap for what historical fiction could be as literature—for what I wanted to write one day if I worked very very hard at the craft. Since then, I’ve reread Waters’ novels whenever I’m in need of writerly inspiration. The ending of FINGERSMITH still makes me cry no matter how many times I’ve read it.
This is a roundabout way of saying that when I learned Sarah Waters was publishing THE PAYING GUESTS, her first novel in five years, I was beyond excited. I went out of my way to locate an advance copy in Europe, which I read in nearly one fell swoop on the plane back. Even better: Waters was giving a reading in New York City, my home town. Of course I had to be there!
To be honest, I was a bit nervous to meet Sarah Waters in person. I love her novels so much. Authors are only human (hello!), and it’s far too easy to project our own idealizations and insecurities onto them. It’s unfair —cruel even—to expect anyone to live up to this.
To my delight, Waters was even warmer and more charming and intelligent in person than I could have hoped. She was funny, generous, and shockingly modest about her work. She spoke at length about writing her novels, researching historical fiction, lesbians and sexual identity in fiction, and more.
A few highlights, paraphrased from memory and notes:
On whether she plans to write about characters from previous novels: Nope. Waters described herself as a “serial monogamist” when it comes to her characters. She really falls in love with them while she’s writing them. (She said this in particular regarding Frances and Lillian from THE PAYING GUESTS, whom she became very fond of over the five years she was immersed in the novel.) Waters always thinks she can never leave her characters behind, which makes it hard for her to finish a novel. However, once she’s done, she’s shocked how easily the characters leave her consciousness. She imagines them walking off and waving goodbye. So, no desire to revisit characters.
On deciding on point of view in a novel: Waters replied that her plot dictates her choice of point of view. For example, in THE PAYING GUESTS, she chose a third person point of view to increase narrative tension; in THE LITTLE STRANGER, first person. That said, she finds herself second guessing her point of view choice as she writes, hoping she made the right decision.
On the use of houses in her fiction: The “great houses” in Waters’ novels THE LITTLE STRANGER and THE PAYING GUEST pay dominant roles in shaping her plot. She explained that houses enact a moment in human history, and become stranded there as time moves on; what’s interesting to her is how humans adapt them as environments as their needs change.
Her favorite books: Waters loves literary novels that incorporate the tropes of genre fiction, such as cliffhangers. She’s a fan of Victorian sensation novels, including those by Wilkie Collins. Other favorite writers: Willa Cather, Hilary Mantel, and Patrick Hamilton. She mentioned Hamilton’s THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE as a particular inspiration for THE PAYING GUESTS.
As for me, I asked Waters about a quote of hers that I use as a credo:
“Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”
I said, “Bearing all this in mind, are you ever surprised by your plot taking an unexpected turn as you write?”
Waters answered that she really does know the plot from the beginning; what takes her the longest is figuring out how her characters feel and act in response to plot. She said that with THE PAYING GUESTS she must have written thirty times as many scenes to what went into the final novel. Another interesting fact about her process: She prints out all her scenes whether she uses them or not. She said that by the time she finished THE PAYING GUESTS, she had about thirty inches of draft in comparison to one inch of finished novel! In her writing log, she admonished herself in big red letters: DO NOT WRITE ANOTHER NOVEL WITHOUT KNOWING THE OUTCOME.
After the reading, Waters signed books for us, and even posed for photographs. I was so excited to meet her that I nearly tripped on the podium after getting my books signed. Not my smoothest moment, alas. But then again, how often does one get to meet a literary goddess like Sarah Waters? I am beyond grateful for my encounter with her.
Further reading about Sarah Waters and THE PAYING GUESTS:
If you visit this blog on a regular basis, you’ve probably noticed the photographs that top most of my posts. These photographs have become important to me. Besides allowing me me to share my daily life on an informal basis, they mark another major change in me since I’ve stopped concentrating on Illustration as a Path of Creative Expression for Storytelling (or IPCES for short): I’ve become obsessed with photography.
Above: Snow in the garden at Blue House. Below: Opera Garnier in Paris
One reason for my newish obsession is that my iPhone makes it incredibly easy to take photographs anywhere I’d like. It’s so small that hardly anyone notices when I’m at work. I carry it with me at all times, sometimes walking with phone in hand in case I see something.
My love for my iPhone is especially ironic because I have an expensive single lens reflex camera with fancy lenses that I barely use. When it comes to making art, sometimes the simplest tool is the right tool.
