I listen to far too many true crime podcasts–Serial, Someone Knows Something, Accused–and the most intriguing part of these podcasts to me is… did the person accused do it? What the heck really happened?
The most intriguing part is the wondering. Did it happen like we think it happened or is there some super secret underworld we’re missing?
When I started writing Sweet Surrender, I tried to find something intriguing around which I could frame the story. My notes say… “Find something Julia can research for inspiration.”
There a thousands and thousands of stories of fascinating, successful lesbians. Thousands, even, in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College (a real life collection, I totally recommend it). So many it was almost overwhelming to choose.
Then I found a letter from Emily Dickinson to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert.
I miss you, mourn for you, and walk the Streets alone — often at night, beside, I fall asleep in tears, for your dear face, yet not one word comes back to me from the silent West. If it is finished, tell me, and I will raise the lid to my box of Phantoms, and lay one more love in; but if it lives and beats still, still lives and beats for me, then say me so, and I will strike the strings to one more strain of happiness before I die. (Open Me Carefully, p. 54)
First thought? I HAD NO IDEA EMILY DICKINSON WAS A LESBIAN!
Second thought? More, please.
I dove into the rest of the letters for the book. Each one displays a woman who is obviously in love with her friend turned sister-in-law. We only have one side of the conversation, unfortunately, as Sue’s letters to Emily were destroyed after her death (apparently this was custom, not necessarily something done to hide the relationship). These letters are full of affection, yearning, and lots and lots of poetry. If you’re interested, you can find them in the book Open me Carefully, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith.
The letters led me to the concept of “romantic friendships,” which led me to this post, then this one, and this one. What a perfect way to get Susan (the Susan of my book), who had only ever been married to a man, see that love was possible with Julia.
But what I’m saying in a kind of long-winded was is that it started with a bit of intrigue–DID THEY DO IT?!–and went from there. I love research. I love old letters. The prep for this book was a joy for me.
I tumbled into more letters, too. Such as those from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West. Virginia was deeply in love with Vita, and wrote her book Orlando as one huge long love letter to her.
Vita was an excellent writer too. This letter sticks out:
I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. […]. I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. (p. 89, The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf)
You’ll see snippets of these in the books (I didn’t quote more so as not to infringe copyright). But, if you’re interested… I recommend both books for some intense romantic reading (especially the E. Dickinson one). Go to the library and take them out now (or request them if your library doesn’t have them).
If you haven’t picked up Sweet Surrender yet, you can here.