Author likes to retell stories from woman’s perspective
SALISBURY — Author Sena Jeter Naslund likes to reconfigure classic narratives, and feels women have been ignored in great literature.
Armed with those convictions, a keen eye for detail and a gift for blending research with fascinating characters, Naslund made a name for herself with the distaff tale, “Ahab’s Wife.”
She warmed the audience Thursday at Catawba College’s 27th Brady Author’s Symposium with stories of why and how she wrote her novels, several of which are historical fiction. She’s a stickler for research, not just to get the subject matter right, but to get her character speaking with authentic voices.
The line, “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” came to Naslund one day and she knew she had the basis for the story of a woman who had seen much, suffered much and overcome much.
“I’m a writer because I love to read. ... My narrative is much influenced by what I read.” The first time she tried reconfiguring a story was with her short novel “Sherlock in Love.” “I used it to find out how to handle plot.” And to create a female character slightly smarter than Sherlock. She says she always has a subject in mind, but she has to learn what to do with it. Her next novel is coming in September and already she has the subject for a big project. “I want to write a novel about the Civil War.”
Her jumping off point for that is her name, Sena. She was named for her great-grandmother, who was named after a soldier in the Civil War. Naslund tells, ‘My great-great-grandfather was a soldier in the war.” He was injured or ill and was captured by the Union. The soldier assigned to care for him became a friend, and told her great-great-grandfather one day, “I’m going to turn my back and you should go.” So he did, and when he and his wife had a child, it was a girl, and they named her Sena, the last name of that Union soldier.
In her 2010 novel “Adam & Eve,” she reconfigures Genesis, with her personal belief that the original sin is taking someone else’s life. In the novel, a departure from her meticulously researched historical pieces, there are repeated falls. The Eve in the novel, Lucy, falls from the sky in a plane. A piano falls and kills a character, a parachuted soldier falls into a strange new Eden. The feral boy in the novel is the representation of our darkest desires. He is moved by power and lust. Part of the story involves ancient cave paintings in France. They show mostly animals, but the depictions of man and woman seem to be based on sexual aspects, particularly of the women. The women in the novel take on roles as the new Eves in a world still beset by sex and violence. But it’s a story set in the future, Naslund picking 2020 as “the year of clear vision,” to the truth. It’s told as a triptych, the biggest, central part taking place in Eden; the final part is leaving Eden because violence has appeared there.
“Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette” takes a sympathetic look at the doomed queen. Naslund pointed out it was Louis XIV’s queen who said, “Let them eat cake,” not Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s queen. Marie Antoinette had been painted in earlier biographies as a frivolous, dull, average woman.
“Marie Antoinette was not an average woman,” Naslund said. In fact, the biography that painted her negatively gave Naslund the very information she sought — examples of the queen’s insight and knowledge. Naslund’s Marie Antoinette first appears as a 14-year-old girl, taken from her native Austria to an island in the Rhine and literally stripped of all things Austrian, down to her little dog. She emerged as a young French woman, married to a 15-year-old. The story of her brother explaining to her and the king how to consummate their marriage seven years later is completely authentic, as seen in a letter she included in the book.
Her path to “Ahab’s Wife” came in a another very personal way. She and her daughter were driving 7,500 miles and took books on tape, including an abridged “Moby Dick”
“My daughter loved Ahab and would imitate him, repeat his speeches, and I thought it’s too bad there’s no woman in ‘Moby Dick’ she could recite.” She came up with the unforgettable first line. “I trusted that voice would take me where I needed to go.”
Her first reconfiguration was “We’re not going down with the Pequod!” Ahab’s wife, Una, makes a new life, so the book is not the tragedy of “Moby Dick,” but a triumph.
She had no agent for her first four books, but she sent “Ahab’s Wife” to an agent who loved it and shopped it all over New York. Six publishers wanted it, so the agent set up a book auction — the winner was the highest bidder.
For what is perhaps her most personal novel, “Four Spirits,” Naslund remembered a promise she made in college in Birmingham, Ala. There was no classic literature about the Civil Rights movement. “I believe no historical event comes alive unless a novel is written about it.” She remembered William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” where the perspectives are constantly changing. “It was hard for me to do all those points of view.” She estimates she used 17 points of view in “Four Spirits,” many the voices of children. The book uses the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in which four girls died in the 1960s as its subject. With this novel, she said, “I wanted to do things that NEED to be done.”
With each novel, Naslund wants to explore a technique. Then she wants to try another one with the next book. She used first person for Marie Antoinette, and present tense, so Marie does not know the end is at the guillotine. Naslund wondered about the roots of her bravery, how did she achieve what she did. “She created herself from the inside out. … In the end they could get nothing out of her. She was true to herself.”
Her September book is a mouthful, “The Fountain at St. James Court or Portrait of an Artist as an Old Woman.” You can tell she is delighted about it. It’s the story of portrait artist Elizabeth Le Brun, painter of the famous portrait of Marie Antoinette. It’s a reconfiguring of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
“The old woman is NOT me,” she insists.
She has too much work to do to get that Civil War saga started.