Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Chelsea Wolf, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Frances Wilson about her book Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Chelsea Wolf: Thomas De Quincey is such a fascinating man and I’m embarrassed to say that I had little knowledge of him before reading your biography. How did you first find out about De Quincy? And going off of that question, when did you decide to write a biography on him?
Frances Wilson: I first became aware of De Quincey when, as a child, I visited Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s former home in Grasmere where De Quincey lived for twenty years after Wordsworth moved out in 1807. Dove Cottage is a natural shrine to Wordsworth, but there is a single portrait of De Quincey on a wall. I always wondered about this other mysterious occupant, and what his story was.
CW: “Guilty Thing” was chock full of facts. It was both impressive and intimidating. What was your research process like? What challenges did you face while researching/writing “Guilty Thing,” if any?
FW: I made endless charts of dates in order to ensure that everything was happening at the right time! But apart from that, I have always felt at ease in the Romantic period; I think it comes from reading Jane Austen as a child. To my shame, I know far more about the politics and literature of the early nineteenth century than I do about our own age. The real challenge lay writing about an opium addict when I have never taken opium, but I realised that if I did, for research purposes, smoke opium the experience of a single trip would tell me nothing about the illness of addiction. What helped, in a dark way, was my daughter being admitted to an addiction clinic during the final stages of writing the book. It was then that I started to get a handle on what addiction was like for the addict.
CW: Do you think Thomas would have chosen a different path in life had he not been so traumatized by the loss of his sister Elizabeth?
FW: The simple answer is No. De Quincey was an obsessive, and the circumstances around the death of his sister when he was seven triggered many of his obsessions, including the obsession with Wordsworth. It was Wordsworth’s poem, ‘We Are Seven’, that convinced De Quincey – who read it when he was a teenager – that the poet understood the grief he had suffered when Elizabeth died, and that therefore his future lay in paying homage to this man. What he then learned, to his cost, is that the poet and the poetry have entirely different psyches.
CW: The last line of the biography is a quote from Jorge Luis Borges saying, “We are all De Quinceyan now.” In what way would you say that your work is De Quinceyan?
FW: The phrase isn’t actually a quote from Borges – it’s my own suggestion! What I meant is that we now live in an age saturated with celebrity culture and the glorification of murder. These are entirely De Quinceyian notions. What I wanted to achieve in a ‘De Quinceyian biography’, was a book that would follow the thread of his obsessions, and occupy his Piranesian inner world rather than any external reality.
CW: De Quincey is often cited as writing the first addiction memoir. How do you think “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” influenced modern day memoir?
FW: “Confessions”, written in the great age of autobiography, is the the first recovery as well as the first misery memoir. The format devised by De Quincey still holds: the recovery memoir takes us through a moral journey into the depths and then assures the reader that all is well, and that the author has now seen the error of his ways. This was certainly not true in the case of De Quincey. And the misery memoir gives us a romanticized version of poverty and pain, written by a subject who has earned his place in ‘normal’ society. De Quincey’s sufferings were entirely self-inflicted, and yet he still asks for our pity.
CW: Do you have a Wordsworth?
FW: My Wordsworth was a literal Wordsworth! My tutor at university, Ann Wordsworth, was married to another tutor who was Wordsworth’s descendent. I became obsessed with Ann, and married her nephew (also called Wordsworth). It was only when the marriage ended that I was able to explore the whole business of attaching your life to that of another person. Those friends who know me well see Guilty Thing as pure autobiography…
CW: What are you working on now?
FW: A life of D H Lawrence, a man at least as complex as De Quincey.
CW: What is your ideal writing day?
FW: The day is never long enough. I do a good deal of journalism as well as teaching, and so to get everything done I need start very early in the morning and forge on until bedtime. If I don’t spend at least three hours a day on the book I’m working on I start to forget what it’s about…
CW: Is there anything else you want to share?
FW: Just my pleasure that American readers have found a friend in De Quincey. It was always the Americans who got what he was about, and he’d be thrilled to know that it is still the case.
Frances Wilson is a critic, journalist and the author of three works of non-fiction, Literary Seductions, The Courtesan's Revenge and The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, which won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize in 2009. She lives in London with her daughter.
Chelsea Wolf is a writer based out of New York City. In her spare time, she writes and performs her own music, takes excessively long naps, and wrangles feral cats. You can follow her on Twitter (@chelswolf) or in real life.