Friday, January 15, 2021

Interview with Connie Palmen

One of the fun elements of writing fiction is the chance to explore hidden facets of a familiar story. This is especially true—although also a particular challenge—when the characters and events in the novel are real, yet the author’s perspective offers new insights on what we have assumed is a familiar, even trite, tale.

The marriage of the poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, and her husband Ted Hughes (also a poet) is an example of this phenomenon. The subject of a thousand-page biography recently reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, itself the latest addition to a vast literature on the poet’s life and death, Plath has become an iconic figure. Non-scholars passed judgment on her and her husband long ago. Yet in Your Story, My Story Connie Palmen does an exemplary job of overturning our expectations by presenting the couple’s relationship from Ted Hughes’ point of view. Moreover, she succeeds without sugar-coating Hughes’ personality. Issued in English translation just two weeks ago, this is a novel well worth seeking out. Read on to learn more about both the book and its author.

This book is not your first. Is there a theme that ties your prior works together?

When you a write a novel, there is never only one reason to do so; there are a lot of reasons, tangled themes, fascinations, love for a specific genre, love for other novels, the never-ending need to understand more about life and about yourself. The theme that guides a lot of my novels is the sometimes devastating influence of how we talk about other people. After the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath, the life of Ted Hughes became the subject of gossip, nasty stories, myths, biographies. It was no longer his.
 

What drew you not just to Sylvia Plath’s story but to Ted Hughes’ side of it?

When I was mourning the loss of my husband, I read Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, published just before his death. I was struck by how poignant and heartfelt the poems were. I felt they pointed to Hughes’ deep love for Sylvia and the pain he endured as a result of her death—a pain with which I could relate. The more I delved into Hughes’ poetry, the more compelled I felt to tell Ted’s side of the story.

And how do you see Ted Hughes, a historical personage who as a literary character must be in part your creation?

While working with my excellent translators, Anna Asbury and Eileen J. Stevens, I described Your Story, My Story as my “Judas” novel. The Judas connection is crucial here, as my Ted Hughes character states from the beginning that the key events in his relationship with Sylvia were set in stone before they ever met. In other words, the trajectory of their marriage was fixed from their first encounter. Does that absolve him of all guilt in this tale? Was he simply an unsuspecting accomplice? Or does this make Sylvia less of a victim? I have tried to relate this story impartially, leaving room for ambiguity in spite of narrating only one side. It is up to each reader to decide.

How do you understand Sylvia Plath, her personality and her suicide?

As a writer, philosopher, and as Ted Hughes, I try to understand Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and suicide in general. In the novel Hughes acknowledges in her personality a radical thread, a longing for purity, and a willingness to sacrifice her false self to become more real and clean. This longing might be a part of understanding her, but people are complex and there is never only one explanation for our behavior.

No story is one-sided. What were the strengths and weaknesses of their marriage, in your view?

Hughes was not a monster, and Plath was not a saint.

What is most important for potential readers to know about this story, as you tell it?

Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were one of the most famous romantic couples in modern Western literature. In countless biographies of Plath, she is given the status of martyr and Hughes that of a traitor and murderer, while Hughes was reviled by strangers and even sued by people he once considered his friends.  

I wanted to describe the thoughts, fears, and incantations of this husband, and his deeply tragic bond with the woman who would come to define his life.

You write in Dutch. The translation seems very fluid and well done, but does the act of translation change a literary work in some way?

A good translator understands how and what a writer wanted to tell, and she preserves the essence of a novel. That is the wonder of reading your own book in another language: it is completely different and at the same time exactly yours.

Are you already working on another project? What can you tell us about it?

I am still doing research for my next novel, and I wrote essays on Vivian Gornick, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath. It is a continuation of a small collection of essays I wrote on famous, talented, and rather destructive women like Patricia Highsmith, Marilyn Monroe, Marguerite Duras, and Jane Bowles.

Thank you so much for answering my questions.

