The Next Big Thing

October 9th, 2013 by Mary Casey

What is the working title of your book?

The Leviathan of Parsonstown

Where did the idea for the book come from?

I was visiting my husband’s relatives in County Offaly, Ireland, and we toured Birr Castle.  On the castle green sat the biggest telescope I’d ever seen.  The Leviathan of Parsonstown, as it turned out.  Built by William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, the Leviathan is a three-ton, six-foot speculum metal mirror set into the seventy-foot barrel body of the telescope suspended by chains between two fifty-foot stone walls.  I couldn’t believe an engineering feat of this magnitude could be achieved without the benefit of electricity, motors, or heavy machinery!  I was astonished and have always wanted to write about this telescope in some way.  My paternal grandfather was a furniture salesman who taught himself the physics and math to build telescopes in his basement (God, he had a fantastic basement!).  So I guess my interest in telescopes began in a basement and the genesis of my book began in an open field with the discovery of this magnificent Irish telescope.

What genre does your book fall under?

Historical fiction.  But I tend to think of it as literary fiction set in history because it’s very character-driven.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version?

Oh dear.  All the actors I can name are too old for my characters!  (Christine:  Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks?!)  My main characters need to be in their early 30s.  I like Emily Watson for Mary and Mia Wasikowska for Una, but I’d leave that up to casting professionals!   

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Leviathan of Parsonstown is about the unlikely friendship that develops between two women of different classes during the great Irish famine of 1845.  Or, The Leviathan of Parsonstown is about a man, two women, and a telescope!

 How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’m not done!  I’m three-and-a-half years into the project and have written about half of the first draft.  I spent the first year doing only research.  I think the book will take five to eight years to complete, writing at best 20 hours a week, often less.

What other books in this genre would you compare this to?

I recently read The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, and I think it could compare in some ways (took her eight years to write, too!).  I confess I don’t read a lot of historical fiction so I don’t know how it compares.  My (hazy) inspiration for writing his book was The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, but oh how far I’ve strayed from that slender masterpiece!

 What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I question the relationship between power and size in my story—how something microscopic (a fungus) can undo a nation and how something as big as a constellation can disappear for months on end, or for one overcast night, behind a cloud, and thwart the progress of science.  I explore the tension between presumed opposites–science and nature, intellect and instinct, master and servant, big and small—as well as the common traits of imagination and curiosity, which fuel both our survival and our greatest human achievements.   

Who have you tagged?

Karen Burns, Lynn Grant

On Seamus Heaney

September 4th, 2013 by Christine Johnson-Duell

Seamus Heaney is dead.

In 1995, when Heaney learned he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the story goes, he gave his wife, Marie, the telephone so the Nobel messenger could give her the news. Later, Heaney said he felt unable to speak the words, “I’ve won the Nobel Prize in Literature,” aloud—it was too unreal—so he handed over the phone.

When I learned, from my Facebook feed, that Heaney had died “in a Dublin hospital after a brief illness,” I wept—and I could not speak the words, Seamus Heaney is dead, aloud when my husband asked me what was wrong. It was too unreal.

Seamus Heaney was a regular visitor in my childhood neighborhood. I do not mean this metaphorically. He visited our neighbors, the Flanagans, regularly when he came to the US to read in the 1970s—Ann Graham and the Wild Geese booked reading gigs for him in Boston and Cambridge—and they regarded his visits as perfect occasions for a party. As I was a regular visitor to the Flanagan house, too, I often crossed paths with Seamus Heaney.

I am not going to wax poetic about our chance acquaintance and suggest our conversation even hinted at poetry and my interest in writing it. I had no idea, at the time, that I was destined to write and I am certain his memory of me—if he had one—lumped me together with the other neighborhood urchins who were drawn to the Flanagans like ants on sugar, for the log cabin fort, the climbing tree, and the zip  line in the backyard.

We kids did not go to the Flanagan house for the poets (or the musicians, or the novelists, or the artists) who came to visit from Ireland. They were part of the grownup scenery. Heaney might have poured me my first glass of whisky—or a completely different Irish poet might have taken up that task. I do remember that the great man fell into the hot tub in the middle of a backyard wedding reception, thinking its cover was sturdy enough to sit upon, because really, how could you forget that, poet or not?

