Out Of Twenty: Enid Shomer, Author of Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Answers Four Questions

Enid Shomer

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Enid Shomer’s  Twelve Rooms of the Nile beautifully imagines what would have happened had Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale had met the summer that each traveled through Egypt up the Nile River.  Here is what Enid had to say about reading, writing, and “not violating the facts of history.”

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I always wanted to be a writer, wrote as a child, and began my writing career as a poet.  After college, I traveled, married and had two children.  Various part-time jobs later, I went to graduate school. This was before the proliferation of writing programs, before the inclusion of creative writing in the academy. The closest thing to writing available to me was a program in American Studies.  At least it gave me the opportunity to read and study great American authors from the 16th to the 20th century!

After graduate school, I taught as a lecturer and wrote poems.  I was working in isolation, but was perking along when a horrid setback occurred. A literary magazine accepted a bunch of poems, planning to feature me as an emerging poet along with the well-known John Ciardi.  Ecstatic, I told my family, friends, and colleagues.  I received the proofs, corrected, and returned them. Three weeks later, a letter arrived informing me that the co-editor who’d been traveling in Europe had returned, and didn’t like my work. The two co-editors argued, but couldn’t reach a consensus, so they had called in an arbiter, who sided against the work.  Instead of ten poems, they published none.

I am sorry to report that I quit writing for years, metaphorically curling into the fetal position and taking up a variety of freelance writing jobs and compensatory hobbies instead.  I tell this story here because I have met many people, including other successful writers, who have had similar experiences.  Given the number of MFA programs and greater professionalism of the field,  this would probably not happen so overtly today, but new writers of any age who lack peer support are highly susceptible to this sort of cavalier cruelty.

When I was 38, I began writing again.  By  happenstance I joined a writer’s group and it made all the difference for me to have the support and knowledge of other writers.  Over the next ten or twelve years I won three state of Florida and two NEA grants in poetry as well as half a dozen major book and magazine prizes. I was getting a lot of reinforcement!

After two or three books of poetry, I became interested in exploring character.  I began work on a book-length poem biography of an American woman aviator and also started writing my first book of short stories, Imaginary Men, which won the Iowa Fiction Prize and the LSU/Southern Review Prize, both given for the best first fiction collection by an American.  By the time the poem biography (Stars at Noon:  Poems from the Life of Jacqueline Cochran, 2001) was published, I had concluded that poetry is mostly about language and is, therefore, not the best vehicle for portraying character, especially as it evolves over time.  Prose, which is mostly about time, is much better suited to it.  I wrote a second book of stories (Tourist Season) that was published by Random House in 2007. It won the Gold Medal in Fiction from the Governor of Florida and was selected for Barnes & Nobles’s “Discover Great New Writers” series. I sold my first novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, at the same time based on one chapter, not realizing how much research it would require and how long it would take to write it.  (Actually, I ended up selling it twice, but that is a story for another time.)

I was determined to write a literary novel with real historical characters that would not violate the facts— of their lives, their times and of their personalities as I understood them after extensive research. This novel’s protagonists are Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert. I wanted to re-create them, not simply “use” them to add gravitas for my book. In my poem-biography, too, I had the same ethical concerns, not wishing to stand on my aviator’s shoulders, or present a revisionist view, but rather to give her a voice again. Though imagining Abraham Lincoln as a vampire doesn’t bother me because it is so fantastical, I don’t like it when authors introduce fictitious events like rape or incest to explain the behavior of a real  historical person.  Someone once said that it is important to protect the past from the enormous condescension of the present.  This, too, speaks to my task as a writer.

 I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

My writing process is pretty straightforward:  I try to write every day.  I love to live in the world of whatever I’m creating.  I read widely and with as little prejudice as I can manage for a long time every evening.  I frequently turn to poetry for inspiration and to up the octane of my prose. I keep quotations and photographs tacked to the walls of my office, taking comfort from the wisdom and perseverance of those who have gone before me, who have repeatedly squared off with a blank canvas or computer monitor.   Here is my latest addition:   the painter George Bellows said that Art “is the marshaling of all one’s faculties, including those we are unconscious of possessing.”  I also stand by Goethe’s pronouncement that “we have art in order not to die of the truth.” And I love E.L. Doctorow’s comparison of writing to driving in the dark with headlights on but not being able to see more than a few feet ahead.   Finally, I always remind myself (and my students, when I teach) of my own hard-won dictum: one doesn’t have to fully understand one’s work in order to write it.  This is key for me, since I’m not the sort of writer who can outline a book and then simply flesh it out.  My subject is always a mystery I am in the process of probing.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

Everything I write changes me.  Also, I never know why, exactly, my subject matter calls out  to me, though sometimes the reasons become clearer when I am done. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is a case in point. A while back, I read an essay by William Styron about his cruise down the Nile which included outrageous quotes from Gustave Flaubert’s Nile journal.  I read Flaubert’s journal as well as his Nile letters, and was hooked. Flaubert was both a great sensitive and the bad boy of 19th century French literature.  He loved language and prostitutes with equal dedication and vigor.

I’d written about half of my first chapter when I learned that another unhappy genius, Florence Nightingale, toured the Nile at the same moment and kept a journal. I became convinced that this was no coincidence, that she and Flaubert shared a profound connection despite their striking differences. Why were they both in a state of despair and why was Egypt the “cure” for that despair?

However, for me choosing the subject for a novel is not a rational calculation.  Instead, it feels as if the subject has chosen me.  I know that deep psychological resonances must account for the connection between myself and my material, but often I don’t know what they are. What was it that drew me to Nightingale and Flaubert with such force that I was willing to read hundreds of books and articles, travel to obscure spots, and spend six years writing and rewriting?  I can’t answer that, and I honestly believe that if I could, I wouldn’t have needed to write the book.

Only recently I recognized one of the triggers (which seems so obvious now!) between myself and this novel:  like my characters, I traveled for a year in the Middle East.  I was 21, and hoped the trip would clarify my life.  Other parallels will occur to me as time passes, but they are merely curiosities after the fact.  Knowing them wouldn’t have helped me write the book. When something grabs me, it’s a bit like falling in love. I can’t say why I’m in love; I just know that I am.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimatley decided not to include?

I learned many surprising things about the Victorian period and my characters. For example, in the late Victorian Age, nearly one in four persons in Britain was a servant.  There were juicy bits, too. Richard Monckton Milnes, the first biographer of Keats and the man Nightingale refused to marry shortly before she decamped to Egypt, amassed the largest collection of pornography in England.  (It is now housed in the British Library).  He was also part of a group of prominent Victorian men who wrote pornography together as a hobby.  They composed it round-robin style, and published under pseudonyms, always attributing their books to pseudonymous publishers in exotic locales—Constantinople, Cairo or Aleppo in Syria. Nightingale would not, I venture, have approved.  I think she was right to refuse to marry Milnes. She would have been much better off with someone like Flaubert.

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