My favorite model! Above: Japanese restaurant in Paris. Below: In a theater box at the Opera Garnier.
I’m especially enthralled with the Hipstamatic app. I love how it saturates colors and alters images much in the way I would if I was painting. I also appreciate how immediate a photograph is. Unlike a painting, which can take me weeks to get just right, if I don’t like a photograph, I simply take another. This allows me to experiment with different picture compositions and color combinations I’d otherwise avoid to save time.
In other words, I’m able to be at play, a necessary component of inspiration and creativity. And how freeing is that?
Above: Slug in autumn leaves, Kent, England. Below: Marlborough Tower, Le Hameau de la Reine, Versailles.
Photography is also leading me into new territory as a novelist. My protagonist for the Next Novel is a male mid-Victorian era photographer. To aid my research, I plan to take a course on nineteenth century photography techniques at the George Eastman House. Tintypes? Glass negatives? I’m so down.
Ultimately, my love for photography reminds me that, even if I’m no longer spending years illustrating books, I remain a visual artist. Come what may, I’ll always yearn to capture the world’s beauties and complexities.
Above: Subway pillar, South Bank, London.
Photographed recently in Paris. What’s around the bend?
Ever since my return from Europe in early September, I feel like I’ve shifted into a new phase of my life. I suspect this is the aftermath of the main reason for my travels: to inter my mother’s ashes. Those of you who follow this blog and my social media feeds are probably aware my mother died early this year. However, it took my sister and I some months to organize the interment, which allowed us to defer the process of mourning in some ways.
And plan we did: my sister Jennifer and I chose to bring my mother’s ashes home to England, where she was born seventy years ago during the London Blitz. We also chose to inter her ashes in the same church where she had been baptized, and in the same rose garden where I brought my grandmother’s ashes in 2011. We decided to bring my daughter Thea with us, as a representative of the next generation of our family. We were very fortunate to be joined by members of our family who still reside in England, all of whom knew and loved my mother well. The service was as beautiful as can be.
While there were tears, Jennifer and I were also certain to make the trip a joyful experience. After all, it was Thea’s first trip to London, land of Harry Potter, Cadbury chocolate, and all things historic and literary. We followed our time in London with several days in Paris, where we ate pain au chocolate and walked along the Seine under perfect blue skies. I also spent many hours researching the Next Novel, which is set in both London and Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. The trip was exactly as we hoped.
Burying a parent is a definite reminder of the cycle of life: Those who grant life to us will die, just as we will die one day. The finiteness of physical life grants a preciousness to everything we experience. Even so, I’m sensing there’s more at play for me beyond this most primal of leavetakings.
For example, ever since I finished the art for DOOMED QUEENS and began writing THE LILY MAID (which now bears the new-and-improved title of A GATHERING OF SHADOWS on the advice of a renowned editor at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat), I’ve grappled with guilt over no longer yearning to illustrate books as I once did. The truth terrified me: these days, I’m far more creatively engaged as a novelist and writer. Another reason for my disinterest in illustration is that I’ve fulfilled the goals I’ve set*; I don’t possess the same urgent drive to spend countless hours curled over a drawing board painting the thousands of tiny details and decorative flourishes that go into one of my book. Yet it’s hard to leave the past behind, especially when you’ve spent years mastering a set of skills. Hence, the guilt.
And then I had a sudden insight that made it easier to let go: whether I’m writing, illustrating, or designing, my vocation is as a storyteller. It’s all interconnected.
And so this post is a post of goodbyes. Goodbye to my mother, Irene Patricia Prince Cowin, laid to rest in her native soil. May you be at peace. Goodbye to my years as a book illustrator**. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned, and the beauty I was able to create. Goodbye even to my studio betta, Clarimonde, who passed away this week after a happy, coddled life. Goodbye to remorse over my past, and trepidation over what my creative future may hold.
But this post is also a hello to the Next Phase of my artistic life as a storyteller: to finishing up and publishing A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. To immersing myself in the Next Novel. To moving onto new horizons and creative challenges.
I’m so ready for them.
*And how fortunate is that? I’m especially proud of THE BOOK OF GODDESSES and THE LOVER’S PATH.
**Not to say that I won’t illustrate books again one day. Just not right now.
As you can probably tell from my last Wordless Wednesday post, caterpillars appear to have invaded my neck of Brooklyn. Earlier this week, this little guy (above) was found lazing on the fennel plant in my garden. She remained there for several days—long enough for us to nickname her Psyche—nibbling her way from branch to branch.
