A Conversation with Debra Weinstein
Jennifer Morgan Gray is an editor and writer who lives in Washington, D.C.
jennifer morgan gray: Was there a particular image or idea that inspired you to write Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z.? Did you begin with a character, a certain plotline, or perhaps a poem?
debra weinstein: The idea for the book came from a sentence
I found in my notebook: “Such was the nature of my relationships with
Professors T., X., and Ms. Z.” Who was Ms. Z.?, I wondered. She
seemed to be set off and quite distinct from the other letters. The narrative
voice from this passage seemed self-assured and funny, and so I
continued to write in this vein. So I would say inspiration came by way
of language and voice.
jmg: Annabelle’s love for poets and the process of writing poetry is evident
on every page. How does her writing style and process compare
with your own? Were there any writers—poets, novelists, memoirists—
whom you read for inspiration?
dw: I love Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights because it is strange and
mysterious, a wholly original novel which breaks from tradition and
form. In the 1850 preface, Emily’s sister, the novelist Charlotte Brontë,
apologized for the perverse nature of the book, saying that it “was
hewn in a wild workshop” and that the writer who possesses the creative
gift owns something of which [she] is not always master. I have always
been interested in the mystery of writers’ lives and the act of
transgression that allows them to make use of that creative gift.
When I sat down to write Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z., I wasn’t
really reading anything. It was my hope to be free of influence. Initially,
I had imagined Annabelle to be a doctoral student writing her
dissertation on the Flower Poet Z., and her writing goes terribly awry
when she starts focusing less on the poetry and more on the poet.
Annabelle’s creative process is a lot like mine. Before I write, I go
around absorbing information and gathering words and phrases.
Annabelle also edits poetry as I do—ruthlessly.
jmg: The poems and written words of many characters—among
them Annabelle, Z., Arthur Feld, Ben, Meg Cross, and Harry—figure
prominently in the novel. How did you get into the mind-set of these
different characters in order to write in their distinct literary voices?
dw: Sometimes it was simply a word that I associated with a character
when creating a poem. With Ben it was “downtown.” Naturally, I
thought of the Beats, and so then I found myself creating a beat and
four words to accompany it. For Meg Cross, the word “cross” would
define her oeuvre.
Annabelle’s poems needed to reflect her struggle in the world, and
so I had to understand her psychology very well to create them. Aside
from that, I felt her poems needed to be written in an original voice—
one that would reflect her as quirky, sardonic, irreverent, and utterly
her own person. When I was in college, I had written a very technical,
funny poem called “The Mathematician’s Daughter Elopes.” It was, in
a sense, a young woman’s formula for separating from her family. I
used that poem—and the concept of alphabet as identity—as a blueprint
for Annabelle’s work.
jmg: “Writing poetry is its own reward,” says Z. at the very beginning
of the novel (p. 9). Does Annabelle agree with her? In what ways
does Z. adhere to this philosophy, and how has she fallen away from it?
How does Z.’s statement mirror your own attitude about poetry?
dw: When Z. says this to Annabelle—and later, when she recites
Dylan Thomas’s “In My Craft of Sullen Art”—she is saying that the
act of creation is its own a reward. Poetry is one of those what-I-didfor-
love fields. You go into it because you can’t imagine a life without
it. Of course, for some poets, there are rewards beyond the act of writing.
But in this passage, Z. is letting Annabelle know that there’s not
much to be had in the poetry field (awards, publication, honors), and
furthermore, Annabelle should not come looking to the Flower Poet
for help in acquiring anything. I think that in this passage, too, we
begin to see Professor Z. as a hypocrite. (She is, after all, a celebrated
award-winning poet with a university position, so it’s not exactly true
that poetry is a thankless profession.). But I do think that Z. still yearns
for poetry’s intangible rewards. More than anything, she would like to
be in the thick of the creative act, writing a great poem. We meet her at
an incredibly busy phase in her life, when she is short of inspiration.
Part of Annabelle’s job is to write flower descriptions to help jumpstart
her creative process.
jmg: The delineation between the words “apprentice” and “assistant”
is very important to Annabelle. How would you define the two terms?
In what ways can the mentor-apprentice relationship benefit both parties,
and how can it be detrimental?
dw: I think of an apprentice as an artisan who is learning from the
master. An assistant is a helper, a secretary, one who does menial tasks.
