Author of BRAG Medallion Honorees, Martin of Gfenn and Savior
Ancient Greek poets didn’t believe that they, themselves, came up with their stories. They believed that they, as poets, were simply an instrument of the Muses, well-disposed goddesses who quickened the poets’ minds with inspiration.
My high school art teacher didn’t believe in inspiration. He believed in hard work. “If you wait for inspiration to hit, you’ll wait forever. Just paint.”
I’ve written a lot in my life without being inspired, sort of the equivalent of my high school art teacher’s “Just paint.” I wrote because I am a writer, and a writer is an observer. I’ve always seen the world, the people around me, and my life as interesting, so I transcribed it. Even my mom said, ‘You’re a good writer. You just don’t have anything to write about.”
In 1997, during a particularly interesting point in my life, I went to Switzerland. My friends took me to see a little 13th century church in a small village north of Zürich, the chapel of the Knights of St. Lazarus in the village of Gfenn. Lepers had lived there; not just lepers, but leper knights. The moment I entered the sanctuary, I was captured by inspiration. I had practiced writing in preparation for that moment that (after fourteen years!) became Martin of Gfenn.
Inspiration is not just a feeling. It is vision; fuel and a job description. I didn’t know it, but I was in for a long, bizarre, challenging ride.
Soon after I returned home, I dreamed of the Lake of Zürich, of a city wall, of a parapet and a causeway. I dreamed I was in the water, looking at the wall. Then I was on the wall looking down a lane in a part of Zürich old town. A year later, in real life, visiting Zürich again, I saw the scenes exactly as I’d dreamed them. They were painted on a tile, affixed to a 15th century stove in the Zürich city museum, depicting the city as it was when the tile was made.
Writing the first version, I felt as if the protagonist, Martin, were telling me his life story, resulting in a very intense first-person “memoir” that quickly found an agent. After a year of trying to sell the manuscript, she finally called to say “I love it, but everyone I’ve approached with the story says ‘American readers need more background about the time and place’.”
I knew Martin, but nothing about his world. I wanted his story to be historically accurate, as true to his “life” as I could make it. It was the year 2000, and there was not a fraction of what’s online that there is now. I was affiliated with a university, but Swiss history is not a major part of any California university library. At that time I could not read German AND there was no Google translate. But, driven by inspiration, I studied and wrote and studied and wrote.
Five years later, having “finished” the book, I sent it to Rainer Hugener, a young Swiss Medievalist Historian who specialized in the medieval history of that tiny part of Switzerland. I was thrilled when he said, “Martha, I am amazed at the accuracy of the story.”
Historical accuracy was a lot, but it wasn’t everything.
The novel had gone from 90 manuscript pages to 500 and garnered no interest when I sent out queries. I was left to figure out what was wrong. OK, I had written it when I had time between three teaching jobs (I taught composition at the college level). Some days I had 30 minutes to work on the novel; some days two or three hours. I was oblivious to how often I’d meandered backward to pick up where I had left off, in the prose and in my own mental sense of the story. Reading it over at that point, I was so in love with it that I was blind.
The tome sat around for another four years while life happened to me with harrowing intensity. When that storm was over, I thought of my novel, and of its protagonist, Martin.
I dragged the manuscript out of the place in which it had rested for nearly half a decade and began reading it. I saw it was over-written, repetitive, tedious. I didn’t know how to do better. I owed something to Martin. He’d given me one of the most interesting and exciting experiences of my life. As a “person,” as an artist, Martin would have fixed “a bad painting.”
That night I dreamed of Truman Capote. I woke up instantly and completely, shocked. What was Capote doing in my dream? It was so random, but it didn’t happen just once. I dreamed of Truman Capote several more times until I decided there must be a reason.
That summer, 2009, twelve years after the inspirational moment in the little church at Gfenn, during a break from teaching, I read everything Capote wrote. In his preface to The Dogs Bark he described my biggest challenge as a writer:
“In The Dogs Bark two pieces especially demonstrate the difference between narrative and ‘static’ writing. ‘A Ride Through Spain’ was a lark, buoyed along by its anecdotal nature…but something like ‘A House on the Heights’ where all the movement depends on the writing itself, is a matter of how the sentences sound, suspend, balance and rumble; a piece like that can be red hell…”
I saw that when there was dialogue and/or action in Martin of Gfenn, everything was great, but during necessary moments of description, transition and place-setting, the prose lagged.
Capote spoke and wrote about style. In an interview in the Paris Review, he said, “…I suppose style is the mirror of an artist’s sensibility—more so than the content of his work.”
Martin’s story had ambushed me in that little chapel because it was my story to tell. What was missing from that massive pile of typographical redundancy was Martha’s style.
I saw I had to do a radical edit, but I had good help. In Capote’s elegant, conscious, restrained prose (I think “A Christmas Memory” is nearly perfect writing) I had a model. In Capote’s writings about writing, I had a tutor. I turned to my novel asking a question I’d never asked before, “How do I WANT my book to read?” Capote and I went at Martin of Gfenn until it was half as long.
Because style was the most difficult part of writing for me, the comments I have received about the WAY the novel is written mean the most. The finished novel was described by Steve Donoghue in the Historical Novel Society Indie Review as a “…quiet, intensely moving novel…”
A professor from Switzerland, wrote, “…The story of Martin is told…with spellbinding language. The intensity of the story itself is exceptional.”
My absolute favorite came from a German woman I’d hoped would be interested in translating Martin of Gfenn, “I don’t like it. I like the style of Henry James. You do not write like Henry James,” was glowing praise, to me. Not to dis Henry James, but his style is not mine.
The Greeks believed inspiration was a gift of the gods, the breath of the deity entering the human mind and heart, a supernatural force that lifted the lucky poet into the extraordinary realm from which art comes. I tend to agree with them. And, to my high school art teacher, inspiration does exist.
About Martin of Gfenn: Martin of Gfenn is an award-winning work of historical fiction, the story of a young artist living in Zürich in the mid-thirteenth century. When he is nineteen, Martin contracts leprosy. He fights physical deterioration and social stigma to do what he believes he was meant to do – paint fresco. His short journey takes him from the streets of a swiftly growing Zürich to a to a communityof the Knights of Saint Lazarus in the village of Gfenn.