My other vivid memory of Heaney is how deeply and obviously he loved his wife, Marie. In a house that harbored deep marital strife—among inhabitants and visitors alike—the connection and affection between Seamus and Marie Heaney was like seeing a rare bird or finding an oak in the desert—one of these things was not like the others.

People have asked me what it was like to know Seamus Heaney and if it influenced my desire to be a writer. Let me be clear: I did not know Seamus Heaney. It’s likely we never exchanged more than a few sentences. We were part of the landscape in a home that welcomed everyone who had a tongue to speak mostly civilly and always wittily.

But I did learn a few things from just hanging around: writers eat and drink and live the lives they get. If a writer is hard working s/he can turn the details of that life into art. Writing is like any other profession; you choose it, or it chooses you, because something inside your bones drives you to do the work. Heaney taught me that there is glory in the everyday details of a commonplace life. He taught me that there are poets who are not lunatics or addicts or philanderers–and are luminous, ecstatic artists.

Of course Heaney didn’t tell me those things. I just watched. Kids can take the measure of a person fairly accurately—especially a kid who is taking mental notes, without even knowing it. I count myself incredibly lucky to have known—a little—a great poet before I knew I wanted to write, without the filter of want or envy or judgment.

I’ll never stop reading Heaney. One of my favorite poems is called “From the Republic of Conscience,” a work in which Heaney challenges the reader to live an ethical life—in a voice that is deeply gentle and sometimes bewildered. I will never read the end of “A Peacock’s Feather” without a catch in my throat. And, of course, there’s the iconic “Digging,” the first poem I memorized in my MFA graduate program in Creative Writing. I can excavate it from the long-term-memory vault in a pinch just as I can conjure Heaney at a kitchen table, surrounded by friends, all of them encased in a cloud of cigarette smoke, singing sad Irish songs or pontificating on politics. I am grateful to have that picture, alongside the poems.


Deadlines and Dead Ends

September 1st, 2013 by Lynn Grant


I’ve found it helpful to create writing deadlines for myself. But a time constraint works best for me when I involve another writer who also wants a kick in the derrière. The latest delivery is due on September 1. I expect, momentarily, to receive a manuscript from my friend and have decided to use this venue to discuss my end of the bargain.

Let me start by saying, the object was to work toward completion of, in my case a complete revision, and in my friend’s case a complete draft. I have only gotten as far as an in-depth reconfiguration, but I feel that the pressure of the last two months has been useful. Someone out there is waiting for me to move, however glacially, toward my goal. I suspect this particular writer friend won’t let me off the hook—this is the best kind of writer to make a pact with (not: with whom to make a pact). Did I say we are’nt going to actually read what we exchange? Meeting this deadline only acknowledges that, having held each other’s feet to the fire, we have met our commitment and behaved honorably.

The next step—and this several steps from the rough draft—will be to find willing beta readers who have the time and inclination to give honest feedback. Not an easy task.

One benefit of deadlines is to force the retention issue—that is, what characters, situations, scenes, plotlines are worthy of keeping in (and continuing to stumble over) and which need to be placed in the “Dead End” file (which I digitally keep in the novel folder). The most salient feature of dead ends is that no amount of massaging can make them perk up, come alive, sing on key. A looming deadline is often just the kind of pressure you need to dispense with this destructive-because-distracting dross altogether. One of the characters in my novel has disappeared to le casier (the morgue) and good riddance! Had it not been for my deadline I might still be trying to make her come alive.

Isaac B. Singer said, “The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend.” Her second best friend is the deadline. I’m working on assigning my next deadline. Anyone want to spit on his hand and shake?




Is It Risky to Talk About Your WIP?

August 28th, 2013 by Karen Burns

The received wisdom from Hemingway on down is that authors should never talk about their works-in-progress. You will lose the impetus of the work. You should put your energy into writing, not talking. Etc.

Some people even say you should keep mum for fear people will steal your idea. This is mostly crazy. I say mostly because I suppose there are cases where your central concept is so madly original and/or outré that it’s the main reason any publisher would be interested in you. But in general I think you could give three writers the same central concept and they would end up with three entirely different books.

