Gillian Murray Kendall, author of The Garden of Darkness, is a Full Professor at Smith College, where she specializes in Shakespeare and non-Shakespearean Renaissance Drama. She has two children, Sasha and Gabriel, and lives in Northampton, Massachusetts (“where the coffee is strong and the women are stronger”) with her husband, biologist Robert Dorit. She is firmly convinced that in the event of the apocalypse one will need to retain one’s sense of humor. Gillian likes all gardens, dark and light.
ARTICLES BY GILLIAN MURRAY KENDALL:
Confessions of a Creative Writing Professor
Young Writers: Six Pieces of Advice That Will Get You Taken Seriouesly
BOOKS AS GIFTS:
Today author Gillian M. Kendall tells LitPick about why books make an excellent gift, and suggests a few titles.
What makes books a great holiday, birthday or anytime gift?
From the inception of great literature meant for children, books have been seen as the perfect present for a child. In the English Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which ranged from the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 to the beginning of the First World War, the creation of Christmas books especially for children was a publishing event. Famous authors were expected to produce a Christmas book—and illustrators to illustrate one—and such books graced the tables of masses of children and adults (who, as well as children, read them voraciously).
The child. The book. The gift. The three were inextricably linked during Victorian and Edwardian England’s holiday season. Books were desired and expected as gifts, and they were often so ornately produced that they acted as their own wrapping paper.
Since that time, the number of books for children has increased exponentially, and the number and kinds of holidays we celebrate has, thankfully, become interestingly diverse. But the links among children, books and celebration continue to exist.
Books make marvelous gifts: all tradition aside, there is no better way to open up the world view of a child than by giving a book. This is so even though we live in a world where books are not always the cool gifts.
Aunt Harriet’s coming to dinner. Watch out—she’ll give you a book.
Good old Aunt Harriet. Books may not be the most popular of gifts for everyone, but then Aunt Harriet may be picking the wrong books as gifts. Perhaps she has not learned a cardinal rule: one’s own favorite childhood books may not hold the same interest for everyone. Give a book—but pick a book that’s relevant in terms of age group and interest. There are hundreds of websites willing to help with this, including those that list award winning books in various age brackets. Find one.
And then don’t be afraid. Because when the wrapping paper is cleared away and the other presents no longer hold a bright and shiny interest, the book remains. The child opens it. And all the generations of storytellers hold their breath, because it’s possible that everything in this child’s world is about to undergo a shift, a change, a revolution. Whether narrative non-fiction, or a tale in a realistic style, or science fiction or fantasy or any number of genres, books invite us to identify with others and with other worlds. They invite us not to be sponges, but to be critical empaths. The breach between our world and the world of the book opens up a gap that demands that we engage our critical faculties. When a child, or any one of any age, engages with the characters and setting of a book, our own world begins to look different. Perhaps, a reader might be led to consider, something should be done about that. And so books engender hordes of little thinkers and revolutionaries.
Aunt Harriet, with her gift of a book, then, is engaging in parentally sanctioned subversion. That’s what’s so great about books. Everybody thinks children should read them, and yet the really great books, the classics, challenge the beliefs of children and adults alike.
That’s why there’s censorship. Eventually someone invested in the status quo may read one of these books—and realize that books aren’t just educational doorstops; they are powerful magical agents of transformation. That makes them dangerous. Give a book; change the world.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I was an old-fashioned sort of reader as a child. As a seven year old, I fell in love with Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White). At ten, I went through the great books of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. I read and re-read The Railway Children (E. Nesbit), The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett), At the Back of the North Wind (George MacDonald) and others, often with good old tears streaming down my face. As I read them, they were each my favorite book, and I never wanted them to end; I wanted to be able to read them again for the first time. I still do.
Tell us about your books and why they would make great gifts.
MY FIRST BOOK THE GARDEN OF DARKNESS (Ravenstone, 2014), MAKES A GREAT GIFT BOOK FOR 14+ YOUNG ADULT AND ADULT READERS (ANOTHER BOOK OF MINE, THE BOOK OF FORBIDDEN WISDOM, IS COMING OUT SOON, 2016, WITH HarperCollins).
