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I hadn’t seen my friend Lynn Cullen since the launch of her historical novel Reign of Madness in 2011, though we’d been in touch via email. But this morning we were meeting for breakfast at Goldberg’s Deli in Toco Hills Shopping Center.
Lynn has been my inspiration and mentor since 1998, when I began inviting her to visit my English classes. Every time Itaught one of her daughters, Lynn would do a presentation on the stages a book goes through to publication. I still remember her visual aids, enlargements of book passages showing her editor’s markups of her Middle Grade novel The Backyard Ghost. I never knew what impact she had on my very smart and polite students. Did they grasp the amount of work necessary to get a book as perfect as could be? Did her discussion of the painful editing process—after Lynn’s own revisions—have any effect on their writing (often done the night before)?
If they weren’t impressed, I was.
After retiring from teaching, I worked at an independent bookstore, which hosted signings for Lynn’s subsequent books, including the children’s picture book Moi and Marie Antoinette (told from the point of view of a pug dog), I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, a YA (Young Adult) novel, but read mostly by adult women for their book clubs, and The Creation of Eve, her first adult historical novel. In effect, Lynn’s writing “grew up” along with her daughters.
And so that morning, Lynn sat across from me patiently listening as I described my struggles with my own manuscript. Finally, I asked her how things were going with her. Not so well, as it turned out. This established author of nearly 20 years and 15 books had run into, not just a bump in the road, but a seismic fault. After Reign of Madness (which had been nominated for Georgia’s prestigious Townsend Prize), her publisher turned down her next book, and, since Lynn had completed her two-book deal with them, the publishing house chose not to renew her contract. More important, though, Lynn’s husband had nearly died from encephalitis. It left him with a debilitating brain injury, unable to work. Lynn was now the sole financial support of the family. “I was a desperate woman,” she says of that time.
And yet she was hard at work on a new book, words flying from her fingers as she typed. She told me she had learned her lesson—her next book must be completely compelling.
This new book, Mrs. Poe, is Lynn Cullen’s break-out hit, praised by npr, the New York Times, and Oprah.com, chosen by Target and Books-a-Million as their featured selection, reviewed by blogs too numerous to list, and currently in negotiations for a movie deal. And best of all, Lynn’s husband has regained his health.
But in those early hours after Lynn brought him home from the hospital, she paced the floor, distraught over how they would survive the beating life was inflicting. As Lynn tells it in an interview for the blog My Bookish Ways, the word “Poe” floated into her brain. She hurried to the computer to scan his story and discovered Frances Osgood, Poe’s alleged lover, a woman abandoned by her artist husband and trying to support her family by writing poetry. Lynn felt a chill of recognition: “I knew this woman – I was this woman. I had to write her story.”
The title Mrs. Poe refers to two Mrs. Poes. First, Frances Osgood, or Fanny, our narrator, who drops in on George Pope Morris, editor of The Evening Mirror in hopes of selling him a poem. Like the rest of New York, Morris is only interested in the current rage for “shivery tales,” spurred by the “The Raven,” which has made Edgar Allan Poe a star. Boys follow him down the street flapping their arms and chanting “Nevermore,” and parodies pop up everywhere. Reluctant to turn away the beautiful Mrs. Osgood with only a cold shoulder, Mr. Morris offers her a suggestion:
“…what if you came up with something fresh and exciting as ‘The Raven,’ only from a lady’s point of view?”
“Do you mean something dark?”
“Yes,” he said, warming to the idea. “Yes, Exactly so—dark. Very dark. I think there might be a market for that. Shivery tales for ladies.”
“You’d like me to be a sort of Mrs. Poe?”
“Ha! Yes. That’s the ticket.” (Mrs. Poe, 5-6)
The legal Mrs. Poe, Virginia Clemm, Poe’s first cousin, was thirteen when they married. As Lynn Cullen portrays her, she is a sickly immature young woman, now 26, clinging to her husband, who demands Fanny’s friendship once she realizes Fanny is her rival–today’s frenemies. How dangerous a friend, how close to madness she is, Cullen leaves to the reader to decide, for although Fanny is never able to write the shivery tale that might make her famous, her story becomes a shivery tale, one straight out of Poe’s own pages.
Then there is the man they both love. Cullen found her inspiration for Poe in the enigmatic Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. Abandoned by his adoptive father John Allan, Poe later turns to his aunt, Maria Poe Clemm, and her daughter Virginia. Cullen tells us to forget the familiar sad-eyed fellow dressed in black. In 1845, when this novel is set, Poe is, in Cullen’s words, “a looker, a dapper and handsome ladies’ man.” She continues, “I pictured Poe as tormented, striving so hard to prove himself, but deep down, sweet. He needed to be loved. I wanted him to be my idea of sexy—dry sense of humor, caring, so masculine in his strength. I hoped my male readers would pay attention to understand what women want.” This then is the private, the intimate Poe, so desired by Fanny Osgood that she finds herself weak kneed whenever he approaches. Together they write a series of love poems, which he publishes in the Broadway Journal. Though credited to “Violet Vane” and “M,” the poems fool no one as to their authorship. And although Cullen has carved out this romance as her own story, this exchange of poems is virtual proof that her tale of their affair is pretty close to the truth.
Where, then, did our idea of Poe, the drunken lunatic, come from? In actuality, the public Poe was a man of sharp wit that skewered fools, including the likes of the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a publisher of poetry collections, a fop who believed in puffing the reputations of his lackeys and being puffed in return. Griswold also desired Fanny. He gained his revenge in the greatest smear job in American literary history when he became the executor of Poe’s papers. Ironically, his falsified biography of Poe created the legend that has endeared him to a myriad of modern readers.
And so Lynn Cullen had her novel—conceived in desperation and born to compel its readers. I don’t want you to think, though, that some sympathetic muse plugged Cullen’s fingers into a Mount Olympus keyboard. Mrs. Poe, like all of her work, is a product of research, writing, and revision. Even though Cullen says of her success, “This time I got lucky,” I would say, she made her own luck.
In Part 2 of this article, due out next Wednesday, August 6th, we’ll pull back the curtains a bit to study Cullen’s craft.
Do you like to read “shivery tales”? If so, what are some of your favorites? Is Poe’s work on your list?