Margaret is no longer blogging at this time, but you can enjoy some of her terrific posts through the years.

Mississippi Pilgrimage

My father’s family came to Webster and Chickasaw Counties, Mississippi in 1838— the area Bobbie Gentry sang about in “Ode to Billie Joe”—and most of them are still there. Although I do not get back there often, when I do it is always a special journey.

It is not far from Oxford where Faulkner lived, wrote, and died, after creating a fictional world that mirrored the Mississippi surrounding him, both past and present. In visiting his home, Rowan Oak, now run by University of Mississippi and open to the public, I got a glimpse of his life there. It was interesting to compare it to the life of a writer now, and it made me realize the toll the fragmented lifestyle of today can take on us writers.

In the first place, Rowan Oak is very quiet. It is said Faulkner named his home—set in acres of woods—after the rowan tree’s quality of peace and security. It was built around 1840 and seems timeless, as there have been few updates.

Margaret standing in the cedar walkway leading up to Rowan Oak. Cedars were planted after the yellow fever epidemic that swept the South in the late 1800s. They were believed to cleanse the air.

It seems suspended, enveloped in a hushed moment—the entire place is a ‘thin place’ where the present, past, and eternity slide back and forth into each other. Faulkner said, “The past is never gone, it’s not even past”, and looking into his library, with the portrait of his great grandfather “The Old Confederate Colonel” staring down, I could see why he would feel that. He wrote in this room with the Old Colonel looking over his shoulder, creating and transforming his Lafayette County into Yoknapatawpha County, a self-contained fictional land. But it was rooted in all the tales he had grown up with—Indian stories, and gossip, old spinsters, slave narratives, and Civil War relics.

The Southerner is able to take ordinary happenings and turn them into stories, stories with a plot and an ending, even when, in real life, it isn’t there. A missed direction becomes an adventure; an offhanded action becomes an important clue to a man’s character. They are still doing it, and it is what makes being there a bit of a fantasy and larger than life.

After Faulkner built himself a writing room he deserted the library and the Old Colonel and took his typewriter there. On good days he took it outside to write. He used the walls of his office to write plot sequences; one from A Fable is still there.

The Old Colonel

I was struck by the bareness and simplicity of the house, and the calmness of his writing environment. It was uncluttered in a way we never see today. He did not even have framed covers of his books on the wall! No photos of himself and luminaries. No knickknacks. It is simplistic to say there were no TVs, no iPods and no internet then, because we all know that. But the absence of the outside media made a space for the human imagination to fill in. He had only his own thoughts standing between him and utter boredom, which gave him a big incentive to get busy amusing himself by making up stories.

I got started writing, as a child, in just such an environment, telling myself stories. In order for that to happen, there has to be stillness, there has to be blankness, there has to be privacy and an absence of outside noise. That doesn’t happen in my life much anymore. Faulkner’s environment was—dare I say it?—rather Zen.

Faulkner also did not hang out with other writers. His local friends were not literary at all. He seemed to keep his imaginative life separate from his everyday life, as if one helped him take a break from the other. I thought how restorative that would be to one’s art, and how today, the constant pressure to be a Writer 24/7—speaking, writing blogs, visiting book clubs, punditing, mentoring, marketing, book tours, reviewing—kills the creative spirit as dead as Raid kills cockroaches. The creative process withers away under such relentless bright exposure. It becomes just another job, which is the last thing it should be.

Faulkner’s typewriter, resting on a table given him by his mother

Some of my family married into the Falkners (the original spelling) way back, but then everyone down there is kin. In the family graveyard I found an interesting tombstone that I imagine has quite a tale behind it.

The name, Absalom, shows that when Faulkner wrote Absalom, Absalom! he was just using a Biblical name common in the area.

I came away rested, my creative batteries recharged, and determined to keep a bit of Rowan Oak tranquility in my life hereafter.

Lively London

Now that “Elizabeth I” is through the creative process and at the printer’s, I took a short trip to London, as a sort of nightcap to the project.  I wanted to revisit some of the things I had just written about, and see if they seemed different to me now.  I think all my senses were on alert and as the cab took me through the streets enroute to my hotel, the first thing that struck me were all the posters for Shakespeare plays—Henry IV, parts I and II; Hamlet, of course;  Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It,  Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III, Comedy of Errors, The Winter’s Tale.  I wondered what in the world Shakespeare would have thought if he could have known this.  Would it have changed his behavior?  Would it have given him writer’s block?  (“I have to write something that London audiences of 2010 can relate to!”)  Since Shakespeare is a major character in my book I’ve become quite curious about his thought process.

