Historical Novelist Lynn Cullen, Part 2: The Craft of Art

In Part 1 of my interview with Lynn Cullen (see July 30th), I briefly discussed her break-out novel, Mrs. Poe.  But as Cullen says herself, “It takes years to figure out your craft and the industry. Those who want a short cut, well, it doesn’t happen.”

Lynn Cullen and Her Writing Sisters from the 90s (Cullen on far right)

Lynn Cullen and Her Writing Sisters from the 90s (Cullen on far right)

Back when she was a young mother finishing her English degree at Georgia State University, Cullen took creative writing classes from Tom McHaney and joined an SCBWI critique group.  Of the group, Cullen and two other women, Nancy Butts and Barbara Timberlake Russell, were the closest. All three were writing MG (Middle Grade) or YA (Young Adult) novels. All three got published about the same time and all by big New York publishers. As far as she knows, Cullen is the only one still writing, though. Writing is grueling, seldom profitable, she acknowledges, but she feels driven to write—it’s the thing she’s good at.

Altogether Cullen has written 14 children’s books, including the YA novel I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, intended to be an adult novel. “My editor at I am R's DaughtherChildren’s Bloomsbury wanted it. I couldn’t say no. It became a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection [as well as a 2008 ALA Best Book].” Cullen considers it the turning point of her career. Three novels  of adult historical fiction followed, including the well regarded The Creation of Eve, named among the best 2010 fiction  by The Atlanta Journal Constitution and an April 2010 Indie Next selection.

A common question to writers of historical fiction is, how can they re-create past worlds that they can never actually visit? World building is a three-legged stool.

Cullen’s favorite tool to discover the sensory world of the past is travel.  The Creation of Eve and Reign of Madness took her to Spain; I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, to Amsterdam. Even writing the children’s picture book The Mightiest Heart led to several trips to Wales. For Mrs. Poe, as she tells it in an interview with the blog My Bookish Ways, Cullen trod the streets of New York—from the Greenwich Village townhouse where Frances Osgood lived with the John Bartlett family, to the home where Anne Lynch hosted literary soirees, to the bell tower of Trinity Church, a pivotal scene in the book, of which Cullen says, “[I stuck] my head out the window like Frances did.”reign madness

“I think about all the senses when I’m in these places,” Cullen explains on her web site. “How do the mountains outside Segovia smell?  – Like moss, wet stone, and fresh piney air. …What does Castilian garlic soup taste like? – There’s a salty burst of fat on the tongue from the tiny chunks of pork…These pieces form a puzzle just waiting to be put together. My task and my joy are to think of the story that links them together.” Reviewing The Creation of Eve,  Teresa Weaver says,  a reader can “turn to virtually any page of this swoon-worthy blend of mystery, romance, and history …[to] find an incandescent description of a sight, a smell, a touch.”

More than providing a sensory analogy for the past, travel has sometimes changed the course of Cullen’s story, as in her visit to the Poe Cottage in Fordham (now the Bronx). “Once I saw the cot-sized bed in which Virginia Poe died, with, as is told, Poe’s army greatcoat and their cat upon her to keep her warm, I had new sympathy for her. I had written her as a flat-out villain. Seeing her desperate circumstances made me want to flesh her out more completely. She had become real to me.”

Book research is another leg of the stool. Researching Mrs. Poe, for example, meant reading every biography Cullen could get her hands on, everything about 1845 New York. “I must have over a hundred books on that subject,” she says. And her best sources came from the bibliographies. While writing Mrs. Poe, she kept an unabridged Webster’s Dictionary close at hand to check when words first entered the vernacular. The only word she used prior to 1845 was “shanghaied.”  There simply wasn’t anything equivalent to fit her sentence.

The third leg is imagination. Lest you think historical novels are merely biography plus made-up dialogue, think again—at least in Cullen’s fiction. In fact, she prefers to say she writes novels, not historical novels. Once she gets her timeline down, she carves out her story. For her, the first draft is a kind of discovery. “Something may come to me out of the MP coverblue. Robert Louis Stevenson said ‘brownies’ brought it to him.” She describes her process:  “I try to stay within the known time and facts, but as far as planning, I don’t do a lot. I write chronologically. That’s the carrot in front of me. Chapter by chapter, I know what I need to accomplish. It’s a slow process, but discovery makes it fun.” Cullen continues, “There’s discovery in revision, too. You learn so much more about the story and the people…just like new friends.”

If world building makes a novel time specific, then ideas make it timeless.

For Cullen,  her primary focus is human craving. In fact, her favorite song is “Constant Craving.” She is fascinated by this passage from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook:

“…Man who with perpetual longing always looks forward with joy to each new spring and each new summer, and to the new months and the new years, deeming that the things he longs for are too slow in coming; and who does not perceive that he is longing for his own destruction.  But this longing is in its quintessence the spirit of the elements, which finding itself imprisoned within the life of the human body desires continually to return to its source.  And I would have you to know that this same longing is in its quintessence inherent in nature, and that man is a type of the world.”

What do her characters crave? Well, in Mrs. Poe, they all seem to crave love, some crave fame. Interestingly, though, when they receive what they crave, they do not always find it satisfying. Poe admits as much: “I used to think that in spite of my hard work and a goodly amount of little-known publications, I was not a success unless I was famous. Only after I was famous would I really be alive.” (90) But now he feels hemmed in by a public craving to hear “The Raven” over and over.

