Thursday, July 28, 2016

Guest Post: Intertextuality in Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood

I had the pleasure of moderating a panel for the Barnes & Noble Teen Fest with the fab authors Jessica Spotwood, Kate Hattemer and Lisa Maxwell. We got to talking about intertextuality and l noted to Jessica that I loved her shout out to Noelle Stevenson's graphic novel NIMONA, which I had just read. Of course, Jessica's main shout out is to a poet - but I'll let her talk about that.

Take it away, Jessica! 

WILD SWANS has changed a lot from its original conception – perhaps the most of any of my books – but the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay has always played a role.

Back in the fall of 2013, I’d just read April Tucholke’s brilliant BETWEEN THE DEVIL & THE DEEP BLUE SEA. I loved the creepy-gorgeous atmosphere of it and admired how the Citizen Kane, the family’s crumbling old mansion by the sea, functions almost as another character. I’ve always loved setting-heavy books, and I’d just finished my historical fantasy trilogy and wanted to write something completely different. I set out to write a sort of Gothic-flavored contemporary mystery. I decided that the setting of my new book would be an old white farmhouse on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, with the Chesapeake Bay right in its backyard.

In the book’s early incarnation, the house was haunted. Not – as it is now – figuratively, by the weight of being a Milbourn girl. (Everyone in their small town knows what it is to be a Milbourn girl: Talented. Troubled. Cursed.) Originally, there was the ghost of a famous novelist, Dorothea, who had written one Great American Novel and then, like Harper Lee, become a recluse. Over the course of the summer, as Ivy worked with her granddad’s cute poetry student to archive Dorothea’s journals, they discovered a series of clues that perhaps Dorothea hadn’t written the novel after all. Perhaps she’d stolen it. Perhaps she’d murdered someone to keep that secret. And perhaps her ghost was willing to murder again to make sure it stayed secret. One of the clues that Ivy and Connor would stumble upon was the Millay poem “Dirge without Music.”

Unfortunately, I don’t actually know how to write a mystery. I am constantly surprised by TV whodunnits. I do not have a suspicious, logical, clue-parsing mind. The book, in that incarnation, was clearly not working.

An editor who read the beginning suggested that perhaps I could take the ghost and the mystery out and still have a summery, character-driven novel. And so Dorothea became Ivy’s great-grandmother, who was selfish and talented and troubled, but not murderous. Now the plot revolves around a family legacy of both artistic talent and mental illness. Ivy and Connor still work together to archive Dorothea’s journals, but Dorothea’s a famous poet, not a novelist.

And Connor is a poet, too, with tattoos of poems he loves. Ivy loves his talent and his passionate focus even as she's a bit jealous of it. One of those poems – one that means so much to him that it’s tattooed right over his heart – is “A Dirge Without Music.” (I’ll let you read the book to find out why, but it's a subject of fascination for Ivy - and not just because seeing it means seeing Connor shirtless.) In early days, lines from "A Dirge Without Music" were the epigraph for the book, but unfortunately it is not in the public domain.

My editor, searching for a title, read some Millay and came across “Wild Swans.” She suggested we use that as the title. And when I read it, it felt like a perfect fit:

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

To me, this poem speaks to the yearning that the Milbourn women feel. Ivy, like her mother and grandmother and great-great-grandmother, is ambitious and ambivalent about small-town life. She clings to the comfort of it even as she finds it suffocating. House without air, I leave you and lock your door – this line particularly resonates with me; it is exactly how I think Ivy’s mother feels about the house and the town. Erica is desperate to escape the version of herself that she is there, even if she hurts her own daughters in the process.

I’m so happy that this poem is in the public domain, so I can share it here and as the book’s epigraph.

(NOTE: A variation of this post was originally published on Miss Print's blog and is modified and reprinted here with permission)

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