I have the great pleasure of welcoming back Lynn Cullen to Layered Pages to talk with me about her current novel. Lynn’s recent novel, Mrs. Poe, a national bestseller, has been named a Target Book Club Pick, an NPR 2013 Great Read, an Oprah.com “Book that Makes Time Stand Still,” and an Indie Next List selection. Her current release, Twain’s End, called “reputation squaring…incendiary” by the New York Times and “intelligently drawn” by Library Journal, is a People pick, an Indie Next selection, and a 2016 Townsend Prize finalist. Cullen, named “the Bronte of our day” by the Huffington Post, grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She now lives in Atlanta surrounded by her large family, and, like Mark Twain, enjoys being bossed around by cats.
Hi, Lynn! Tell me about your story, Twain’s End.
Thank you for inviting me to chat with you about Twain’s End at Layered Pages, Stephanie. I’m so happy to be with you here! To get things started, at its core. Twain’s End is a tale of The Other Woman. The real-life woman in the shadows in this case is Mark Twain’s secretary, Isabel Lyon. But the story, Isabel Lyon is not competing for Twain’s heart and soul with his wife, Livy Clemens. No, Isabel’s competition is much stiffer. Isabel must battle with “Mark Twain,” the extraordinarily successful character the real life man, Samuel Clemens, created in his thirst for fame and adulation. Isabel Lyon fell in love with the real man behind the legend, and ultimately, forced him to choose between her and the love of his public.
What made you decide to write this story?
I ‘m always interested in the underdog. When I learned about Mark Twain’s tragic childhood, my antennae went up. Among other horrific incidents that he experienced as a boy, he watched doctors dissect his own father through the keyhole of his parents’ bedroom door. This episode said a lot about the toxic, hostile state of his parents’ marriage and about their extreme poverty. It was unspeakably taboo for a wife to sell her own husband as a cadaver in those days. How she must have hated the man to do so! But as damaging as little Sammy’s boyhood was, I was more astonished by his brutal turning against his secretary, Isabel Lyon, after nearly seven years of devoted service. She was more than an employee. She traveled with him, entertained his daughters, oversaw the family medical needs, handled his social life and reporters, and oversaw the construction and furnishing of his home. She even washed that white hair and bought those white suits! He told her, as well as friends and reporters, that she knew him better than anyone. It was obvious to their friends that they were a couple. Yet, a month after she married his business manager, Twain told those same people that Isabel was “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” I wanted to know what caused the radical turnabout.
Tell me a little about the research you did.
It’s important to me for my readers to know that everything they read in my novels could have actually happened–at least to my knowledge, they could have. I like to take known events and flesh them out without changing the facts I have learned through painstaking research. To give my readers confidence in the plausibility of my stories, I go to great lengths to track down the truth behind the legend.
To this end, I’ve found that there’s no substitute for traveling to the setting of every scene in my books. For Twain’s End, combing through family writings and photographs gave me clues beyond reading dozens of Mark Twain biographies, as well.
The most helpful of sources was Isabel Lyon’s own diary, in which she kept a daily record of her life with the man she called “The King.” I shaped many of the scenes in the book around her diary entries.
Tell me about Isabel V. Lyon.
Isabel is a remarkable example of someone trying to make the best out of the limited opportunities for women in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. She was born into a wealthy Eastern family but after her father’s death when she was a teenager, it was up to her to support herself and her mother. The only work available to someone in her class was as a governess, at which she worked until Mark Twain hired her in her early thirties as a social secretary to his ailing wife. She also made pincushions to sell in those pre-Etsy days. Once working for the Clemenses, Isabel quickly became more than a secretary to the entire eccentric Clemens family, eventually assuming the role as mother when Livy died. Yet within seven years, the family turned against her and ended up ensuring that her name was mud for all time. I try to explain why and how this happened in my story.
What do you think of Clara Clemens?
It’s convenient to blame Clara for Twain’s abuse of Isabel Lyon and many Twain scholars revile Clara. Yet, while I pull no punches in Twain’s End showing what a pill Clara truly was in real life, I actually feel sorry for her. I hope to show in the story how her bizarre family life contributed to her instability. I was just trying to report why she did the things she did, which was what I was trying to do with all my characters in the book. I’m not trying to pass judgment them. My job was to lay out the facts so that readers could decide how they feel.
Self-image is important in characters, how is this important to your characters?
Self-image was everything to Mark Twain. Samuel Clemens had to maintain his persona as the amiable everyday family man, Mark Twain, if he was to keep the love of the world that he so craved. As he matured, he attempted to write things closer to his heart but whenever he did, sales flagged. The public did not welcome his dark side. They wanted the creator of Tom Sawyer or nothing.
Talk about the courage and strength of your character. -and possibly the isolation your character may feel with these attributes.
I found it interesting that even after Twain and his daughter Clara took a scorched earth approach to publically slandering Isabel, she never fought back. A large part of this might be due to Isabel’s understanding that she could never win a he said/she said battle with the world’s most beloved man, as Twain was at the time. The other part, I feel, was that Isabel believed that her own good deeds would eventually vindicate her; surely the truth of her good character would have to come out. It didn’t. I wrote Twain’s End as an example of how innocence is sometimes not enough to clear someone’s name.
What are your favorite writings by Twain?
One of my favorites is a little known short story, “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It.”
Mark Twain calls his tale “true,” although of course it’s fictitious. Yet there a very real truth hidden in this story–the truth about his own grief over the inhuman treatment the family slave received at his parents’ hands. Twain’s End explores Twain’s relationship with this slave, Jennie, and how it might have affected his thinking.
Do you think any differently of him after researching him?
I went into writing this book with the same basic knowledge of the white-suited wit as any other American: he was the funny guy who wrote Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and he rocked the color white before Colonel Sanders ever did. My research revealed a much more complicated man. I found that, as is the case
with many other humorists, below his hilarious surface, he was one very angry and melancholic man. I ended up appreciating what Twain, the product of a difficult childhood, made of himself, and I savor his charisma and cleverness. Although there is no denying his flaws—and he was at his very worst when striking out at Isabel–I have great sympathy for him as a fellow human.
How long did it take to write your story?
I wrote the story over a two-year period, traveling and researching while writing. I go to scenes both before and after I’ve written them, and put in 8 – 12 hour days writing (with lots of snacking, walking, and bird-gazing tossed in.)
What are you currently working on?
My next book takes place during the Great Depression in 1934. Famous people are in it… (to be continued.)
Thank you for the chat, Lynn! Please visit me at Layered Pages again!
It was a treat to talk with you, Stephanie. Much love to you and the readers of Layered Pages!