Yeah, I know. In August, I told you that I hated writing and that Epitaph would be my last book. This always happens when I’m in the end stages of a novel. I swear I’ll never write again. I promise myself I’ll rest and read for pleasure. Never happens.
The shortest interval between books was 36 hours, which came between submitting the manuscript for A Thread of Grace and starting the research for Dreamers of the Day. The longest was a full month between finishing The Sparrow (which I really, truly did believe would be my one and only novel) and starting Children of God. Sometimes, however, there’s an idea that incubates for a while. That’s what happened this time.
Last May, I was in Amarillo, Texas, to do a talk on the historical background behind Doc. Librarians Stacy Yates and Cynthia Hunt took me out for lunch and the inevitable question came up. What’s next?
Epitaph was almost complete, but I had no idea what I’d do after that. “I seem to be drawn to people who have been unfairly maligned: Neandertals, Jesuits, Italian soldiers, dentists-turned-gamblers,” I said. “I’ve thought about Benedict Arnold, for example, or maybe Mary Todd Lincoln, but I didn’t fall in love.”
Cynthia said, “Well, have you ever considered doing something with Edgar Allan Poe? He was a very influential literary critic in his time, but he’s remembered as a horror writer and a drunk because, somehow, his worst enemy became his executor. Rufus Griswold wrote Poe’s obituary and the first biography, and totally distorted Poe’s legacy.”
I’ve never read Poe. I’ve never read horror, but I’m a notorious genre slut, shamelessly standing on the literary street corner, willing to get into any genre that drives by and promises to take me to a good party. So Cynthia gave me some references and when I got home, I ordered five Poe biographies. When they arrived, I was still concentrating on Tombstone so they went on the “Maybe” shelf in my library next to two other small collections of books, one about Jack the Ripper and the other about Clara Schumann.
Two weeks ago, I sent the Epitaph manuscript out for Beta Test, which freed my mind for the time being. With four book gigs coming up in Houston and Nebraska, I knew I’d have time to read on planes so I went to the Maybe shelf and my hand went to the Poe biography by Jeffrey Meyers.
That was a sign. Out of a dozen books, that’s the one I went for.
I read the Meyers book in long sustained gulps on the planes, and started thinking about what I could do with this story. Like the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, this is a topic that seems well-known, but it’s loaded with an accretion of myth, half-truths, and outright lies. It will be a new area of literature to explore as well as a relatively unknown era in American history: after the Revolution but before the Civil War.
And I kind of don’t hate Rufus Griswold, which is interesting to me. He was a literary character assassin, and could there be a more melodramatic name for a villain than Rufus Griswold?! But he had a hard life and maybe he’s the one who’s been unfairly maligned… Maybe I can make Griswold’s motives seem comprehensible if not admirable. I did that for the Nazi doctor Werner Schramm in A Thread of Grace and for Ike Clanton in Epitaph. I like that kind of challenge.
I’m now about 88% committed to doing this story. I know a novel just came out called Mrs. Poe, but I’ll be focusing on Poe himself and on Griswold, and what it was like to make a living as a writer in the 1830s and ’40s when the publishing industry was as chaotic and exploitive as it is today.
I got a new nest in my mind and it’s being feathered with interesting things. The Sturm und Drang reaction to Enlightenment literature; the art and craft of literary criticism; the state of medicine in the first third of the 19th century; incipient diabetes and alcoholism. I’m even going to try new software. Scrivener sounds perfect for the kind of structure I’m considering, which might be a series of short stories that could build up to a mosaic portrait of Poe, with multiple voices.
The working title comes from page 55 in the Meyers biography: A Perfectly Wretched Life. That may well change, but I like it for now. I’m headed for Glenwood Springs, Colorado, this weekend and I’ve picked another Poe bio for the plane.
And away we go… I’ll keep you posted.