In March of 1909, Mark Twain cheerfully blessed the wedding of his private secretary, Isabel V. Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. One month later, he fired both. He proceeded to write a ferocious 429-page rant about the pair, calling Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter, Clara Clemens, then slandered Isabel in the newspapers, erasing her nearly seven years of devoted service to their family. How did Lyon go from being the beloved secretary who ran Twain’s life to a woman he was determined to destroy?
In Twain’s End, Lynn Cullen “cleverly spins a mysterious, dark tale” (Booklist) about the tangled relationships between Twain, Lyon, and Ashcroft, as well as the little-known love triangle between Helen Keller, her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, and Anne’s husband, John Macy, which comes to light during their visit to Twain’s Connecticut home in 1909. Add to the party a furious Clara Clemens, smarting from her own failed love affair, and carefully kept veneers shatter.
Based on Isabel Lyon’s extant diary, Twain’s writings, letters, photographs, and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End triumphs as “a tender evocation of a vain, complicated man’s twilight years and a last chance at love” (People).
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January 8, 1909
Stormfield, Redding, Connecticut
ISABEL’S MOTHER WATCHED HER tie on her hat with the look of intense pride and suppressed doubt that is particular to the mothers of grown daughters. “But Isabel, how will you serve Miss Keller tea?”
Her mind on other things, Isabel returned her gaze from the snow salting down outside the frost-etched windows. She took in the snug parlor with its fringed green velvet davenport, its painting of the Pitti Palace in Florence, its rocker turned toward the fire. The King’s framed portrait presided over the mantel. He was younger in the photo, roughly handsome, his tornado of hair still dark. He frowned off in the distance in a way that suggested he could see things that mere mortals couldn’t. I Am the Youthful Sage, he seemed to say. From the opposite wall, in a more recent photograph dated not only by his white hair but by the white suit that he’d taken to wearing two years ago no matter the season, he frowned mischievously: The Wise Maverick. On the side table next to the sofa, in a photo snapped with Isabel and friends in Bermuda last spring, he sternly confronted the lens while the rest of them made merry: The Lonely Genius. When had he last looked into a camera and let himself just be Sam Clemens?
“Miss Keller,” Isabel’s mother repeated. “How will you serve her tea?”
Isabel stepped into her rubbers next to the door. “She’s blind and deaf, Mother, not paralyzed. I’ll simply hand her a cup.”
“But how will you ask her what she takes in it?”
“Mrs. Macy will sign the question to her in her hand. Or I’ll ask her myself. She puts her thumb on your neck, her forefinger on your tongue, and her middle finger on your nose, then listens in that way.”
“With her fingers all over your face?” Mrs. Lyon pursed her own lips, accentuating the soft pouches on either side of her jaw.
She had been a handsome woman once, with a small sharp nose and large brown eyes like her daughter’s. As Georgiana Van Kleek, one of the prominent Hartford Van Kleeks, she had attracted all the best men when she had come out back in ’61. No one had been surprised when she won the affection of dashing widower Charles Lyon, a distinguished professor at Columbia University who was as handsome as he was prosperous.
Now she was forced to live through her daughter, who hadn’t ever married and who worked. It might be modern times, what with people racing around in Oldsmobiles and cranking up phonographs and shouting into telephones, but for a woman of their class to work was still a shameful thing. At least Isabel worked for a very famous man—the most famous, and the most beloved, too, if you could believe the slogan on the cigar box. “Known to Everyone, Liked by All,” indeed. If everyone knew his terrible temper like Mrs. Lyon did, he would not be so very liked, she could tell you that.
Better that the public didn’t know. As it was, her daughter’s association with him had almost restored Mrs. Lyon’s bragging rights to just below the level attainable had Isabel produced a beautiful grandchild, although they fell short of what they would have been had Isabel married a gentleman professor like her own father had been.
The situation could be remedied handily if Isabel would simply marry Mr. Clemens. Regardless of his shortcomings, he was ripe for wedlock now that “Livy” (as he had called his sickly wife Olivia, as if she were some gay young thing) had finally succumbed to whatever it was that had kept her bound to her bed and quarantined from him for months on end. The ship had sailed for grandchildren, unfortunately—Isabel was forty-five, and Mr. Clemens was in his early seventies and looked it—but he did have an honorary degree from Oxford in England and was a friend of the English king. If the English king could overlook Mr. Clemens’s crude country roots, Mrs. Lyon probably could.
