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S2: You would be shocked by how many people I spoke to and when I told them I was writing about Sylvia Plath, the first thing they mention was the manner in which she died. And I felt like those details had almost superseded her, her writing.
S3: So it was this sense of mission, I guess, that that kind of sparked the flame.
S4: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, June Thomas, and I’m your other host, Remon Along.
S1: Remon, I am so excited to hear your conversation with Sylvia Plath biographer Heather Clark, whose voice we just heard. But before we get to that, in our last episode I said you and I set some creative New Year’s resolutions and I need to know, how are yours doing there in tatters? Are you chasing them?
S5: I appreciate you holding me accountable, June. So my husband very kindly walked me through how to make a bullet journal in that particular notebook. And I are sort of trying to get to know one another right now. You know, it’s only it’s only a few days into the New Year, but so far so good. And I do feel more organized and I feel sort of, you know, more smug about this, too. And I’ve been listening to Mozart, the some Mozart that I didn’t know before this year. So that’s not quite in the spirit of discovering brand new music, but it’s new to me. What about you? Have you been reading before bed?
S1: I have not had been distracting myself with amusing audio entertainment, but instead I think you and Isaac were just a little bit too convincing in your don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your goal every single day reassurances. You set me up for failure, but I forgive you. So you spoke with guest Heather Clark about Red Comet, the book she published at the end of last year. What’s it about?
S5: Red Comet is a comprehensive, massive biography of the American poet Sylvia Plath, who died in 1963 when she was only 30 years old. It’s a very serious and rigorous account of Plath’s life, but it’s also a book that is engaged in a critique of the poet’s work and the perceptions and misperceptions about that body of work.
S1: I’m curious how reading this biography changed your view of Sylvia Plath. What was your relationship to Plath before reading the book and then afterward?
S5: You know, like so many bookish teens, I had Sylvia Plath, Ph.D., compulsory, you know, in my junior and senior year of high school, I read the collected poems. I read the letters that she wrote to her mother. I read Linda Wagner, Martin’s biography. And then eventually I read Janet Malcolm’s sort of cerebral meta biography, which is called The Silent Woman, which was published, I think, when I was 17. So I can’t imagine I understood a word of it. My interest in the poet lasted at least until I was in college, because I remember being excited when Ted Hughes published a book of poems about Plath, who had been his wife. And that was in 1998. So I do or did anyway think of Plath as something from my youth and therefore maybe something sort of fundamentally for young people, the way I think about Salinger or Vonnegut. But I don’t think that’s right. And I think Clark’s biography argues otherwise and in some ways seems designed to challenge my misperception that Sylvia Plath is sort of interesting only if you’re sort of full of the passion and fire of youth.
S1: Yeah. Before we get to the interview, I also want to mention that Slate plus members, we’ll hear a little something extra from your conversation. Can you tell us what they’ll hear?
S5: One of the things I really wanted to ask Heather about was the emotion around a big book like this, what it feels like to assume this particular responsibility and how do you move on after that work is done? And I really loved her answers about this. If this interview doesn’t make you want to tackle like a project that seems a little too ambitious and a little too big for you, then I don’t know.
S1: What would your listeners, if you are not yet a member of Sleepless? What are you waiting for? You can get two weeks free right now. Just go to sleep. Dotcom slash working plus. All right, let’s hear Remans conversation with Heather Clark.
S6: There’s so much biographical material about Sylvia Plath, you know, Ted Hughes oversaw the publication of her journals, her mother published her letters. There was a second publication of her letters as a biography by Linda Wagner. Martin is a biography by Ms. Stevenson. That sort of controversial. Yes. You know, there’s another biography that Janet Malcolm was able to publish, a sort of biography of the biographies. Yes. So what was it that made you want to attempt your own Full-scale biography? What was missing in our in all of those pieces about Sylvia Plath? What was missing?
