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An Interview with Danielle Dutton

By Michelle Lyn King.

Danielle Dutton

Danielle Dutton’s second novel, Margaret the First (out March 15 from Catapult), tells the story of Margaret Cavendish, the eccentric and revolutionary 17th-century writer and polymath. Despite its period setting, the novel—billed by Catapult not as “historical fiction” but as “a contemporary novel set in the past”—feels distinctly modern. Dutton’s fictional speculation of Margaret depicts her as a fierce and creative woman struggling with many of the same issues that contemporary artists deal with.

Dutton, who holds a PhD from the University of Denver and an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is also the author of SPRAWL and Attempts at a Life. She teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis, and is the founder of the independent press Dorothy, a publishing project dedicated to works of fiction mostly by women.

I spoke to Dutton over video chat about how she found Margaret’s voice, the role aging plays in the novel, and her research process.

3:AM Magazine: In your author’s note, you mention that reading Virginia Woolf is how you first learned of Margaret Cavendish. She obviously sparked an interest then, but when did you realize that you wanted to write a book about her life?

Danielle Dutton: When I first read the Woolf reference in A Room of One’s Own, I mostly just read past it. But part of the description that Woolf has for Cavendish—there’s something about her being like a gigantic cucumber that was crushing the roses in the garden—really stuck out to me. So, I remembered that. In The Common Reader there’s a whole essay on Margaret called “The Duchess of Newcastle,” but I never really made the connection between it and that cucumber bit in A Room of One’s Own until after I took a class on seventeenth-century New Science. Margaret Cavendish was one of the people who came up in the course. That was when I started thinking about her as a character for a book, but my idea was for a totally different book. It had all these characters in it; Samuel Pepys was one of the main characters. He famously wrote these extensive diaries through the period that are really funny and sort of saucy, actually. So it was this multi-perspective, multi-character book, and it went through all of these different manifestations. I’m not sure there was a single moment where I thought to myself, Oh, I need to write about Margaret Cavendish. She just kept taking over the book I thought I was writing.

3:AM: That seems fitting given her personality.

DD: It is. She’s very aggressive. I would be researching seventeenth-century garden design or I would be doing something with Pepys, but I just kept using all of it to write about Margaret Cavendish. It took me a long time to realize that I just wanted to write a book about her. Years.

3:AM: Can you speak about how you first were able to decide on a form? Specifically the three distinct parts into which the book is organized—the first, second, and then that close third, where the novel is driven by very lyrical, poetic language, straight from Margaret’s head?

DD: That came a lot later, too. Finding the form was really a very dynamic process. I went through a lot of shifting, trying to get it right. Because the writing took place over such a long time, it’s hard for me to pinpoint when specific things happened, but basically the final version only materialized in the last two or so years. It was there, but it took me a while to see it and then to refine it after I’d seen it.

3:AM: It’s a slim book, but it’s quite a weighty book.

DD: Well, that’s nice to hear, because I think there’s this feeling that when I say to people that it took me ten years to write it… I sense people expect something to show for ten years. But I do feel like it is dense. Some of my own favorite books are slim, but there’s a lot of weight and power in them.

3:AM: I’d like to talk about the style and the voice of the book. Margaret’s voice pulled me in right away. How did you go about developing it? I’m especially interested because the voice seems to change as the book progresses. It seems to get more lyrical as Margaret herself gets more out there, diving deeper into her interest in science fiction.

DD: The oldest writing in the book is the beginning of part three. The part where she’s at Welbeck and it’s very lyrical and she’s looking out, thinking about how she’s just finished The Blazing World and about what its reception is going to be. It’s extremely dreamlike. It even actually has her dreaming in it: all those celestial bodies and the waves of the ocean. It literally might be the first thing I wrote in the whole book. And I wrote all those pages really fast. They just came straight out like that. There’s been tweaking to them since then because of other things that came up, but basically that body of text is the voice I heard.