As a good mother, Mrs. Lyon often reminded Isabel of the desirability of a marriage, but with no favorable results so far. Evidently, Isabel had not minded lurking behind the potted palm trees with the servants at the lavish seventieth birthday party at Delmonico’s thrown for Mr. Clemens by the Harper publishing crowd, when she should have been sitting right next to him, dining on Lobster Newburg.
Such a waste of potential! Isabel had been brought up to consort with gentlemen far more educated than Mr. Clemens was. While other little girls were paging through their McGuffeys, Isabel’s father had taught her to recite passages from The Iliad, after which he would invite her into his study and stand her on his desk so she could entertain his scholarly friends. He had delighted in broadening her mind by taking her overnight to New York to see edifying Broadway plays. It was at such a play that, as a little child, Isabel had placed her hand on Horace Greeley’s knee, and the venerable editor of the Tribune had not moved it. To keep this highly cultured girl waiting by the kitchen door as if she were no better than the Clemenses’ surly maid Katy was as wrong as eating roast beef with a fish knife.
“The King says that Miss Keller puts you right at ease about it.” Isabel bent down to tug the rubber over the heel of her pump. “It feels quite natural to have her touching your face. And even though she can’t hear herself, she has mastered answering with her own voice. I’ve heard her—it’s remarkable.”
“I wish you wouldn’t call him that!”
Isabel righted herself. “What?”
“It sounds so—so subservient, when you are so much more to him.”
The resident pain along the length of Isabel’s esophagus flared, as if the organ were being wrung. She plucked up her gloves and the string bag in which she’d brought food to her mother from the big house. “I’m glad that you think so.”
“Why don’t you stay here and rest? You look so tired.” Mrs. Lyon did not add that Isabel had a better chance of securing Mr. Clemens if she appeared well rested and youthful.
“I’m fine.” Isabel did not mention that yesterday her doctor had told her to get in bed and stay there until her nerves settled or risk permanent damage to her system.
On the walk back to Stormfield from her house, Isabel tried to settle herself by savoring the view of the deforested hills, paralyzed under a shroud of snow. Razed of all but a few trees lining the road—The King would have a view—his lands, blinding in the midmorning sunshine, spread out as far as one could see. Closer at hand, the shadows of the naked surviving trees striped the white road like the bars of a prison. Frozen drops clung to the rusty bramble leaves poking here and there from their glittering cover. A brook thrashed mutely against its clear lid of ice. Save for the groan of the trees in the wind, the shuffle of her rubbers on the sleigh tracks, and an occasional protest from a small bird, silence reigned.
Here at Stormfield The King would finish his autobiography, the culmination of his career, a project that he had started nearly forty years earlier and, though running thousands of pages, wasn’t done yet. He seemed afraid to put it to rest, as if ending the work would be the end of the man. Isabel still could not believe that she had her own little house on the Stormfield grounds, a saltbox that dated back to the Revolution—the Lobster Pot, The King called it, his Christmas present to her. She had not expected to get this house or, indeed, any reward when she had directed the construction and decoration of Stormfield. All she had wanted was to support The King’s work and to make him happy, and she believed that every little detail—the Italian-style loggia with its view of the hills; the Orchestelle player piano set up in the library; the wooden cherubs crouching over the fireplace—did so. Surely she’d outdone his wife.
Inside the mansion, Isabel kicked off her galoshes by the front door, shed her coat and hat in the cloakroom off the foyer, and went to the kitchen, which smelled of The King’s breakfast of bacon and hotcakes drenched with maple syrup—the only meal of the day he might do more than pick at, unless you counted his nightly dish of radishes.
In the pantry she came upon the new butler, Horace, a raw and gangling eighteen-year-old youth from a local farm. His knobby wrists stuck out four inches beyond his shirt cuffs as he gingerly arranged the tea set upon its silver tray. Isabel would have to tell the new maid to stop boiling his shirts so long. And where was his suit coat? Horace was serving the most famous man in the world, not sexing chickens.
