Do you think you have to be unhappy (or lonely) to produce?

This question, and others listed below, emerged from a discussion run by K C Culver, who leads the Literature Group at the University of Miami’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  The Literature Group consists of smart, witty, and well-read retired professionals, some of whom have participated in the group for more than ten years.  During the Group’s last six-week semester, they read Good Things I Wish You and Vinegar Hill, as well as poems based on myth, and discussed topics such as the challenges of writing (and reading) contemporary writing based on history and myth, how the music of the Schumanns and Brahms reflects their biographies, and how to distinguish a good book from a great book.

A bit about K C: she’s a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Miami. She earned her MA in English Literature from Auburn University, and her MFA in Poetry from the University of South Carolina.  Her poems have been published in several journals, including Peregrine and Gulf Stream Magazine, and are forthcoming in Word River.

1.  Do you think you have to be unhappy (or lonely) to produce?

I find it nearly impossible to write when I am unhappy, unsettled or ill at ease.  And loneliness, for me at least, is a form of unhappiness.  But what I do require is a fair amount of solitude.  To write well, I need to be alone in my house or in a public place (such as on a plane or in a coffee shop) where I feel that no one knows me or might interrupt me. I suppose I also require a certain amount of emotional solitude as well.  I could never last long around someone who was constantly asking, What are you thinking?

2.  Did your view of Clara or Brahms change after writing this book?

I started writing about Clara and Brahms in 1994, when I co-wrote a screenplay with Stewart O’Nan.  But I’ve loved Clara Schumann since I first learned about her in high school; I’ve read everything about her I could over the past thirty years.  Writing Good Things didn’t change what I believed so much as make visible, make tangible, the connections between men and women living today and the lives Clara and Brahms lived then.  I knew the story was relevant; I just didn’t know how relevant until I began to collage contemporary fiction with historical fact.  If you click on my home page, scroll down and then click on Author’s Statement, I go into this in detail.

What did change–unexpectedly–was my view of Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck.  He is often portrayed as a tyrant (or worse), and while this is true in some ways, he was also a feminist–far more so than his daughter, despite what some revisionist historians suggest.  I saw, while researching the book, how deeply and sincerely he mourned the loss of what she might have offered the world through composition.

3.  What made you decide to write the novel as collage, which is very difficult? Did you have models?

I had read Maureen Seaton’s memoir Sex Talks To Girls in manuscript, and I was impressed with how much forward momentum she could generate out of short chapters, some of them hardly a page.  But I didn’t so much as decide to write a collage novel as find myself writing one.  Two things happened to facilitate this.  The first was that I went out on a blind date–pretty much the one I describe in Good Things–and the fictional story that evolved began to harmonize with the historical pieces I’d already written.  The second was that I started to photograph my desk and then pull the images into the text as a way of carrying my research with me on my three and a half hour commute (by public transportation) from the town north of West Palm, where I live, to Coral Gables, where I teach.  Initially, I did this to jog my memory, but gradually I began to rely on the images themselves to tell pieces of the story.

4. We’re interested in the role of L..  We were split about whether he represents the stability/happiness that she doesn’t really want or whether he’s a Brahms figure.  Can you speak more about it?

L– is the guy who would always be asking, What are you thinking? In other words, Robert Schumann.

5. Does it worry you to have imagined details about Schumanns’ lives?

No, because that’s what you do in fiction.  You make things up.  I was pleased that the metafictional structure of the book allowed me to publicize the best nonfiction book about Clara, which is Clara Schumann:  The Artist and the Woman by Nancy Reich.  As you may recall, my contemporary characters reference this book in their debates.

6.  How did the people in your life react to this semi-autobiographical novel?

It’s a question I get a lot, because my writing style is deliberately intimate; I want you to believe, as Anne Sexton said, “It was all true when I wrote it.”  However, the people in my life know the difference between the generative facts I’ve plundered for my own devilish purposes and the fictional lives that result.  The line, for those who know me well, is always a very clear one.   I have never written about something that someone has asked me not to write about.

7. We noticed that the names Heidi and Hochmann appear in both novels—how do you choose and use names?

I tend to use and reuse names that were common in the area of Wisconsin where I grew up.  “Heidi” in Good Things was actually my daughter’s choice; I told her about the character and asked her to pick a German-sounding name, and she picked Heidi.

8. We’re also interested in the name Salome, which seems unusual for a strict Midwestern Catholic community.  Where did that name come from?

I actually knew of a Salome where I grew up, though we pronounced it to rhyme with “Shalom.”  I chose the name because I wanted something associated, ironically, with a temptress.  Poor Salome.

9.  We’d like to hear your thoughts on the scene where Mary Margaret and Salome think the babies are being reborn.  Is it a symbol of rebirth?  Old age?  Trauma?

It’s more a concrete enactment of this idea:  that the secrets we keep do come back to haunt us, will continue to haunt us until they are brought to light.

10. What do you imagine happens to Ellen and the kids after the novel ends?  Have you ever considered writing a sequel?

Vinegar Hill is the only novel I’ve written that inspires this question, which I get a lot.  I’ve always said I don’t know, but since retiring from full time teaching in 2020, I am thinking that maybe I do.  At any rate, I’ve scratched out a few chapters set in 2016.