Interview with MFA in Creative Writing Graduate Karen Essex
Karen Essex is a novelist, screenwriter, and award-winning journalist. She is the author of the national and international best-selling novel, Leonardo’s Swans (Doubleday 2006), about the rivalries among the powerful women painted by the great master when he was employed by the Duke of Milan. She has also written two acclaimed biographical novels about the queen of Egypt, Kleopatra and Pharaoh, published in 2001 and 2002, which she adapted into a screenplay for Warner Bros. Essex also adapted Anne Rice’s novel The Mummy or Ramses the Damned into a screenplay for Titanic director James Cameron and 20th Century Fox, and has written a screenplay about Kamehameha, the first king of Hawaii, for Columbia/Tristar. Most recently, she has written a dance movie for Jennifer Lopez Entertainment and Paramount Pictures. The following interview is reprinted from the Fall 1999 Edition of Clockworks, Goddard College's Alumni magazine.
Q: Karen, your creative thesis, a novel, was sold to Warner Books the day after you graduated from Goddard. Tell us about the novel, when it will be published and so forth.
KE: Warner Books purchased two novels on the life of Kleopatra (the K is from the original Greek). The first book, which was my creative thesis at Goddard, is already written, and takes us through the first twenty years of the queen’s life. I wanted to dramatize that part of Kleopatra’s life, the becoming of Kleopatra, because she is rarely discussed or imagined outside the context of her love affairs with Julius Caesar and later, Mark Antony. I wanted to radically rethink Kleopatra as the brilliant politician she actually was, and not the smoldering sex goddess of poetry and film. The actual pub date of Book One is still being discussed -- these things are decided by complex calculus-like equations. They’ve talked about holding it until 2001 because the schedule of books being published in 2000 is already very crowded. Book Two will be released in hardcover one year after the publication of Book One, simultaneously with the paperback of the first book.
Q: You came to us a fairly accomplished journalist, with a film career background. What do you think you gained as a writer in enrolling in the MFA program?
KE: No, no, I would say a highly accomplished journalist - with all the arrogance that it implies! You will be amused to know that I didn’t anticipate that I would learn very much as a writer in the program. I wanted the degree so that I might teach on a university level. Considering how much I grew in my three semesters at Goddard, particularly as a novelist, my arrogance seems almost charmingly naive. The God of Irony, my favorite deity, played a good one on me this time. I came to Goddard to get a terminal teaching degree, but I was creatively awakened to an extent that will probably preclude my ever taking a full-time teaching job. More than that, I would say that because of my years as an executive in Hollywood and because I spent almost nine years hence writing for hire, I needed to reconnect with the organic process of writing. I needed to forget the demands of the marketplace and just write from a more authentic place. I suspect that many MFA candidates could use a good swift kick in the pants by the boots of commerce, but I needed the opposite. I needed to return to writing for the love of words, for the sheer love of telling a story, and also to respect all the aspects of the writing life that do not deliver financial reward. I would say that in the end, I was both lovingly nurtured and lovingly humbled by my experience at Goddard.
Q: What made you choose Goddard?
KE: I was put off by the rigidity of the other low-residency programs, which were designed for almost total concentration in one area. I came to Goddard having written and published biography, essay, fiction, and had written screenplays and teleplays. I can’t seem to give up on any form except poetry, so I wanted the flexibility to study any and all forms in graduate school.
Q: What about the low-residency format worked for you?
KE: Everything. For one thing, I didn’t want to move my daughter away from her father for two years. Also, despite appearances, I am really a loner and I don’t like "group" activities. I don’t really much like workshops, and I don’t like the competitiveness that develops in a lot of on-campus programs of any sort. For me, eight days of socializing is perfect, followed by sixteen weeks of solitude. I think the low-residency program actually forces you to write more, forces you to think more on paper. If you can sit in a room with your advisor and chat about your writing, you will undoubtedly take that option. But writing is not talked into being; it’s written into being. It’s much more challenging to have to write in a highly focused and lucid manner about your process and its problems and its victories in order to communicate with your advisor than it is to chat about those same things over coffee. A friend of mine from Bennington and I often compare notes, and we think we got a much more thorough and rigorous education than our on-campus MFA friends.
Q: It's fairly unusual for a student to sell their novel the day after they graduate (but then again you're an unusual gal!). Tell us something of what you came with when you entered the program, and what you gained in the course of the program.
