With all my post-Salt Cay Writers Retreat frenzy of revision, I totally forgot that last Sunday was the first Sunday of the month, which is when I should have posted my Snippet Sunday for November. Time to make amends! Just in case you’ve missed previous months, here’s the deal: Snippet Sunday is a monthly meme organized by Stephanie Dray in which authors post six sentence snippets of their novels. You can read my previous snippets here.
The blue-tiled room we stepped into was perhaps the most peculiar place I’d ever seen. It was empty of all furniture except for an elaborately carved teak cabinet that took up the whole of one wall. Set within it was a gold cloisonné vase the height of a small child. There wasn’t anyplace to sit save for some beaded cushions, but one would have to lounge like a pasha. As for the room’s occupants, several clusters of expensively dressed ladies stared at us, their gentleman companions trailing them like shadows. Compared to myself and Mrs. Dulac’s aesthetic-style gowns, these women looked like upholstered sofas, draped and padded from their generous bustles to their ruched bodices.
Snippet Sunday is a monthly meme organized by Stephanie Dray in which historical authors post six sentence snippets of their novels. For the sake of organization, I’ve decided to post mine on the first Sunday of the month. You can read my previous snippets here.
October’s snippet is from the THE LILY MAID. This excerpt takes place toward the end of the novel:
Once I poke my head out the open window, my chest relaxes. My cheeks lift higher than I can ever remember.
The rail station for Florence lies just ahead, a curve of promise leading to a golden city crowned with rust-colored roofs and white plaster; a city dusted with late afternoon sunlight and azure blue sky. It’s unlike any city I’ve seen in England. After all, it’s not the city of Tennyson and King Arthur. Instead, it’s the city of Dante and Beatrice, where journeys begun in sorrow in a dark wood can end in paradise—a city where the stories my father translated in solitude to ease his heartbreak first ripened into form.
I’m still in the midst of preparing for the Salt Cay Writers Retreat. Less than two weeks to go and so much to do! Besides my own writing to prepare, I’ve four manuscripts to read and comment on for the workshopping portion of the retreat. I’m really excited—I adore the process of workshopping.
Photograph: Florence at sunset, Wikipedia Commons
“She left the web, she left the loom, she made three paces through the room, she saw the water-lily bloom….” Inspired by my previous post about the Lady of Shalott, here are some lilies I recently photographed at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
Many of you know that the Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shalott (above) served as inspiration for my novel THE LILY MAID. Turns out I’m not alone in my obsession: I’m pleased to report The Lady of Shalott was recently voted the most loved painting in the United Kingdom as part of Art Everywhere’s incentive to celebrate British art.
As such, it will be featured on billboards for the next two weeks, along with 57 other popular British paintings, in what is being billed as the “world’s largest art show.” How cool is that?
Here’s my description of the painting from THE LILY MAID. It’s written from the point of view of Elizabeth, the young woman who models for it:
Though The Lady of Shalott clearly wasn’t finished—loose brush strokes indicated much of the composition—I easily recognized myself in it. Gazing at the painting was like looking into a strange mirror reflecting back another time and place. There I was, a fragile-looking young woman on a barge, my sorrow-filled eyes half-shut in anticipation of death. One hand held a lily; the other grasped the side of the boat. My blonde hair was scattered about my shoulders, as it had been that first morning when I’d first posed on my settee. The landscape surrounding the barge was marshy and tangled, threatening and wild. Water lilies past their bloom filled the foreground. The overall sense was one of tragic beauty. Of yearning that extended beyond grief. Lost possibilities. Lost love.
My obsession with the Lady of Shalott goes back years before I ever learned of the Waterhouse painting, or caught a glimpse of the novel that would become THE LILY MAID. My first exposure to her came at the age of six, when a favorite cousin gave me the Golden Book of King Arthur illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. It included a lush painting of the Lady of Shalott, here called Elaine the Lily Maid, that was simply the most stunningly romantic thing I’d ever seen. I must have spent hours staring at it, trying to comprehend her death from heartbreak. I couldn’t—but what child can?
