A new voice in historical fiction
Under the Poppy takes place in the 1870s—was there anything in particular about that decade that specifically ignited your fire to tell this story?
I came to historical fiction the way I pretty much come to all my novels: led by strong images and intrigued by the varied places these images may eventually take the story. Though I can never really pinpoint the absolute genesis of any of my novels, each has a sparking-point, and I remember very well writing a sticky note that said "les mecs," as I saw in my mind's eye the four puppets who come to the Poppy: lovely Miss Lucinda, the solemn Bishop, the ultra-bawdy Chevalier, and the ur-provocateur Pan Loudermilk. And with the mecs I saw Istvan, and . . . away we go.
This novel is filled with so much drama! There are brothels, love triangles and puppet shows, just to mention some of the elements. Was it hard writing a novel with so many lively elements?
It was a BLAST. It was like a fantastic, long-running, multimedia show, and I got to see it all from backstage, so to speak.
Brussels is well known for its history of puppet shows—have you ever had the opportunity to visit the city and perhaps take in a show?
Not yet—I would love to go there, and to Prague as well. The history of European puppetry is a magnificent one and it would be fantastic to see some of it firsthand.
And speaking of puppets: It's interesting that to call a human being a "puppet" means to imply that that person is weak, controlled by someone else's power. But what I found in my research was that a real puppet is unpredictable, funny, mysterious and always slightly dangerous—or more than slightly. I find puppets' inherent lawlessness to be very appealing. And they make fearless actors, of course, if you let them.
Alongside all of the interpersonal excitement that occurs in the novel, there’s also a good deal of historical drama that acts as a backdrop (and sometimes a catalyst) to the personal struggles of the characters. Do you think there are certain common pitfalls that are part and parcel of historical fiction?
Being new to the genre, I can only hope there are common mistakes I didn't make! What was exciting for me as a writer was having that panorama of the past, the politics, the fashion, the language, the little daily details that make up so much of the bedrock of life, available for my wonderment, learning, and use. And the social attitudes that are so different from our own: For one quick example, there's a moment when the character Lucy catches a little boy smoking in the theatre. Instead of being horrified that he's smoking at all, she boxes his ears for putting the props at risk!
Seeing the world in this novel through that scrim of history, an imaginative recreation of what that time, the feel and smell and texture of those days, might have been like to those who lived there, was fascinating. What I tried not to do was put in every single buttonhook and chamber pot—it's a real temptation, because hey, I wouldn't be writing about this world if I wasn't interested in it, and I'm interested in all of it. But I tried to keep only what the story demanded.
One striking element of this novel is the fact that along with an omniscient narrator, there are also several first-person accounts scattered throughout. What was it like inhabiting so many characters and giving them all distinct voices?
In a word, fun. I had a tremendous amount of fun writing this book—being able to tell the story from so many different angles, through so many sensibilities, was a great treat. We see the world we inhabit through others' eyes as well as—and sometimes better, more clearly than!—our own, and I hope this multiple-viewpoint narrative enhances not only the story itself but the reader's experience of the story, too.
When you strip back the many layers in this novel, what do you feel was the core story that you were trying to get at with Under the Poppy?
Love and faithfulness, what it means to really be true: to a person, a vocation, through tremendous struggle and unavoidable pain. Under the Poppy is at its deepest heart the love story of Rupert and Istvan.
You’ve long been an enthusiastic proponent of writer workshops, citing the Clarion Workshop as the real turning point in your career as an author. Some people have been rather pessimistic about sessions and programs aimed at those who dream of writing and being published. To you, what makes these programs so valuable?
For me Clarion was an experience of recognition: other writers, both my peers and the workshop's professional writers-in-residence, accepted me as a writer, took me seriously as a writer, treated me like a writer, and that dispelled any chance for self-doubt. And once I saw myself as a real writer, recognized that I belonged there, reading, writing, critiquing—I started to act like one. Being known for what you really are is a very powerful thing. Now, when I teach workshops, especially for young writers, I bring this mindset and this memory, and establish at once that we are all colleagues, and we must treat each other accordingly.
That said, certainly not every workshop is equally valuable to every writer, or to any writer. The ones that seem to work best are ones that are seriously respectful and seriously honest in equal measures: being told that your work is good, if it is good, is one thing, but being assured that your mediocre work is peachy-keen helps nobody and sets you up for severe disappointment later on.
Prior to this novel, readers may be most familiar with you in terms of Young Adult (YA) fiction. However, lately it seems like many YA titles are showing a lot of cross-generational appeal. Do you think that this is a function of certain elements within the genre changing, or would you say that readers are simply becoming more open-minded? In your mind, is there a clear division between YA fiction and that meant for an older audience?
I'd hope that every reader would come to every book with an open mind, but it's true that the genre label is sometimes used as a way to pigeonhole a book and so pass it completely by. Though we each have our individual tastes in fiction, it's beneficial to keep adding delicious new stuff new to the menu. And who doesn't love finding a new writer, a new voice, to enjoy?
Life of Pi is a great example of a book that works well cross-generationally, and I would hope some of my own YA fiction—books like Going Under and Headlong and Talk—could make that leap to older readers, too.
Your previous books have been published by a variety of publishers, such as Farrar, Straus & Giroux as well as Bantam Dell. What was it like working with Small Beer Press this time around?
As everyone who reads knows, publishing is a fairly fraught arena these days, so having the chance to work with an editor and publisher who are as passionate about making books as Kelly Link and Gavin Grant was both a comfort and a thrill. I knew from day one that my vision for Under the Poppy was shared and respected, and I've had the satisfaction of watching the novel go from file to real live book in the best company possible. Gavin and Kelly are true writers' publishers and there is no higher compliment than that.
Under the Poppy has one of the best book trailers I’ve seen in a long while. The trailer really seems to capture the seductive energy of the novel as well as its aesthetic vibe. Did you play any part in the creation of the trailer? What do you think about book trailers as an element of book promotion?
They've become quite necessary, I think, a direct and immediate way for a reader to get a taste of a book, especially online, and so I'm justifiably proud of the creative team I assembled to make the trailer for Under the Poppy: director Diane Cheklich, puppeteer/compositor Al Bogdan, motion graphics artist Aaron Mustamaa, and musician/composer Joe Stacey—superlative artists and superlative work. (A shout-out to our human actors Madison, Julanne, and Jon, and Fred and Randy, our auxiliary puppeteers!) I was involved in the making-of in a few ways—from getting the team together to storyboard assistance to helping out with the puppets (I'm no good at all with an X-Acto knife, but I do OK with a rod-puppet).
And this seems like the right place to note that Under the Poppy is also making the leap to the stage: I've adapted the novel for an immersive presentation involving live actors, live music, film, and, yes, puppetry, that will be mounted at the Chrysler Black Box Theatre at the Detroit Opera House in 2011. Diane Cheklich, Aaron Mustamaa and Joe Stacey are already involved in that project, as is designer Monika Essen, and we're having a marvelous time reimagining the story in 3D.
If a reader loves Under the Poppy and can’t wait for your next novel, do you have any suggestions for other authors or titles they might want to seek out?
Two books I'd suggest at once are Sarah Waters' Affinity and Anthony Burgess' A Dead Man in Deptford: engrossing historical novels (Victorian and Elizabethan eras respectively), passionate narratives, and both tremendously, gorgeously well-written. Do yourself a huge favor and get them both.