From Poetry to Fiction: A History

From Poetry to Fiction:  A History


This essay originally appeared on Jessica Knauss’s Blog:

I’m a native Midwesterner, originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, and I’ve always been fascinated by history.  After completing a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature, I moved to Virginia.  I completed an MFA in writing, and I currently work as a professor of Early British Literature and Creative Writing at Mary Baldwin College.

I’m a poet as well as a novelist, and I’ve published seven books of poems.  My writing life was originally fairly separate from my teaching life.  My first books were autobiographical and I think some of my colleagues were rather shocked the first time they encountered my poems!  Then one summer I was researching old recipe manuscripts at the National Library in Wales, and over the course of those weeks I started thinking about the women who had recorded their hopes and disappointments in those private spaces, and my writing changed.  I began writing historical poems, short narratives in the voices of these forgotten women.

Suddenly, my teaching and writing lives merged, and out of that sprang a series of poems about historical figures.  I felt that I was filling in the blanks of the literature and literary history I loved.  When my sixth book came out, my friend Suzanne Keen at Washington and LeeUniversity said, “Sarah, you should really write a novel.”  No way, I thought!  I’m a poet!

But the idea must have been brewing in the back of my mind.  I read fiction—a lot of it—and one day when my husband and I were in a bookstore (me at the novels, of course) I had an image of a young nun peering through a window as soldiers came up the road toward her.  “This day has been coming for years,” I thought—and that’s where the first draft of my novel started.

The Altarpiece is the first of a series about Tudor England—one of my favorite historical periods.  My main character, Catherine Havens, is a young nun who is being evicted from her convent.  She’s devout, but she’s not very orthodox, and the changes in England after Henry VIII’s break from Rome have thrown her into circumstances she never expected.  I now get to use Tudor expressions like “how now” and “sirrah” and, my favorite insults, “you villain” “you monkey” without sounding like I’m out of my mind!  There are many novels out there about Tudor women, and I wanted to do something different.  Rather than use a historical figure as my main character, I created one out of one of those blanks.  There are very few records of what happened to nuns after the convents were closed, and I wanted to “make history” with my novel instead of retelling the history we already have.

My writing schedule changed completely.  Where once I worked fitfully, between classes and in small allotments here and there, I now sat down every evening after dinner and disappeared into Tudor England.  I usually work for several hours in the evening in my favorite chair in the living room, with my husband reading or working right next to me.  He’s very understanding when he asks me a question and I don’t hear him!  My husband is also my first and best reader, always, and he will tell me when something doesn’t work or when something isn’t plausible.  It took me a long time to break the poet-habit of lingering on a scene much too long, and though I won’t ever give up metaphor, I’ve learned to move things along.

Why Tudor England?  I’ve been in love with the Tudors since I read Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt” as an undergraduate, and my feelings are clearly shared by others.  The Tudor period is so resonant because it’s a time when political power and religious devotion were tangled—publically tangled—with love and lust.  It’s also the period when two women—Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor—were the monarchs in a very patriarchal country.  Everything was being called into question—in much the same way that we now question authority and tradition.  Can you imagine being a sixteenth-century person and hearing that the earth wasn’t really the center of creation?  As power centers shift and the world becomes more and more “virtual,” the Tudors have become one way that we can make sense of our changing world.

When I’m not immersed in the sixteenth century, I love to garden and cook.  I teack a lot online, and one of my favorite pastimes is to work with my students, my desk pushed up to the window where I can watch my birds while I write.  Sometimes when they’re squabbling and scrabbling for bits, they remind me of my imaginary Tudor world.

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