Archive for October, 2015

20131120 ATLANTA: Novelist Lynn Cullen photographed in the studio by Parker Smith. (ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

20131120 ATLANTA: Novelist Lynn Cullen photographed in the studio by Parker Smith. (ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

Twain's End jpeg

Mark Twain is an American institution in a white linen suit.

Think Mark Twain and you think tall tales, homespun humor, Mississippi River adventures, and those rascally innocents, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. But the Mark Twain in Twain’s End, the new historical fiction book from talented author Lynn Cullen, is far more complex—much, interestingly enough, like Twain’s two most beloved characters themselves, Tom and Huck.

Cullen’s novel is called a reimagining of the tangled relationships among Twain (Samuel Clemens), his devoted private secretary Isabel Lyon, and business manager Ralph Ashcroft, who married Isabel just a month before Twain fired them both and then went on to publicly slander Isabel, write damning letters to friends, and force her to give back a cottage home he deeded to her, for reasons still disputed.

It was, “a vengefulness that was breathtaking in its viciousness,” says Cullen in her Author’s Note.

Such a curious event would make most writers wonder, and it did, indeed, pique Cullen’s interest. But what really prompted the author to choose Twain for her next book? Cullen explained it to Wren Cottage:

“Conflict drives a novel, and I wasn’t expecting to find much of it in the life of the wry humorist who wrote homespun Americana like Tom Sawyer. But when I read in Ron Powers’ biography of Mark Twain that young Sammy Clemens’ parents sold their only slave, a house servant named Jennie, when Sammy was six, and that they chose, of the assorted slave dealers in Hannibal, the one infamous for selling his ‘wares’ down the Mississippi to certain death in the fields around New Orleans, I was hooked. I wondered what had provoked Sammy’s parents to wish death upon the woman who had served them since their marriage. More importantly, I wondered what damage might have been done to Sammy by his witnessing his parents’ cruelty toward a woman who’d had an important hand in raising him.

“Then, in the next biography I tackled, Michael Sheldon’s Mark Twain, Man in White, when I read that Clemens abruptly fired the person with whom he was closest at the time, his secretary Isabel Lyon, an alarm went off. Who was this man? I then looked for biographies specific to the relationship between Clemens and Lyon. One, Karen Lystra’s Dangerous Intimacy, takes Clemens at his word when he called Lyon almost unimaginably nasty terms. The other, Mark Twain’s Other Woman by Laura Skandera Trombley, presented a case for Twain’s change of heart as a cover-up for the scandal caused by his daughter, Clara.

“I had to figure out for myself why he turned on Isabel so viciously after she had done so much for him; after I had read her diary, her complete devotion was obvious. I put together a case that might explain why he sacrificed the person closest to him. I believe that the traumas in his life, and his great need to be adored by the public, had a part in it.”

Cullen is not a historian. Her interest was not in finding out definitively how the relationship between Twain and Lyon had unraveled, but in piecing together facts into an engaging story based on Twain’s final years—one based possibly on the real-life story of a doomed love affair between the enduring American writer and the cultured woman who had served him, assisted him with his papers and his autobiography, and may have known him better than anyone.

Cullen’s research for this task was meticulous and included Twain’s own letters, Lyon’s diary, and pilgrimages to places the two had traveled together, such as Bermuda and Florence, Italy.

Impeccable research, however, is only part of a good book. Cullen, author of the acclaimed Mrs. Poe, knows how to weave facts and observations into memorable scenes, believable dialogue, and a plausible storyline. “Often, I based the action on Isabel’s entries, fleshing out the scenes with my imagination and nuggets from my research,” Cullen explained. “In some cases, I used snippets of Lyon’s and Clemens’ own words.

“Clemens’ incomparable gift for clever sayings was a novelist’s dream; at times I plugged them into my characters’ conversations and then embroidered around them.”

The result is a compelling book about scandal, family secrets, reputations preserved, the real man behind a towering American myth, and a woman esteemed and then verbally savaged.

Twain once wrote that “everyone is like a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Twain’s End gives readers a glimpse at the dark side of the moon for Samuel Clemens.


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Those who enjoy American history know the men of the Civil War, men such as the elusive John Mosby, who captured a U.S. general with a handful of Confederates and became known as The Gray Ghost. William Tecumseh Sherman, who marched to the sea and then offered the City of Savannah to Lincoln as Christmas present. And Ulysses S. Grant, who divided the Confederacy with the capture of Vicksburg, and then forced Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Women’s contributions during the Civil War, however, have been less renowned—until now.

In her new book, The Dancing Delilahs, Pamela Bauer Mueller brings to life two women who operated as real-life Civil War spies. Mueller, an award-winning author of several nonfiction novels, weaves together tales of adventure, romance, and mystery into a book told through the unique voices of two, courageous women: Antonia Ford and Pauline Cushman. The result is a compelling story of the Civil War from the female point of view.

Mueller, in fact, tells the women’s stories through Ford and Cushman’s own voices, an accomplishment made possible by the author’s meticulous research into primary source materials, such as letters and diaries. The resulting material gives readers insight into the women’s Civil War work, as well as their families, their loves, and their daily lives.

“I want my readers to think about their private relationships, their intimate lives, and even their sufferings,” Mueller wrote in her Author’s Note.

Actress Pauline Cushman, a widow and mother, was arrested by Union troops after she gave toasted the Confederacy during a play, though her gesture was a ruse. And Antonia Lord was living the quiet life of a Virginia socialite when she overheard secrets about troop movements that could be relayed to Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

“Their choices would reshape their futures,” Mueller wrote in her Author’s Note to The Dancing Delilahs. Indeed, those choices did. And what happens next, as the women’s futures unfold, is what makes the book so interesting.

Readers who love history and biography will enjoy this spy thriller set largely between 1861–1865, during America’s most divisive time. “I have always been captivated by history—its broad sweep and its intimate corners,” Mueller wrote. “And I especially love to discover women who are edgy, salty and somewhat eccentric.

“History is a connection between the present and the past,” she added, “and sometimes the voices we want to hear are barely audible.”

The 19th-century voices of Cushman and Lord, however, are now finally being heard—loud and clear, for the first time—and the result is an entertaining and informative ride.

Pamela Bauer Mueller’s other works include: Splendid Isolation: The Jekyll Island Millionaire’s Club 1888-1942, a fictionalized account of the wealthy elite who once vacationed at Jekyll Island, Ga.; Water To My Soul: The Story of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, set in South Carolina; and Lady Unveiled, a sweeping historical saga about the life of Catharine Greene Miller.

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