KE: I came to the program with an unwieldy five-hundred and fifty page rough draft of a novel which Marina Budhos (my advisor) tore into like a carrion on road kill! I had researched for two years in an interdisciplinary graduate program at Vanderbilt University, where I studied with classical studies scholars, women’s studies scholars, etc. I had put every single thing I knew about the ancient world in that draft. Marina worked with me to pare it down to its narrative essentials and to get rid of a lot of my informational style writing that had developed over years of writing journalism.
Q: What do you think you most learned while here at Goddard?
KE: To respect the process. I’m sorry to repeat that overused motto, and I don’t want to sound like I’m merely parroting our recruiting campaign slogan, but it’s true. Respect your process; respect your instincts.
Q: Was there something that was particularly transformative for you in the program?
KE: Well, having spent almost twenty years in industries where writing is commerce, it was astonishing to be in a community of people who write with great heart and great discipline with no promise of financial gain, and I am speaking of both students and faculty. I found that to be most humbling. I really meant it when I said at graduation that I am deeply moved by the commitment and the generosity of the faculty. If anything has changed me, has given me a totally different perspective on what I do, it has been witnessing other people’s commitment to the writing itself.
Q: What of the community you were are a part of? How did that affect the writing and rewriting of the book?
KE: I know that some of my pals are sick to death of hearing about the mythical five days at Cynn Chadwick's house, but here it goes again. Cynn and fellow graduate Gian DiDonna and I sat on Cynn’s porch in the mountains of North Carolina for the better part of a week, reading our work to one another and talking extensively about it, and about writing and its demands. For example, I was agonizing over the opening of my book, and Gian went to Cynn’s bookshelf and read me the opening of King Lear. The points he made completely changed the way I set up the conflict throughout my book. Each of us took away gems from that week that we hold with us on a daily basis as we go about our work. That’s just one example of the kind of support I received in the Goddard community, and hopefully, that I also gave as best I could. In my experience, professional writers can be as backbiting as country club matrons and as competitive as professional athletes. To partake of the camaraderie and good will of a community like Goddard was exhilarating.
Q: Can you talk about how you had to discover the shape of the novel, how your idea of it changed in the course of your revisions at Goddard?
KE: The whole process of writing the book was a slow and sometimes agonizing process of discovery - which I suppose is what writing a novel must be. I went through years of groping for form before I even arrived at Goddard. The very first draft of the first one-hundred and fifty pages was in the form of a fictional undiscovered memoir that Kleopatra had written on the eve of her death. It was pensive and philosophical in tone, which in the end, didn’t work because the tone was entirely out of character with the tone of Kleopatra’s life which was action-packed. It’s true that if you listen to your writing it will tell you what it wishes to be. The story kept breaking out of the boundaries of the diary form, and inevitably, I would find myself writing scenes with vivid action and vivid conflict. That was the nature of her life. The book did not want to be a somber meditation on what her life had meant, but rather a sex-drenched, action-packed wild ride through her very eventful thirty-nine years. When I came to Goddard, I had not yet arrived at that point. I was still caught up in all the intellectual and historical reasons why Kleopatra’s story had been so distorted by history, and I was still trying to convey that in concrete detail in the book, rather than keep the reader rooted in the action of the story. I thought that the arc of her actual historical story should be the narrative arc of the book, not realizing yet that the writer must craft a narrative arc. It may follow the historical arc, but the writer has to carefully choose which moments to heighten, otherwise, the reader gets lost and frustrated. Here is an example of what I mean: I had written the book in two parts, not understanding that I had actually begun a second book after the end of part one. When Marina first suggested this to me I was aghast. I was rigidly bound to ending the book right before Kleopatra meets Julius Caesar, but I finally came to realize that the book had to end at the victorious moment when, after so much strife, Kleopatra gets a signal from the Divine that leads to a personal epiphany — she will be the first woman to rule Egypt without a male consort. The next day at a very dramatic religious ceremony, she realizes that the gods are going to cooperate with her and she wins the good will of the people. It’s a very powerful moment, so powerful that anything thereafter is anti-climatic. Now, isn’t it interesting that my whole reason for writing this book was to take Kleopatra out of the context of her relationships with Caesar and Antony, and yet I was insisting that the book’s big finale was the build-up to the meeting with Caesar? I was dead wrong, both from a craft point of view and from an intellectual point of view. Kleopatra’s story as I am telling it is the story of a women determined to save her kingdom, her people, and her children from Roman dominion - not the story of a woman trying to meet and seduce a powerful man. It’s almost as if once I had set my intention to tell that story, the material itself wouldn’t let me make the mistake of making a pending meeting with Caesar the big climax, and Marina caught it.
Q: What did you discover about your own process at Goddard that you weren’t aware of before? Is it something you will take with you in future work?