Shelf_CREATIONAnother commonality is the conflict between appearance and reality. The court intrigues in The Creation of Eve and Reign of Madness, the dangerous shivery tale that Frances Osgood’s life becomes in Mrs. Poe are examples.  Cullen used to specialize in discovering fascinating but unknown historical figures, such as Sofonisba Anguissola, the young female apprentice to Michelangelo in The Creation of Eve. She now finds satisfaction in ferreting out secrets in the lives of well known figures or overturning accepted belief, such as Poe’s purported drunkenness and lunacy.

The theme in Mrs. Poe I find most interesting is its commentary on The Writing Life. With her initial discovery of Frances Osgood’s story and her sense that “I knew this woman—I was this woman,” Cullen explores what it means to be a writer, specifically a woman writer. Although Fanny has enjoyed some success in writing children’s poems such as “Puss’n Boots,” a genre that doesn’t pay, and flower poems, now out of fashion, her one success comes from her flirty anonymous poetic exchanges with Poe. In other words, she shines in his reflected light. She is never able to complete the interview with the Poes, which would have paid a handsome fee, and she cannot think of any shivery tale to write, although she finds herself in the middle of one. In short, Fanny has writer’s block. She says, “I stared at the page as if to will a story to life. But the magic of creativity had abandoned me.” (108)

Luckily, this has not been the case for Cullen herself. Dear Mr Wash

Due out in January 2015, after 10 years in production, Dear Mr. Washington, a children’s picture book. How can a picture book take ten years? The publisher wanted the best–Nancy Carpenter–as illustrator. Being the best means that she has a long waiting list.

Meanwhile, Cullen is working full tilt researching Mark Twain and the women who influenced his life and writing. She has just returned from San Francisco, where she got her “mitts” on Twain’s papers at the Twain Library in Berkeley. And before that, Bermuda, chasing down other Twain leads. She notes, “He was a busy boy.” And she’s a busy girl.


Do you read historical fiction? If so, what are some of your favorite historical novels?

9 thoughts on “Historical Novelist Lynn Cullen, Part 2: The Craft of Art

  1. Great post. So interesting to learn of Cullen’s writing process. My daughter and I have read and loved her books. Eager to get my hands on Mrs. Poe. The historical fiction I’ve most recently enjoyed was The Time In Between, by Maria Duenas, about a dressmaker for Nazi wives in the years between the two world wars. A fat and delicious book.

    • Since I’m working on my own historical novel (rather, period fiction), I have been trying to saturate myself with books in this genre. I guess my favorite from this last year would be Longbourn by Jo Baker, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ POV. I usually don’t like P&P knockoffs, but this book was terrific. Highly recommended!

  2. Christina, this post ” got me thinking”: is there a difference between historical novels like Mrs. Poe and stories set in a particular time in the past? I don’t know the answer. Is it perhaps just the difference of a fictionalized account of someone from real life (different than a biography) and a complete fiction in a period?

  3. Rona, I’ve pondered that question myself. As I wrote in the post, Lynn says she tries to avoid the pseudo-biography that some historical novels are by carving out her own story amid the historic details. Maybe that’s why Lynn prefers to think of herself as a novelist, not a historical novelist.
    My own novel (almost done! fingers crossed) has a historic setting and minor characters who are “real,” but the main characters are all fictional. I think some people refer to this second type as “period” fiction, but the designation seems pretty loose.

  4. Thank you so much for another great interview, Chris. I appreciate how eloquently you reported on my 30 year struggle to survive in one of the most difficult, most rewarding fields. Thank you most sincerely for the huge amount of time and thought that you devoted to this two-part interview.

    Rona, very good question. The term “historical novel” is problematic in that there are so many definitions of it. I try to duck out of the whole argument by calling myself a novelist, not particularly a historical novelist. My hope is to carve out my own type of books, literary novels with an element of mystery and romance in them and which are set in accurately rendered-history using real-life individuals. That probably makes me sound pretty foolhardy/grandiose, so anyone who wants to call me a historical novelist is welcome to. HF is a fantastic genre, no matter the definition. Meanwhile, my main aim is to write books that I’d like to read. As you know as a writer, we have to really love our material since we have to live with it for so many years!

    • Lynn, I think one of the best points you made in the interview was your statement about short cuts to writing–that they don’t happen because it takes so long to learn the craft. Oh, sure, we hear about a tiny few who write in one burst of inspiration, finish a book in the bat of an eye, and become instant celebs (Jack Kerouac, maybe?). I’ve only heard about these folks, not ever met them.

      I think your journey provides a more powerful lesson–hard work to do a thorough job and determination to see it through despite the obstacles…and then the artistry to make all that effort appear effortless.

      Thanks for being my role model. 🙂

  5. It’s so encouraging to hear about the lifespan of a career. I feel that even though people *seem* to have a respect for the lengthy process of book-building (it takes longer than, oh, making a latte), if they know you’re a writer they still ask those dreaded questions. Not feeling the “rushing” pressure takes a lot of wise examples. So thanks to both of you for making my day:)
    Also, can’t wait to read the upcoming Mark Twain book!

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