Friday, September 30, 2011

Translating our Characters' Obsessions into Fiction by Nancy Means Wright

Nancy Means Wright has published 17 books, including 5 mystery novels from St Martin’s Press, and most recently two historicals: The Nightmare: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft (Perseverance Press,’11) and its prequel, Midnight Fires,’10. Her children’s mysteries received both an Agatha Award and Agatha nomination. Short stories have appeared in American Literary Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Level Best Books, and elsewhere. Longtime teacher, actress-director, and Bread Loaf Scholar for a first novel, Nancy lives with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats in Middlebury, Vermont.


Translating our Characters’ Obsessions into Fiction 
(or Are we writers as crazy as our characters?)
by Nancy Means Wright

     I was watching the rushing falls in Middlebury, Vermont and started to put a leg over the railing. “Hey!” my spouse cried, grabbing my arm. “You wanna fall in? Are you mad?”

     For a moment I wasn’t sure. But I knew I wanted to feel what Mary Wollstonecraft felt when she filled her pockets with stones and then jumped into the Thames River.

     “Well, let her do it, not you,” was my man’s response. But how else was I to write about real-life Mary’s sense of loss and hopelessness after her lover abandoned her and child, when she’d been so deeply, blindly in love with him?

     True, I do recall when a boy I was obsessed with rejected me and I just wanted to get in a car and drive off a cliff (a scene in a movie I’d experienced vicariously…)

    But for Mary’s obsessive need to live with artist Henry Fuseli and wife in a ménage à trois (“I must be with him daily…”)—and for which his wife slammed the door and turned Mary into a scandalous woman—I had no clue. I’d never in my life contemplated such a thing. How was I to fictionalize the scene in my novel, The Nightmare?

     The 18th-century attracted me in part because it was an age of Enlightenment and reason. And yet, as I discovered in my research, madness was an accepted part of that world. The last witch had been hanged, but superstitions hung on. There was not only the infamous Bedlam, but a plethora of unregulated madhouses. A husband could put his wife into one with impunity, I discovered, and yes, there is one in my novel. To introduce her protagonist in Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, her unfinished novel, Mary visited Bedlam to research the poor wretches in their filthy shifts and dirty feet.

     Though the real Mary already had madness at home to fictionalize. Her brother Henry, apprenticed to an apothecary at 14, became an unspeakable name in the household; in her letters Mary mentions only “a hurrying” of her heart.  Biographers conclude that he either committed a horrible crime, or more likely, was committed to an asylum. And wasn’t it a touch of “desperation” that led Mary herself to kidnap her ranting postpartum sister from an abusive husband?  Sister Bess bit her wedding ring “to pieces” as they careened through the London streets, husband in hot pursuit. I’ve tried to describe the scene, but my sole act of kidnapping has been to cram howling cats into carriers to go to the vet’s.  

     While researching my book I read a few novels by Mary’s contemporary, Fanny Burney. In Burney’s Cecilia, the protagonist loses a lover and dashes through the streets, at first losing her speech, and then ‘raving incessantly.” Doctors and other men of the period saw females as emotional beings, prone to madness.  So novelist Burney put her character to flight, the way I put Mary Wollstonecraft after her humiliating rejection by Fuseli. Physical action, I’ve discovered, calms and liberates the spirit, just as a momentary madness freed Mary from having to fulfill social expectations. In fact, Burney herself had taken a flight of madness after the collapse of her romance with a young clergyman. “I can’t think where you got so much invention,” a reader once told Burney. Ha!

     Action and flight also help Charlotte Gilman’s postpartum character in her autobiographical “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Confined to her room after a nervous collapse, not allowed to write or read, the narrator goes mad, creeping about the room, peeling wallpaper, gnawing the the bedstead, flouting the patriarchy, breaking society’s rules. “I’ve got out at last,” she cries, “so you can’t put me back!”

