David Elliott Talks with Roger

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In 2017's Bull, poet David Elliott reimagined the ancient Greek story of the Minotaur. For Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc, he makes verse drama from history — if history can be told from the point of view of, among others, a needle, a crown, and fire.

Roger Sutton: Why Joan of Arc?

DE: I have a hard time answering that question, Roger, and I'm not being coy.

RS: Did it come to you in a dream?

DE: It did. After Bull, my agent, Kelly Sonnack, and my editor, Kate O'Sullivan (whom I adore), said, "Let's do another book." There was a particular fairy tale I wanted to retell, so off we went. Then one night — I was about twenty-five or thirty pages into that project — I woke up at around three in the morning, and I saw Joan of Arc's name in the air in front of me. I'm kind of a Jungian guy; I did a five-year Jungian analysis to get over my crazy family. I'm familiar with the unconscious, and I'm not afraid of it. So I thought, okay, I'll read about Joan of Arc for a couple of days.

RS: What had been your previous experience with Saint Joan?

DE: What is extraordinary to me, and what I still don't really understand, is I had no interest in Joan of Arc before that. If I'd had to take a test about her that you might give a fifth grader, I would have failed miserably. I thought maybe she was French. I knew she was burned at the stake, but by whom and why and when, I really would not have been able to tell you. That part is what is most astounding and interesting to me.

RS: Why would she be buried in your unconscious?

DE: Exactly. After noodling around with the idea for just a couple of days, I saw both the timelessness of that story and also the timeliness of it. In many ways, Roger, I am not a serious person. I'm not a student of history. I hate research; I'm terrible at it. No one was more surprised that I was writing this book than I was.

RS: What strikes you most about Joan now?

DE: Her story is so very compelling. She's one of those figures on whom we have projected so much over the past six hundred years. Every generation seems to find some aspect of her that they can make iconic and that suits their purposes. She's a saint, she's a military hero.

RS: Liturgically speaking, she is a saint.

DE: Yes, liturgically speaking. The suffrage movement—the big suffrage parade [in 1913], there was that famous image of the person dressed as Joan of Arc [Inez Milholland] on horseback leading the parade. Mark Twain said his favorite book that he wrote was about Joan of Arc — he did twelve years of research and first published it under another name. If you Google "Joan of Arc," one of the images that comes up is Emma González, the young woman activist from the Parkland school shooting. When Bill Cosby was found guilty, one of his other accusers referred to the person who won the court case as the Joan of Arc of the #MeToo movement. We've projected so much onto Joan, and she is very much in the zeitgeist right now. One of the difficulties of the book was that I began to feel an intense loneliness, because it felt like the real person — the young girl — had disappeared under the weight of all that projection. It became my quest to find out who she was. And I never did, really.

The thing that I still think about, and that I will think about forever, is the limitation of the human imagination. Joan said she saw saints: "I see them with my bodily eyes as well as I see you," she said in one of her trials. She heard those voices all throughout her short life — in every other area of her life, she seems to have been very sane.

RS: She was a very serious person. Very earnest, right?

DE: Serious and single-minded. She was going to do what those saints told her to do. If Joan of Arc were living today, she would be immediately diagnosed and medicated and maybe hospitalized. It makes me wonder how many Joans of Arc there may be. Our imaginations are so limited and we're so frightened of what we don't know, it's much easier to say people like her are ill.

RS: Right, by keeping to this medical solution, an explanation for everything.

DE: I know that there are serious mental illnesses, and my heart goes out to anybody who has suffered from them. But I wonder if sometimes there might be something else going on that we don't understand.

RS: David, what's your feeling about God? Has this book changed it at all?

DE: I think that if there is a God, our imaginations are so small that we cannot really comprehend it. When you imagine something, it's based on something you already know.

RS: If there is a God, he/she/it created us, and that includes our imaginations, so we're kind of in the god bubble. What do you think writing this book has done for your own sense of faith? Because you take Joan very seriously. You don't question what she says she experienced.

DE: That part of the book was very difficult to manage, because I just don't know — there could be saints who appear in visions. There could be something that is indeed St. Michael the Archangel. On the other hand, it could just be how we experience things, because we have to put them in some way that we can understand.

RS: A neat thing about the theology of saints is that saints are saints from the moment they're born. The canonization of a saint long after they're dead is just an acknowledgement of that. We don't confer sainthood upon someone; they're born a saint and then we recognize it later. So you could be a saint, David. I could be a saint.

DE: If that is the case, Roger — I'll speak for myself — then we are in terrible, terrible trouble.