This was only the beginning of my relationship with the Lady of Shalott. She stayed with me throughout my childhood, this tale of a girl trapped in a tower weaving tapestries of the world forbidden to her; to my mind, her story mirrored my favorite fairy tale of Rapunzel. Later, as a high school senior, I made an illuminated poster retelling the Lady of Shalott—one of my first attempts to integrate art and words as one. A teacher at the time said to me, “I’d be very interested to see you attempt this subject after you go to art school.” Alas, this was not to be, at least in painted form, for it was at the School of Visual Arts I was introduced to Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott by another art student. How could I attempt to paint her in the wake of such a glorious painting?
Though it’s been some years, I still recall how my fellow student pulled out a much-thumbed postcard from his sketchbook. “It’s a painting of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott,” he said with the hushed tone of a junkie hawking an illicit drug. “It’s on display at the Tate Gallery in London. I returned every day to view it while I was there. I want to go back this summer.” However, that wasn’t all he found at the Tate Gallery: standing beside the famed painting was the young woman he was convinced was meant to be his true love and eternal muse.
I wonder still if they ever reunited. If so, I like the idea that the Lady of Shalott’s tragic love might have inspired someone to a happy ending.
On a the related subject of Rapunzel–aka that other girl in the tower– I’m beyond delighted that Carolyn Turgeon will be my guest for my next Creativity Friday. We’ll be chatting about her new novel THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL, a deliciously dark reimagining of Rapunzel and Snow White that I adored. Plus we’ll be giving away a copy of it, courtesy of Touchstone Books.
As I’ve mentioned recently, I’m currently adapting my illustrated book THE LOVER’S PATH as an enhanced e-book, which will be available from Apple this autumn. While I won’t go into the details of the technical process at this time—that can serve as a post onto itself—I will remark on how strange it is to revisit past work.
Here’s one way to describe my experience: It’s like visiting an old home after living elsewhere for years. I know where all the rooms are, the way the light falls from the windows across the floor. I know what it feels like to walk up the stairs, the worn warmth of the balustrade beneath my grasp. Yet, everything is completely different. After all, I’m different. Time changes everything.
And so it has been for my revisiting THE LOVER’S PATH.
Believe it or not, I began work on THE LOVER’S PATH early in my artistic career—it took over a decade of creative development before it was published in late 2005. Initially, THE LOVER’S PATH was entitled THE BOOK OF LOVERS and had been pitched as collection of love stories from history and literature. However, after reading about Tullia d’Aragona, a sixteenth century Italian courtesan who’d achieved renown as an author, I reworked my book proposal with a framing device: these love stories were now related by the heartbroken sister of a fictional Venetian courtesan inspired by d’Aragona.
From there, everything came together creatively for THE LOVER’S PATH: art, words, and design. I took a research trip to Venice to further immerse myself in the world of the Italian Renaissance. I read everything I could about women’s roles in sixteenth century Venice and punitive sumptuary laws. I became obsessed with early Venetian book design, in particular the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (“The Strife of Love in a Dream”), which many consider one of the most beautiful and mysterious books every published. My voracious hunger for inspiration to feed my book—and for the means to translate this inspiration into art—overtook my life.
To this day, I still have a special place in my heart for THE LOVER’S PATH. After all, you have to really and truly love something to work on it for so many years. At the time, creating the book felt an obsession akin to spirit possession. And now … well, I’m different. (Remember, time changes everything.) When I look at the print book of THE LOVER’S PATH, I still love it. But there’s a bittersweet quality to the emotion. THE LOVER’S PATH has become an object separate from me, just as the e-book will be.
The mulling of all this has brought to mind a quote from THE LILY MAID. Here goes:
“Artists are not like other people. We use everything for inspiration.”
These words are spoken late in my novel by someone looking to excuse less-than-honorable behavior. Yet, in some ways, this quote does sum up many of the choices I’ve made in my life: everything is grist for the mill. It makes me wonder if my yearning for inspiration—for peak experiences, if you will—is an addiction not dissimilar to a junkie’s for crack.
So, do you think this is true? Are artists unlike other people? Do we use everything for inspiration?