Connie Palmen was born in Sint OdiliĆ«nberg, the Netherlands, and studied literature and philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of The Laws, voted the European Novel of the Year and short-listed for the 1996 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Friendship, winner of the AKO Literature Prize; All Yours; Lucifer; and the autobiographical works I.M.—now a television film broadcast in December 2020—and Journal of a Merciless Year. Your Story, My Story, published in Dutch as Jij zegt het in 2015, won the prestigious Libris Prize for Literature and was short-listed for several other literary awards. Amazon Crossing published the English edition in January 2021. Ms. Palmen currently lives in Amsterdam. For more information, see http://www.conniepalmen.nl.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Unhappy Rich Girl

A little over a year ago, I published a written Q&A with the author Molly Greeley on this blog. That was supposed to be a podcast interview, but as luck would have it, the workmen who had spent the previous two weeks doing everything but putting my deck back together (after demolishing it in no time flat) arrived, saws and hammers in hand, the day before I was supposed to talk with her. She kindly agreed to reschedule, since it was clear we would barely be able to hear each other—and our listeners even less so. I vowed to host a conversation about both novels when the second one appeared.

That has now happened. William Morrow published The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh on January 5 of this year. Molly and I spoke well in advance of the release, to avoid delays caused by the annual winter and New Year’s holidays, and you can hear us talking on the New Books Network. The post below, which accompanies the interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, provides an introduction to both novels.

The world created by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice has established a place for itself in contemporary culture that few other novels can match, yet amid the countless spinoffs, some stand out. Molly Greeley seems to have a special gift for creating novels that, although based on Austen’s creations, take on a life of their own.

In 2019’s The Clergyman’s Wife, Greeley imagined how the marriage between Charlotte Lucas, the friend of Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and Mr. Collins, Austen’s risible antagonist, might have worked out after three years. The Heiress (William Morrow, 2020) takes up the story of Anne de Bourgh, a character who in the original Pride and Prejudice exists mostly as an example of the kind of young woman that novel’s hero, Mr. Darcy, should prefer to Elizabeth, if only in the opinion of Anne’s formidable mother, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Now, to anyone familiar with Lady Catherine, the thought of being her daughter is itself enough to cause shudders of alarm, but on the surface, Anne has a privileged life, including the right—rare for a woman in eighteenth-century Europe—to inherit her father’s estate. In this, she occupies the opposite position from Charlotte Lucas, who married Mr. Collins solely to avoid becoming an elderly, unwanted spinster living in genteel poverty.

But all is not well in Anne’s world, either. A fractious but healthy baby, she undergoes “treatment” for what we assume is colic that leaves her addicted to laudanum, an opiate. Her father wants to wean Anne of the drug, but her mother insists on following the advice of the local quack even as Anne becomes more listless and emaciated. A governess manages to awaken Anne’s interest in poetry and mathematics, but it’s only when Anne herself awakens to the dangers of laudanum and decides to rid herself of her addiction, no matter what it costs her, that she begins to grow into her inheritance.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Interview with Judithe Little

I first encountered Judithe Little when her then publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, pitched Judith’s first novel to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview. That podcast appeared in 2017 as part of a one-time experiment in talking with two authors, back to back, about books that happened to cover related topics. (I didn’t repeat the experiment because it turned out that the computers weren’t good at featuring two authors and two novels in one post.) You can still hear our conversation for free on the New Books Network.

Her second novel, The Chanel Sisters, reached me in a similar way, but it covers a very different subject: the life of the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel. Read on to find out more about both books.

Your first novel, Wickwythe Hall, came out in 2017 and addressed a single crucial decision made by the British government in 1940. What led you to move from that very military/political arena to the early years of Coco Chanel’s life?

Both book inspirations came while I was reading Axel Madsen’s biography Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. It was the first Chanel biography I’d read, and in it I learned about Coco’s early life as well as the confrontation between the French and British navies in World War II. I wrote Wickwythe Hall first because I found it so astonishing that most people didn’t know about that tragedy (including myself), but there was always a placeholder in my mind for the early part of Coco’s life that ends just after World War I in 1921. Both novels are, at heart, about relationships and how war can irrevocably upend them.