I admit that, as the author of The Garden of Darkness, it may not be a surprise that I think this would make a good gift book for anyone 14+, but then this is a book that empowers children and that celebrates qualities that enhance our relationship with the world around us. When I was writing The Garden of Darkness, I worked to get out the storyline, to tell the tale. When I had written The Garden of Darkness, I realized that I had on my hands a testament to children’s strength of mind and courage against great odds, as well as a work about friendship, the ability to build family and, finally, the ineffable nature of love. This book gives the gift of confidence in the self and a knowledge of the power of independence. It’s a good book for the holidays.
A brief précis:
This book chronicles the physical and psychological journeys of two children who survive a modern plague, a fifteen year old girl, Clare, and a thirteen year old boy, Jem. Clare and Jem make an odd pair: before the epidemic fifteen-year-old Clare was a cheerleader, while thirteen-year-old Jem was president of the chess club. Once Clare, Jem and other children band together and try to rebuild their lives, they feel the pull of the only adult left on the planet, and they begin a journey to find him. Eventually they are led to this adult who they hope will save them, organize them and redeem them—or does this grownup have something else in mind? In the final accounting, Clare and Jem realize that ultimately they can only look to themselves for rescue. Moreover, in the course of questing for survival, Jem and Clare discover that the greatest weapon they can wield against the evil left in the world is friendship, and that, out of friendship, can come love.
Where can you find The Garden of Darkness? Barnes and Noble carries The Garden of Darkness, and it can be ordered by independent booksellers (who may have it in stock). This is a link to the Amazon site, to make it easy.
I hope you all enjoy the holidays. May many excellent books come your way.
All the best,
Gillian Murray Kendall
P.S. Finally—judge a book by its cover. The Garden of Darkness has the best cover ever. It shows Clare and Jem, with Clare’s dog, Bear, against the backdrop of a ruined city. The three of them are alone in this empty landscape, but they are also together.
Gillian, thank you for sharing the history of giving books as gifts, the books you liked as a child, and information about The Garden of Darkness. We greatly appreciate the articles you have written for LitPick and your participating in our interviews. Happy Holidays to you and your family! We are looking forward to the release of The Book of Forbidden Wisdom in 2016!
EXTRA CREDIT INTERVIEW WITH GILLIAN MURRAY KENDALL:
Hey there, LitPickers! On today’s Extra Credit, we’re lucky to have Gillian Murray Kendall. She is an English Professor at Smith College where she teaches Shakespeare and 17th Century Poetry. She is married to biologist Robert Dorit and has two children, Sasha and Gabriel. She’s also an editor of a collection of essays, Shakespearean Power and Punishment. Gillian's first book is The Garden of Darkness (Ravenstone) and her next book is The Book of Forbidden Wisdom (HarperCollinsVoyager).
Do you have a solid outline before writing, or do you usually get ideas as you go along?
I've seen photographs of other writers' outlines—giant affairs covered with sticky notes and ink of various colors and strange lines that connect characters to themes and plot strands. I'm lucky if I can get some index cards up on some cardboard. At first I don’t outline much—I want to be open to a lot of ideas, images and plot lines. A little further in, and I think an outline, of any sort, can be immensely helpful. That doesn't mean I don't sometimes get frustrated and pick up the outline and throw it across the room.
Has someone you knew ever appeared as a character in a book (consciously or subconsciously)?
I seldom recognize actual people, or characteristics of people, in my characters—which doesn't always stop people I know from seeing themselves. But I do confess to making small playful references to things in my own life, in, say, the name of a dog or the color of a bicycle. Still, it's tricky. The Garden of Darkness makes it seem as if I might know something about chess—when all I know is that my son beats me. Every. Single. Time.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
"Writer's Block" is a very general term for a huge number of problems that result in the prose coming to a halt. Find the problem, and the solution may be right there. When, in The Garden of Darkness, I put my characters in a very sticky situation and didn’t know how to get them out of it, I went to a lot of movies to see what happened to characters in peril. The answer was surprisingly simple (and if you go to a lot of movies, it will jump out at you too). But during Writing Time, I always go back to my desk and sit, no matter how stuck I am. As Douglas Adams put it, “Writing is easy. You just stare at the blank page until your forehead begins to bleed.” Or until the words start flowing again.
If you could live in a book's world, which would you choose?
If I were younger, I’d like to hang out in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (The Book of Three, The Castle of Llyr, etc.), where an Assistant Pig-Keeper can ultimately vanquish evil and where the heroine is really tough. I’d like to take a look around Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, but only for a very short period of time.
What is your favorite book-to-movie adaptation?