Annabelle is both apprentice and assistant to Z. I wrote this book as a
way of trying to figure out how these relationships work, but I can’t say
I fully understand them. I think what we have here is two people using
each other in subtle and overt ways. Z. is using Annabelle to get her
laundry done; Annabelle is using Z. as a model of how she should be in
the world as a woman and a writer. For Annabelle, the greatest bene-
fit the job has is getting to spend time with the writer she admires.
jmg: Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. is your first novel. How does the
process of writing poetry compare to that of fiction writing? Were you
able to write the two forms simultaneously, or does each require an entirely
different mind-set? Along those lines, how does the experience
of having a book of poetry published compare to publishing a novel?
dw: For me, poetry is all about compression and fiction is all about expansion. I’ve never been able to write a long poem, so my ability to write a novel surprised me. What I love about the novel is the accumulation
of detail that ultimately reveals character. And I love dialogue.
Being able to write both fiction and poetry is a little like being ambidextrous
and bisexual. You move easily between two seemingly unrelated
experiences, and it happens without too much thinking. However,
I will say that the occasion that moves me to write a poem is different
from the one that will move me to write a novel. The urge to write a
novel is about having questions I want to puzzle out, people I want to
know more deeply, conflicts and relationships I want to explore. Poetry
is about wanting to capture a moment in time through language, lyric,
When my poetry book came out, it was reviewed in five journals,
including The Nation, and that was very exciting—I remember the
thrill of reading the very first review from Publishers Weekly; it was like
walking on air. My poetry book had a print run of about a thousand
copies, and of course, I understood I would never reach a large audience.
So when my novel went out into the world, I felt a sense of overwhelming
gratitude each time I got a review. I suppose what was so
touching was that people were actually reading my book.
jmg: Reviewers have praised the spot-on satirical nature of Apprentice
to the Flower Poet Z. How was your depiction of this rather cutthroat
poetry world based on reality? Did your own experiences as a published
poet come into play while you were writing about this sometimes
dw: My depiction of the “rather cutthroat poetry world” was based
on some articles that I’d read in the newspaper. As a graduate student,
I did type the poems of the visiting professors and sadly learned that I
was remembered more for my typing than for my poetry. After publishing
my first book of poetry, I suffered a crisis of faith. I realized that
the opportunities to earn a living as a poet were limited, and so I turned
to fiction writing.
I have always been interested in the phenomenon of the celebrity poet. In her day, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was like a rock star. Elizabeth Hardwick, musing on Millay, wrote that she was an “unconventional
person who wrote conventional poems.” Why do certain
poets capture the public’s attention? Louise Bogan said, “It is a dangerous
lot, that of the charming, romantic public poet, especially if it
falls to a woman.”
Part of my goal in writing this book was also to educate the public
about poetry. What is poetry? I’m not sure that we know yet, but perhaps
we are a little closer to the answer. People do tell me that after
reading this book they start writing again or go to the bookstore and
browse the poetry aisle. They’re not as afraid of poetry.
jmg: How does Annabelle’s difficulty with writer’s block mirror Z.’s
struggles as a poet? How does each woman attempt to unlock her creativity? What techniques do you employ when you face writer’s block?
dw: Annabelle is blocked because she feels diminished when she compares
her poems with the poems of the Flower Poet Z. Z. struggles
because she is tired of writing about flowers but hasn’t the courage to
try writing about something different. Z. works through her writer’s
block by hiring assistants to do her research. Annabelle works through
hers by asking established writers for advice. Writing is hell, but not
writing is hell, too. When I’m blocked, what works for me is forcing
myself to write with the understanding that this forced writing
will most likely be terrible. I usually feel better writing badly than not
jmg: Annabelle’s relationship with Harry is unconventional, to say
the least. Can you talk a little bit about it?
dw: “I’m not perfect, but I’m perfect for you” was the concept I used
to think about the romance of Harry and Annabelle. Knowing Annabelle,
I imagined that even in love she would find herself in a mentorstudent
relationship. And she might also find herself giving voice to
the erotic side of her masochism.
Something I took away from a college literature course was the
idea that people like to seduce people with stories about seduction—
and so James Joyce’s steamy letters to his wife, Nora Barnicle Joyce,
became the vehicle for Annabelle’s seduction. But creating a sex life
for these characters wasn’t easy. Sex is hard to write well, and what
we desire is highly individual and specific to each of us. If I could do
it over again, I might lose the gloves and heels, but then again I might
jmg: Z. has a fascinating relationship with Mrs. Van Elder. Is the
character of Mrs. Van Elder based on anyone in the real poetry world?
