Thursday, August 16, 2012

An interview with Elizabeth Caulfield Felt, author of Syncopation: A Memoir of Adèle Hugo

Musically gifted and passionate, yet born into an era that grants women few opportunities, Victor Hugo's daughter Adèle chooses to pursue life on her own terms... and meets a world that isn't ready for her.

Elizabeth Caulfield Felt's Syncopation is a fictional autobiography written in a nontraditional style.  Adèle Hugo tells her story in the third person, mingling true events with imagined reminiscences and occasional wishful thinking.  In a less creative writer's hands, the deliberate blurring of history and fiction might be confusing or off-putting, but here it's the perfect vehicle for imagining a character like Adèle, a woman who delights in sparking outrage.  The snippets in which she breaks away from her account to speak with her sister, Didine, explain her reasons for wanting to reinterpret parts of her life.

As Adèle grows to adulthood in mid-19th-century Paris and Guernsey, she has several love affairs, ones that would shock her family if they knew.  She refuses to marry any of her suitors, though, because it would mean giving up her freedom.

Readers who have seen François Truffaut's well-known 1975 film The Story of Adèle H. (L'Histoire d'Adèle H.) may think of Adèle Hugo as a beautiful, intense woman whose mind became unhinged due to unrequited love.  I won't give away more of the plot of Syncopation, other than that her depiction here is somewhat different but just as psychologically complex.  In the following interview, I asked Elizabeth Caulfield Felt about her writing inspiration, research, and characterizations.  Please read on!

You write in the acknowledgments that your starting point was Victor Hugo's poem "Demain dès l'Aube," which he wrote for his elder daughter, Léopoldine ("Didine" in the novel). What drew you away from their story and on to Adèle's?

Quite simply, Adèle's story is much more interesting. But without the poem, I never would have discovered Adèle.

I first read "Demain dès l'Aube" as a teenager. I hadn't known the history behind the poem, and so the end came as a complete surprise to me. Admittedly, this may have been because I struggled a little with the French and didn't pick up on clues for how the poem would end. "Demain dès l'Aube" led me to other works by Victor Hugo, and I fell in love with him—he wrote so beautifully; his work was so romantic. My senior year in college, I took a French class that required a research paper, and I chose Victor Hugo as my subject. Unfortunately, when I dug deeper into his life, I discovered his infidelities and his generally poor view of the abilities and intellect of women. I was left with a bad taste in my mouth for Victor Hugo. As for "Demain dès l'Aube," I still loved it but wished it had been written by someone else.

About twenty years later, I was asked if I had memorized any poems as a student, and, to my surprise, "Demain dès l'Aube" fell from my lips. I still wished it had been written by someone else, and I began pondering this question. What if someone else had written it? Who would that person be? I knew a little about Adèle, having researched Victor and having seen François Truffaut's film about her. Once I started looking into the story of her life, I was blown away. Why aren't there hundreds of historical novels about her, like there are about Anne Boleyn? I was afraid someone would publish her story before I got a chance—but, as far as I know, Syncopation is the first historical novel about Adèle Hugo.

What sources did you find the most useful or persuasive in helping you flesh out Adèle's character?

Leslie Smith Dow's wonderful biography of Adèle called Adèle Hugo: La Misérable, gave me the details of Adèle's life and an idea for her personality. After reading Dow, I discovered that Adèle's personal journals were published in 1968, edited/translated by Frances Vernor Guille. Adèle kept a journal for most of her life, and she wrote it in code—talk about fodder for a novelist! Once I began reading her diary, her character became real to me. I found every detail of her life fascinating and took piles of notes and attempted to drop all this enchanting minutiae into my novel. Finally, I realized that these details were messing up the story. Adèle's character had come to me. I knew what happened to her, so it was time to put the journals to the side and let the fictional Adèle talk.

The novel shows a wonderful sensitivity to the importance of music in Adèle's life; her talent for the piano is beautifully described. What is your own musical training? How does music influence your writing, or what you choose to write about?