To Kill a Mockingbird is a brilliant luminous film based on Harper Lee’s novel of the same name. And I thought that The Hunger Games made an excellent transition from book to screen.
If you could have lunch with one other author (dead or alive!), who would it be?
I’d like to have lunch with Shakespeare. He’d totally crack me up.
You currently teach at Smith College, a private, independent women's liberal arts college. What is it like to teach at a school where there is such a high concentration of one gender?
The biggest difference I’ve noticed between teaching at Smith College and working as a Teaching Fellow at the co-ed Harvard, is that I encounter less bull at Smith. This may have NOTHING to do with gender and EVERYTHING to do with the Honor Code, but my students are incorrigibly honest if, say, they haven’t done the reading. Sometimes I miss the bull—it’s an interesting challenge—but it wastes time.
Thanks for spending extra time with us, Gillian! You’ve got great ideas for getting rid of writer’s block. :)
INTERVIEW WITH GILLIAN MURRAY KENDALL:
Today Gillian Murray Kendall joins LitPick for Six Minutes with an Author! Gillian is the author of The Garden of Darkness, and has two more books she is working on, At the Right Temperature Everything Burns and The Book of Forbidden Wisdom.
How did you get started writing?
Writing comes out of reading. When I was a kid, I read a lot, and I re-read a lot, and I hated coming to the end of any favored author’s works. Living authors just didn’t produce quickly enough for me. Dead authors, well, their literary journeys, sadly, ended with their final book. In order to get enough of the literature I found compelling, I decided that I would have to grow up and write it. I had no idea how long and convoluted the journey would be—that I would become a Professor specializing in Renaissance Drama, especially Shakespeare, and would write articles on such topics as murder and mayhem in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, before buckling down and producing short stories and The Garden of Darkness.
Even before I found Shakespeare, however, and even before I grew up (insofar as I ever did) I tried to produce interesting fiction. My fourth grade debut was a science fiction piece that took place on Mars. I didn’t know much about Mars, naturally, but I knew it didn’t have much oxygen, so I gave my Martians giant lungs. Of course, they needed giant bodies to hold the giant lungs, so these were very large and rather oafish Martians.
It’s possible that out there, somewhere, there exists a piece of writing more awful, plot-less, pointless and turgid than my own particular Martian Chronicles, but I doubt it. Luckily, urged largely by my mother, I started keeping a Thought Book, a notebook bulging with ideas, illustrations and tiny souvenirs of my family’s travels. Somewhere in there was a poem to Hatshepsut, an ancient Egyptian with a funny name, and a grain of sand from a beach in Normandy. We travelled a lot. My husband, Rob Dorit, and I also travel a lot, and we spent two of the last five years living in Paris—hence the photograph Rob took of fireworks going off behind the Eiffel Tower.
Boredom also played a part in my writing—still does. When the dishes are done and the class is prepared and the midterm is typed and I suddenly have time on my hands, then I no longer have an excuse not to pick up a pen: if only it weren’t so painful, writing could be a form of entertainment. And so it came to pass that while I was supposed to be going over homework in 7th grade math, I scribbled out a story that eventually won a Scholastic creative writing merit award (sorry, Mr. Wilbur, your algebra class was great. It really was). As I remember it, the award came with $125 dollars. So there it was. I was writing, and I was getting paid for it—I was an author.
I’ve strayed a bit from the question, but, in fact, I don’t believe that writing was something I got “started” at. The “how” of the question, however (“how did you get started writing”) is easier. I took a pen and a piece of paper, and I applied one to the other.
If only it were that simple. I find writing difficult, much harder than revision. But I’m in good company. The famous 16th Century courtier, soldier, poet, Sir Philip Sidney, had as much trouble as I do. He wrote a bunch of sonnets (108), and one of them is devoted to what happens when one hits the doldrums in the middle of a poem. He writes of trying to find the right words to win his beloved—and failing at the task. The poem goes on to say that he reads a lot of other poems for inspiration—to no avail. Sir Philip beats himself up about his ineffectual poetry. Finally he bites his pen. Nothing.
And then he hears a voice (not a good sign of mental stability in our world, but then, all authors are a bit mad). He recognizes it as the voice of his Muse, his inspiration. And his Muse tells him, “Fool…look in thy heart, and write.” Not bad advice, whatever it means. It got Sir Philip Sidney to the end of the sonnet.
