This is the second novel in which you have delved into the life of a major American literary figure. How has the experience of writing Twain’s End compared to that of writing, Mrs. Poe?
My aim as a novelist has always been to examine some of the difficulties we face as humans through the lens of the lives of misunderstood or marginalized historical figures. I’ve been less interested in writing novelized biographies of my famous characters than in using their experiences to write stories that make readers think. Although I work hard at not bending the facts that I uncover during my research, ultimately, I am a novelist, not a biographer. To this end, I seek the unknown in my characters’ personal lives so that I can tell a fictitious story within these gaps.
Twain’s End was a departure for me in that I made less use of these gaps in the known facts than usual, largely because there were fewer gaps. As I did for Mrs. Poe and all my novels, I visited the site of every scene in the book to give the settings an authentic feel. I familiarized myself with Mark Twain’s works, like I did with Poe’s, to get a feel for their thinking. But for this book, I had the added advantage of having access to Isabel Lyon’s diary, written during her years with Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. Between her observations and Twain’s writings and quotes, I had much more primary source material from which to construct a novel than I’ve ever had. My challenge, therefore, was to connect the dots in the material, draw my conclusions, then illustrate my theories. Samuel Clemens and Isabel Lyon’s real lives were so fraught with the extremes in hardship, success, pain, and joy, that my main mission became to lay out their experiences so that they might speak for themselves.
How did you come to choose Mark Twain as the subject of your book?
I have long admired how in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain staunchly yet craftily took to task those who defended and justified slavery. I marveled at Clemens’s wit and his compassion for the underdog. Who doesn’t love Mark Twain, the clever curmudgeon with the heart of gold? Yet when I did a little digging and saw how viciously he turned on his loyal secretary, repeatedly attacking her even though she never defended herself, I was curious to know who the real Sam Clemens was and why Isabel Lyon—and his wife and daughters—put up with him.
How much did you know about Mark Twain before beginning your research for this story? How has your appreciation and understanding of Samuel Clemens and his character evolved since writing this book, particularly with respect to his relationships with others?
Like most Americans, I was mainly familiar with Mark Twain from reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in elementary school, so when first getting to know the real Sam Clemens in order to write this book, I was furious with him. I had thought he was a hero and here he was a bully and a fake! But after spending a year and a half trying to get inside his mind—a daunting, sometimes even sickening proposition with as volatile a man as Sam Clemens—I actually came to love him even more than when I started, In fact, I now feel a bit protective of him. It wasn’t my intention to make people hate him by exposing his flaws. I was simply trying to show the man as he actually was, at least in my mind, with good traits and bad like most of us. I believe he was a good and loving man at heart, or at least he wanted very much to be one, but he struggled with what today we would call an “anger management problem,” exacerbated by a mercurial temperament, extreme sensitivity, and a traumatic childhood. Yes, he did carefully nurture a public persona that belied the private man, but I don’t hold that against him. Can we blame him for promulgating an image that became universally “Liked by All,” when it brought him the love, admiration, and wealth he so desperately craved?
So much of your book deals with the conflict between Samuel Clemens’ personal identity versus that of his status as a writer and the mythos surrounding his fictional persona, Mark Twain. As a novelist, how do you relate to this dual existence, your identity as a writer versus your identity otherwise? How much does your writing define you?
Ha, my writing is me. My novels allow me to speak my mind in ways I can’t in real life. I’m not someone who is comfortable with conflict and argument yet in my books I can sneakily and thoroughly express my beliefs, questions, and desires through my characters, with the added luxury of being able to revise these thoughts until they’re spoken with an elegance not possible when blurted off the cuff. In addition, my characters can act or feel in ways I only dream of in real life. They can correct the mistakes they’ve made—I create chances for them to do so. All in all, writing allows me to be my better self—fantastic therapy! I understand how Clemens allowed Mark Twain to become his voice and reveled in it, only to be horrified when he realized that his own creation forced him to stay in costume, so to speak, if he wanted to remain beloved.
You currently reside in Atlanta, Georgia. How has your Southern home played into your decision to write about iconic Southern writers?
I have lived in the South for over thirty years, long enough to understand how deep the wounds of slavery still run. Although he lived over a hundred years ago, Samuel Clemens’s examination of these scars is still relevant. I’m especially interested in his insights into how it felt for someone from a slave-owning family to reject an institution that his parents—his whole town, his very world—sanctioned. He knew the stories that people had to tell themselves to accept the inhumanity among them. He lived the pain of watching as the mask of civility was ripped from the people he loved. He was angry at this hypocrisy, angry at how mankind disappointed him, and he wrote powerfully about it. Yet he was considered a humorist! As he said, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow.”
What do you wish most for readers to take away from their reading of Twain’s End?
My intention in writing this book was not to destroy the reputation of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. I hope readers will find him all the more admirable for becoming such a widely beloved figure, revered for his humor and self-depreciating wit, while struggling with trauma and loss. I also wanted to set the record straight about Isabel Lyon. I’m furious that her nearly seven years of devotion, and her continuing loyalty in spite of being ruined, has been rewarded with infamy and sneering. She thought that her service would vindicate her—that truth was enough. I want readers to realize that’s not often the case. Truth is rarely enough.
You also write children’s books. What are the differences in the writing process for children’s stories versus adult stories? What is the transition like from one genre to the other?
I write my children’s books with as much care and attention to historical detail as my books for adults. In both, I take great pleasure in sharing with my readers the almost unbelievably bizarre yet true bits that I unearth in my research. The main difference is that adult books take a minimum of a year and a half to construct, with months on end of 8-hour writing days, while children’s books require a fraction of this to write, depending on their length. The children’s book world is completely separate from its adult counterpart so one usually has to start fresh when trying to make the leap from children’s to adult. I was lucky in that my young adult novel I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter got enough critical attention that my way into adult books was eased, although it could hardly be called a leap to success in the adult world since Rembrandt’s Daughter was my fourteenth children’s book—my “trudge” into might be more like it. Ironically, I wrote I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter as an adult book and was disappointed when it was published as a YA. Little did I know that it would be the gateway to finding my dream agent and publisher for my adult work. The secret ingredient for the success of both genres? Great editors and top-notch publishers. I’ve been super lucky to have both.
Mrs. Clemens describes Sam as having a “burning desire to tell the truth.” Do you think writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is really all some form of the pursuit of truth? What is the truth you sought to share with Twain’s End?
A theme I fervently wanted to convey through Twain’s End is that when spoken with conviction, falsehoods and accusations carry the same weight as truths. Whoever speaks the most loudly is believed, not necessarily the one who speaks the most honestly. As Isabel Lyon found out, having the truth on your side is not enough.
Do you have any new projects that you are working on?
I have my sights on painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, pioneer art photographer Alfred Stieglitz.