My first day there was a bright sunny Sunday and I headed over London Bridge like people did in Elizabeth’s day.  The Southwark area on the south bank of the Thames always had a dicey reputation, at least in the middle ages and Elizabeth’s time.  All the fun vices were there—taverns, bawdy houses, and theaters, not to mention bearbaiting pits.  As recently as twenty years ago, though, the pleasure aspect had faded and it was a derelict, depressing warehouse area.  However, with the building of the new Globe Theater, and the opening of the Tate Modern, the south bank got a revival and today it’s a lively, bustling place.  The theater is back, as are the taverns and bands of carousers.  Lurid museums about torture and executions are wildly popular.  Only the bearpits are missing.  The Globe was having a matinee and scads of people were arriving by boat and by the river pathway, as they must have done in Elizabeth’s day.  I got a good glimpse of what the atmosphere must have been back then.  I got lunch in a pub overlooking the river, which was at low tide, and saw many boats out, filled with rowers and sightseers.  When the sun shines in England, everyone wants to be outdoors.  That, too, hasn’t changed.

The other big posters concerned the impending visit of the Pope to England that week.  I truly think Elizabeth must have been stirring in her marble tomb in Westminster Abbey, where the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury would hold a joint service.  The thought that a pope would ever set foot in England would have seemed impossible to her, considering that the one she dealt with blessed the Armada and issued a proclamation that she was not the true queen, called her “the servant of crime” and even, off the record, said whoever assassinated her would be doing a good deed!  Truly, what a difference four hundred years makes!  The present Queen was formally receiving him, and the present Prime Minister welcoming him.

Adventures in Research

Most of my adventures seem to center around either trying to do something forbidden (either by people or by the weather), or meeting strange characters at the site.

I’ve never sought help in gaining entry to a site by writing ahead or trying to contact some professional guardian. Maybe it just seems too packaged that way, and that’s why I stubbornly avoid doing it. The advantage to this is that you can see the site incognito. The down side, of course, is that you might not be able to see it at all!

Sign for Magdala. Sadly, in keeping with the situation in the Middle East today, it is bullet-ridden.

I spent some time in Israel doing research for MARY CALLED MAGDALENE; Mary Magdalene takes her name from Magdala, a fishing town on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. The ancient site of Magdala was excavated in the 1970s but in the passing years had become overgrown again, and it was never part of the tourist track. It proved as elusive to find as the character of Mary herself. A large, yellow, bullet-pockmarked sign along the highway proclaims that the town is there below, but it is invisible.

No road leads to it, and inquiries at other buildings along the way drew blank looks. Finally I turned off into a citrus grove and was directed along the shoreline, past a tacky water park. It was just sunset and although I could glimpse the site, it was encircled with a chain fence and locked.

Success–access to a forbidden site!

A year later I was back during the daytime, only to find it locked again. Then a rattletrap truck drove down a dirt road leading up to the locked gates; the owners were returning, briefly. They allowed me in, although they could not understand what it was I wanted, as we did not speak one another’s language. It was a very peaceful site, with old trees by the abandoned waterfront, donkeys tethered underneath, and the town—excavated by the Franciscan Institute—open and waiting, its squares and streets empty, except of ghosts. The owners let me stay as long as I liked, drinking in the feel of the place. Had I not been there at the moment the truck came along, I never would have gained entrance to the place where Mary Magdalene grew up, and it would have been difficult to re-imagine her world. The entire rest of the time I was in the area, I never saw the owners again or saw anyone at the site; it remained locked up.

All that’s left of ancient Magdala.

When I came to Alexandria to visit the site of Cleopatra’s palace, I found that area is now occupied by an Egyptian military post. Not only was I not allowed to go into it, the soldiers forbade any photos to be taken of the area. Now I did not travel two thousand years in time and six thousand miles on earth to take no for an answer. So my husband and I used the decoy method of distracting their attention, pretending to take photos of the harbor, and then swung the camera back to catch the peninsula where Cleopatra had walked and reigned.

Ancient carvings, Alexandria

At one time no photography was allowed inside Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, where so many tumultuous things happened to Mary Queen of Scots. In Mary’s bedroom, the place where her secretary Riccio was stabbed, it was vital to know the exact dimensions and how the supper-alcove related to the rest of the room, since so many details of the murder hinge on the logistics. I was able to hide a spy-type camera in my coat pocket and fall behind the tour group in the key rooms and take the necessary photographs, coughing to cover up the telltale sound of the camera shutter.