How did you arrive at the name for her character?
dw: Some people have assumed that Mrs. Van Elder is a famous literary
critic. But in fact, Mrs. Van Elder’s name comes from something
W. H. Auden said about Adrienne Rich’s first book of poems when he
awarded it the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Auden praised the poems for
their formal qualities, saying they “are neatly and modestly dressed,
speak quietly but do not mumble, [and] respect their elders. . . .” Z. is a
writer whose work is conventional and seeks to preserve the “oldworld”
order, the status quo. For this she is rewarded.
jmg: The theme of Annabelle’s search for a connection with a mother,
and a family, seems central to the novel. Does Annabelle view Z. as a
maternal figure? How do Annabelle’s feelings compare to those of Z.’s
own daughter, Claire? Are there any other figures that Annabelle
looks to as role models, both inside and outside her immediate family
dw:Annabelle has a poetry father, her former teacher Arthur Feld, so
it makes sense that she would go looking for her poetry mother. Ironically,
in choosing Z., Annabelle picks a woman very much like her
own mother. Like Mrs. Goldsmith, Z. is distracted, disconnected, and
usually not too interested. Observing Z. and her daughter, Claire,
Annabelle notes that Z. doesn’t even hug Claire when she returns from
her reading tour. Of course, for Annabelle, there is still much to envy
in this relationship. Z. finds Claire a publisher, gives her entrée to important
poets and editors, and takes her clothes shopping.
Early in her life, Annabelle has looked to her therapist as a role model,
but Dr. Sanger pales in comparison to the urban academic women she
meets in this story. Annabelle’s refusal to return to therapy is about not
wanting to examine what is painfully obvious—that she has gone to Z.
looking for something that she most likely never will get.
jmg: I really enjoyed the character of Braun, who inspires both devotion
and ire from other characters in the book. Why does Z. feel such
antipathy toward her? Is Claire’s attitude toward Braun a rebellion
against her mother? How does Braun both help and hinder Annabelle’s
development as a writer and as a person?
dw: Z. feels that Braun has succeeded in the poetry world because of
her connections, and this galls her, since Z. believes she had to struggle
to achieve her station in the field. Z. also thinks that Braun has set the
women’s movement back by writing a book called His Mistress. But Z.
isn’t exactly a gift to feminism, either. Claire develops a crush on Braun
after interviewing her for Z.’s Emily Dickinson book. But it’s probably
time for Claire—who has just written The Needlepoint Poems in honor
of her mother—to rebel against her. (Sex with her mother’s rival could
serve as such a rebellion.)
Braun’s message is to take risks, and she teaches Annabelle not to be
intimidated by Z., to use her as the subject of her writing—which ultimately
backfires when Annabelle takes the advice and writes about
Braun. But Braun isn’t the best role model for Annabelle, because she
has her own anger toward Z., who is trying to get her fired for sexually
harassing a student. Anyway, it’s complicated, triangulated, and what
we have here is a futile attempt to unseat the queen, which will never
happen—not in this novel, anyway.
jmg: Z. commits the ultimate writer’s betrayal by appropriating
Annabelle’s words as her own. What compels Z. to do so? Did you ever
envision a dramatic confrontation between Annabelle and Z. at the
end of the book? Have you ever had anyone steal your ideas?
dw: Of course, Z. had paid Annabelle money for these lines, but I
honestly don’t think she remembers that these are Annabelle’s words.
After all, Annabelle has really learned to write like Z., and she can
sound exactly like her. But perhaps, because I love my characters unconditionally, I am too forgiving. There was a dramatic confrontation in one version of the book—Annabelle was hauled out of Barnes and
Noble by a security guard—but it really didn’t seem to be in keeping
with the tone of the story.
When I was a young writer, a very famous teacher appropriated a
line from a poem I had written and used it as a refrain in a poem dedicated
to our writing workshop. When she presented the poem to the
class, I was speechless. Later, by phone, I confronted the teacher, who
told me that she didn’t consider what she did an act of plagiarism. But
that question—What constitutes imitation and what thievery?—has
stayed with me.
jmg: What has Annabelle learned from her “apprenticeship” to the
Flower Poet Z.? How has it changed both her attitude about writing
and her worldview in general?
dw: I think that Annabelle has learned that the adult world is far
more complex than she imagined, and that to succeed as a writer, she
will have to be aggressive. Z. may be a terrible teacher in some respects,
but through her example she has shown Annabelle how to be powerful
and self-sufficient, and to take from the world.
jmg: When Annabelle sits down to write her “poem of liberation,”
she begins to write a novel instead—called Apprentice to the Flower
Poet Z. Why didn’t she write a poem instead, or call it a memoir instead
of a work of fiction?
dw: For Annabelle, writing fiction is the best revenge.
jmg: Do you feel at all compelled to continue Annabelle’s story?
Would you consider writing a sequel, or do you feel that the arc of her
experience is complete?
dw: I would love to see Annabelle publish her novel, get married, and
try to live a “normal” life. I would also like to see her get into analysis
and work through some of the more troubling issues we saw emerge in
this novel. But I have no plans to write a sequel.
From the Trade Paperback edition.