He glanced up, the silver creamer cradled in his callused hands, then looked back down quickly. A blush flooded the hollows of his cheeks. He had been unable to meet her eyes since discovering that her bedroom in the big house adjoined The King’s.
“Were you able to polish all the silver yesterday?” she asked.
She hated how he wouldn’t look at her, as if she were some sort of fallen woman. “Are you enjoying your work here? Not everyone has a chance to serve so many interesting guests.”
Perhaps teasing him would soften him. “You can’t say that you didn’t like when that pretty actress Billie Burke visited us the other day.”
Horace opened the lid of the sugar bowl and began to fill it from a paper sack, his face glowing like a horseshoe heating over a blacksmith’s fire. An awkward moment passed. “Miss Clara sent word that she is coming, ma’am.”
The pressure in Isabel’s sternum flared at the mention of The King’s daughter. “Did she say when she would arrive?”
“Have Teresa make up Miss Clemens’s room, please.” She worked on lightening her tone. “Our Clara does insist on fresh linen.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Horace still wouldn’t look at her. Isabel told herself it was because she was his superior and a good two decades older than he was. He probably had difficulty with other adults. Surely that was it. He definitely lacked training in manners. In truth, he made a terrible butler, but since the night of the burglary in September, after which all the servants but the maid Katy had fled, experience was not the most important qualification one needed to join the Stormfield staff. The local farmers said that the staff had bolted because of the burglars, but that wasn’t really the reason why. Clara had fired them because of what they had seen, then threatened to ruin them if they talked. They were afraid of her. Rightly so.
Isabel gave him a comrade’s smile. “I had better go see if The King is ready to descend.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled, her smile wasted.
The smell of bacon accompanied Isabel up the stairs. She was halfway up, the thick strand of coral beads that she always wore thumping against her breast, when the doorbell chimed. She flinched, then chided herself, Don’t be silly. It isn’t Clara yet. At any rate, Clara did not ring; Clara barged in like she owned the place, which she would, as soon as she could shove her father off this mortal coil.
Isabel checked the watch pinned to her shirtwaist. It couldn’t be Miss Keller already. Her train wasn’t due in to Redding until 3:45, and Giuseppe still had to greet them at the station and bring them back in the sleigh. Another thought froze her footsteps: Reporters. They had been showing up lately without Isabel inviting them, hoping for some scandal, and not just because of the burglary. Bully the help all Clara wanted, she couldn’t control every wagging tongue in the nation.
Isabel waited while Horace clomped in from the dining room to answer. A man’s elegant voice, accented with a whiff of the British Isles, wafted up from the foyer. Relief flooded Isabel’s chest: dear Ralph. As The King’s business adviser, Mr. Ashcroft was the head of the Mark Twain Corporation, the company formed to exploit the Twain name, and the only person in the world who began to understand the difficulties Isabel faced in managing The King. Just hearing Ralph’s voice soothed her. She turned around to greet him.
A faint metallic clank drifted through the house: tap-tap-tap-TAP. Beethoven’s Fifth. The King was knocking on a radiator, his signal for her to come. Ralph would have to wait.
Upstairs, she rapped on The King’s door.
She entered, releasing a cloud of cigar smoke. The world’s most revered folk philosopher was sitting unselfconsciously on the bed, the hair around his ears damp from his bath. He wore white silk shorts and nothing else.
“You forgot me.”
She laughed in spite of herself. Her King could always make her laugh. “No chance of that. I just popped down to the Lobster Pot to see Mother. How is your story coming along?” He liked to work in bed, mornings.
The King’s drawl was as unhurried as an African potentate. “Terrible. The well is dried up.”
How many times had Isabel heard that in her six and a half years with The King? “Dictating your autobiography usually unsticks you. I’ll see if I can get Miss Hobby to return.”
The abruptness of his tone startled Isabel.
More serenely, he said, “I want you to write it down for me.” He took a draw on his cigar. “Like we did in the old days.”
She glanced at him, then kept going toward the wardrobe. She knew the rules to this game. She kept emotion out of her voice, the hope, the love for him that burned inside her all the way down to her toes. “All right.”