Anyway, as I am naturally secretive, I have always adhered to the old keep-it-under-your-hat rule, even though I often suspect it is just something writers have dreamed up to add to their mystique. Or maybe just angst (as in recent NYT essay, “Don”t Ask What I’m Writing.“)

But I wonder how necessary it all is. Discussing my almost complete novel with my husband and writing group (while revising, it must be said, not drafting) has proven to be incredibly useful. It’s not so much that they make concrete suggestions, though sometimes they do. It is the very act of talking that helps. Very often I pose a problem or dilemma and then find myself speaking out the solution as if I knew it all along.

Which I did not–actually, I have to write down the solutions right away, before I forget them. They are elusive little buggers.

In fact, the hashing-over process has been so beneficial that I am now wondering if it would be helpful in earlier stages. Of late I’ve been noodling around an idea for a second novel. Should I noodle out loud?

Hair Falls Out and Other Maladies of Novel Writing

August 2nd, 2013 by Lynn Grant

I’ve decided to give myself the month of August to reframe my novel. I may have mentioned it’s beset by certain structural difficulties. It isn’t that I don’t have a plot—things happen, it’s just that those things don’t add up as yet. To what you ask? I’m aiming for meaning that is specific but also universal. This is not grandiose thinking. Every story is massaged for universal application by every reader/hearer. Sometimes writers implant this meaning, sometimes it just slips in because every writer, like every reader, has a tendency to yearn for life’s stage directions.

I went to an office supply store and bought felt tipped pens in three colors, Post-it notes in the same colors, a box of paper clips and a roll of “project paper.” My plan is to read my manuscript and mark it up. I intend to discard everything that doesn’t merit color-coding.  I’m looking for the essence of my story, for the bigger story told by indirection and between the lines. I’m looking for clarity in complication, for the places that ring true.

The prospect of a month of relentless revising gives me heartburn. Also, I think I may be losing my eyebrows.

Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system,” which seems to be true for me. She also said, “If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal” (from “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners). Perhaps I am looking to be saved—from the failure to complete something that took so long to do. From silence.

I’m expectant and more than a little curious about what I’ll find in dismantling and putting the words back together again. I’ll look for the world in my small story. Maybe it’s there. I’ve heard eyebrows can be tattooed on, at least that’s possible.



It was a dark and stormy night. . . (Or, how to start a novel)

July 26th, 2013 by Karen Burns

I am getting close to finishing my current novel and the way I know this is that I’m starting to think about the next one.

After spending so long deep in the bowels of revision (which I love, don’t get me wrong) it’s weird to be on the outside again. To be again thinking, How to begin?

You learn many things writing a novel, the most important of which is what not to do next time, so I think that this time instead of starting off with a “situation” (which seems to be my default) I want to lead with an “event.”

Of course, there are numerous ways to begin, as any quickie Internet search will tell you. (I like Darcy Patterson’s “12 Ways to Open your Novel.”)

But I think, if you are not afraid of over-simplification, all 12 of these could be lumped into one of my two categories. Most of them, oddly, in “situation.”

(I say “oddly” because from Trollope on, and probably before, “in media res” has always been the party line. It’s nice to see, though, how often and how successfully this party line is flouted.)

But I digress. As much as I enjoy doing what everyone says one should not do, hitting the reader in the forehead with a vivid, concrete, compelling event is just a lot more fun. And I love how easily everything flows from event–characterization, motive, setting, theme, point of view, even voice. Surely I am not the first to make this observation but, like every useful insight, it feels new and momentous to me.

Now all I have to do is find that event. . .

Fat Novels and Clues, by Lynn Wiley Grant

July 9th, 2013 by Lynn Grant

World's Largest Uncut Diamond

I’ve found reading fat novels calms me down as I slog through the process of revising the manuscript of my novel. I use reading as a reward; if I can just wrestle this one problem down to the mat, I tell myself, I can get back to reading X.

I just reread Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. I thought I hadn’t read it but then I began to recognize certain scenes and remembered it was on the syllabus in one of my literature classes in college (long ago). The class was called “Genre: Defying Classification,” or something like that. Collins is supposed to be the inventor of the modern detective novel. He is said to have anticipated Dorothy Sayers who enumerated the “detective genre’s ‘rules of fair play,’ namely that the author must not trick readers by concealing vital clues (a rule famously broken by Agatha Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd [1926].” (In Joy Connolly’s intro to Moonstone).