When I was in high school, I took creative writing classes, and those forced me to produce material, although the teacher had a demoralizing habit of having us write in class while she put her feet up and read a romance novel with a cheesy cover. But it was when I was in college that I realized that I was not only going to write, but that I might actually become that strange beast called an author.
Because one day, something happened.
Robert Stone, well-known and well-regarded author and writer-in-residence at Stanford University, where I was an undergraduate, was teaching a creative writing course. He let me into the class (pity?). But one day I presented a story (“The Oxen Moved Their Heavy Tails”) to the class, and, when class was over, he called me into his office.
I stood inside his door.
He was busy with some papers, and then he put them away and looked up at me. He said “If you can write an ending like that, you can be a writer. I just wanted you to know.”
Those words have sustained me ever since. I wrote an acknowledgement to him in The Garden of Darkness, and it doesn’t matter that he will probably never read it, or that he doubtless doesn’t remember me, or that the story was rejected by The Atlantic Monthly (with a nice rejection note), or that some of my classmates didn’t like the piece.
None of that mattered at all.
Who influenced you?
I was influenced by everything I ever read, and I discovered that bad prose could be almost as helpful as brilliant prose. But over and above what I read, I was influenced by my parents. Both of my parents were authors, and, as I was growing up, the air was saturated with the writing of poetry and prose. I had a great advantage, too, in that my mother and father felt that “writer” was a perfectly respectable occupation.
They didn’t really want me to go to med school, for example, although I’m sure they would have gotten over their disappointment.
My father, Paul Murray Kendall, was an English professor and historian who wrote, among many other things, the biographies of Richard III (for which he was nominated for the National Book Award) and Louis XI. He also wrote The Art of Biography, to great acclaim. My mother wrote children’s books, and one of them, The Gammage Cup, was a Newbery Honor book. Creative endeavors were rewarded in my house, and we were all very competitive. Charades and twenty questions and Scrabble were literary war zones.
What is your favorite book/subject/character/setting?
I like books that carry secrets deep within them—secrets that are not easily extracted but that are well worth the effort. I recommend The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which has a heart of darkness. From the beginning the narrator finds himself caught in a web of obsession, betrayal, incest and strange rites. Donna Tartt has written books since then—her novel, The Goldfinch, recently won the Pulitzer—but there will never again be a book quite like The Secret History. I have, however, many favorites—all of which have influenced my writing. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is another book that contains a secret—and this secret carries along with it one of the most intricate and perfect plots ever written. It’s a pleasure just to sit back and watch Margaret Atwood at play in the world of words. Oryx and Crake and MaddAddam are compelling; the former compels in a voyeuristic, come-watch-a-train-wreck way, and MaddAddam has its own pleasures, but The Blind Assassin is a virtuoso performance. Atwood plays the plot as if it were a Stradivarius violin. And then there’s David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which, if you follow the birthmark, you will find your way to the center of a labyrinth.
There are books without end that contain secrets. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee packs a punch not only in the courtroom scenes, but in the final scene (carefully foreshadowed by the rest of the action) in which we finally see Boo Radley. I hope I haven’t given too much away. As a child, I read The Secret Garden obsessively, alive in the pleasures that come when Mary explores the labyrinthine manor and then finds her way to the heart of the gardens. And, of course, there are the pleasures of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain chronicles, and the secret land of Terabithia (Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson).
I confess that I also have a setting/genre that is a guilty pleasure to me. I read these books furtively, yet with great pleasure. I teach them with an air of detachment when, really, they consume me. I’m referring to post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature. I love it. Love it! Yet it’s so pleasurable that it almost writes itself out of the pantheon of great literature. Teaching such books is like giving sugar to horses. And yet the literature is infused with greatness—who can forget Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984? But forget the classics—I like to teach, as well, the lesser known gems scattered throughout these genres: The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham), The Chrysalids (John Wyndham), Riddley Walker (Russell Hoben), Earth Abides (George Stewart), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick), The Road (Cormac McCarthy), The Postman (David Brin), Alas Babylon (Pat Frank), Lord of the Flies (William Golding), The Scarlet Plague (Jack London), and, of course, The Garden of Darkness (Gillian Murray Kendall).
Read them! Read them all!