KE:Oh yes, it was all very illuminating. After my first semester, I spent the summer heatedly rewriting my novel, and arrived at the Fall residency with what I thought was a fairly polished draft. I was quite proud of the way I ruthlessly went through the book trimming all the historical research that was not essential to the narrative through-line, and working more on guiding the reader through the eyes of the main character. Then, over the course of the residency, I reread the work to try to isolate a small snippet to read at the student reading. Poring through the manuscript, I had a terrific revelation about my own process. I wasn’t done at all, but had merely completed Step Two in a three step process. My process seems to be that I "vomit" the first draft, which is wildly long and excessive, and sculpt a second draft that pares that first down to the narrative essentials. Then, in a third, more sober draft, I make certain that the author’s voice, the point of view, is seamless and consistent, and I polish for language, image, dialogue. I had followed this process in two previous books, but I was not aware of it until that moment. Though it resembles to a terrible degree, a "bulimic pattern" as Marina pointed out, I am hoping that I can now enjoy the process of writing fiction without worrying if I am "doing it right." Sadly, there are no rules and every writer works differently. It’s important to let your own process reveal itself, rather than imposing a process from without. At the same time, the only way to arrive at your own process is to take the freedom to experiment with doing things in different ways. I have tried to write books without first doing an outline and these are the books that sit unfinished in my closet. So I have given up trying to work without an outline, though that works marvelously for some wonderful writers who say that outlines are stifling.
Q: Could you elaborate a bit more on how your readings and annotations changed you as a writer--how you began to read differently.
KE: I’ve always been a very critical and exacting reader. I have a nerdy scholarly side that loves to indulge in intellectual and academic exercise. At Vanderbilt, I became even more facile with applying theory and analysis to literature, so I came to Goddard with fairly well-developed critical faculties. But oddly, though I had been writing for many years, I don’t think I knew how to read to delineate craft, and then apply what I learned to my writing. I suppose no one had ever asked me to do that and so it went undone. I could do a thorough analysis of say, Stendahl, through the lens of postmodern feminist literary criticism, but I had not read The Scarlet and Black to determine the techniques Stendahl used to combine historical fact with fictional characters, or what narrative devices he used to tell such a sweeping story, or how he structured chapters. I was relying on instinct and inspiration to write fiction myself, while also indulging in academic thinking about literature which was fun to do, but which offered me nothing as a novelist. The annotations forced me to think about other writers’ writing as well as my own writing in a new way, a more creative way, but also a more deliberate way. I have become a much more deliberate as a result, learning how to integrate inspiration’s mysterious gifts with the hard choices writers must make to create seamless prose.
Q: What are your plans now?
KE: Warner Books has made those plans for me, I’m afraid. I am beginning the rewrite of Book One in September after I receive my editor’s notes, which could either be minimal suggestions for copy editing, or suggestions for some major changes. She’s been cagey about that, I suspect because she wants to read the book again before she makes up her mind about what it needs. I will also go to Rome in October to complete the research for Book Two, which has to be started fairly soon and delivered in enough time to meet the production schedule of releasing the books a year apart. This is all very exciting, but also extremely scary. I’ve delivered a lot of nonfiction on deadline, but never fiction, which I have written at my leisure. It brings up all the expected fears - what if the Muse fails me?
Q: What advice would you give students for making the most of the program?
KE: Treasure the time! And don’t worry about the future while you’re in the program. The repayment of loans, the publication of your work, that’s all for future contemplation. For me, now, it’s back to writing-as-commerce, so my time at Goddard seems like some lost nirvana during which I only had to write and read and think. I’ve been trying to reread some Scott Fitzgerald for weeks now, and already, I have too many commitments to just give into that. Would you believe that people are already calling me to speak to their groups and things like? Plus, here I am doing an interview, my publisher wants a list of people to contact for blurbs, the publicity people want lists of my media contacts so they can set the PR machine into motion, and my book may not even be out for almost two years! The business of publishing a novel takes over very quickly. Word travels, I suppose, and it’s all great, but I would love it if I had to finish The Beautiful and Damned tonight and write an annotation in the morning. Now it seems like even writing annotations was part of the halcyon days! I don’t care if you’re seventy-five years old, two years devoted solely to learning the craft of writing is nothing. And as we all know, any writer worth anything at all is always a student of the craft. The learning never ends, but the opportunity to devote a concentrated amount of time to nothing but becoming a better writer does, in fact, end, and end all too soon. So I would say that the best way to make the most of the Goddard experience is to follow the advice of the Zen masters and stay firmly rooted in the moment of the experience. Devote yourself to that moment because that moment passes and then one must move ineluctably to the next phase of the writing life.