Aware that no one else alive had the privilege of such an intimate view of the great man, Isabel took her prerogative of studying him, albeit from her peripheral vision, as she opened the wardrobe. His head, crowned with a drift of silver and robed with a pelt of mustache that retained some of the orange and black of his youth, seemed overlarge for his body, as if it contained a brain larger than most men’s. Beneath that beautiful head, his wiry body had a defiant virility, a scrappy knowingness that thrilled her. The slightly sagging chest flesh beneath its thicket of white curls spoke to her not of age but of his years of worldly experience. At seventy-four, he held himself with the amused confidence that a younger man could only pretend to, a confidence that invited you to let down your guard even though you knew he would not be doing likewise.
She kept her voice neutral. “I heard Mr. Ashcroft downstairs.”
The King’s response was to teeter his cigar languidly between his fingers.
She took a shirt from the wardrobe and shook it out. From long habit, she inspected the garment, specially made for The King with the button in back of the collar. In one of his autobiographical dictations, The King had recounted the apparently hilarious incident of when he’d discovered the collar buttons missing from three such shirts and, bellowing curses, pitched them out the window of his Hartford home. Isabel had cringed. Too easily, she could imagine his roar and the offending items flapping to the lawn like swans that had been shot, his wrath far out of proportion to such a minor irritant. His shirts, indeed all of the objects scattered around Stormfield, held within them the potential of provoking a similar eruption, mines waiting to be set off by his terrible temper. She didn’t know what would cause a man to be so volatile.
She looked up from her inspection. “Should I tell Mr. Ashcroft that you’re busy today?”
“Tell Ashie—” He stopped. “Wait a minute, what’s your pet name for that English bastard?”
She kept her expression cool as she brought over the shirt. The King himself had dubbed Ralph “Benares,” after the holiest city in India, where dying pilgrims went. If Ralph could bring new life to The King’s already robust bank accounts, The King would think him holy, indeed.
“Tell Brazierres,” The King drawled scornfully, “to go home.” He sucked deeply at his cigar, as if to draw sustenance from it. “Remind me to stop and think next time about hiring an Englishman to promote America’s Sweetheart, will you? He creeps around like an English fog.”
“Oh, you’re America’s Sweetheart now?”
He smiled around his cigar. “The Belle of New York, America’s Sweetheart—same difference.”
“I’ll make sure it’s on your next playbill.”
“My next playbill”—he blew out smoke—“will be for my funeral.”
“Please. You are outliving us all.”
“Not if Halley’s Comet has anything to say about it.”
Isabel wished he had never read that article in the Times about the return of the comet next year. Even before the article came out, he made too much of being born under it, as if it held some kind of magical power over him. It disturbed her that he kept claiming it would take him with it when it soared through the skies in April 1910. He claimed that he and the comet were two “unaccountable freaks”—they came in together, and together they must go out.
“Put on your shirt,” she said.
Cigar in teeth, he shrugged on the shirt and turned his back for her to button his collar. She used her wrist to push his hair from his nape—she knew his mane’s surprising weight, being the one to wash and rub it dry for him every day—and then fastened his collar. He smelled good, like a scented cake of shaving soap. By day’s end, the smell of smoke would sheath him like armor.
“Clara is coming today,” she said.
Only the tightening of his jaw indicated that he had heard her. He took his cigar from his mouth and slowly tapped it against the ashtray on the bedside table. “Did you place the telephone call?”
He took a languid puff. “You know, someone could have Wark killed, and who’d ever know who’d done it? Everyone would think that his wife was behind it.”
Isabel kept quiet. It was best in these situations to let The King get control of himself on his own. He did not really mean that he would kill his daughter’s lover—the man couldn’t bear to move a sleeping kitten from the pocket of his billiards table. The reality was that The King himself was the one in danger. He was increasingly suffering from pains in his chest, searing constrictions that would drop him into a chair and blanch his face to the color of an onion paring.
He smoked in silence as she moved on to the rest of his shirt buttons. She was getting his cuff links from the chiffonier when he said, “Miss Keller here yet?”
She returned to him and waited for him to raise his wrist. “We have plenty of time until her train arrives, or I wouldn’t have risked going to see Mother.”