S2: Well, I felt that there wasn’t an in-depth, critical, serious scholarly biography of Plath. Despite the plethora of biographies that you just mentioned. Most of them maxed out around 300, 400 pages, which is fine. Right? I’m not saying that’s a bad length for a biography, but I just I felt like she was one of the most important American women writers. And I wanted to give her that that space on the bookshelf, you know, that we often reserve for men, quite frankly. And someone who really inspired me was Hermione Lee and her big biographies of women, particularly Virginia Woolf and Lee’s sense that women whose lives involved mental illness and self-harm and suicide were often treated as psychological victims, quote unquote, first and professional writers second. That that really inspired me, that idea to try to treat others as as Lee says, as a professional writer first. And I did feel that she had been a pathologist in some of these biographies and that that her legacy had been diminished and that she’d been kind of short changed by that. And you would be shocked by how many people I spoke to. And when I told them I was writing about Sylvia Plath, the first thing that they mentioned was the manner in which she died. And I felt like those details had almost superseded her, her writing. And that was a bit of a travesty to me. So so it was this sense of mission, I guess, that that kind of sparked the flame. And of course, I had written a book on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, an academic book with an audience of about 50 people, that sort of thing, print run of 700. But but it did give me the confidence to to feel like, OK, I can undertake this project because I know where the the archival collections are. I have good relationships with the archivists, et cetera, et cetera. And also, I should mention, a big factor in deciding to go through with this is is the permission situation. Right? I think a lot of those biographers were, you know, a bit hamstrung by the difficulty they had in securing permissions to quote plus work. And it’s a different it’s a different situation now.
S6: So so what can you actually tell me what changed in the stewardship of the estate?
S2: So for many years, the estate was overseen by Allwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes’s sister. And and they sort of famously Olan Hughes and Sylvia Plath famously did not get along very well. And so, for example, and Stevenson’s biography is almost a work of cooperation between Ed Stephenson and Olwyn Hughes. And that biography was very controversial because Plath didn’t come off very well. And so anyway, that that ended. And now Frieda Hughes is is the one who owns the estate and all queries go go to her.
S6: So I want to actually ask you about the tension between academic scholarship and popular writing, so you mentioned her mightily before and she’s the one who is she’s the perfect example, I think, where the biographies that she produces are so rigorous and thoughtful. But they’re for a general audience. And read comment, as you say, is not a work of scholar. It is a work scholarship. But it’s not it’s not an academic write. It is a popular work. So what’s the difference between those two things?
S2: This is something I thought about all the time as I was writing because I always felt the challenge of keeping people’s attention on the page. Right. And but at the same time trying to be as rigorous as I could and as accurate as I could with with the facts and with the chronology. And that’s why I have a million and notes and 200 pages of notes. But I felt like the history of Plath biography was so fraught. Right. That if I was going to do this, I needed to give people the evidence on, you know, at the end of every other sentence where I got this material so that you can turn back. You can see exactly which letter, which day, which interview, because I read a lot of biographies and I and I don’t get that often. And I’m all sometimes I’m left wondering, where did this come from? Writer So I just I really wanted to cover all my bases with those and notes.
S7: And I guess that’s where the scholarly training comes in for me. But I also wanted to write a different kind of book. I wanted to spread my wings a little bit and I wanted to hopefully propel the narrative right. And tell a story, a story that I thought was important. So but yeah, I was always trying to negotiate that issue of who am I writing this for? Who is the readership going to be? It’s a different readership than my previous books. And but I felt like I had sort of paid my dues within the academy.
S6: I could I could write some more or create your credentials are not, are not and don’t. But it’s true that especially in the early pages of the book before, I mean, there’s a lot of difficulty in Plath’s life. It’s a real life. So you’re reading about highs and lows, but in the early sections, the sort of cover her you through her undergraduate years, the story has almost a novelistic momentum. It’s almost like you’re just sort of reading a story about a girl that someone invented and having, you know, trivial romantic travails and her personal ambition. And it’s so it’s it’s much more entertaining than I think the bookstore Browsr, seeing the thousand page left of it might suspect. So you mentioned, you know, it is a big work. Yeah. Full of endnotes. I’m so curious about how long the process of working on this book was.
S2: Well, I signed the contract in January 2012, so I had been working on it a bit before that. You know, I had written up a proposal with a couple of chapters, so I don’t know, I’d written about maybe 100 pages or so even before I got the contract. But, yeah, I mean, it was a long it was a long journey for sure. I actually resigned my tenured position when I got the contract I was teaching at Marlborough College in Vermont, and it was a teaching intensive college. And I you know, I was teaching like a five five load. And it was I just knew I would never write another word if I stayed. I knew I had to make a move. So I was able to work on the book more or less full time for the past seven years or so. Well, full time. I had two children. That was my I gave birth to my son three years in, I think it was. And my daughter was three when I started it. So that was just an enormous challenge through the whole thing, balancing career and and motherhood. And Plath was a real inspiration there.