I am not writing a mystery or detective novel. I’m calling my novel a faux-moir, because one of the narrators speaks through her memoir, which I made up. But the novel does have some mystery-like plot points that I hope will amuse and surprise the reader. I’ve run up against the problem of how many clues I should dole out and when to do so.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Moonstone, which is about the theft, in India, of a diamond of great value, and includes murder, suicide, an English country mansion, a poor hero, sea captains, Mussulman jugglers, a head-strong female heiress, a London detective, and a butler. I didn’t give a rat’s ass whether they found the diamond, but I loved hearing the story from eleven points of view (I have only three!). The characters were interesting and unique and I was interested in their concerns. I cared that they cared about the diamond.

I suppose therein lies my answer. 1) Make sure my readers are interested in how my characters interpret the mystery and, 2) don’t trick them—readers like to think you’ve given them the information they’ll need to discover the mystery, regardless of whether they do or the author pulls off a surprise.

Next: Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey (I’m trying to read all the Booker Prize winners).  Five hundred and fourteen pages.

Christine’s Next Big Thing

July 2nd, 2013 by Christine Johnson-Duell

Tag, I’m it! Allison Green tagged me to play the game many writers have been playing for some time, The Next Big Thing. It works like this: an author answers questions about her next big project and then tags another writer—or writers—to do the same. Here’s my Next Big Thing—or Current Big Thing, if you like!

What is the working title of your book?

Mrs. Jack’s Palace

Where did the idea for the book come from?

There are many answers to this question.

It came from adolescent afternoons I spent in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, absorbing, through my pores, Mrs. Gardner’s fantastic vision—her palace in the style of Renaissance Venice, her vast art collection, not to mention her rare books and letters, her quirky self. I imagined what it might have been like to live in such a place. The Gardner Museum helped to define my personal aesthetic and my interest in the Renaissance. So, the idea for the book started decades ago, without my even knowing it.

It came from having been raised by a Feminist mother, someone who helped me understand the importance of Isabella’s achievement, as a woman—given the time and place in which she lived—and, simultaneously, the need to regard that achievement as simply that and not “something a woman did.” So, the idea for the book is rooted in my own Feminism.

It came from late-night, Chianti-fueled conversations in Boston, Brooklyn, and Rome with my late cousin Fred Johnson, about art, collecting art, and the very intriguing question: who gets to own art?

It came from loss. Isabella and Jack Gardner lost their only child when he was three years old and, in the wake of his death, they travelled the world, collecting. In 1990, 13 works of art were stolen from the museum. Among them is Vermeer’s painting, The Concert, my favorite work in the Gardner collection. I was devastated. Writing this book might be my effort to replace that lost art.

It came from an early evening conversation when I was in residence at Hedgebrook. After I’d finished writing a manuscript, I stood next to the vegetable garden after dinner and had a brief conversation with another resident about funding for writers. She asked me a question that escapes me now, but the answer was: write about Isabella Stewart Gardner—also known as Mrs. Jack. The idea for the actual book started in that conversation.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry, though I would love it if my book also held images from the Gardner, which would emphasize its ekphrastic nature.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version?

Hmm. If we were to make a movie about Mrs. Gardner, I think absolutely Meryl Streep for Isabella, Tom Hanks for Jack Gardner, George Clooney for John Singer Sargent. Jack Black for Henry James (because: how fun) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for his brother, William. Amy Adams for Clover Adams. Neil Patrick Harris for Henry Adams. Geena Davis for Mrs. Agassiz. Wally Shawn for Prof. Agassiz. Stanley Tucci for Bernard Berenson. Gosh this is a fun exercise.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Mrs. Jack’s Palace takes, as its inspiration, Isabella Stewart Gardner, her circle in Boston and Venice, her art collection, the palace she built to house it, and the 1990 theft of 13 works of art, still unrecovered, from the museum.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I began in 2007, in Cedar Cottage at Hedgebrook, immediately following that twilight conversation outside the garden. I hope to finish it by this time next year. So, seven years. I hope.

What other books in your genre would you compare this to?

