The Queen of Cups - a novel by  Mina Samuels

Author Q&A

What inspired you to write this book?

I was reading Louis Menand's book, The Metaphysical Club, about four of the great post-Civil War thinkers (William James, Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr., John Dewey, and Charles Peirce), and there were references to Peirce's mysterious wife. I was fascinated by this enigmatic woman who, in many historians' minds, bore so much blame for Peirce's failure to succeed. I thought her story was worth telling. I started the book as a defense of women maligned by history, but of course it became its own story. Ultimately I wanted to understand what kind of woman stayed with a man as difficult and self-destructive as Charles Peirce.

Juliette is a strong woman, but can her 19th century story resonate with today's feminist generation?

The dynamics and difficulties of relationships is an evergreen topic. Of course there are elements of Juliette's story that are particular to the times, but in many ways she is a very "liberated" character, at least in my mind. She is a woman who makes her choices and accepts the consequences. She is not a victim. I thought a lot about where Juliette fit on the feminist spectrum as I was writing the book. My own view is that if a woman truly makes a choice, then that is the most feminist action she can take. And I believe that's what Juliette did. Not everyone will agree with the choices she made (or indeed the choices that many women make today), but we do not have to agree to see the power of a woman's ability to decide her destiny.

Why was Charles Peirce famous?

Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced "purse") was the main founder of the American philosophical movement known as Pragmatism. Born in 1839, he was educated as a scientist but the 1934 Dictionary of American Biography characterized him as "the most original and versatile of American philosophers and America's greatest logician." William James referred to him as "America's Aristotle." His contributions included a method of representing logical relationships with "existential graphs" that eventually gave rise to a system called "conceptual graphs" that computer scientists around the world are now developing in connection with artificial intelligence.

Did you do a lot of historical research?

Yes. I delved into books about Peirce and books about the period. I've listed some of the books I looked at below, but there are many that are somewhere on my shelves that didn't make it onto this list. I also devoured nineteenth century novels—both written at the time, and contemporary historical novels dealing with the period. Finally, I went to Milford, PA and visited the house where Juliette and Charles lived for the last years of their lives, and I went to the local historical society's permanent exhibit on the couple. One of the special moments of my research was standing in Juliette's bedroom, looking out of her window, and trying to imagine what the view looked like at the turn of the 19th century. Were the trees small, or were they tall and venerable, long since cut down? Ultimately the historical research was the springboard for my imagination. I did not bind myself to the historical record, but let the story go where it wanted to go.

How much of the book is true?

A lot, but it is inextricably bound with the fictionalized elements now. Broadly speaking, Juliette's story before she arrives in New York is completely imagined, in that there is virtually nothing known about Juliette's life. Once I decided on a story for Juliette though, I researched many things about the period, from the clothes, to the customs, to the places. I went to a Belle Epoque clothing exhibit. On a trip to Paris I visited the places Juliette might have gone. I read up on the art scene in Paris during the mid-nineteenth century, among other things. The story of Juliette and Charles' courtship and marriage is based on scattered historical records, including letters, notes, and pictures I found at the historical society in Milford, PA. Of course, there is no record of personal conversations, though some letters provided the inspiration for the speaking syntax of the characters.

What are the unique challenges of writing fiction that is based on fact?

What is pure fiction anyway? Most novels are based on what we think of as "facts" in some way or another, whether it's a roman-a-clef (a personal story loosely disguised as fiction), a coming of age novel that closely mirrors the author's own life, or the kind of historical novel I have written. Even what appears to be the purest of fiction, stories which apparently bear no relation to the author's life, will have nuggets of emotion or events based on things that really happened. At the same time, facts are never as hard and fast as we imagine. Just think of how different two people's stories can be of the same event, and you glimpse the fungible nature of what we call "fact". Still, writing a historical novel does have its own particular issues. As I was writing I needed to keep asking myself how bound I was by the facts I knew. It can be a great trap for a fiction writer, if their story is based on real events. I found in my first draft that I stuck too closely to the historical record, and the story was stilted. I needed to let my imagination take over more, to free myself to imagine things happening a different way, so I could create a story that flowed.

What are the hazards of using real people as characters in fiction?

Because some of my characters are based on people who actually lived, there are readers who feel a certain proprietary interest in how I portrayed the real people. "But Charles wasn't really like that," they'll say. Or, "Juliette wouldn't have done that." Or, "It didn't happen that way." I consider it my job as a writer to make my characters believable as people, not to render with exactitude their life as it really was. A novel is, after all, a story, not a biography. There is a long and venerable precedent for writing novels based on real people in which the story strays far from actual historical events. Favorites of mine in the genre include: Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, Gore Vidal's American Chronicles series, E.L. Doctorow's The March, Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter, and Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose.

What is The Queen of Cups?

It is a Tarot card. One of the few historical facts we do know about Juliette Peirce is that she owned a deck of Tarot cards that had purportedly predicted the downfall of Napoleon. Once settled in Milford, PA, Juliette was often asked to read the cards for local fundraising events. The Queen of Cups card itself is often thought to be symbolic of a woman of strong temperament, a healer, or life-giver, but the meaning of any given tarot card is never so fixed as that. Depending on the location of the Tarot card within the chosen spread (the formation or shape in which the cards are laid out for the reading, which has its own symbolism and meaning), it can take on different interpretations in the different contexts.

Partial Bibliography

Bashkirtseff, Marie, The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff, first published 1887

Brent, Joseph, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life, Indiana University Press, 1993

Davenport-Hines, Richard, The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics, W.W Norton & Company, 2002

Davis, Deborah, Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003

DeWolfe Howe, M.A., Memories of a Hostess: A Chronicle of Eminent Friendships Drawn Chiefly from the Diaries of Mrs. James T. Fields, The Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, 1922

Dickens, Charles, American Notes, first published 1842

Edel, Leon ed., The diary of Alice James, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1999

Houser, Nathan and Christian Kloesel eds., The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 1 (1867-1893), Indiana University Press, 1992

Houser & Kloesel eds., The Essential Peirce, Volume 2 (1893-1913), Indiana University Press, 1998

James, Henry, French Poets and Novelists, first published 1878

James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, first published 1902

Ketner, Kenneth Laine, His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vanderbilt University Press, 1998

Menand, Louis, the Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001

In addition to the non-fiction research, I read fiction of the time including Edward Bellamy, Kate Chopin, Alexandre Dumas, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Marcel Proust, George Sand, Stendhal, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola; as well as historical fiction written now, but set in the time period of The Queen of Cups.


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©2009 Mina Samuels