Back then, when I had that original idea to write about the seventeenth century, the whole thing was set in 1666. I was thinking of Margaret near the end of her life, and that was the voice I heard for her. But when I realized it was actually going to be this portrait of the artist, birth to death, I had to then discover who Margaret as a young woman would be. I had to find the different voices for her throughout her life. I had a lot of fun discovering that. I had a lot of fun writing the childhood sections. By imagining her childhood, I was able to come up with this voice that matures as she gets older.

The reason the middle section switches to third person is, well, this is middle age. This is the part in her life where she loses track of something that was driving her and has to figure out what’s going to drive the next part of her mission, this mission to be an author. I had to push back away from her for a while before we could come up to that really lyrical close third in the final section.

Margaret the First

So it was a process of working backwards. I asked myself, If this is who she is post-middle age, who is she as a young woman and how does she get to that really lyrical place?

3:AM: I do want to talk about research. Were there things—both about Margaret and the world surrounding her—that you had to pass on including in the novel because it wasn’t necessary to the larger narrative? How did you decide on what stays and what goes?

DD: The way I’ve talked about my research process is that it was like magpies. I was just sort of moving through all these books and when something shiny would pop out I’d be like, Ooh, I love it! and I’d pluck it out. It’s fun to figure out how to use those bits you really love—like I’d read about gold shoes with cork heels. Obviously, Margaret would have to wear those shoes.

So I had all these sparkles I’d collected and wanted to work in, but when I originally started writing it and it was originally this novel about all these people set in 1666, what I was so interested in was the New Science. I was obsessed with the scientific instruments people were building and all the weird experiments they were doing. I did actually wind up working in some of that, but there were whole sections I’d written about these instruments that ultimately had to be abandoned when I realized that the book really was about Margaret Cavendish. I couldn’t justify using all of them. I was sad to see some of them go. Like a magic lantern that would project images on walls and people would travel the countryside with these magic lanterns and tell stories. And there was this cabinet that you would walk up to and it had a little peephole and inside the whole thing was covered in thousands of little mirrors. There was a stage inside it and a crank on the outside that would rotate something, like a tiny tree carved of cork, onto the stage, and then the thousands of little mirrors would multiply that one tree so that the viewer would see an infinite forest instead.

3:AM: I want to see that!

DD: I know, I know. So, those fell by the wayside, and then there were lots of things about Margaret’s life that I had to leave out because it wasn’t a novel about her stepchildren, for example. I was trying to focus on Margaret’s trajectory as an artist, as a woman and an artist. Hopefully Cavendish experts won’t be angry at me for anything I’ve left out. I feel like all the major movements of her life are there.

3:AM: Catapult calls your novel “a contemporary novel set in the past,” rather than “historical fiction.” What do you think that distinction is?

DD: I’m not entirely sure what a historical novel absolutely has to be, but you don’t want a reader who loves a very traditional historical novel to go in with the expectation that this is going to deliver the same kind of reading experience. I think what’s contemporary about my book has something to do with how condensed things are.

I loved reading historical novels when I was young, but I definitely don’t think I wrote one. When I read my book through, when it was completely done and in printed galleys, I was surprised by how uninterested in the passage of time and history the book seemed to be. Even though you can feel it all there, that’s just not what it’s focused on.

3:AM: That’s intriguing that you were surprised by your own book.

DD: Till the end! Till the very end!

3:AM: Why do you think that is?

DD: It’s all just so fraught when you’re writing and then going through the editorial process. It feels like this shape-shifting thing. When it’s done, and you can’t change a single word, it’s a totally different thing. I was surprised by what that thing was.

3:AM: Interesting. Let’s return to talking about Margaret. Margaret is someone who doesn’t just want success: she also wants fame. As a result, she’s often viewed as arrogant. I wanted to know how important it was for you to display traits that are commonly thought of as negative when writing Margaret’s character.