He watched her poke the stem of a link through a cuff hole. “How is the old dame?”
“Mother? The same.”
“I shouldn’t call her that. I’ve got twelve years on her.”
“You don’t look it.”
He kissed her cheek, brushing her with his mustache. “I knew I liked you.”
Isabel fastened the link. “Liked?”
Their eyes met. Let him look away first; she wasn’t afraid. Let him see her lips, remembering their kisses.
He looked at her mouth, then back up into her eyes. His expression softened into affection.
Before she could respond, he switched hands with his cigar, then raised his other wrist for her to work on. “How long did Miss Keller say she was staying?”
“Three days. She leaves Monday.”
“I agreed to that?”
“You asked her to stay ten. Don’t worry, I made nice for you.”
“Ha. Good. Well, Helen’s a sweet girl. Think I should invite her to be one of my Angelfish?”
“Isn’t she a little old for that?” Isabel busied herself with his cuff. “Anyhow, I suppose she’s occupied with her new book just out.”
“I’m going to ask her anyway.”
This wasn’t about his little club for girls. Who cared about them? They were like daughters to him—better than daughters, he said, because they did not cause him grief. They were not her competition.
“Don’t be jealous, Lioness.”
“I’m not jealous.” She pulled back from him, finished with his sleeves.
“You are. I see it in your mouth.”
“I am not jealous.”
“Clara says you are.”
“Clara is a troublemaker.”
“You’re damn right about that.” He pecked her again on the cheek. “Get my pants.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Twain’s End includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lynn Cullen. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Isabel Lyon worked as the private secretary to Mark Twain for nearly seven years, the devoted and tireless companion of America’s most beloved author. In 1909, with Twain’s blessing, Isabel became engaged to Ralph Ashcroft, his business manager. Just one month later, both Isabel and Ashcroft were fired, their dismissal followed by a scathing 429-page rant penned by their former employer that called Isabel “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Twain and his daughter Clara Clemens took their tirade against Isabel to the newspapers, erasing her years of devoted service to the Clemens family. In Twain’s End, bestselling and highly acclaimed author Lynn Cullen reimagines Isabel’s dramatic shift from Twain’s indispensable secretary to a woman he set out to destroy. Based on Isabel’s diary and events in Twain’s boyhood that may have altered his ability to love, Twain’s End explores this real-life tale of tangled relationships and doomed love.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Samuel Clemens often talks about his dual personalities—Sam Clemens and Mark Twain—occasionally saying he wishes to be rid of the latter or even that he hates him. How much do you believe an author’s life is caught up in their identity as a writer? Do you think Sam Clemens uses Mark Twain as an excuse for his behavior, or do you think his fame and renown as Twain fuel the behavior?
2. Samuel Clemens, Clara, and others tell Isabel that Sam is completely dependent on her. Do you believe his affection for her stems in large part from that dependency?
3. Do you think Sam’s attraction to women stems from their beauty and youth, or do you think that other factors, like their status of subservience to him, play a role? Consider the invalid Olivia, or Isabel, whose fortune was gone and financial need great. Do you suppose a need for power and status fueled his passions? How much of his childhood and background plays a role, if at all, in his psychology?
4. Do you think that Sam would have married Isabel on his return from England if the reporter’s question concerning marriage rumors had not been denied? Do you believe Sam ever had intentions of marrying Isabel, or was he too conscious of his reputation?
5. Why do you think Mrs. Clemens speaks so candidly with Isabel about Sam’s roving eye without admonishing Isabel for her flirtation? Why do you imagine she tells her about his propensity to break hearts and hurt people that are close to him? How much of this is said out of kindness, and how much of it is a warning? Do you think she spoke so openly with her husband’s previous interests?
6. How do you explain Isabel’s passion for Sam despite her knowledge of his philandering, his status as a married man, and her role in his family? Do you think she ought to have left her role as his secretary? How soon should she have left her position for her life to have taken a different trajectory? How do you think it would have turned out differently?