S6: Yeah, I was just going to say what a funny resonance with your subject herself.
S2: Yeah. You know, I would have these meta moments where I’m a mother with two young children writing about a mother with two young children trying to find time to write. And and that was something that I just intuitively understood about Sylvia Plath. I felt like that was a real connection that I felt with her. But that was that was a huge challenge. But I also wanted to prove that it could be done. I mean, I’ve had people email me. Women say that they want to embark upon a big biography, but they have young children and they don’t know if it’s possible. And I just it is possible. It is. But it wasn’t.
S6: It wasn’t easy, I would say, so you had a previous scholarly work about Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes. So you had the particular advantage of knowing where archives were, knowing who controlled access to those archives, and it’s so funny to me that biography turns out to be a bit like a detective hunt. Right? Like that’s essentially the work. For this book, you were able to see material that none of Plath’s other biographers had seen, including a portion of her correspondence with her psychiatrist from the 1960s. Can you tell me how you got access to that material, how you discovered that material?
S2: Yeah, I mean, so Harriet Rosenstein was a researcher who started a Plath biography in the 1970s, early 1970s, and she interviewed dozens and dozens of people who had known Plass, who had treated Plass medically. I mean, she interviewed Plath’s father’s colleagues. I mean, she she was really an astute researcher. So that sat sort of untouched for 40, 50 years. She never she never published her Plath biography and she never finished it. So she sold that to Emory University. And that was opened to researchers pretty recently. And I was one of the first people, you know, I was ready to pounce. Right. As soon as I got the green light, there were there were a few, you know, about three or four of us who were right there. And so we were the first to see all of that. And that was the biggest collection of new material. But also, you know, Ted Hughes, he his archives ended up at Emory in the British Library in the early 2000s. And I thought there was still a lot there to be mined. I did interview some people who hadn’t been interviewed in the past. And, you know, a lot of the stuff I quote in the book, it’s actually been in the archives for years and years and years. But it’s just that for whatever reason, previous biographers, either they didn’t have the space to quote in detail from it. I’m thinking about adolescent diaries, for example. They’re all unpublished. But her teenage and childhood diaries are a rich source of information. Her her calendars, her daily calendars, which are much more the ground you in her daily life, much more than her her published journals do. And I learned a lot from those. And of course, all of the unpublished manuscripts. I mean, there’s a ton of plus writing that hasn’t been published. You would be really shocked by how much it’s all there. So it’s not like I discovered a lot of the stuff, but it just I feel like it hadn’t really been taken advantage of in a sense, in a biographical sense. And I I owe a lot to Kanab for letting me write this behemoth. Right. Letting me write this big book. I knew I was pushing the limits of a trade press, but but again, there was just that sense I had that she she deserved it. I mean, I just she was I feel like sometimes as women were encouraged to to take up less space in the world, whether that’s physically or intellectually. And she was someone who wanted to take up space in the world. She just had this enormous appetite and hunger for life. And I wanted to kind of give her the opportunity to take up that space just on the bookshelf. Even if so, that was the sense of mission. And my editor, Deb Garrison, was so supportive of of that and and the Lancs, although we did cut quite a bit, I have to say we worked on that.
S6: One thing I’m curious about as a lay person is when we talk about archives and we talk about you mentioned a previous biographer who was never able to complete her project, was sitting on this primary research that she had done. And then she owns that material. She it’s it’s her work. She sells it to an institution, an institution like a university or a private library. Is it the case that threatens the estate has dictated that it can’t be open for a few years or that not all researchers can have access to it? Sort of. How does that work logistically?
S2: Yes, that can be the case. For example, you know, Ted Hughes, for a long time, there were certain journals that he didn’t want people to look at. And, you know, he he controlled a lot of what was able to get seen. And so, yeah, estates can put all kinds of conditions on things. I think, you know, even now you have to contact the Hughes estate if you go to Emory or the British Library to make copies of anything. And I believe the same is true for the Plath estate at the Lily Library.
S6: It’s just funny because I think it’s maybe it doesn’t occur to people like you think it’s simply the detective hunt of trying to track down where Sylvia Plath agenda from 1961 might have ended up, but then to discover that there are rules about whether or not you even open those pages and whether you can take a picture of them.