The novel is called The Chanel Sisters, and in fact the main narrator is Antoinette (Ninette), not Gabrielle, the future Coco. What does Ninette’s perspective offer you as a writer that Coco’s would not?

Coco never told the truth about her convent upbringing and the fact that her father abandoned her. Ninette knew exactly what Coco worked so hard to hide because she experienced it too. As a reliable narrator, Ninette offers a more intimate, honest side to Coco than Coco herself would ever be willing to reveal. Also, as I researched Ninette’s story, I realized she played a more important role in the founding of the Chanel empire than previously known. I thought it was time she had her own voice. 

There is also a third sister, Julia-Berthe. Where does she fit into the story?

All of the sisters, once released from the clutches of the nuns, choose different paths out in the world. What motivates them in part is to fill the void left by their father’s betrayal. The longing for love is heightened in the sisters because they’ve spent their entire lives feeling unloved. Julia-Berthe, the oldest sister, seeks out physical love. She has no grand schemes to break out of poverty like the other two and is more willing to accept her place in the world. Like her parents and grandparents, she tries to squeeze out a living selling used items in outdoor markets. She is who Antoinette and Coco might have been if they hadn’t pursued their dreams and broken the cycle of poverty they came from. It’s ironic that for all that the name “Chanel” stands for today, it comes from a family of vagabond peddlers living hand to mouth.

Like many people, I would guess, I have been aware of Coco Chanel throughout my life without really knowing much about her beyond Chanel no. 5 and the Little Black Dress. How would you summarize her, as a character? What’s most important for us to know about her?

Coco was a very complex person, but one quality that defined her was a driving need for freedom. Freedom from poverty, from the convent, from the rules of society in general, and from the rules of society imposed on women. Because of her quest for freedom, she revolutionized fashion and along with it the way women participate in the world. She gave women clothing they could actually move in. But she didn’t do it intentionally. She didn’t start out wanting to be a fashion designer at all. She made hats and clothing for herself first because she didn’t like the fussy, overwrought choices of the time and also couldn’t afford them. Her pared-down style caught on as did her philosophy that women should dress to live, not live to dress.

The love of Ninette’s life is a man she calls Lucho. Tell us a bit about him and how their romance intersects with your novel’s main theme: the relationship among these three sisters.

Those were the days when who you married defined you in the eyes of society. Of the sisters, Ninette is the one who wants her existence acknowledged by society as it never was by her father. She hopes against all odds to find love and acceptance all wrapped up in a nice package. Then life presents her with Lucho, who can give her the former but not the latter. He’s an Argentinian/English horse breeder who comes to France to promote his Criollo ponies to European polo players. When World War I breaks out, he provides his horses to the French army to help fight the Germans. Coco, who’s more pragmatic than Ninette, doesn’t care about propriety. She helps Ninette understand she’s playing a fool’s game, trying to protect a “reputation” she never really had because of her low birth.

Can you tell us anything about the novel that you’re now working on, referenced in your bio, below?

The novel I’m working on now takes place in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and is told from the point of view of Coco Chanel’s best friend for over thirty years, a fascinating woman who was actually more famous in Paris at the time than Coco.  

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Judithe Little is the author of two novels, The Chanel Sisters and Wickwythe Hall, award-winning historical fiction set during World War II. She grew up in Virginia and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. After studying at the Institute of European Studies and the Institut Catholique in Paris, France, and interning at the US Department of State, she earned a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, where she was on the Editorial Board of the Journal of International Law and a Dillard Fellow. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and children, where she is working on her third novel. Find out more about her and her books at http://www.judithelittle.com.

 

If you’re looking for the usual annual resolutions, I ran the pared-down version in last week’s post, “Looking Back—and Forward.” And as always, I wish everyone a splendid new year, with love and success and happiness for you and those you love!