Lynn Cullen Discusses Twain’s End: The Man Behind the Mask, Part I

(Last week, Brenda Lloyd reviewed Lynn Cullen’s latest novel, Twain’s End. If you missed this review, you can read it by clicking here. If you know Cullen only from Mrs. Poe,  you can learn more in my earlier interview, linked here.)

Lynn Cullen launches Twain's End at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta.

Lynn Cullen launches Twain’s End at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta.

Just a little over two years ago, Lynn Cullen published Mrs. Poe, her story of the romance between poet Frances Osgood and that darkly handsome master of mystery and macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. A national bestseller, it proved to be Cullen’s breakout novel, that is, a book that takes the author to a whole new level, like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. How does a novelist follow such success? What Cullen did was take that leap off the high dive into an even greater challenge–writing about Samuel Clemens. Samuel who? Mark Twain, of course, whose own breakout novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is one of the cornerstones of American literature.

Cullen’s Twain’s End has already been selected by People Magazine as a Best New Book, by the Independent Booksellers Association for its October Indie Next List, and by Publisher’s Weekly as a Book of the Week Pick.

. . .

I understand the  launch date (October 13th) for your new novel, Twain’s End, has a special significance. Please tell our readers about this.

The release date is the birthday of my sister, Arlene, who, of my six beloved siblings, I call my “littermate.”  I’ve dedicated the book to the memory of her daughter, Tami Willadson, and her granddaughter, Jess, who died in a house fire in April, 2014.  I was in the middle of writing the book when we lost them.  I wasn’t able to write for a few months afterward, and when I was able to resume, the book had become my way of trying to come to terms with unimaginable loss, although I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t realize until I’d finished the writing that, ultimately, the book was about accepting the unacceptable.

Samuel Clemens at Stormfield, his last home.

Samuel Clemens at Stormfield, his last home (1908-1910): “Miss Lyon and the architect built and furnished the house without any advice from me, and the result is entirely to my satisfaction.”

Your novels are known for their meticulous research that has taken you all over the US and Europe. What particular challenges did writing about Samuel Clemens present? 

Writing about Samuel Clemens presented the tremendous challenge of familiarizing myself with the dozens of biographies about him and the people in his life.  Although TWAIN’S END is not a critique of his work but, rather, my study of the man, I also had to dig into his decades-spanning oeuvre.  I visited the setting of every scene in the book, from Hartford, Connecticut to Florence, Italy.  I made a pilgrimage to the Mark Twain Papers housed at the University of California, Berkeley, the only place in the world where the complete remains of Isabel Lyon’s diary can be found.  I pored over hundreds of photos, which so often tell tales that scholarly biographies miss.

Yet, pinning down Sam Clemens proved to be a slippery business.  He consciously fabricated stories about himself, in keeping with the playful image he’d created of himself as Mark Twain.  As he said in his autobiography, “My own luck has been curious all my literary life; I never could tell a lie that anyone would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe.”

My task was to compile the mountain of information, to form my own theories, and, while supporting my suppositions, to see what larger messages might be found.  My intention was not to write a fictionalized biography about Samuel Clemens but to explore themes like the effect of fame on a person and the cost—and quiet sense of reward—of loyalty.  But the facts about Clemens and Lyon were juicy.

What were your preconceptions about Samuel Clemens, and what did you find through research that shifted your perspective?

Isabel Lyon at Stormfield (Twain's last home, which she designed), 1908

Isabel Lyon at Stormfield

Before I started researching, I had bought into Mark Twain’s whole homespun humorist image.  I resisted looking into writing about him, thinking he was as uncomplicated as apple-pie and lemonade, although a wise friend of mine from Missouri urged me to consider it.  One of the first image-breakers I came across was how Clemens treated his secretary, Isabel Lyon.  His condemnation of her to their friends, to the press, to the world, was brutal.  He and his daughter, Clara, weren’t content until Isabel was destroyed.  I thought, “Me thinks he doth protest too much,” and was determined to figure out why he felt the need to scorch the earth beneath this woman and sew it with salt.  Along the way, I came to see that underneath his lovably cantankerous public image as Twain, and beyond the angry real-life man who lashed out so startlingly, Sam Clemens was a compassionate, tender man who had survived a bleak and scarring boyhood.  I love him now, in spite of his wicked temper and cutting tongue, and I understand how Isabel fell so hard for him and endured his abuse.  His charisma and intelligence, and the vulnerable boy underneath his hard veneer, a side that he revealed to a chosen few, Isabel Lyon among them, would have been irresistible.