DD: It was important for me to not romanticize her and make her some simple heroine. She was a complicated person. I just wanted her to be complicated in the book and have strengths and weaknesses, like any complicated person would. I think, like many women probably feel these days (and this was how Margaret seemed to me) she felt like she had to be totally ferocious if she was going to get anyone to pay any attention to her or take her seriously at all. She had no choice. She had to be awkward or shrill or arrogant at times in order to get people to even read her books. That’s another way the book feels quite contemporary, just how relatable certain aspects of her struggle might feel. I think there are probably a lot of women writers—or just writers—who would identify with that feeling. I myself identify with how shy she is, but I didn’t in every sense identify with how bold she is. I really liked that about her, and it was fun to live that out. She’s so insistent that people should take her seriously. That was refreshing to me.

3:AM: Margaret doesn’t just write. Of course you can’t really know, but why do you think she also does things like show up to the theatre topless or place stars on face? Why the element of performance?

DD: The way I answered it for myself was to think a lot about who she was as a child. I was an extremely shy, quiet, but weirdly performative child. It just…this jived with the sort of…the descriptions I found of her in the biographies. There’s less information about her childhood than the other parts of her life, which is what made it so fun for me to write, because I didn’t feel as if I was intruding quite as much into the biography. She grew up so sheltered from the world, and within her family space she was quite precocious and performative, but then immediately upon going out into the world, she withdrew into herself, but meanwhile that other part of her was never gone. That’s how I read her. Always in her was this imaginative, performative, strange, eccentric self, but she was shy and awkward around other people.

3:AM: Margaret and William’s marriage is one of the most compelling marriages I’ve read about in recent memory, and not at all the kind of marriage I’d expect to read about in a novel that takes place in the 17th century. I love William. He’s so supportive of her, and gives her so much creative freedom. I wanted to know how you think the marriage of William and Margaret allowed her to be who she was.

DD: It’s everything. If it hadn’t been for William, I just don’t think we would have Margaret Cavendish’s work to read and study. If she’d married an aristocrat who didn’t want her to publish, she might’ve just been a woman with all of these frustrated ambitions who was unable to express them. It was a totally remarkable marriage then and it’s still a remarkable marriage now. He’s utterly supportive of her. They have their moments in the book. They have some clashes. Again, I didn’t want to romanticize their marriage. There are times when they’re very close and there are times where they feel far apart. But I think they had a loving marriage. That surprised me. I mean, I didn’t expect my book to be so much about marriage—about that marriage. But it definitely became important.

3:AM: I read in another interview where you mention that the book is about aging. Can you expand on that?

DD: Because it took so long to write, I aged while it was happening quite a bit. I started it in my late twenties and I finished it when I was 39. As I was approaching 40, there were things I could understand differently about aging and the desire to accomplish something by a certain age that I couldn’t have understood when I was 29. I just wouldn’t have had those same thoughts. It made me realize that the book was also about Margaret aging. It seems so simple. Over the course of a life, of course she would age. But I think I had to age myself to be able to write about it. There are moments when she feels the pressure of being an aging woman physically, but also a pressure to get something done before she dies. Part of her desire for fame seems related to a fear of death. She wrote a lot about oblivion and her fear of oblivion. I had to feel that ramping up before she approached the end of her life. And, of course, she died young, but she actually did manage to write The Blazing World a few years before her death. That was the book that really sucked me into her work.

3:AM: Margaret the First is Catapult’s third book and their first-ever Spring book. What’s it been like to work with such a new press?

DD: It was amazing. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about every single person there. They’re brand new, but it feels like there’s tons of energy and knowledge there. I’ve been totally impressed. The editorial, the design, the marketing, everything.

3:AM: Your editor, Pat Strachan, is something of a publishing legend. What was it like working with her?

DD: It was great. I was in this funny place where I was like, EDIT ME! I remember this excellent episode of The Simpsons where Lisa has to stay home sick from school and at the end of the day she’s like, GRADE ME! I was like that. Pat was a very smart editor with a light touch, but I think her light touch really helped me finish the book.


Danielle Dutton is the author of SPRAWL and Attempts at a Life. She teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis, and is the founder of the independent press Dorothy, a publishing project.

Michelle Lyn King is a Florida native who now lives and works in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Shabby Doll House, Catapult, Electric Literature, and The Fanzine, amongst other places.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 15th, 2016.