S2: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. You have to get permission to photograph from the estates. And not at Smith College, though. Sylvia Plath archive at Smith College, because they I believe they negotiated, you know, when they bought the archive for free and open access. So so archives can negotiate for that as well when they buy collections.
S6: So you touched on this. Actually, one of the first things you said confirmed one of my questions about the book, which is that this is a biography with an agenda, you know, and that agenda is maybe it’s to dispel the popular image of Plath, which, as you point out in the biography itself, there is a sort of contradictory popular image of Pluff, one that she was sort of like a delicate flower who was a victim of a deeply, you know, sexist society, having been born into a deeply sexist society and then sort of the inverses that she was this kind of death obsessed, half crazy, you know, mad woman. But my guess my bigger question is, does biography always begin with an agenda, with a thesis? And whether you begin this work, I mean, you already had a previous understanding of this woman’s work as a scholar, but did you begin with that thesis or did the research kind of show you what that thesis was?
S2: I guess I did begin with that thesis, probably because my academic training and been drilled into my head that you need a thesis. And I drilled into my students heads now. But but I don’t I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case. And as I was saying, I had this the sense of almost injustice or frankly, anger, just about the ways in which she had become a writer whose name was often synonymous with madness and tragedy. And I and I just felt like she’s just so brilliant and witty and cerebral and and ironic. And a lot of that was getting lost in the popular imagination. So so I started with that sense of mission. But I certainly don’t think it’s something that everyone starts with. And I actually through the course of the research, I became, I guess, some more firm believer in my own thesis, because even I would have these moments and my editor would write in the margin, don’t fall into the trap. Like I would have these moments where I would even say something like I really tried not to use words like obsessive or, you know, anything like that, that the pathologist who I really tried to watch my my language to the level of individual words. But every once in a while something would slip through and my editor would catch it. And and I guess I had even started thinking maybe she was more fragile then. Then I came to discover she was she at the end by the end of the book to me, she seemed so strong, strong in the sense that she had such a clear vision of her vocation and she had such a strong will. And she was she wanted to fulfill her calling. And nothing kind of could deviate her from from fulfilling that literary calling. And I was so impressed by that. And of course, when when severe depression struck, it was a different story, right. When she became ill. But, you know, in her day to day life, just this amazing sense of fortitude and strength that really came across to me as I researched her. We’ll be back with more of Roman’s conversation with biographer at the clock.
S1: One of the things we’d love to do with the show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration and discipline or, you know, how to cut down a six hundred page manuscript, anything at all, send them to us at working at Slate Dotcom or give us a ring at three or four nine three three w o r k. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. OK, let’s return to Roman’s conversation with Heather Clark.
S6: You also have spoken to me about this work as a work of critical biography, and that was one of the things that I found most surprising is that. It’s looking at the circumstances in the stuff of Plath’s life, but it’s using a sort of very penetrating, critical eye. And for example, one of the things that it does that I think is very unusual in the context of all of this writing about Plath is engaged very seriously with her juvenilia. And I’m really curious about why you chose to take her youthful short stories and poetry this seriously. And, you know, you mention in the book that other biographers have neglected to do that. What do you think the previous scholarship on Plath missed by discounting that early work?
S2: No, I was writing a biography of a great American writer and the question that I always had in the back of my mind, which kind of was my North Star, was how did Sylvia Plath become the writer that she became? And when I started to get overwhelmed by all the archival documents, thousands and thousands, that is the question that I would come back to. And so looking at her juvenilia was to me a kind of archaeology, because that helped me answer the question, how did she get to where she she got to and what was she reading as a child and what what kind of poems was she writing? And, you know, she had an almost perfect ear as a child. And I wanted people to understand that, that she she could write in perfect iambic tetrameter, whatever it was. She had such a strong sense of meter from a very, very young age. And she was even revising her work by age eight or nine. So she had a real gift, a real lyrical gift. And this calling that she had, I think she she discovered it at a very young age and she sort of never looked back. And I guess I wanted readers to to understand just how strong that calling was and how early it was that it grabbed her. And because there is this sense in other biographies that she was only writing to please other people, you know, to get love from her, her mother, her her professors, her teachers and I and I sort of thought that shortchanged her own sense of ambition and determination and the pleasure that she got out of writing the self-satisfaction. So I think going into her juvenilia in detail was a way for me to show and not tell. Mm hmm. If you if you will, and and show also how influence she was by modernist poets like Yeats and Elliott. And you know, how how carefully she read them and engaged with their work once she was in high school.