RS: No, because a lot of our saints were some of our biggest sinners as well, who at some point had this transformative experience.

DE: Were you raised Catholic?

RS: Yes, can't you tell? And we loved Joan when we were kids, because there's so much color and excitement in her story. There are so many child-appealing elements. Armor! Horses! A mission! Blaze of glory!

DE: When she was seventeen, she was leading an army of twelve thousand men. It's astounding.

RS: I thought it was interesting that in your afterword, where you talk about the poetic forms used in the book, you told readers, "Look, here are the names of the forms. Go look them up. Miller Williams's book [Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms] is a great place to start." You could have gone on for pages, explaining what each one of those forms is.

DE: I didn't know how many people would be interested in such things, and also, Miller Williams already did it so beautifully. I would not consider myself a poet. The serious poets I know have dedicated so much of their lives and their work to that art. In both Bull and in Voices, I had those forms, I had the rules, and I thought, okay, I can follow the rules.

RS: Get back on the couch, David. Why do you say that you're not a poet?

DE: For one thing, I think I'm too happy to be a poet. But also, I don't think I've earned it yet. Although I will say that the one good thing about being raised in a Baptist church for poor people is there was a lot of hymn-singing. The rhyme and meter, along with the rich language of sermons, gave me a good ear for language. I think I know what language should sound like. A lot of that, I think, comes from being raised a Baptist, being raised in the rhyme and meter of hymns, and also the rich language of the sermons, even though it was insane.

RS: Convincingly insane.

DE: Right. My dad went to school until maybe the eighth grade. My mother would have been the valedictorian of her class, but she made the biggest mistake of her life and quit school and married my father. They were both very smart people, but not educated. It's not as if I grew up with my dad handing me the next book of myths that he thought I would like. But orally, it was really rich, linguistically. I never heard my dad say "thank you." He always said "much obliged." If you were in that little town in Ohio, in the working-class neighborhood, in the living room, and my mom and dad were there, this is what you would hear: "Hey, blue eyes. Get Roger a cup of mud." Meaning coffee. My mother had this way with language. She came up with expressions I have never heard anybody else say. When she was in her eighties I would call her and ask, "Mom, how are you doing?" And she would say, "David, I am as slow as Job's turkey." I have no idea where these things came from, but they're such fun linguistically. That was a gift to me — unintentional, but a gift nonetheless. I know how resilient and buoyant and playful language can be. I think I understand its rhythms. If I really worked at it, I might be a good poet one day.

RS: In the book you contrast Joan's free-verse narrative with perspectives from other characters — and things — in the story who themselves observe very strict forms. Which was easier for you?

DE: By far, the stricter forms. I struggled with Joan's voice from the beginning, and felt uncomfortable all the way through. Some of the reviews have mentioned Joan's voice, my imagined Joan's voice, and that was gratifying because I was not sure of myself.

RS: There's almost a word-game aspect to writing poetry in a strict form.

DE: That kind of limitation liberates me, because I understand what my boundaries are, and I can do anything I want within them. Although medieval forms rely a lot on repetition. I tried, not always as successfully as I would have liked, to have those repetitions take on different shades of meaning within the poems. Or using punctuation to change the repetition.

RS: I've always wondered this with verse novels: how do you decide where to put a line break? What goes into those choices?

DE: It's just intuition, I guess. There's a lot of internal rhyme in Joan's voice, but I didn't want there to be a lot of end rhymes. For a while — oh, this is so humiliating — I thought, okay, I'll just count syllables, and I'll make sure each line has the same number of syllables. I'm not sure why — I think it was partly because in Bull, Ariadne's voice is in a form called a cywydd. Those are couplets, but each one has to be seven syllables long, and then one of the end rhymes is stressed and the other one isn't. That was really hard to do, especially because Ariadne was so chatty, which I didn't realize she was going to be.

RS: Is there an audiobook for Voices?

DE: There will be. It'll be read by three actors. Kate passed along their choices for the actors, and I was really pleased.

RS: While I was reading this book in preparation for the interview, I was trying to figure out how something went, so I read it aloud. It was a surprise to see what that verse did when I took it off the page and said it aloud into the room. You discover so many things about language when you do that.

DE: Roger, you are becoming my best friend. I am not kidding. That makes me — I cannot tell you. I have goosebumps right now, and I'm not just saying that or trying to flatter you. It makes me so, so happy to hear you say that, because you can't really know this book unless you've read it aloud. Yes, it's Joan of Arc's story. But it's also about language. The language is telling its own story. For me, it's so important to hear it. The book was almost written aloud, if you know what I mean.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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