By Daniel Ford
Lynn Rosen’s debut novel A Man of Genius has all the hallmarks of a hit: an unreliable, playboy narrator, well-written suspense, and, of course, a murderous plot.
Rosen revealed to me that she considers herself more of a storyteller than a writer, and from what I’ve read so far of A Man of Genius, she’s far too modest in her self-assessment. There’s an old school charm and elegance to her prose—perhaps owing to her “long years of a rich life”—that speaks to a confidence authors more than half her age have trouble conjuring.
The octogenarian author talked to me recently about her writing rituals, tips for becoming a storyteller, and what inspired A Man of Genius.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer or did the desire to write grow organically over time?
Lynn Rosen: I didn’t grow up wanting to become anything—except to simply grow up. In my youth, which was many years ago, little was expected of females outside of marriage and motherhood. My desire to write grew from loneliness and finding that those who populated the stories in my mind were great listeners and, best of all, served me better than the dolls I played with, for the characters in my mind were much fuller and more malleable.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
LR: My earliest influence was Inez Haynes Gillmore Irwin, a feminist and political activist who, in the early to mid-20th century, wrote a series titled “Maida’s Little Shop.” Maida has been paralyzed, but with great effort has recovered the use of her legs. Acknowledging her efforts, her loving wealthy father gives her all her heart desires, including a little toy and trinket shop. At the time I met Maida, I was unable to walk as a result of paralytic polio. Maida drew me to a very early realization of the power of literature: the worlds it draws you into, its ability to disclose life’s possibilities, and the mirror it holds up to your own life.
After Irwin, Daphne duMaurier, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, and Laurence Sterne grabbed my attention. DuMaurier and Bronte for their application of the Gothic with its use of the sublime, Austen for her enviable ability to frame a social scene, and Sterne for his awesome control of plot and time lines.
DF: What’s your writing process like? Do you outline, listen to music, etc.?
LR: I do listen to music as I write—in fact one particular piece of music, a disc titled “The Memorable & Mellow Bobby Hackett.” I play, replay, and replay it, over and over again. I’m a very slow writer.
DF: How did you develop your voice? Are you able to slip into it during the writing process or is it something you find while you’re editing?
LR: My voice was established early in the process of writing A Man of Genius. It emerged from my need to develop the work from the outside in—from its binding theme to plot, and character development, which, I hoped, would sustain the theme and contribute to a sense of an organic whole.
DF: What’s the premise of A Man of Genius and what inspired the novel?
LR: The premise of the novel is a series of overarching questions that focus on our relationships with our personal human idols. Who do we elect to revere? What is our criteria for selection? How much of our idols’ foibles are we willing to forgive? All of this inquiry was initiated and sustained by a very old memory of an unexpected meeting I had with Olgivanna Wright at Taliesin, when I was a young undergraduate. For many years I wondered why that particular memory stayed with me. In time, I began to realize the binding force that sustained it was the question of personal idolatry, and what that idolatry says about the idolater. Years passed, during which the memory took on new forms and new perceptions—as memories do. Finally, it emerged in its new form as A Man of Genius.
DF: How much of yourself ended up in your characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
LR: Little of myself ends up in my characters. I develop and move my characters always in support of the over-arching theme that drives the novel.
DF: The unreliable narrator has become a literary trend the last couple of years. What made you decide on that convention, and how did you make your story unique?
LR: I believe all narrators are unreliable; few openly admit their biases, though they usually emerge in time. I believe that the unresolved ending of A Man of Genius demands an unreliable narrator aware of his limitations. If the narrator were presented as reliable, the alternate possibilities that run through the story line would not be sustainable.
DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to explore in the novel?
LR: Idolatry and forgiveness are the major themes. What I wanted most was to bring the readers to a point where exploring the book’s themes resulted in an exploration of the reader’s own systems of moral obligation.
DF: How’s it feel to publish your first novel at age 84, and what was your publishing journey like?
LR: I never thought of myself as a writer—in fact, to this day I haven’t reached that stage of self-identification. I think of myself as storyteller. I love a good story and enjoy sharing one with others. I began writing in my pre-teens during World War II. With my father away in the service, I had a great deal to say and nobody would listen, so I wrote letters to the editor of The New York Times and some were printed, and people began to listen and write back through the paper. Then there were articles about books I read, and some of those also were printed—a short story was published and I wrote several drafts of novels that now sit snugly in files in my office. Perhaps they’ll now see the light of day because I’m beginning to think I just might be a writer. I believe that, whatever one accomplishes in life has little to do with age, and everything to do with attitude. If anything, long years of a rich life, as mine was and is, expands a writer’s possibilities. In the end it all resides in the mind and spirit.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
LR: Don’t decide to become a writer and then go poking about looking for a story. Discover a story that you find compelling and become a writer.
DF: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?
LR: In my mind I’m 33 years of age. I’ve been frozen there for a very long time. Don’t ask me why. Personally it wasn’t a particularly outstanding year.