S6: One of the most striking kind of arguments in this book to me anyway, with the caveat that I am not as well versed in any of the criticism of Plath as you would be, is that you argue that the work that she completed at the end of her life, which I think is sort of understood to have been like the pinnacle of her accomplishment, shouldn’t necessarily be understood as confessional, that it should be understood that she was a poet in full possession of performance and of irony and that she knew exactly what she was doing and that if it if a poem like Daddy seemed to seem to lay bare her. She was doing that on purpose and that she was sort of playing with us. Do you think that that is where the scholarship for use her now or is that something that you feel like is needs to be better understood?
S2: I think that most Plath scholars, you know, people who write about Plath for a living have understood this about Plath for quite a few years, and but my sense is that it just hasn’t really trickled down into the popular perception of Plath that she was this incredibly ironic writer and a very literary and elusive writer. You know, that these weren’t just impulsive cries from the heart of a poem like Ellem. It went through 15 drafts and that, yes, she is using autobiography. Absolutely. But sort of like Emily Dickinson, she’s telling the truth, but she’s telling it slant. She uses surrealism. She uses myths. She’s she’s doing something very different, I think, than just laying straight autobiography on the page. And I think what she’s doing is actually much more interesting than than what this term, quote unquote confessional implies. I just I think that we need to expand our our understanding in that. In that sense. Yeah.
S6: So criticism, though, is like a subjective act, and if we had somebody who was a true believer in sort of the confessional mode, they would be able to be here and arm wrestle with you. But it occurred to me that maybe sort of all of biography is similarly subjective because you, Heather Clark, are in this book interpreting, extrapolating absolutely everything. So, for example, there’s a lot of correspondence between Plath and her mother, Amelia Plath, and that was published in previous iterations. And it seems to show. A kind of sunny affection between daughter and mother that feels really far from maybe our sense of how the poet actually felt about her mother. And I was really struck by your argument that both mother and daughter are conspirators in this, that it has to do with sort of. The conventions of behavior at the time, and it’s not about a woman who hated her mother or a mother who was controlling her daughter, it was just about this is how mothers and daughters spoke to one another.
S2: Yeah, I you know, I talk to a lot of Plath’s friends from Wellesley, and this was something that kept coming up the complicated nature of their relationship. And they felt very aggrieved that it had been portrayed in such a black and white way in previous biographies. And I guess I did feel that it was the sort of arms race between them that neither one of them wanted to make the other worry feel badly.
S7: You know, I really suffered from all kinds of ulcer related illnesses throughout her life, and she had stomach surgeries. And at the time, ulcers were thought to be caused by stress. And so I think that was part of the reason Sylvia often gave her mother this very sunny version of things that were going on in her life, which which Sylvia herself termed the gay side. You know, she told others, oh, I gave my mother the gay side. She didn’t want to give her the side. That was not so gay, I think, because, again, she didn’t want to worry her. She had lost one parent. And I don’t think she wanted to be responsible for putting her mother in the hospital. Again, this also related illness was a huge issue in his life and Sylvia’s life, too.
S2: So, yeah, I think they were often just trying to give each other the best version of their lives. It was a complicated mother daughter relationship for sure. And but I guess I wanted to sort of dive deeper into the nuance of it. Yeah.
S6: So you mentioned, like the the state, the heads of state have some you know, they’re in a position of a little bit of authority over you and the work. Mm hmm. Did you feel any responsibility to Frieda Hughes, who is the poet’s surviving error? And, you know, if she has read the book?
S2: Yes, she I know that she has read the book and and she really likes the book. And I I definitely felt like I needed to keep that awareness with me as I wrote the book, that this isn’t something that happened 100 years ago. There are still living family members who, you know, will read the book. And I it was something that was in the back of my mind. Did it affect the way I wrote?
S7: No, but there were certain things that I didn’t put in the book because I was a you know, I was mindful of the family. So, yes, there were things that I left out. So I suppose. Yeah, it was. It was there.