A quick internet search revealed that Psyche was in her last stage of development before she’d retreat to become a Black Swallowtail butterfly. Though we knew it was unlikely, Thea and I hoped she’d build her cocoon where we could see it. Alas, this was not to be: when we returned home after running errands yesterday, Psyche had departed for a presumably more private locale to complete her transformation. Hopefully we’ll see her in a few weeks dressed in her beautiful new finery.
All this is preamble to my topic du jour: As writers and artists, we also need to cocoon to create—to allow ourselves the space to turn our caterpillars into butterflies. In an ideal world, we’d live at writers’ retreats and possess perfect rooms-of-our-own to give birth to our books and paintings. But life simply isn’t like that.
With so many demands and distractions tearing at our attention, how can we build a “creative cocoon” to encourage inspiration to visit? Without further ado, here are some tools and techniques that work for me:
1. Get offline. I’m a big fan of Freedom, a $10 app that limits time online. I set it for two hours to start, which is usually enough time for me to get into the “zone.” If you need to go online for research, try AntiSocial. It’s similar to Mac Freedom except that it blocks Twitter and Facebook while allowing you the rest of the internet. You can customize the app to block email and other sites-of-temptation. (Tom & Lorenzo anyone?)
2. Use your senses. When used in a ritualized manner, tastes, smells, and sounds tell us it’s time to shift gears from everyday life into creative work. You can do something as mundane as setting yourself up with a espresso, or as esoteric as ringing a singing bowl. Don’t underestimate the power of scent: a fragrant candle or aromatherapy spray can send a subliminal message that it’s time to get creative. Whatever you decide to do, be consistent: it’s the repetition of the cue that ties it to your subconscious, thus powering it.
3. Music. This is definitely related to #2. Set up a customized playlist for a project—a fairly easy task on iTunes. Whenever you hear the music, it will shift you into the world of your novel or painting. For myself, in the Novel Formerly Known as THE LILY MAID, I used a Schubert quintet mentioned in a pivotal scene; in the Next Novel, it’s a Beethoven piano sonata a character plays. But your playlist doesn’t have to include classical music, or even what we traditionally consider music-to-listen-to. For example, one author friend loves to write to film scores; another, ambient sounds.
4. Finally, BICHOK. Or, Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard, if you’re a writer. (Or, if you’re an artist, Butt in Chair, Hands on Paper?) When it comes down to encouraging creativity, there’s no substitute for the act of showing up. Close the door. Set a timer. Choose the same time every day to write, no excuses. (When I can, I’m a big fan of putting in two hours first thing in the morning, akin to Julia Cameron’s famed morning pages.) Write one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one page at a time. And don’t look back.
ETA: This is one of many that we found this morning on the fennel after Psyche’s departure. Butterfly eggs!
Above: water lily buds in my garden yesterday.
With the summer at hand, it seems as though my work in the studio has slowed to … well, while not exactly a crawl, more like a leisurely saunter. Though I’ve managed to move forward with drafting the Next Novel, my Poets & Writers reading, and other projects, my mind is decidedly thinking, “Everything starts anew in September. Time to take it easy. Unless you’re a water lily, that is.”
(See above photo! And below! And here, where it all began! Yes, the lilies are blooming at last!)
Therefore, I was especially delighted to learn yesterday I’ve been awarded a two week residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts for January 2015. I applied for the fellowship earlier this year; like my water lilies, it took several months to blossom into form.
About the VCCA from their website:
VCCA is a working retreat for exceptional national and international artists, writers, and composers.
For anywhere from two weeks to two months, they come here for intense periods of work free from the distractions of day-to-day life. Sequestered in the rolling foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, they are furnished with private studios, private bedrooms and three prepared meals a day. They can work in concentrated solitude, then re-energize in the company of two dozen other artists, writers and composers at dinner.
The results of this crucible of creativity can be seen in the numerous awards our Fellows receive—from the Pulitzer Prize to the MacArthur “Genius Grant”.
I am so honored and grateful for this opportunity. I plan to use my residency at VCCA to work on the second draft of the Next Novel; by then, I intend to have the first draft finished. As you might imagine, I am feeling very encouraged.
The water lilies this morning. Within twenty-four hours, they went from being tight buds into beautiful flowers.