I’m interviewing Lynn Cullen today, author of historical fiction “Twain’s End”. Welcome to my blog!
When did you know you wanted to be an author?
May I share a story from my website to explain?
When I was about nine years old, my aunt took me, along with my brother and her own daughter, on a daytrip to the Ohio countryside where she was born. A mother of five and a busy world-renowned composer of choral music, she had never singled me out before. In fact, I would never go on a trip with her again. But that summer day I was curious to see where Aunt Ruth and my mother and their family grew up. And so I slid into the backseat, bound for Eden, Ohio, as it was so picturesquely named.
I was enthralled. The white clapboard family farmhouse, built in the 1800′s, had the privilege of overlooking the dirt road that divided Ohio and Indiana. A kid could throw an acorn from the front porch in Ohio and hit Indiana. Corn fields, with tasseled stalks higher than I was tall, stretched in all directions. Cows slept under a dusty oak tree (which made me think of my mother, who told me of making the mistake of riding their Bessie when she was little.)
A stroll down the rutted road to the paved crossroad took us to their redbrick one-room schoolhouse. Through its cob-webbed windows I saw old iron and wood desks stacked up to the crumbling plaster of the ceiling. As we walked back to the car, grasshoppers sprang from the fields and latched onto our arms with their prickly legs. Otherwise, it was just us and the corn and the cows. I felt as if I had gone back in time.
We drove the back roads to return to Fort Wayne, hitting the Dairy Queen for a Mr. Misty, what I thought then was the highlight of the trip. But Aunt Ruth didn’t take me home. She took me to her house, sat me down, and handed me a sheet of paper.
Write about what you saw, she said.
At first I was surprised, then annoyed. I’d had my Mr. Misty; I was ready to get back to my usual neighborhood street kickball game. But one didn’t say no to Aunt Ruth. Forced to write or miss the game, I wrote about being a girl from rural 1920′s Ohio, putting in all the sights and sounds that I’d experienced that day. After a few minutes, I forgot about kickball. I forgot about everything but writing. It didn’t hurt that when I was done, Aunt Ruth praised my work to the skies. But it would be decades before I realized the significance of that trip. It was the true beginning of my vocation for writing historical novels.
Nowadays I don’t have to be forced or tempted with Mr. Mistys to write stories set in the distant past. It’s what I love to do, so I don’t find it hard. Time-consuming, yes, and there is that extra challenge of making up a story while sticking with actual events. But that’s the fun part. I get to pick a character and read everything possible about them. I get to learn what was going on in the world at their time, what the customs and the dress were, what foods they ate, what they did on a typical day. At the same time I get to read all I can about everyone who was connected to them. And then I get to travel to the setting.
Just like when touring Ohio with Aunt Ruth, I think about all the senses when I’m in these places. How do the mountains outside of Segovia smell? –Like moss, wet stone, and fresh piney air. What does it feel like to walk along a stream in the woods near Valsain? –The grassy ground is mushy, due to mole tunnels. What does the stone feel like of the buildings in Segovia? –Rough and chalky. It’s yellow, as is the soil. What does Castilian garlic soup taste like? –There’s a salty burst of fat on the tongue from the tiny chunks of pork, followed by the richness of poached egg yolk. How does a bird sound when trapped within the dome of the Cathedral in Toledo? –Let me tell you, there are few more heartbreaking sounds than the cries of a frantic bird echoing from cold stone piers of an ancient church.
These pieces form a puzzle just waiting to be put together. My task and my joy is to think of the story that links them together. I can’t imagine a more exhilarating game, and I’m grateful to be able to play it. Who knew that an afternoon road trip to the quiet fields of Eden, Ohio would be my start?
What inspired you to write Twain’s End?
Twain’s End was written for all the secretaries in the world (of which I was one for decades.) I had to know why a man known to be such a champion of the underdog would have turned on the woman who, he admitted himself, knew him best and who loved and admired him. I found my answers in Twain’s childhood, and in the emotional wounds he received during his early years.
What is your editing process like?
First of all, let me say that I LOVE revision. It’s so much easier than carving that first draft out of the ether. For both Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End, I went through six rounds of revision, aided by letters from my editor at Gallery/ Simon & Schuster, Karen Kosztolynik. Sometimes whole storylines have to change. In both books, I added several chapters to the ending in later drafts. The books didn’t end where I thought they would while writing the first draft. I love the discoveries about character and plot that come out in revision. In my mind, revision is the reward an author gets for completing a first draft.
What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
The particular challenge I had while writing Twain’s End was trying to be familiar with everything the man has written and has been written about him. On both counts, that is a lot of material. The three volumes of his autobiography alone run over two thousand pages. Yet in spite of all that has been written by and about him, I found that his deepest self remains hidden. I believe that to begin to understand Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, one must read between the lines.
Are you working on something now?
Set in 1934, BETTY KNOWS BEST is about a Midwestern widow whose mysterious infatuation with kitchen wizard Betty Crocker sends her and her reluctant daughters on a Wizard of Oz-style quest to meet Betty. While Betty Crocker advertises knowing “15 Ways to a Man’s Heart,” Dorothy and her two grown daughters learn the one true way to a woman’s.
About the Book
Title: Twain’s End
Author: Lynn Cullen
Now in paperback for the first time from the national bestselling author of Mrs. Poe, Lynn Cullen, comes TWAIN’S END (Gallery Books; June 7, 2016; Trade Paperback; $16.00), a fictional imagining of America’s iconic writer Mark Twain and the woman who knew him too well.
In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both, wrote a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, and then—with his daughter, Clara Clemens—slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family.
In TWAIN’S END, Lynn Cullen “cleverly spins a mysterious, dark, tale” (Booklist) about the tangled relationship between Twain and Lyon. A silenced woman, Isabel’s loyal service and innocence were not enough to combat the slander, and she has gone down in history as the villainess who swindled Twain in his final years. She never rebutted Twain’s claims, never spoke badly of the man she called “The King,” and kept her silence until she died in 1958. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy? TWAIN’S END explains.
Lynn Cullen lives in Atlanta surrounded by her large family, and like Mark Twain, enjoys being bossed around by cats. Follow Lynn Cullen on Facebook or visit www.lynncullen.com.
Buy the book on Simon & Schuster