How could I use anything other than my Alice/dreaming icon when considering Tennyson by Lesley M.M. Blume? The author and I have been discussing literature, photographs, and other forms of art, and we now invite you to listen in on our conversation.
Tennyson was inspired by poetry and photography. Tell me more.
Tennyson was inspired initially by two books of photography: Sally Mann's 'Immediate Family' and Clarence John Laughlin's 'Ghosts Along the Mississippi.'
The photos in 'Immediate Family' show the story of a three beautiful, feral children growing up in Virginia's countryside. I was particularly taken by the two young sisters, who gave rise in my mind to the characters Tennyson and Hattie. I also heavily referenced Mann's book "Deep South."
The second book, 'Ghosts Along the Mississippi' is out of print and difficult to find. My copy is an old library-discard that I ordered from a second-hand bookstore. I got it for peanuts. The book documents many of the once-glorious plantation mansions along Louisiana's famous river road, many of which are now long gone. Belle Grove, one of the most magnificent, served as the primary inspiration for the fictional plantation in TENNYSON, called Aigredoux. There are photos of Belle Grove in 'Ghosts' that show the house in extreme disrepair towards the end of its existence. One of them appears on the title page of TENNYSON. You can see other photos here: http://bellegrove.net/index.html
I had both of these photography books open on the table in front of me as I wrote TENNYSON and some of the prose is literal description of what I saw in the photos. Some of the chapter names are based on the photos as well, such as "The Bone Forests."
In terms of poetry: I knew that I wanted my character Sadie, the mother of the two young girls, to be a poetess, and it made sense to me that she would name her first child after a poet. I considered many poets as possible namesakes for the title character, and liked the sound of Tennyson the best. It worked out beautifully, since many of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poems deal with themes I explore in my book, such as decay, loss, the quest for immortality, and the coinciding of humor and tragedy.
I posted The Deserted House by Alfred, Lord Tennyson last Friday in honor of your book. Is Tennyson your favorite poet?
I don't know that I have a favorite poet, but I definitely have favorite poems. 'I Dwell in Possibility' by Emily Dickinson is one. 'Preludes' by T.S. Eliot is another.
No, I take it back. Eliot is my favorite. I also adore 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,' which one of my characters quotes in TENNYSON. Here it is.
Your mother accompanied you on your trip to Louisiana, while Tennyson's mother is absent for most of the story. Is your mother present in any of the characters?
TENNYSON is my least autobiographical work to date, and ironically feels the most intensely personal to me. I'm sure that on a subconscious level, the characters are composites of many people in my life, but none of the characters are based on anyone specifically.
By the way, I really love Sadie - the mother character in TENNYSON. The reader meets her only in flashbacks, and through the memories of the main character, Tennyson. Sadie is bound to draw the ire of many readers, for she does the unthinkable: she abandons her family to pursue her creative ambitions, even though everyone - including the reader - knows that these ambitions are delusional.
But I think that Sadie is misunderstood - and that she embodies the anxiety that some women have about sublimating their ambitions to the traditional demands of childrearing. She represents the fear of self-sacrifice, and I am fascinated by her psychology. Look for Sadie to reappear in my future writings; I'm not done with her yet.
At what point in the first draft process did you plan the ending of your story?
TENNYSON was initially two chapters longer than the final published version, and it included an 'article' in the appendix from the 1950s that revealed the fates of many of the characters. After much discussion, my editor and I decided to cut out those chapters and the article to maximize the subtlety that we labored to achieve throughout the rest of the manuscript.
There are tiny hints, however, about the characters' destinies in the family tree we included in the appendix (which was reproduced in my handwriting, incidentally). Readers who want to know whether Sadie and Emery (the father in TENNYSON) return to Aigredoux can look at this family tree and draw their own conclusions.
Some of my readers have disliked the lack of conclusion at the end of TENNYSON, but I feel in my bones that it was the right thing to do and I'm thankful that I had the restraint to end it how I did. Life does not present resolution in neat little packages. You will never find that sort of thing in my writing.
Pianists were featured in your first two novels, Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters and The Rising Star of Rusty Nail. Do you play any instruments?
Like my character Cornelia in Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, words are my instruments. My mother was a concert pianist and she best expressed herself through music. I am a different sort of creature - and if I really want to make myself understood, I say what I need to say on paper and not out loud.
That said, I really, truly love classical music, but my talents lie in other places.
Each of your novels to date employ at least one headstrong girl and intriguing adults, be the friends, neighbors, or relatives. Who will populate your next novel?
I guess I've been writing about what I know. I was a headstrong girl and I still am. And I was always surrounded by intriguing adults - and still am.
That said, my next work for children is going to be very different from my first three novels. I'm also working on an adult novel that features Emery and Sadie in different incarnations. As I said above, I'm not done with them yet.
Thanks to Lesley for letting me visit Aigredoux.
To learn more about Tennyson, visit the website.
For my two cents' worth - and to find out who I mentally cast as Emery - read my book review of Tennyson.