     Virginia Woolf complained about the same isolating “rest cure” for hysteria and depression that drove Gilman’s character to madness. But for Woolf, the act of writing was therapeutic for this “whirring of wings in the brain.” Her mental illness, she said, made her think about her mind and write her introspective novels. In my favorite Mrs Dalloway, the hostess plans a fancy party while her mad double, Septimus Smith, a shell- hocked veteran (inspired by Woolf’s grief at her brother Thoby’s death in Greece) leaps from a window. In her essay, “Professions for Women,” Woolf wrote of female writers: “The line raced through the girl’s fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pool, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber.” 

     So to describe a harrowing experience for one’s character, it helps to take flight, outward or inward, into one’s own life. For myself, as a longtime actress-director, I use the Stanislavky method of diving into those dark pools of grief, anger or humilation, or even the brighter ones of joy and celebration in order to (try to) become my character.

     When Fuseli’s wife slammed the door that day on conflicted Mary Wollstonecraft, I had her thoughts race toward the river, but slowly realize what a cad he was (a lot like the guy who once threw me over), how vain, how jealous of her own celebrity. What a hypocrite! To write her steamy letters and then hide behind his wife when Mary dared to invade his “respectability.”

     So in The Nightmare, I had her turn toward home. “She did not take a sedan chair. She did not care if her gown got muddy. She did not care if she stepped in dung. She did not look back.”


jenny milchman said...

You've named some of the writers I pored over and loved, majoring in English in college. And the way you described the leg over the bridge is chilling--a scene in of itself.

Nancy Means Wright said...

Thank you, Jenny! Yes I majored in English too, then taught it. In high school I was passionately in love with Percy Shelley, not knowing then the connection with Wollstonecraft. And did my senior thesis on Virginia Woolf. I chill, thinking of her walking into the Ouse River, stones in her pocket...such a loss.

Nancy Means Wright said...

Thanks to those who emailed me that they had read my blog, to those who dropped by to read it without comment, and especially to Kaye, who so generously, almost daily, opens up her beautiful blog to so many of us needy authors. We all love you, Kaye!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

You certainly fully involved yourself in the history and people of the period you write in. The book sounds wonderful. Wishing you every success.

Jacqueline Seewald

Anne White said...

I love the way former English majors respond to Nancy's work since we all have such great memories of the trio -- B, S and K -- as we used to call them in Lit class. I knew Mary Wollstonecraft's name and connection to Shelley, but little else about her, so reading Nancy's take on her life and struggles has been an eye-opening experience. What a tough time for many, especially women. Can't wait to get my hands on the next book.
Anne White
(Lake George Mysteries)

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hi, Everyone - Thanks for stopping by.

Nancy - I loved this piece. You do such a terrific job of awakening my interest in characters you so obviously know well and care about deeply. and oh my, thank you for the sweet words - you have no idea how much they mean.


Susan Whitfield said...

Another former English teacher checking in. I taught for 13 years before becoming a high school principal. Now I kille people. Ha! But only in fiction. Nancy, I believe there's a little abnormality with most of us and sometimes I scare myself! Loved the post. Continued success!

Linda said...

Nancy, this is a very thoughtful post--I had never really connected all these characters and writers in this fashion.

I have noticed however that creative people are often marginally depressed and often obsessive/compulsive. Even today, women are often considered weaker (by men) in dealing with emotions--it is no wonder that many female authors of the past wrote as a catharsis.

Thanks for a great post!

Nancy Means Wright said...

What a delight to return to the site Sunday pm and discover four more delightful comments!Thank you so much, Jacqueline, Anne (we used to call them "Sheets and Kelley' in high school, Anne), Susan, and Linda, and of course the wonderfully generous Kaye Barley.I guess many of us English majors ended up as librarians, English teachers/profs, and writers. I don't make a lot of money, but I'd do it all again!HOpefully you would, too!

Anonymous said...

This was fascinating--thank you!