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Author Podcast: Janet Warner

abstract:Janet Warner's first novel, Other Sorrows, Other Joys: The Marriage of Catherine Sophia Boucher and William Blake, (St. Martin's Press) is a wonderful piece of historical fiction that is being compared to Girl with a Pearl Earring. BookBuffet spoke to her in October and held back the interview to coincide with the anniversary of the birth of visionary poet and artist William Blake and the book launch.  (Author Reading 3:53 min).

article:

November 28, 2003

Janet Warner, formerly a professor at Glendon College, York University, Toronto, is the author of two books. Her first is a heady academic work titled Blake and the Language of Art. Her second book, "Other Sorrows, Other Joys", and subject of this interview, is a richly imagined historical fiction told through the heart and feelings of Kate, William Blake’s “perfect wife” and set in the tumultuous eighteenth century. Kate’s independent spirit and talent surface as she struggles for her own identity with in the face of genius, and brings us into their world of bohemia, free love, and inspiration. It deserves a place on your group reading list. 

Interview

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BB: Janet, as a university professor teaching literature, how did you develope a love for Blake, and what led you to write this piece of historical fiction?

JW: Oh well, I really did enjoy my career. It never seemed like work, I guess. I got into Blake in graduate school. I had seen—my husband had taken me to England—and I had seen works of art by Blake, which really sparked my interest. I knew he was a writer, but had never seen his etchings and drawings and watercolors.

BB: Yes I think most people who are familiar with Blake associate him as Blake-the-poet, and perhaps the author to the lyrics of the most popular English anthem/hymn “Jerusalem” [taken from the poem Milton] and are not fully aware—if at all—with the fusion between his art and his poetry. This is something I learned from your novel and which you bring out, extraordinarily, to readers.

JW: Yes, the watercolors are so beautiful, you have to appreciate them in person, and the colors are amazing. And I began to think I’d like to do a thesis on [his art] and work. I had started graduate studies, but when I got into his work I realized I really couldn’t understand him at that point.

So I waited. We’d been living in Edmonton and at that time I began to do a Masters Thesis on “The Modern Novel” because that was another interest of mine. But life got in the way and I had a baby and stopped work on it. 

At that time my husband, who was an engineer, decided he wanted to do a doctorate in Economics. And so we moved to Toronto, where I had another baby, quite close together. I was not that happy in motherhood alone, you know I kept wanting to…

BB: Find more fulfillment?

JW: …and I thought I could be a schoolteacher. I had not finished my masters, but I walked up to the local private girl’s school—I had gone to a girls school myself, and it was called Branksome Hall.  They had just lost their art history teacher and so I applied for and got the position teaching English and Art History to senior students…. [T]his left me the summer to prepare. 

Again, I was still looking at Blake and had not gotten my degree, so I had to decide whether to go back and do Education or do graduate work. I got into graduate school at the University of Toronto and that was when everything took off.  I took a course in Blake with Northrop Frye. 

BB: Northrop Frye, that must have been incredible!

[Frye is considered to be one of the great literary critics of this century on historical, ethical, archetypical, and rhetorical criticism, employing examples of world literature from ancient times to the present, as a total history rather than a linear progression through time.]

JW:  Yes, and Dr. Frye said to me “If you want to do a thesis on the design, we need to get you in touch with Gerald E. Bentley Jr.” and so that’s how I started in Blake. And it’s been a pleasure studying him and teaching him, but of course I don’t pretend to know everything. 

In teaching in the 70’s I began to wonder early on about Catherine [Blake], who from a Victorian point of view was described as “the perfect wife”. And you will remember this was the high tide of the feminist movement, so the implication was that she was a doormat, but in reading his poetry there are plenty of insights into male and female conflict, so I don’t imagine she was this subservient help-mate in totality. 

And I wrote down in my little notebook, “try to write a novel," because I always wanted to be a novelist and every time I tried I would have false starts, I never could think of any plot. But of course I was just too exhausted just trying to have an academic career. In those days there was such a heavy teaching load and I was interested in curriculum development for women, so there just wasn’t enough time. 

BB:  Would you consider yourself to sort of had it all? At least that’s the impression I get when I read the novel, that you have captured both female role perspectives quite remarkably. The domestic role and the intellectual woman come out so well in your book perhaps influenced by the time you yourself stayed at home and were raising your family and put your career on the backburner while supporting your husband’s career, I would imagine. And then the perspective of the career woman or the woman of intellect who is looking for mental stimulation and seeking something greater.

JW: Well I do understand this. 

BB: The interesting thing is that even though women are so-called liberated now and we think that we have it all figured out, it continues to be a source of conflict for women—whether they are at home or whether they are in the work force—regardless of the amount of help they have, there’s always the guilt, the longing to have one or another and I think the balance is something that women are always going to have difficulty with. I mean this was something that was going on in Blake’s time and here we are still talking about it. 

JW: I imagine that Catherine was sad all her life that she never had children but it actually freed her to develop these ideas. And her meeting with Mary Wollstonecraft, was an intellectual stimulation.  Somebody said to me Catherine, or my Kate, had much too modern ideas, and she would never have had such modern ideas. And I thought—no, I don’t agree with that at all.  I presumed that she and Blake really knew Mary Wollstonecraft. Now people are still debating this, but I don’t know why. It has been shown that Blake did illustrations for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Stories for Children.  Now he may have not necessarily had to have met her to do the commission, but he admired her, he wrote a poem about her, "Visions of the Daughters of Albion,"a poem with a very liberated heroine who gets beautiful women for her partner—for "lovely copulation, bliss on bliss"!

BB: It’s quite racy stuff actually!