I resist comparing—not because of some lofty ideal but because I am too chicken to equate my work with that of other poets. I will say this: Linda Bierds was my teacher and I learned a great deal from her book The Ghost Trio. Ditto Rick Kenney and Invention of the Zero (what I could comprehend of it, anyway). Eavan Boland’s work examining history and women is important to me. On the advice of Ilya Kaminsky (in a workshop I took from him) I read Carolyn Forche’s book The Angel of History, which was among the books I chose to bring with me to Hedgebrook. When I arrived there, having no idea I was about to begin to write about a historical figure, I learned that Carolyn Forche had just left.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

As I write it, it occurs to me that the multivalent story of Isabella and her museum, its birth in both loss and acquisition, and the amazing cast of characters that surrounded her might make a pretty great opera libretto. I am taking notes in my writing journal as they occur to me because you just never know what will be The Next Big Thing.

Who have you tagged?

Margot Page and Mary Casey

Your (Writer’s) Brain On Noise

June 27th, 2013 by Karen Burns

Writing is hard. Finding the time and space to write can be even harder.

A recent New York Times article about “Coffitivity,” a new app that lets you play the background sounds of a coffee shop on your computer while you work, got me to thinking about environments conducive to creativity. My assumption has always been that the more peace and solitude, the better. However, the idea behind Coffitivity (which I am playing right now) is that a little distracting noise boosts creative thought. Apparently, too much quiet is bad for you. Or rather, noise is good for you, because it sparks abstract, out-of-the-box thinking.

Now, I had never thought that distraction might actually be a positive thing. In fact, when I am writing and my poor innocent husband interrupts me I become extremely peeved. One of the reasons my writing has come to a virtual standstill the last couple weeks is that we’ve got a new kitten. Talk about distracting!

However, I do admit that I enjoy writing in coffee shops. And over the years I have also noticed that I get some of my most creative work done when I alternate writing with household chores such as laundry. My best thoughts seem to pop up while I’m moving clothes from the washer to the dryer, or hanging them up, or even ironing them. In fact, ironing is a hugely creative time for me. I will even do things like tea towels and napkins. Don’t tell anyone.

The key, I think, is distraction without interruption. When you are sitting in a café, life swirls all around you but you are not required to engage with it. While I am ironing jeans (again, please keep this to yourself) vast areas of my mind are left available to churn away on scenes, dialogue, and even metaphor.

Now if only someone would make an ironing app.

(P.S. I have just turned off the Coffitivity soundtrack. Hmm. I miss it!)

Use It or Lose It?

June 20th, 2013 by Mary Casey

Researching a historical novel sends you down many Internet wormholes (Did people say “finagle” in 1845? Did their shoes have wooden or leather heels?). Even though I don’t enjoy research as much as some people, I willingly tunneled into the life of a woman named Mary Ward. She was the cousin of William Parsons (a character in my book), who built the great telescope “the Leviathan of Parsonstown.” Cousin Mary lived down the road from Parsons and was interested in his telescope, which she spent hours sketching. She was also fascinated with insects. When an astronomer friend of Parsons’ saw Mary studying bugs through a magnifying glass, he implored Parsons to buy her a microscope, which he did. She took up microscopy afterwards and went on to make her own specimen slides from slivers of ivory.

I fell for Mary and wanted to work her into my novel. But should I? How many complaints have you heard about a writer who stuffs her historical novel with every eccentric gadget and gewgaw that catches her fancy, bogging the reader down in the process? I don’t want to be one of those writers. But. . .

William Parsons’ wife, Mary Field (also a character in my book), befriended Mary Ward as a young girl and continued the friendship into adulthood. Both women were artists with a keen interest in science. Mary Field became a respected photographer at the dawn of that art form, learning how to operate primitive cameras, mix developing solutions, and reproduce prints. Mary Ward wrote a book containing her insect drawings called “Sketches with the Microscope” that was reprinted eight times between 1858 and 1880. Both women survived eleven pregnancies. Though Mary Ward wasn’t a member of the Royal Astronomical Society (no woman could be) she was one of three women on their mailing list along with Queen Victoria and Mary Somerville.

Mary Ward’s life and death (she’s considered the first “motor vehicle accident victim” having been thrown to her death from a steam-powered automobile when she was 42) are interesting to me. But so what? Is that a good enough reason to include her in my book? I suspect she’ll have to be more than an interesting person to merit a place in the novel; she’ll have to be a necessary part of the story.


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