Danielle Dutton in Conversation with Sarah Escue
Sarah Escue: How did you first learn of Margaret Cavendish? What were your first impressions of her? After finishing the book, what did you learn about her as a writer? Yourself as a writer?
Danielle Dutton: I first learned of Cavendish in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In Chapter Four, Woolf calls Cavendish a “giant cucumber [that has] spread itself over all the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.” Amazingly, I did not immediately begin researching Cavendish after reading those lines. I forgot about her. It was only several years later, in grad school (in Denver), when I took a course on the seventeenth century (taught by Scott Howard) that I became hooked. It all really started when I read Cavendish’s proto-sci fi, proto-feminist, proto-novel A Description of a New World Called The Blazing World.
My earliest impressions: that she was wild (choking the roses), that she was misunderstood, that she was wonderful. I felt I had to know her, and there was part of me that felt like I did know her already. Then over the course of writing the book . . . of course I learned more about her philosophical ideas, her bio, her writing, the period, but that early sense of her never went away. That connection just got deeper.
It’s hard to say what I learned about myself as a writer writing it (or any other book). For me a book is like a performance or a possession, and then when it’s done, it’s just over. I’m left not knowing what to do or how. So the next project is the whole project of figuring that out, tip to tail, which is exhausting but also feels right. Whatever I’ve learned, or in whatever ways I have gotten better . . . I can’t see that clearly.
SE: What was your intention when you first began writing Margaret the First? Did your intentions or expectations change during and after writing this book?
DD: Starting out, my intention was just to write a book, to figure out how to write it, but not just “a” book, this particular book . . . at times that felt almost impossible, as probably every book feels to every writer at some point. So, I wanted to write a book . . . and I wanted it to be beautiful and magical and to introduce the world (the part of it that still needed an introduction) to this incredible person, Margaret Cavendish, and her ideas, her writing, and also more generally to some of the ideas and questions in which she lived and which are still urgent today (re: progress, science, wonder, the universe, a woman’s place in it all, etc.). In that sense, then, my intentions and expectations did not change . . . I kept trying to figure out how to write this book until I decided I was done. The figuring out, though, was complicated, with many false starts (and even some false stops).
SE: What were your researching and writing processes like?
DD: I read biographies of Cavendish, scholarly essays on her work. I read books about garden design, medical treatments, and the plumbing in London in the 1660s. I let my curiosities lead me all over. I didn’t wind up using all that, but I think it adds to a feeling of density in the book, a density of objects and ideas and information. When I wrote, though, I had to set all that aside in order to leave myself space to imagine . . . to imagine her as a character rather than a historical figure. So I didn’t take notes and keep them in chronological order. I jumped around. I’d grab a reference book when I needed a detail or felt stuck. It was loose and kinetic, and I’d say that’s always true of my writing practice.
SE: How did you choose which of Margaret Cavendish’s ephemera/works to include in the book? What’s your favorite book/writings of hers and why?
DD: As with any detail, I’d just grab something when it felt necessary to a moment in my own text. Or maybe I’d be rereading her work and something there would instigate a section in my book. I didn’t keep a list of quotations to integrate . . . except the passages at the beginning of Part Three of my book, when we’re reading what she thinks of the Royal Society and reading some of their research (esp. Hooke’s description of the moon as covered in a grassy pasture). That was actually my beginning point into the writing. Beyond that, though, the weaving in of quoted materials happened organically.
Part of what’s so great about Cavendish is (again) how wild/bold she was. She wrote orations, stories, poems, plays, letters, philosophy, so it’s hard to choose a favorite. A Description of a New World Called The Blazing World is amazing and pretty much required reading if you’re interested in her oeuvre. The plays are deliciously strange. And I do love her (probably most anthologized) poem, “A World in an Eare-ring.” In every case, my interest in her work has to do with that boldness and a sense of wonder I find there.
SE: In what genre would you place Margaret the First? Do you consider it to be revisionist history? Historical fiction? Feminist history?
DD: I think of it as an experimental novel, but as far as I can tell no one else really does. Certainly it’s historical, yes, and feminist–but I didn’t set out planning to write a historical novel per se (and I suppose I think everything I’ve written is feminist).
SE: How does gender play into Margaret the First’s narrative as a whole? How did Margaret’s rejection of gender norms and expectations influence your understanding of that time period, the novel itself, and history?
DD: In a sense, I could say gender is the whole story. Without her rejection of gender norms, there’s not really much of a story there—or there’s not that story there. And yet I’m not sure I always thought of her in such global terms. I thought of her struggles in terms of Margaret herself, her own life, and then as the writing went on. I also thought in terms of many of my own experiences (which surely aren’t all that unique . . . feeling gendered in a way that meant I saw myself as or was aware that others saw me as: less intelligent, less important, less original . . . and also dealing with repeated sexual harassment/objectification, etc.). I’m always trying to get more particular with my writing, less general. But the hope, of course, is that in doing that, in diving down like that, you wind up creating something that many readers might engage with in many ways. I hope that’s true.
SE: Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography.” How do you view history?
DD: I was a history major in college, have always loved reading history (and historical novels). Yes, when someone sits down to write a history, of any kind, they’re curating. They pick and choose what’s going to matter to that story, what’s important. And so the story can’t help but be about its writer, in part, even when it pretends not to be. Absolutely Margaret the First is, in parts, here and there, in what I put in and what I left out, a story about me. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about biography. Actually, I’ve been thinking about all of this–history, biography, portraits, characters—in terms of the idea of namaste (I can say this at Naropa!), of seeing into another, beyond the mask(s). I think this is what I’m interested in in literature lately, as a reader and a writer, glimpsing that mystery of consciousness.
SE: Margaret the First reinforces the importance of individual historical narratives. The first half of the novel is written in first person point-of-view, in Margaret’s voice. How did you prepare to write from Margaret’s perspective?
DD: In a weird way, I didn’t. For the first few years I was working on it, there was no first-person section in this book. Then one day, in response to someone telling me they were having a hard time “relating” to the character, I decided to try writing in first person and having Margaret Cavendish speak about her childhood. I’m glad I did. It opened things up for the book, and for me, in terms of my relationship to the character.
SE: What do you believe is your responsibility as a writer/artist? What risk accompanies this sense of responsibility?
DD: I’m not sure I know. It’s easy to say what my responsibility is to my students, for example, or my kid, or my parents. Those responsibilities aren’t simple ones, and they aren’t always easy, but if you were to ask me to begin to articulate them, I could. My sense is that I’m supposed to have an answer that is political, active, worldly . . . but someone smart reminded me recently that my writing needs to matter to me. This is something I knew, then somehow forgot, and have been re-learning. The more I think about what other people might want from my writing or what they might get from it (or the more I think about what they wouldn’t want, or the thought that no one really gives a shit if I write another book or not, etc.) the less connected I feel to writing, and the less possible it seems. So while community does matter to me (I’m an editor too, and again I could articulate those responsibilities more smoothly), and people matter to me, people and creatures, and trees, flowers, and on and on . . . nevertheless when I think about my writing these days I feel a need for . . . a deep sort of privacy with my experience and my thoughts. For the moment anyway, my responsibility is to myself and to this privacy, which has gotten a lot harder to access the older I get and the more (other sorts of) responsibilities I have—or maybe what I’m saying is that my responsibility is to the work itself? The risk is that I won’t manage it, and so won’t find a way into a project that is really mine. Finally, I don’t think I can write anything that might be meaningful to someone else if I don’t do this work first.