I leave tomorrow morning for Toronto, the start of my little book tour. I'm so thrilled to be reading with Miriam Toews on Monday! I'll let you know how it's going out there.
The above is from Sylvia Plath's journals. I've been rereading some of them lately, with the unease that always swims up. It's especially strong with Plath - I never feel quite so intent or so queasy when reading Virginia Woolf's diaries, say, or Mary Wollstonecraft's love letters. It's the voyeurism that does it, of course. But it's something else too.
Plath's best poems give me a similar feeling. The more I think about it, the more I realize it comes from an assumption built into her writing - the assumption that the reader is with the speaker, on the speaker's side. *Is* the speaker, in fact. It's the root of the uncanniness of her work, I think. The poems often address someone directly - "Daddy," for instance - but they also address a reader, whether overtly or subtly. Plath knows and accepts that she is being read. In "Tulips,"she writes,
"Nobody watched me before, now I am watched."
A few lines later, she suddenly tells us,
"I see myself[.]"
Here's the trick: she has turned herself into the onlooker, and, at the same time, turned the onlooker into her. Not many writers can pull this off. Most want readers to understand what they describe, but Plath simply assumes they have slipped into her clothing and flesh, and are not just watching her, but also speaking her voice alongside her (the poem ends with an image of a mouth). Plath's journals were private, but even here we can feel a reader built in, and that reader mouths everything Plath says.
It makes me think about writing the voices of the dead, real and otherwise. Historical writers have to do it. And we have to assume we have it right, that the actual person would have spoken in the voice we give them, if not always in so many words. I think we often feel the dead looking over our shoulders.
For a long time I felt uneasy about resurrecting Daniel Boone and his family and others. I felt uneasy about giving them voices, especially when so little of their own remains. And I think the only thing to be done about this unease is to try Plath's magic - to feel the dead characters watch us even as we try to inflate them with life. To watch and be watched at once. To be two sets of eyes and two mouths, theirs and ours, at once.
Holding this hardcover copy of my new book is strange and lovely. The novel has been out of my hands for a while now, since the substantive edit, copy edit, and final proofreading rounds finished a few months ago. It feels good to have it back, and to think that you'll be able to read it so soon.
I love the beautiful cover design, and feel awfully smug for someone who had nothing to do with it. Asher Brown Durand's crackled landscape painting of the Adirondacks dates to 1878. My mum insists she can see a small human figure in it. See what you think.
A few people have asked about images of Daniel Boone.. There are no photographs, which isn't surprising, given that he lived from 1734 to 1820. It's somehow permanently disappointing to me, though. The one portrait painted from life, by Chester Harding, was done in Boone's last year. People who knew him described him as about 5'8", "pony-built" and muscular. Some accounts have his hair as sandy, some as dark. His face seems to have been strong-boned, and his eyes were blue.
As I was writing, I wished more than once for a photo, which I always find a catalyst for writing. I didn't have a powerful visual image of him in my mind at first. I found myself wishing even harder for images of his wife, Rebecca, and his parents and children, who are all somewhat shadowy in the historical record. They eventually took shape for me with only a few throwaway descriptions to go on--Rebecca was black-haired and more than commonly tall, for instance.
Looking at photos of Victorian descendants, all lined up with their many children, was helpful. And a photograph of Boone's last son, Nathan, exists. He's supposed to have looked like his father. It's strange to look at his face, and to see how his eyes slide away from the viewer, refusing to be seen quite head-on.
We're digging out from the heaviest snowfall in thirty years. Schools are closed, we've had no mail for two days, almost nobody is on the roads. I haven't had the guts to venture out for groceries. My kids keep ending up stranded face-down and sunk in the drifted-up yard. We keep shovelling, but there's nowhere to put any more snow. All of which reminds me that I would have lasted about three minutes on the frontier.
Life was constantly intense for settlers, and not just in the winter. For clothing and bedlinen, most families had to produce their own yarn from flax or wool, spinning and winding it in their spare time (!), then weaving and sewing. Little girls would run around weaving narrow "tapes" to hold up garters and such. No idle hands.
First Nations and white hunters killed deer for hides as well as meat, skinning, scraping, and treating the leather to trade or make into hunting shirts. In the Kentucky frontier forts, white settlers began to run out of clothes, and went around half-naked or contrived outfits from blankets or roughly woven buffalo hair. Nothing simple.
On the frontier, bear meat was seen as the best eating, but deer, elk, and turkey were staples too. As settlers moved west, they enjoyed the fried tails of the beavers they trapped for fur to trade, and learned that buffalo hump and tongue were the choice cuts. You had to catch one first, though. And to grow food, you had to clear the trees, stumps, and rocks, plow the soil, plant your corn and vegetables and fruit trees, as well as hay for your livestock, and harvest and store it. And start all over again after the soil was exhausted in a few years.
So it's wild frontier lite at my snowbound house today. I'm going to make some killer chocolate cookies and really, really appreciate them.
Hey, I made a book trailer to go with the song The Old Familiar and Tariq wrote for the book (see last post). A cinematographer I'm not, but I hope you'll enjoy seeing some Boone- and book-related images to go with the haunting music.
In reply to the comment below--the song should be downloadable from the last post, though you may need to adjust your firewall. iTunes version will be up soon--I'll let you know.
The Old Familiar and Tariq have written me the most beautiful song to go with All True Not a Lie In It. Makes me all teary. I'll post visuals soon, but I wanted you to be able to hear it right away.
I'm the author of All True Not a Lie In It (Knopf Canada 2015, Ecco USA 2016) and The Old Familiar (Thistledown 2008).