S6: Yeah. One of the things that I was really, really struck by is the level of concrete detail you fold into the book to not even to support any particular argument, simply to establish a command, I think, over the material. So when you talk about spending a lazy day on the beach, you’re able to say that she was savoring peaches and cherries because you were looking at the long archive that she left behind her. So I’m curious about why that kind of detail felt important to you. And I’m also really curious what you think the someday biographers of Zadie Smith or just mean Ward? Like, what are they going to rely on to establish the texture of these people’s lives?
S2: I felt like I had to provide these concrete details. Well, as you say, to establish a kind of narrative authority, I guess, to convince the reader, look, I have read everything. I’ve done my best here and I’m going to pick and choose what I think are the most important parts of these letters or these unpublished manuscripts or these interview transcripts and give them to you. And I mean, there’s this constant sense of existential dread. I think if you’re writing a biography, getting it truth with a capital T.. Right. And how do you how do you really know what happened? And this is why Ted Hughes always hated biographers. And when he was two and I get that I’m hot, how dare they presume to know what Sylvia was like or what our lives together was like? How dare they? And so I had that voice in the back of my head, too. How dare you write? And I think putting the documentary material front and center helped with that, especially with what’s Plath’s own voice, because this is really the first big biography that quotes Plath in large chunks and large sections. So I wanted to take advantage of that and center her voice and give you a lot of of Sylvia Plath. And and maybe that would allow my narrative voice to take a backseat there. So and then the other the other thing you asked about how will we write about Zadie Smith in the future? I think the digital archives will be preserved. And I know Salman Rushdie’s digital archive is at Emory, so I don’t quite know how that will happen because, of course, authors can just delete what they want to delete. And yeah, but I think emails probably will be available in some form for researchers. I don’t quite believe that they will give the richness of letters. Yeah. So that is that is an issue certainly.
S6: Well, whether this was such an amazing conversation, I’m so grateful to you for taking the time to talk to me and explain to me a little bit about. The detective work of being a biographer, and I am very curious to see what you come up with next.
S7: Thank you and thank you so much for having me on the show. I really appreciated.
S1: Let me just pause to say that I absolutely loved this interview, remind us just the exact questions that I was curious about and she answered them. And I realize that sounds kind of catty on my part, which I don’t intend in any way, shape or form. But I really imagine that after you’ve spent that much time on such a huge project, that it would be hard to have any perspective whatsoever on it or to see it in any way clearly. But it seemed like she had just the right amount of distance from the book and her subject. It was really striking.
S5: I agree. I found her to be such remarkable company. There are many smart people out there in the world, but not all of them are able to make conversation about their work, you know, to really speak to you who may not know anything about their particular area of expertise and leave you feeling like you’ve come away with something. She must be a remarkable teacher. It was so great to have this conversation because often I finish a book and I wish I could chat with the writer, but here I really had that particular chance.
S1: That’s amazing. There’s something really powerful in her talk of wanting to give Sylvia Plath the space she deserves on the bookshelf. It’s a great concept. And I mean, Plath died at 30. Her collected poetry only is about 300 pages. Her novel, The Bell Jar, is about 240 pages. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that poets typically do not take up a lot of literal shelf space. But as the two of you discussed, the book is 1150 pages, 200 of which are notes. So please tell me honestly, how did it feel to you? Too long to short. Just write.
S5: There’s no question that this is a demanding book. It is very long, but as I said to Heather, it’s sort of shockingly readable. The narrative has a real shape and the story of an artist’s beginning in development is always interesting to me. So things can move pretty briskly at times, almost like a novel. But of course, it’s not that it’s a work of deep scholarship that will yield to a reader who’s curious about Plath or poetry or art and ambition. But that deep scholarship, I think, requires a certain kind of pacing, a certain kind of time, a certain kind of word count to accrue. So Heather is sort of like chastened, it seems, by the breadth of what she’s written. But I think she’s also very clear that a big argument demanded a big book that a big talent demanded a big book.
S1: Yeah, I love your line of questioning about the biographer as sort of detective. It’s also fascinating to think about new original material becoming available from or about a person who died 57 years ago, or, you know, how things like a change of control of the writer’s estate could transform what it was possible to say or quote from or kind of get by the estate head. The clock was convincing that writing a biography is way more than detection, which I absolutely accept. Put the quest and the path to discovery really is still fascinating.
