From 1991 to1993 I tried to write a novel and failed. The subject of the novel was Constance Kent, 15-year-old protagonist of “The Great Crime of 1860,” the Road Hill House Murder. (To see an out-take from that first attempt, go to Hysterical Operators. The case was remarkable on many counts. Constance Kent, a young girl from a well-to-do family, was implicated in the murder of her young brother, but acquitted. Four years later, under the influence of an Anglican priest, she confessed to the unsolved crime. Forensics was in its infancy but even then it was clear that the evidence did not support her story. Yet she was convicted and sentenced to death. The case gave rise to the first true-crime book and inspired both the “sensation novel” and the country house mystery. Both Wilkie Collins and Dickens made use of it, in The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, respectively. Everyone in England took sides as to whether Constance had “done it.”
As for my novel, I failed because I tried to set the events within the characters’ points of view and found that using Constance’s own necessarily assumed that I could know what was going on in her mind. I found myself attributing to her, and other characters, my own interpretation of her story and my own feelings about it; I had turned it into an allegory about the creative process, something quite far afield from what it actually was, and that felt dishonest. So I abandoned the novel form for something radically different.
I took that true-crime book, The Great Crime of 1860, written immediately after the crime by Joseph Stapleton in order to exonerate his friend, the boy’s father, and I extracted one word from every line of the text. This “mesostic” method was used by John Cage in Roaratorio. From these words, in the order in which I found them, I composed a secondary text that follows the narrative. I set them in groupings; then counted the words in each grouping and selected passages with as many lines as the groupings had words. These passages came from books about the case, books Constance was known to have read, and books published between 1860 and 1865. I chose passages that commented in some way on the text I had found, a method borrowed from Paul Metcalf. The extracted “mesostic” text runs down the left-hand page; the passages are placed on the right-hand page across from the word-group they comment on; sometimes there is more than one such passage. The result is Blue Fire, my attempt to create a polyphonic history.
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Wendy Walker composes a magnificent book incorporating found text, [and] visual elements, in which voluminous research… is translated into a crisp, angular, paratactic poem, which, in turn, becomes a filter for the research.
—William Gillespie, Spineless Books
Far from writing unchallenging books, a good example of the effort modern authors put into their books is provided by Wendy Walker’s essay “Imagination and Prison.” It includes a valuable description of how she put together… Blue Fire (2009). Inspired by the real-life tale of Constance Kent, Walker’s Blue Fire attempts to carry its own critique. Literally. Encoded in her novel (but interestingly, not in her essay) is a counter-narrative, and though the details of its construction were interesting, I was more intrigued by her deconstructionist idea that “all texts contain its own critique, like the statue hidden in a block of marble”… It’s intriguing, because as John Bender explains in his book Imagining the Penitentiary (1989), narrative techniques not only represent consciousness in action, they also represent the developing social consciousness. … when Walker constructs a novel that contains its own critique, it leads me to wonder if we’re beginning to see the rise of a less narcissistic society, one conscious of its flaws and limitations, but secure enough to tolerate dissent.
—Anil Menon on “Imagination and Prison,” (a version
of the introduction to Blue Fire), in Narrative Power,
ed. L. Timmel Duchamp, strangehorizons.com