In the category of interesting people, when I visited Bolton Castle in northern England, one of the first castles where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned, the young man overseeing the place turned out to be a descendent of the Queen’s last jailor, Sir Amyas Paulet. The events involving Mary and his ancestor may have been over four hundred years old, but not to him. He was incensed that his ancestor had been besmirched by sympathizers for the Scots queen, been made to seem cruel, when he was absolutely no such thing! I tried to assure him that I would be open-minded about the man, and that after all his ancestor had proved his character once and for all when he refused Queen Elizabeth’s ‘hints’ to murder the Scots Queen, but he was still disgruntled. I promised to send him a copy of the book and not to trash his ancestor. I sent him a copy but never heard from him, so I don’t know if he still felt his ancestor had been insulted.

Gray loch, louring skies.

Due to the (in)famous Scottish weather, it can be difficult to get out to sites if you must cross open water. Mary Queen of Scots had two important island sojourns in her life, both involving escapes and chases. One of those was Inchmahome, a tiny island in a loch that was storm-tossed the day I tried to go there. As a National Heritage site it was supposed to be open, but the Scots boatmen were leery of setting out—until I told them of my project about Mary Queen of Scots. Then they were willing to risk it! She still has that effect on people.

Going Hollywood

All my life I’ve been enthralled with the movies.  When I was a little girl living in Taiwan, about the only air conditioned building on the island was the movie theater.  So we went to it regularly.  The first movie I ever saw was “King Kong.”  I saw it lots and lots of times, because it played for almost a year before it got replaced by something about an island with an exploding volcano.  I loved them both.

When I got older I was an avid consumer of fan magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen, and even believed all the things I read in them!  When they had an article about how Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite ice cream flavor was lime, I solemnly believed it was true.

My innocence gradually faded away but my fascination with movies, movie making, movie stars, and Hollywood never did.  So when my novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra was slated to be turned into an ABC-TV miniseries, nothing could have kept me away from the set.  Jaded people advised me that being on a set was so boring, darling, because there’s all that standing around.  But the people saying that probably never read Photoplay and thought about what flavor ice cream Elizabeth Taylor liked.

The miniseries was produced at the height of the miniseries fever sweeping all the big networks.  In short order, “The Odyssey”, “Gullliver’s Travels”, “Joan of Arc” and “Noah’s Ark” were offered up.  It was right before the dark curtain of reality shows snuffed out such fare.  This one was to be titled simply “Cleopatra” and was to be 4 hours long, shown in the ratings sweep week in May.  Timothy Dalton would play Caesar, Billy Zane Marc Antony, and Leonor Varela, Cleopatra.

Background information can be found on wikipedia.

The outside shots were to be done in Morocco and the interiors in Shepperton Studios in London.  The director and the company were British.  From my standpoint,  that was great, because U.S. union rules don’t allow any photography on film sets, whereas the British do.  So I could take all the photos I wanted.

The studio in Morocco in is Ouarzazate and has been used for many films, including parts of Lawrence of Arabia.

As the author of the book the film was based on, I was made to feel very welcome and allowed to watch the filming, while they graciously explained the techniques.  The sets were absolutely huge—they covered some quarter of a mile, and looked very real, until you saw the scaffolding behind them.

I saw Caesar’s assassination scene being filmed. It was shot in 3 sequences, with 3 different togas with varying amounts of blood stains.  In the final scene, when he rolled down the steps, Timothy Dalton did all his own takes.

Outdoor filming in the desert, action scenes, were fun to watch.  Here is the scene where Antony realizes he’s beaten but calls to fight anyway.  The cameraman is holding a type of camera called a Steadicam strapped to his waist that lets him move but keeps the filming steady.

For the great sea battle of Actium scene, they used a huge tank at Shepperton.  The flagship, shown in these shots was a magnificent 20 foot vessel.  The wind machine was used to create ripples and waves, but they would have to be slowed to 1/3 the time to make them look like ocean waves.

After the filming, they sent me a small ship as a memento, one of the ones that got burnt or sunk in the sea battle scene.

Finally, there was actually an old-style premier in Hollywood at the newly renovated Egyptian Theater.  It was even located on Hollywood Boulevard!  And I stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel nearby, where the first—1929—Academy Awards ceremony was held.  How much more Hollywood could I get?

Now it all seems like a dream, but the ship and the photos prove it really happened.