S5: Was part of the principal interest in speaking to her actually was that sort of detective hunt aspect of it. A few years ago, I corresponded with a woman who had written a biography that’s long out of print now of a writer that I love. And this biographer asked me whether I would like her research, the box of papers that she’d assembled as she wrote her own book. So right now, in the closet in my office are childhood photos and unpublished manuscripts belonging to a pretty significant American novelist who died many years ago. It’s a completely, utterly random place for this material to end up. But it does happen clearly and it probably happens more often than we think, there’s a great essay that appeared in the Paris Review last winter which talks about what happened when a university in South Africa accidentally tossed out the personal library of the writer Nadine Gordimer. You never know where a clue might be, right? That, like a great writer inside the cover of her Agatha Christie novel might have scrawled down something that turned out to be really fascinating or instructive about her practice as a writer. And in some ways, I think the admission of someone like Heather Caucus to go out and sneak around and assemble those clues.
S1: Absolutely. And I have to just really focus now, because right now the only thing in my head is the question, who is the author? Whose manuscript is in Roman’s closet? But I shall attempt to soldier on. I can tell you off the record later. All right. I will pursue that insight later. Now, I know that for myself, at least sometimes after I’ve read a big book which is full of fascinating facts and insights, I kind of shocked myself by the weird, small, sometimes kind of ridiculous detail. That is the first thing that pops into my head when I like to think of that book. So if I said to you, read Comit the short life and blazing art of Sylvia Plath was the first thing that comes to mind.
S5: I do mention this detail in my conversation with Heather, but she describes at one point Sylvia at the beach feasting on grapes and cherries. Yeah, and there’s such specificity to that that I find that’s so striking. That’s meaningless, though, right? Like, that’s just a tiny detail that she probably recorded in her diary. Yeah. What emerges in these pages is Plath’s very keen awareness of herself. She’s really clear about her own ambition. She’s really clear about her interest in sex and politics in everything. You know, she was voracious and she seemed to know that she was extraordinary. And I really do love that about her. It’s very different from the perception of mid century femininity as sort of like fundamentally crushed by society. She doesn’t seem like that to me at all.
S1: That’s really fascinating. I one of the things that I can never read enough about is talent, just the very concept of it, the self-awareness of it, maybe even a false perception of it. So it sounds like I definitely need to read or listen to this book to kind of explore how that played out in Sylvia Plath life. I might be asking this of you because I thoroughly enjoyed Sometimes You Have to Lie, which is Lesley Brody’s biography of Louise Fitzhugh, a book that was your end of your recommendation on Slate’s podcast. So I want to know, are you a big reader of biographies? And if so, do you have any recommendations?
S5: I am I find them a very satisfying form when done well, Wayne Kestenbaum has a very zany and brief book about Andy Warhol that I think is great. Heather mentioned the biographer, Hermione Lee, and I do love her book about Willa Cather, who’s one of my favorite writers, like Beeley wrote beautiful biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever and Charles Jackson. I loved all three and I’m really excited about his forthcoming biography of Philip Roth. Biography can be stodgy in the wrong hands, but with a good writer, it’s not unlike eavesdropping.
S1: What could be more fun? Absolutely nothing, except maybe listening to podcasts.
S4: Listeners, if you have enjoyed this show, please consider signing up for sleepless slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you can read all the articles that are published on Slate and you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only 35 dollars for the first year and you can get a free two trial right now at Slate dot com slash working. Plus, thanks to Heather Clark for being our guest this week and as always, enormous thanks to our producer Tim Renderos. We’ll be back next week for a conversation between Eisuke Butler and writer Jonathan Lethem. Until then, get back to work.
S6: Hey, Slate plus members, here’s a little something extra from my conversation with the writer Heather Clark. Heather, are you still teaching or are you still working as an educator, or are you committed to this kind of work now?
S2: I am I am still an educator. I, I work at the University of Huddersfield, which is in Yorkshire. I live outside of New York City. Before the pandemic, I was commuting over there. I’m a research professor there, so I only teach graduate students. So my main job is to to publish and that sort of thing. So I still have a foot in academia, but I’m also working on a couple of new books and I’m busy with that. I’m working on a book about Plath, Sexton, Adrienne Rich and Mixing Human in Boston and the Fifties and Sixties and Robert Lowell and that that whole scene.
S6: So and that will be a popular trade biography.