JW:  … racy stuff, and I know I didn’t want to make this up for the book although my literary agent kept writing back “Janet, more sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll!”  

BB: Well I like the way you added these details and innuendo with a delicacy, which seems totally appropriate to the style of the book and genre of the characters. It doesn’t undermine your objective by inserting these details and they take it to a different level of literature or historical fiction. So who was the writer you styled your writing from?

JW: Well I admire Jane Austen—I would just love to write novels like Jane Austen.

BB: Well your descriptions are exquisite, the dialogue is very believable, and we do get a picture of who Blake and Kate might be on all the levels that you present them, the intimacy between them. 

JW:  Well that’s very kind of you. You asked me about the transition from academia to writing fiction—well that’s what I had to do. I had to learn to dramatize and not narrate so much. The first critical people who read the manuscript, my agent, agreed to take it but said I must get myself an editor. So I did get in touch with Alev Croutier in San Francisco and she was very helpful to me. She said you must not anticipate so much, you must show. And she helped me think of structure in wave-like form, the way incidents happen in real life. Because Kate's was a whole life that really happened. And in some ways this makes it harder than if you are just making it all up yourself

BB: That’s true, because you have to be true to the facts. I was looking up the genre of historical fiction and how to choose good historical fiction and some of the points they make are to:

  1. Choose a well-told story that doesn’t conflict with historical records.
  2. Portray characters realistically.
  3. Present authentic settings and artfully told historical facts, and accurate information to illustrations.
  4. Avoid stereotypes and myths.

It seems to me you’ve checked off all those things on this list.

JW: Well you see it was easy for me to do the research, because most of that I had already in my library. And I knew the period because I had taught a course in and around the period which fit into that time as well. So I think that I had a feel for the milieu in combination with the fact that in reading over all these years Blake’s letters and prose I had hoped that I had him speaking the way he would speak and I was so thrilled that Gerald Bentley mentioned in one of his letters that he thought that I “had caught Blake”. 

BB:  Absolutely.

JW:  But I also think that the language of the book alludes to the manner of speaking, even though I am writing in the twentieth century.

BB:  Janet, whose idea was it to capitalize certain words and phrases that seem to be in reference to biblical or mythical references?  Was that your idea or something your publisher suggested? 

JW: I did that because I wanted the look of the book to be consistent with [Blake’s] text. I don’t know whether you are aware that Blake himself is a crazy capitalizer. This has been done before… by Erica Jong when she wrote Fanny, but I think you must try to keep it in a scale that is reasonable for the reader.

BB: Another detail of the book is how each correspondent appears in a distinctive font which helps the reader to distinguish the various character voices at a glance, for example Kate’s diary versus her letters to other people and the letters of Mary and William. 

JW: Yes that was the recommendation of my editor at St. Martin's.  I used italics in my manuscript and these sorts of decisions come along the way in the process of production. Diane Reverand, my editor, does not like to use italics—she said people tend to skip over them when reading—and now I think she is right.

BB: Can you tell us which of the correspondences are real and which are created?  For example the poetry that Kate writes…?

JW: Yes, I refer to this in the “author’s note” at the back of the book for the benefit of readers. I made up all the correspondence and poetry of Kate.

BB: That poetry is beautiful.

JW: And the letters and poems from Blake actually exist, those are direct quotes. 

BB:  It’s a beautiful tapestry of woven facts and stories within the fiction—expertly and sensitively executed. Tell us about the illustrations and plates, how does one come about acquiring the rights to those?

JW: Oh that’s quite a process. You have to write to each museum or institutution and provide each your intentions, such as whether it is a commercial project or an academic one, and they will charge accordingly. There are specific ways one must identify the pictures, which vary from museum to museum.

BB: And the cover, did you have that designed in the style of Blake?

JW: That is a detail of an original Blake design  from his illustrations to “Songs of Experience”. [The designer of the cover is Philip Pascuzzo of St. Martin's Ress. That particular copy of the poem is in King's College, Cambridge.]

BB: Are there any other details of accuracy you’d like to comment on between the academic and historical fiction perspective?

JW: Well I did have Kate act as a forger in the novel and this is something that was totally created by myself. My colleagues did not all agree or approve of her being a forger. 

BB:  That’s interesting, because speaking as a lay reader, it is the one aspect of the novel that makes me believe in Kate’s untapped or suppressed capabilities, the fact that she could have drawn and executed copies of such skill as to be able to sell them—it is what supports the entire thesis of Kate as a talent of her own right born into a time when she couldn’t realize gain for her own reputation or career. 

JW: Oh, that’s interesting. 

BB: Well Janet I think you’ve created a splendid book that is exactly what book discussion groups are going to enjoy. It has so many opportunities for discussion, so many issues that remain germane to us today: love, ambition, fidelity, infidelity, the use of drugs or pharmacopeias for inspiration, and conjecture on those missing pieces of historical fact that make examining important lives so interesting. [It will definitely provide a jumping off point for readers toward further study and understanding of William Blake.]  Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, and good luck with the launch of your book.  We will certainly recommend it!

JW: Well, thank you for speaking with me. I think what you’re doing at BookBuffet is a great resource to readers and I’ve checked in several times to see how the site operates and the information and features you have there. 

BB: Excellent! 

(Janet Warner thanks her Literary Agent, Charlotte Gusay)

Links

 

Blake Scholars

 

Other BookBuffet Articles

  • An Evening of Blake: Part I Janet's Blake scholar friends meet at the home of BookBuffet Founder and Executive Editor, Paula Shackleton to celebrate the launch of Janet's book, and discuss the latest work on their study of William Blake.
  • An Evening of Blake: Part II Scholars speak to his poetry, archivists speak to his artist genius.

 

 

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