3 Qs for Charlotte Gordon, author of "The Woman Who Named God"
Faith, doubt, and the ageless power of stories are themes in Charlotte Gordon's meticulously researched and beautifully written books, The Woman Who Named God: Abraham's Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths and Mistress Bradstreet: The Untold Life of America's First Poet, both of which I loved. She's now at work on The Marys, a book about Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. Last week, Charlotte wrote in her blog:
Writing a book is like having a permanent secret. On Sunday, Mary Shelley died. Yesterday, I gave a test on Oedipus Rex, made sure my genocide students understood the events leading up to the Rwanda genocide, took my son to orchestra and tuned several violins, bought a pizza, and went to a program at my son’s s school. At no point did I mention that she had died. After all, this is old information for the world. But today I am brooding over the aftermath. Mary wanted to be buried with her parents in St. Pancras churchyard, but her devoted daughter-in-law, Jane, did not like this idea; the railroad had destroyed the old neighborhood. The fields were slums. The railroad threatened to cut through the cemetery and ten years after Mary died, it did. Strangely enough, it would be Thomas Hardy, the young novelist to be, who was put in charge of moving the gravestones.And somehow in the middle of all this, she found time to answer 3Qs for BoxOcto.
None of this comes up easily in conversation:
“How are you, Charlotte?”
“I am fine. But guess what? Did you know Thomas Hardy was in charge of dismantling the St. Pancras graveyard?”
Charlotte, thanks for being here. What calls you to a particular story? Is it the character, the moment, or the ripple effect it's had on history?
I am drawn to characters, usually women, who led pioneering lives and had pioneering ideas, but have been misunderstood or overlooked. A friend once asked me who I was trying to rescue with my writing. I am not sure, but I do know that I think the women I write about -- Anne Bradstreet, Hagar and Sarah from the Bible, Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft -- should be household names. I am on a mission to bring their ideas/their lives to the world. I also choose women who have something to teach me and am always looking for guides, female guides, who will help me figure out how to live my life more creatively and more intelligently, and, most important, more courageously. The characters I write about are very brave; they inspire me to overcome my fears, particularly my fears about being a writer and an intellectual and a feminist (a word that my students hate); they help me try to be more honest and more public. My new book began when I was surprised to discover that Mary Shelley was Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter. It seemed like this should be common knowledge. I kept looking for a book that focussed on their mother/daughter relationship, but could only find biographies that talked about each of them separately. That is how I came to write a book about both of them; it is the book I wanted to read, a book about mothers and daughters and the influence of family legacy. Over the course of writing The Marys,I have inevitably found that most people have no idea who Mary Wollstonecraft is; they only know who Mary Shelley is if I tell them she wrote Frankenstein. So, once again, I am on a mission: to tell people about these women, their ideas, and the amazing, dramatic lives they led.
How do you approach the research process (which must look like a mountain to climb) and keep it all organized throughout the project?
I am a very disorganized researcher. Sometimes, people ask me if I have "finished" researching my new book. I am never finished. To me, writing and reading are tangled into a messy angst-y knot; my books feel like a fog until they are finally done. I have sources open all over my desk. I do not stop "researching" until the last second of the publication process, in fact, research is a word that feels too formal and too separate a process from writing to describe what I do. I read in a kind of frenzy. I feel rushed and urgent. I get easily overwhelmed. For this book, I stare at the two Marys' letters and diaries. I am continually double checking and flipping pages, trying to find quotations I have lost, or have seen only once, particularly since I leave myself notes that are not always helpful: "see middle of gray book on MW," or "this quote is from that book you borrowed from Emily." This is because once I am writing, really writing, I do not like to stop and check facts. I wait until the white heat is past, so doing endnotes becomes a kind of sleuthing process. Where was I when I wrote that paragraph? What books did I have open? I used to feel apologetic about this, but now I accept that this is how I immerse myself in the lives of my women. I try to imagine what it was like to be them while I write: what their homes looked like, what they ate for dinner, what shoes they wore, how they brushed their hair, and thus many questions will come up only when I am writing -- questions that would not occur to me if I was in some pristine location far from my manuscript. For instance, when I am writing about Mary Wollstonecraft's first years in London, suddenly it will occur to me that I have no idea what chores Mary's maid did and what chores Mary did. Where did they get water? What happened when they got their periods? Where was the outhouse? Was there one? What is the history of the toilet? What was the weather like during her first winter in the city? What did she see when she looked out the window of her first apartment? What was London like in the 1780s, that is, the part of London where she lived. By the end of writing my books, I know my sources very well indeed, as I am continually flipping through them, looking for what I have lost, looking for answers to yet another new question.
Does living in the historical perspective every day influence your view of history as it's happening in the world (and in publishing) right now?
Yes, these books have changed how I see the world and how I live my life. With my last book, The Woman Who Named God, I became acutely aware of American prejudice against Muslims, as the book helps explain the origins of Islam, and the important role of women in its foundation. I also had to grapple with my own preconceptions about Islam. Now, with The Marys, I am very sensitive to the condition of women, how women see themselves in the world, and how women are portrayed in movies, literature, and the media. The other day, I was at the movies and as I watched the previews, I realized that not one of the movies being advertised had a strong central woman character. The women were either girlfriends, daughters, or victims. The men, on the other hand, were beating up enemies, trying to save pretty women, searching for fathers, or going on adventures with buddies. How can this still be? There, in front of us, was every cliche about gender roles. Now I can't watch "Spiderman" or "Iron Man" etc. without getting annoyed, and without thinking about what Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley would say. Don't worry. I know that there are plenty of other movies out there that feature strong smart women, but still, I am appalled at how many "blockbusters" perpetuate stupid ideas about men and women. I am troubled by this. In my own professional life, I take note of how many women are in the room during meetings. How many women are in leadership positions. How many women are being reviewed in the New York TImes. I was thrilled with the response of women writers to the Times' adulation of Jonathan Franzen. As one of them said, how is it that when Franzen writes about family, he is writing about America, but when women write about family, they are writing chick lit. My books about women have suffered from these prejudices. For instance, when my book about Anne Bradstreet (America's first poet, a leading intellectual, and an early settler of New England) came out, a book about male pilgrims received a great deal of attention, while my book was frequently overlooked. I don't like to sound sour grapes-ish, but I am fighting to have these women be seen and heard. Anne Bradstreet had important ideas about American identity. She is as important to the foundation of America as Miles Standish. But still no one knows about her. See how frustrated I am? Anyways, I used to tell myself that this sort of neglect happens because my books are not as "good" as the books about men, but I no longer think this. I think people are less interested in reading about women than famous men. I am not going to stop doing what I do, though.
Read Charlotte Gordon's blog