In yesterday’s post, Part One of my interview, Simon Worrall discussed what brought him to the story of master forger and pipe bomber Mark Hofmann, how he tracked the connection between Hofmann and a “newly discovered” poem by Emily Dickinson, and how the victims reacted to Hofmann’s deceit. In today’s post, learn more about the “evil genius” of Hofmann as compared to poetic genius of Emily Dickinson, as well as about very different projects Worrall is involved in.
CK: In your Prologue to The Poet and the Murderer, you describe the trance Mark Hofmann puts himself into as he forges the Emily Dickinson poem. Are you using poetic license here, or is this description based on Hofmann’s testimony? I don’t see Hofmann listed in your acknowledgements. Did you try to contact him in prison?
(As an aside, you mention Hofmann’s cellmate Dan Lafferty, who murdered his sister-in-law and her baby because of a “divine revelation” he had received. I have to wonder what sort of philosophical conversations these two have—one, an agnostic trying to pull down the faith; the other, a defender of the faith, at least in his own warped mind.)
SW: I suppose you could see this is part fiction and part fact. Hofmann’s use of self-hypnotism and biofeedback, to deceive people he was dealing with, is well documented. Hofmann’s associate Shannon Flynn also confirmed that he used hypnosis to “ sedate” himself when forging a document. So I put these two things together and “imagined” Hofmann creating the Emily Dickinson poem.
I tried repeatedly to contact Hofmann via letter but was rebuffed each time with a polite, but firm, No. The only power Hofmann has left is to control the world’s access to him, and he uses it determinedly. I did visit the prison, in Draper, Utah, with Shannon Flynn. But we could only view it from the outside.
I knew of the Lafferty case and very nearly wrote it as a follow-up to The Poet and The Murderer. I now wish I had! Because a few years later, Jon Krakauer, the best-selling author, used Lafferty’s sensational murder as the jumping off point for his excellent Mormon book, Under The Banner of Heaven. Certainly, two more bizarre criminals have surely never been put together in the same cell as Hofmann and Lafferty, one, as you say, a nihilist and atheist; the other, a devout Mormon. If only the NSA would eavesdrop on those conversations ….!
CK: You describe Mark Hofmann’s forgeries as more than mere copying of handwriting, but as creative additions to the canon, whether it be the known works of Emily Dickinson or the correspondence between early leaders of the Mormon Church. Is he not, then, a kind of artist, albeit a minor one?
SW: I call Hofmann “ an evil genius.” He was abnormally intelligent – creative and gifted. But like many people who fail to become genuine artists, something was missing in his make-up. His bitterness and anger at his family, and the extended family of the Mormon church, then made him turn to destruction and revenge. I don’t think he significantly enriched the history of the Mormon church or the canon of Emily Dickinson works. As one expert said: if the poem were a Dickinson, it was Emily on a bad day. I do think, however, that he was a staggeringly inventive and skillful forger. Does that make him an artist? I’d be interested to know what your members think …
CK: I thought the background you gave to Emily Dickinson’s family was fascinating, certainly not what one reads in an American literature text. While Dickinson was a seeker of truth, her family, both during her life and after, are far from being open and above board. Would you discuss any parallels that you see between them and Mark Hofmann.
SW: I think Hofmann was drawn to Dickinson not just because he knew that works by her would fetch a high price. I think he also felt she was a kindred spirit: a precociously gifted person who lived a secret life, like him, and was an outsider. There are also great differences. Dickinson valued truth and honesty above all things. Hofmann was a master of deception who took sadistic pleasure from hoodwinking others.
CK: By contrast to reclusive life of Emily Dickinson and the secretive life of Mark Hofmann, your other writings are far flung adventures sailing the seven seas: from Patagonia to Ki, the highest monastery in the world, to the Outback (Red Center of Australia) to Indonesia’s Spice Islands to the Maritime Silk Route. Your subject matter suggests a romantic life of adventure, and yet you describe yourself as “a toiler in the salt mines of journalism.” How do you reconcile these polar views?
SW: When I was a boy, growing up in England, I used to see men commuting to London in pressed suits and ties to work in an office. I vowed I would never be one of them. And, so far, it has worked! My career as a journalist and author has taken me, as you rightly observe, all over the world: to seventy-two countries, to be exact. I have met fascinating people and seen unique, different cultures. But as the great British travel writer Jan Morris once observed: travel writing is less about travel than it is about writing. So, like all writers, I spent most of my life shut up in a small room, doing the slow, painful work of authorship.
CK: Your latest project, The Very White of Love, seems to be romance of a different sort. Perhaps you could give our readers a tiny sneak preview of its subject.
SW: The phrase The Very White of Love comes from a cache of letters I found tucked away in a chocolate box at the bottom of my mother’s wardrobe, after her death in 2005. Written between her and her fiancé Martin Preston, nephew of the poet, Robert Graves, who died at the siege of Hazebrouck, on May 28th 1940, the letters were a writer’s gift: beautifully written, deeply moving, with a mystery at the heart of them. How did Martin die? My mother never really found out. So, once again, I embarked on a journey of discovery, so I could recreate their story and these star-crossed lovers might, at last, have closure. I have been working on the book on and off for five years and am now about three quarters of the way through the first draft. I hope to be finished in September, for publication in 2014. For more information, go to: http://simonworrallauthor.com/.
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