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by Christine Johnson-Duell

 

What is the working title of your book?

Mrs. Jack’s Palace

Where did the idea for the book come from?

There are many answers to this question.

It came from adolescent afternoons I spent in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, absorbing, through my pores, Mrs. Gardner’s fantastic vision—her palace in the style of Renaissance Venice, her vast art collection, not to mention her rare books and letters, her quirky self. I imagined what it might have been like to live in such a place. The Gardner Museum helped to define my personal aesthetic and my interest in the Renaissance. So, the idea for the book started decades ago, without my even knowing it.

It came from having been raised by a Feminist mother, someone who helped me understand the importance of Isabella’s achievement, as a woman—given the time and place in which she lived—and, simultaneously, the need to regard that achievement as simply that and not “something a woman did.” So, the idea for the book is rooted in my own Feminism.

It came from late-night, Chianti-fueled conversations in Boston, Brooklyn, and Rome with my late cousin Fred Johnson, about art, collecting art, and the very intriguing question: who gets to own art?

It came from loss. Isabella and Jack Gardner lost their only child when he was three years old and, in the wake of his death, they travelled the world, collecting. In 1990, 13 works of art were stolen from the museum. Among them is Vermeer’s painting, The Concert, my favorite work in the Gardner collection. I was devastated. Writing this book might be my effort to replace that lost art.

It came from an early evening conversation when I was in residence atHedgebrook. After I’d finished writing a manuscript, I stood next to the vegetable garden after dinner and had a brief conversation with another resident about funding for writers. She asked me a question that escapes me now, but the answer was: write about Isabella Stewart Gardner—also known as Mrs. Jack. The idea for the actual book started in that conversation.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry, though I would love it if my book also held images from the Gardner, which would emphasize its ekphrastic nature.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version?

Hmm. If we were to make a movie about Mrs. Gardner, I think absolutely Meryl Streep for Isabella, Tom Hanks for Jack Gardner, George Clooney for John Singer Sargent. Jack Black for Henry James (because: how fun) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for his brother, William. Amy Adams for Clover Adams. Neil Patrick Harris for Henry Adams. Geena Davis for Mrs. Agassiz. Wally Shawn for Prof. Agassiz. Stanley Tucci for Bernard Berenson. Gosh this is a fun exercise.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Mrs. Jack’s Palace takes, as its inspiration, Isabella Stewart Gardner, her circle in Boston and Venice, her art collection, the palace she built to house it, and the 1990 theft of 13 works of art, still unrecovered, from the museum.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I began in 2007, in Cedar Cottage at Hedgebrook, immediately following that twilight conversation outside the garden. I hope to finish it by this time next year. So, seven years. I hope.

What other books in your genre would you compare this to?

I resist comparing—not because of some lofty ideal but because I am too chicken to equate my work with that of other poets. I will say this: Linda Bierds was my teacher and I learned a great deal from her book The Ghost Trio. Ditto Rick Kenney and Invention of the Zero (what I could comprehend of it, anyway). Eavan Boland’s work examining history and women is important to me. On the advice of Ilya Kaminsky (in a workshop I took from him) I read Carolyn Forche’s book The Angel of History, which was among the books I chose to bring with me to Hedgebrook. When I arrived there, having no idea I was about to begin to write about a historical figure, I learned that Carolyn Forche had just left.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

As I write it, it occurs to me that the multivalent story of Isabella and her museum, its birth in both loss and acquisition, and the amazing cast of characters that surrounded her might make a pretty great opera libretto. I am taking notes in my writing journal as they occur to me because you just never know what will be The Next Big Thing.

 

This post was originally featured on the Yellow Wallpaper writer’s blog and can be accessed here.

Christine Johnson-Duell is a poet, essayist, and brief resident of Cedar Cottage (’07). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Floating Bridge Journal, The Far Field, CALYX, Poet Lore, Alimentum: The Literature of Food, Pontoon I, Drash, The Seattle Times, The Boston Globe, and Parent Map. She blogs with her writing group at www.yellowwallpaperwriters.com (where this post first appeared) and you can find her on the web at www.christinejohnsonduell.com. Christine was a member of the first Artist Trust EDGE Professional Development for Writers cohort and she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington.

 

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

Christine Johnson-Duell
About Christine Johnson-Duell

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