S2: Yes. That’s going to be published by Kanof.
S6: And I want to talk a little bit about where you are in the process of writing that book and how seamlessly you from read comment into this next project.
S2: You know, it was funny, my editor, when she was reading through the book and helping me cut, I think the first manuscript before I even sent to my editor was I think it was six hundred pages. So then I cut a lot of that down myself because I was too embarrassed to say it to her. I mean, I really was embarrassed. I mean, when I actually did the word count, I, I felt an intense shame. So she she helped me cut more. And one of the things she said in the Boston chapter, again, she would write in the margins was save for next book. So because I had mentioned this idea to her before and I went down a rabbit hole when I wrote the Boston chapter when Sylvia Plath was in Robert Lowell’s creative writing class. And she met and Sexton and I thought that was such a pivotal time for her. And I wanted to know more about that period and I wanted to know more about Sexton and Adrienne Rich. And so it just seemed like there was there was a book there and my editor encouraged that. And she was able to cut a lot more from the Boston chapter.
S6: Do you imagine that that is an endeavor that will take you another seven years? Oh, God, no.
S2: Yeah, no. This is going to be a 300 page book. This is not going I would like to write another long biography after this book. I haven’t decided yet, but I’ll I’ll go. But I just couldn’t go from one eight year project to another. I just felt like I needed a break because you put a lot of pressure on yourself. I think as a biographer, if you’re writing a standard cradle to grave biography, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get everything right. You know, every little last fact. Right. And it’s that was incredibly difficult, just the the sheer amount of facts and also trying to make that interesting and put it into a narrative. So and Sylvia Plath tragically lived a very short life. So I can only imagine biographers of of people who live into their 80s and 90s, what that’s like. Yeah.
S6: I’m curious to know what it felt like as this process concluded and whether you felt because I’ll tell you even so, I have listened to and have read the book and I began to feel a little mad with Plath. Like I begin to feel like I was myself in mid century America, you know, and like everything I did seemed somehow related to her. When you’re inside of a project that takes you seven years, what does the end look like?
S2: It was a relief, to be perfectly frank, just to have finished it and to be on the other side of it. There was a great sense of personal relief that I had done it. I had completed it even with the difficulties of having a baby in between and raising a toddler and just dealing with those logistics. So. So, yeah, personally, a great sense of relief. I also felt that I should have put in more. To be perfectly honest, I can see those parts. Oh, I should have said more about this. I should have said more about that and new material. Even when I when I see new material now, I think I wish I had gotten that in the book. Right.
S7: So there was a sense I had that I needed to continue telling the story and I really just had to stop myself and say no. The book is a thousand pages enough. So and there was a great sense of relief when I got the manuscript back from the Plath estate in the Hughes estate and they were happy what they were OK with it. You know, they asked for a few minor changes, no big deal, happy to make them. And so.
S2: Yeah, I didn’t really fall into that kind of depression that I hear about so often when you finish a book, I think, again, having young children, you’re just so busy all the time. They don’t they don’t let you have any periods of deep introspection because you have to be you know, the next thing you’re doing is driving them to the soccer game or making them dinner or whatever. So there isn’t much time.
S6: Was possibly human something to you as a younger person?
S2: It’s so funny. I didn’t read Plath until I was almost a senior in college. I just don’t have any memory of reading the bell jar in high school like most people do, or even studying Plath at Harvard. The only woman poet I remember reading in any depth at Harvard was Emily Dickinson. And so I came to her later when I was in graduate school and somebody asked me to teach a tutorial on Sylvia Plath, I think because I was an American woman at Oxford. Honestly, I think it was that simple. And so that’s when I really started to grapple with her work. And I just I was in a state of shock for two months. What have I been missing? She’s she’s one of the greatest writers I’ve ever read. So, yes, I came to her quite late. But I do remember coming upon her journals when I was backpacking in Ireland in during a college summer. And I just sort of opened up the journals. I was in a youth hostel and I remember reading these entries that were just so full of of this hunger and desire. And I had never read a diary of a woman writer before. And I just thought, oh, my God, this is amazing. She’s writing about these desires and such an unapologetic way. I mean, so that that was kind of my first introduction to Plath. And and she sort of sat on the back burner for a while, I guess.
S4: And that’s it for our Slate plus segment. Thanks again for your support.