These post-apocalyptic and dystopian works open the world to possibility. In particular, the post-apocalyptic novel clears out old structures and allows for the new, allowing us to see how characters function under pressure, how they behave when carrying the burden of, this time, getting it right. Getting it right is a process of becoming. Of becoming something you never knew you were because everyday experience kept you from exploring the sometimes dark side of yourself—and sometimes your better self. In my novel, The Garden of Darkness, Clare, a cheerleader before the pandemic that kills off most of the population, realizes that now she could be anybody. She could be anything. All the stereotypes that clung to the cheerleading persona are gone. It’s terrifying. But it turns out that—while she never loses the ability to do back flips—she’s a natural, if reluctant, leader. And she’s capable of love in a way the old Clare never was. I like Clare.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?
If you are not a reader already, become one. Every time you set down words, you become part of the literary tradition—the conversation among works that’s been going on for as long as we’ve been writing.
Take your writing seriously, but yourself—never. If you take yourself too seriously, if there’s no humor in your approach to this, you’re going to find yourself deeply depressed by the rejection slips and the critiques and even the mild suggestions.
Be prepared to revise. Revision is what really makes a book. The first draft is necessarily rough and not yet prepared to be born into the world. Ayn Rand is a good example of an author who sets a bad example in this regard (and in many other regards). She was told by a senior editor to cut part of Atlas Shrugged. Her famous reply was: “Would you cut the Bible?” Do not be Ayn Rand. There is only one Bible.
You get the gist. If you want to be an author, you need to spend time writing and revising. Writing is a skill as well as a talent, and you need to hone that skill. So take that piece of paper. Pick up that pen. Ready? One. Two. Three. Write.
You’re an author.
Of course, it isn’t that easy (see the answer to the next question). I’ve been very lucky in growing up in an atmosphere so supportive of my writing. Very lucky. But I know that however different you and I are, you can be an author too.
I know this.
Stick with it.
I have faith in you.
What is your favorite place to write?
I like to write sitting cross-legged on the bed (as I am now), a Diet Coke by my side. I write long-hand at first, and then do major revisions as I enter material onto the computer. Before I put pen to paper, I confess I spend a lot of time staring at that empty space. As Douglas Adams said, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.”
What else would you like to tell us?
I would like you to know the standard stuff—that I’m a full Professor at Smith College, where I specialize in Shakespeare and non-Shakespearean Renaissance Drama. I have two children, Sasha and Gabriel, and live in Northampton, Massachusetts (“where the coffee is strong and the women are stronger”) with my husband, biologist Robert Dorit. I am firmly convinced that in the event of the apocalypse one will need to retain one’s sense of humor. And I like all gardens, dark and light.
But there’s more.
I love travel. And I would like somehow to justify posting the photograph of the blue-footed booby, a photograph I took when my husband I traveled to the Galapagos this past summer. He was the biologist on tap; I was along for the ride. The blue-footed booby, when courting, carefully raises one big blue foot and then puts it down. Then it carefully raises its other big blue foot and then puts it down. This continues until the booby has the attention of a female booby, which can take a long time. But watching boobies pick up their big old blue feet and put them down is endlessly fascinating. I have to get that behavior in a book somehow.
And it probably will go in a book, although not, perhaps in a recognizable form. Life morphs into fiction just as, sometimes, fiction morphs into life. The two aren’t, and have never been, distinct.
For example, for many years my horse, Miss Kitty, and I competed in horse shows in the hunter classes, which meant, essentially, that we got to jump over things. When she and I were just having fun out on the trail, she could jump over some whopper obstacles—tree trunks, stone walls, the occasional boulder. With her death (from founder) in November of 2013, that stage of my life has effectively come to an end. But I like to think that the horse in The Garden of Darkness is an incarnation of my closeness with Miss Kitty. Sheba lacks breeding (Miss Kitty was a quarter horse) and color (Miss Kitty was a classy red roan), but she has Miss Kitty’s affectionate nature.
The Garden of Darkness also reflects my growing concerns with and fears about the resiliency of the earth in the face of all the ways we have abused it. What is a catastrophe for the human race in this book is a chance for the earth to retreat from the tipping point. And in the quiet of a world almost devoid of technology, friendships have time quietly to grow. In the characters of Clare and Jem, The Garden of Darkness finally moves from friendship to the discovery of something very different, something called love.
I’ve enjoyed writing to you all. I hope you feel we’re better acquainted and that, if you were hesitating to write before, I’ve given you a little push to write now. May you thrive as authors.
All the best,
Wow! This has been a wonderful interview! Gillian, thank you so much for spending six minutes, or maybe a few more, with LitPick and our readers!