I played the flute poorly for several years as a child, so I can read music, but I am not musical. I cannot sing in tune or clap to a beat. My husband grew up in a musical family, and we decided that the same would be true for our children. When our first child turned three, we registered him for Suzuki violin lessons, changing my life and forming his. The Suzuki method for learning music is a way of life—the child practices every day, the parent helps, and specific musical pieces are listened to constantly. For the past thirteen years, I've been swimming in music.

My inability to be musical has given me a fascination with music and musicians, and so it is a topic I enjoy exploring. My other published novel is The Stolen Goldin Violin, a children's mystery (co-written with my family) about four Suzuki musicians.

The sections at the end of many chapters in which Adèle converses with her sister were fabulous. They transformed the book from a traditional historical novel into something much more complex; they had me thinking about the nature of fiction and memoir and the choices that writers make. How did you come up with this technique?

Adèle Hugo (1830-1915)
credit: Philippe Landru
To be honest, I can't remember making the decision to create those Adèle and Didine conversations. I do know that when I first started writing Syncopation, I was thinking about how two people can experience the same event and remember it differently. One of the first scenes I wrote described a childhood event from three points of view: how Adèle remembered it, how Didine remembered it, and how her brother Toto remembered it. Their three memories were similar but different; each person understood what happened from their own egocentric point of view, noticing what was important to them as a child and ignoring the details that they didn't care about. The facts were the same, but the interpretations were vastly different. That scene didn't make the final version of Syncopation, but it helped to lay a thematic foundation for me.

I always knew that in my novel, Adèle's version of her life story was not going to be the one history gave her, but at the same time I wanted to remain true to the facts of her life, realizing that different interpretations are possible. When I began writing, and the character Adèle moved into my head, I found her very argumentative. She had a strong personality, and I found that she didn't care so much about the truth. I struggled with how much imagination I could use in a historical novel, and I wanted the reader to understand this struggle. I believe that the conversations between Didine and Adèle illustrate this. They help create a balance between fiction and fact, truth and memory.

Additionally, the conversations work as a sort of barometer of Adèle's sanity. In a way, the conversations became the backbone of the entire novel, something I hadn't planned in the beginning.

Adèle writes about the frustrating difference between her father's public persona and what he's truly like to live with. Did your own opinion about Victor Hugo change in the course of your research?

As I explained above, my early research gave me a strong negative opinion of him long before I wrote this book. Adèle and her father had a complicated relationship (as all family relationships are), and as Syncopation is Adèle's story, it gives readers a one-sided look at a difficult relationship. Strangely, as I wrote this story I found that I felt a little sorry for Victor and how negatively Adèle portrayed him. Still, I felt more sorry for Adèle. Victor Hugo was a great man in many ways, but he was not perfect, and his treatment of women, and Adèle in particular, shows this.

Cornerstone is a unique type of publishing house, and from what I've seen, the student staff have some really creative ideas. What were some of the most exciting or memorable parts of the publication process?

Elizabeth Caulfield Felt
For readers who don't know, Cornerstone Press is both a small press and a university course (English 349) offered at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. At the beginning of the semester, students read through the submitted manuscripts and vote on the one they will publish. The editing, design, marketing, sales strategy, etc, all happen in about four months.

Cornerstone was fabulous to work with. Because I was the only author, all of their energy was spent on me and my book. Not many authors get that kind of attention from a publisher. I'll admit I was skeptical about how much help students would be as editors. I teach part-time at the university, and I've seen the quality (or lack thereof) of student writing. I couldn't have been more wrong. The content editors caught some very embarrassing mistakes, and the line-editing was amazing. I feel like every awkward sentence I'd submitted was turned into poetry by the editing team. And the cover art! The design team's work is gorgeous. I couldn't be more pleased with the final result.


Thank you, Elizabeth!

Syncopation: A Memoir of Adèle Hugo was published by Cornerstone Press in April in trade paperback ($13.00, 235pp, including author's note).  To purchase, see the University Store at UW-Stevens Point (they will ship internationally).

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