7. Thinking of her daughter singing before a crowd with her husband in attendance, Olivia Clemens feels troubled, as she believed “Clara hadn’t a chance. No one did, really, against Mark Twain. Not even Youth himself.” What do you think of Mrs. Clemens’s attitude toward the power of her husband’s alter ego? Do you think she means to say that no one can compete with the popularity of Mark Twain, or is she getting at something more?
8. What do you make of Olivia Clemens’s situation? How would you characterize her relationship with Sam? Is her husband truly the cause of her illness? If so, why has she persisted in living with him and tolerating his actions?
9. The story of the young Sam discovering Jennie and his father together sheds light on Sam’s sense of guilt, but in what other insights does it offer on his personality? On his understanding of himself?
10. What do you think is the largest draw for Isabel: Mr. Clemens’s wit, charm, intellect, status, or his unavailability? Do you think their closeness sealed her affection and she would have been equally as passionate had Sam been less famous or even not famous at all?
11. Why do you think the author chose to write the final chapter from the perspective of Mrs. Lyon instead of Isabel?
12. How much did you know about Samuel Clemens’s life before reading this book? How has your reading of Twain’s End impacted your perception of the man? Of Mark Twain and his books?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Select a work by Mark Twain as a group. Research when it was written and discuss the characters, the setting, and the themes in the context of the events of Samuel Clemens’s life. How did your knowledge of the man behind the pen name influence your reading?
2. Read Mrs. Poe, Lynn Cullen’s previous work of historical fiction that looks at another American cultural icon, Edgar Allan Poe, and his forbidden love. Discuss the similarities and differences between the two books and their themes.
A Conversation with Lynn Cullen
This is the second novel in which you have delved into the life of a major American literary figure. How has the experience of writing Twain’s End compared to that of writing Mrs. Poe?
My aim as a novelist has always been to examine some of the difficulties we face as humans through the lens of the lives of misunderstood or marginalized historical figures. I’ve been less interested in writing novelized biographies of famous characters than in using their experiences to write stories that make readers think. Although I work hard at not bending the facts that I uncover during my research, ultimately, I am a novelist, not a biographer. To this end, I seek the unknown in my characters’ personal lives so that I can tell a fictitious story within these gaps.
Twain’s End was a departure for me in that I made less use of these gaps in the known facts than usual, largely because there were fewer gaps. As I did for Mrs. Poe and all my novels, I visited the site of every scene in the book to give the settings an authentic feel. I familiarized myself with Mark Twain’s works, like I did with Poe’s, to get a feel for their thinking. But for this book, I had the added advantage of having access to Isabel Lyon’s diary, written during her years with Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. Between her observations and Twain’s writings and quotes, I had much more primary source material from which to construct a novel than I’ve ever had. My challenge, therefore, was to connect the dots in the material, draw my conclusions, then illustrate my theories. Samuel Clemens’s and Isabel Lyon’s real lives were so fraught with the extremes in hardship, success, pain, and joy that my main mission became to lay out their experiences so that they might speak for themselves.
How did you come to choose Mark Twain as the subject of your book?
I have long admired how in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain staunchly yet craftily took to task those who defended and justified slavery. I marveled at Clemens’s wit and his compassion for the underdog. Who doesn’t love Mark Twain, the clever curmudgeon with the heart of gold? Yet when I did a little digging and saw how viciously he turned on his loyal secretary, repeatedly attacking her even though she never defended herself, I was curious to know who the real Sam Clemens was and why Isabel Lyon—and his wife and daughters—put up with him.
How much did you know about Mark Twain before beginning your research for this story? How has your appreciation and understanding of Samuel Clemens and his character evolved since writing this book, particularly with respect to his relationships with others?
Like most Americans, I was mainly familiar with Mark Twain from reading Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in elementary school, so when first getting to know the real Sam Clemens in order to write this book, I was furious with him. I had thought he was a hero and here he was a bully and a fake! But after spending a year and a half trying to get inside his mind—a daunting, sometimes even sickening proposition with as volatile a man as Sam Clemens—I actually came to love him even more than when I started. In fact, I now feel a bit protective of him. It wasn’t my intention to make people hate him by exposing his flaws. I was simply trying to show the man as he actually was, at least in my mind, with good traits and bad like most of us. I believe he was a good and loving man at heart, or at least he wanted very much to be one, but he struggled with what today we would call an “anger management problem,” exacerbated by a mercurial temperament, extreme sensitivity, and a traumatic childhood. Yes, he did carefully nurture a public persona that belied the private man, but I don’t hold that against him. Can we blame him for promulgating an image that became universally “Liked by All,” when it brought him the love, admiration, and wealth he so desperately craved?