Many people might have said “Mark Twain” in the earlier questions, and this, the duality of names, is at the heart of your story, confusion not only by the public but by Twain/ Clemens himself. Please discuss. (And maybe explain, for any who might not know, how Clemens chose his pen name.) When you were contemplating your character, what did you call him?

In the beginning, I struggled with which to call him when talking with others, Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. So many people aren’t even aware that “Mark Twain” is a pen name; Samuel Clemens was successful, perhaps too successful, in selling his literary persona, Twain.  However, I quickly came to think of my subject as Sam early on in my research, the result of focusing on his childhood as a means of understanding him.  The belief that his traumatic boyhood shaped him became one of the pillars of my story, hence my choice as epigraph: “One gets large impressions in boyhood, sometimes, which he has to fight against all his life.” (Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad)

Clemens/ Twain plays billiards with Louise Paine and Dorothy Harvey, two of his "Angelfish" in his Aquarium Club.

Clemens/ Twain plays billiards with Louise Paine and Dorothy Harvey, two of his “Angelfish” in his Aquarium Club.

Yet, as an adult, even Clemens’s closest friends called him “Mark.”  Not even his wife called him “Sam”–she called him “Youth.”  Sam Clemens was effectively subsumed by his doppelganger Twain.  Clemens claimed to have chosen his name based on the riverboat piloting term used for water of a safe depth, “mark twain,” but he had to be aware that “twain” is the archaic word for “two.”  Little did he know that his “other” would quickly come to commandeer his life.

In a conversation that Isabel Lyon has with the Reverend Joe Twichell, Twichell says, “Mark will do anything to further himself—Mark would step on his own mother if he thought it would benefit him…There has never been a more self-serving creature. The man I’m trying to protect is Sam.” It’s interesting that the public beloved face is the one Twichell is calling the monster. Had you thought about the Sam/ Mark divide as being like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? 

Chang and Eng Bunker

Chang and Eng Bunker

The resemblance between the Sam/Mark divide and that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was not lost upon me, nor, more importantly, was it lost upon Sam Clemens.  In fact, just before slipping into his final coma, he spoke of Jekyll and Hyde and dual personality.  He was obsessed with duality, as his books The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins reveal.   He was so fascinated with the conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, that he tied a friend to him with ribbons to play the pair at a masquerade party.  Their shtick was for Chang to guzzle booze while his teetotaling twin Eng got drunk; interesting that Clemens zeroed in on how one twin dragged down the other.

Clemens said in his autobiography, “every man is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”  I believe that to Clemens’s credit, he was acutely aware of his dark side.  Ironically, the twin that he created to escape his own darkness ended up suffocating him.

I understand that choosing a title was also a challenge. Why?

Told from Sam Clemens’s secretary’s point of view, Twain’s End serves to give Isabel Lyon long overdue credit for her loyalty to her beloved Mr. Clemens.  Therefore, I was mindful of this aim when searching for a title.  Yet the mythical Mark won out again:  my publisher insisted (reasonably) that “Twain” appear in the title in order to aid reader recognition.  So I came up with a title that suggests both the place where Twain and Isabel had their reckoning, the estate that Twain jokingly calls “Twain’s End” in the book, as well as the termination of the legendary man.

. . .

Please come back tomorrow for the conclusion to this interview, particularly if you’re a fan of Mrs. Poe. Cullen discusses a few of the similarities and differences between these two works and reveals some of the hammer blows that struck at Clemens in later life, leading to his growing misanthropy and despair.

Meanwhile, here’s a question for you to ponder and perhaps share your thoughts on: Is great comic art often close to tragedy? 

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