So much of your book deals with the conflict between Samuel Clemens’s personal identity versus that of his status as a writer and the mythos surrounding his fictional persona, Mark Twain. As a novelist, how do you relate to this dual existence, your identity as a writer versus your identity otherwise? How much does your writing define you?
Ha, my writing is me. My novels allow me to speak my mind in ways I can’t in real life. I’m not someone who is comfortable with conflict and argument yet in my books I can sneakily and thoroughly express my beliefs, questions, and desires through my characters, with the added luxury of being able to revise these thoughts until they’re spoken with an elegance not possible when blurted off the cuff. In addition, my characters can act or feel in ways I only dream of in real life. They can correct the mistakes they’ve made—I create chances for them to do so. All in all, writing allows me to be my better self—fantastic therapy! I understand how Clemens allowed Mark Twain to become his voice and reveled in it, only to be horrified when he realized that his own creation forced him to stay in costume, so to speak, if he wanted to remain beloved.
You currently reside in Atlanta, Georgia. How has your Southern home played into your decision to write about iconic Southern writers?
I have lived in the South for more than thirty years, long enough to understand how deep the wounds of slavery still run. Although he lived over a hundred years ago, Samuel Clemens’s examination of these scars is still relevant. I’m especially interested in his insights into how it felt for someone from a slave-owning family to reject an institution that his parents—his whole town, his very world—sanctioned. He knew the stories that people had to tell themselves to accept the inhumanity among them. He lived the pain of watching as the mask of civility was ripped from the people he loved. He was angry at this hypocrisy, angry at how mankind disappointed him, and he wrote powerfully about it. Yet he was considered a humorist! As he said, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow.”
What do you wish most for readers to take away from their reading of Twain’s End?
My intention in writing this book was not to destroy the reputation of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. I hope readers will find him all the more admirable for becoming such a widely beloved figure, revered for his humor and self-depreciating wit, while struggling with trauma and loss. I also wanted to set the record straight about Isabel Lyon. I’m furious that her nearly seven years of devotion, and her continuing loyalty in spite of being ruined, has been rewarded with infamy and sneering. She thought that her service would vindicate her—that truth would be enough. I want readers to realize that’s not often the case. Truth is rarely enough.
You also write children’s books. What are the differences in the writing process for children’s stories versus adult stories? What is the transition like from one genre to the other?
I write my children’s books with as much care and attention to historical detail as my books for adults. In both, I take great pleasure in sharing with my readers the almost unbelievably bizarre yet true bits that I unearth in my research. The main difference is that adult books take a minimum of a year and a half to construct, with months on end of eight-hour writing days, while children’s books require a fraction of this to write, depending on their length. The children’s book world is completely separate from its adult counterpart so one usually has to start fresh when trying to make the leap from children’s to adult. I was lucky in that my young adult novel, I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, got enough critical attention that my way into adult books was eased, although it could hardly be called a leap to success in the adult world since Rembrandt’s Daughter was my fourteenth children’s book—my “trudge” into might be more like it. Ironically, I wrote I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter as an adult book and was disappointed when it was published as a young adult novel. Little did I know that it would be the gateway to finding my dream agent and publisher for my adult work. The secret ingredient for the success of both genres? Great editors and top-notch publishers. I’ve been super-lucky to have both.
Mrs. Clemens describes Sam as having a “burning desire to tell the truth.” Do you think writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, is really all some form of the pursuit of truth? What is the truth you sought to share with Twain’s End?
A theme I fervently wanted to convey through Twain’s End is that when spoken with conviction, falsehoods and accusations carry the same weight as truths. Whoever speaks the most loudly is believed, not necessarily the one who speaks the most honestly. As Isabel Lyon found out, having the truth on your side is not enough.
Do you have any new projects that you are working on?
I have my sights on painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, pioneer art photographer Alfred Stieglitz.