So19 talks with ENID SHOMER

Enid Shomer’s The Twelve Rooms of the Nile (Simon & Schuster) is built on a fascinating fact: that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert—neither of whom was yet famous, or even successful—traveled the same itinerary in Egypt in 1850. The historical record does not indicate that they met, but Shomer’s novel imagines what might have happened if they did. The result is a book that explores many of the themes that shaped the 19th century, from exoticism to class distinction, as well as myriad questions that still perplex us today. Through vivid details and striking language, Shomer evokes two extraordinary individuals, both at odds with their families and still struggling to trust their vocations, as they confront themselves and each other amid the strangeness of a foreign culture that they can command more than understand. Shomer, a prize-winning poet and fiction writer, is the author of six other books: the short story collections Tourist Season and Imaginary Men, and the four poetry collections Stalking the Florida Panther, This Close to the Earth, Black Drum, and Stars at Noon. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review among other publications, and her numerous awards include a Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing from the Florida Humanities Council. (More information about Shomer's rich work is available on her website and Facebook page.) So19 was delighted to speak with the author about her haunting novel. —Suzanne Fox

So19: There are so many places we could start. Let’s begin with the idea for the book. How did it develop?

ES: At first, I was going to write a long short story about Flaubert. As soon as I realized Nightingale was in Egypt at the same time he was, everything changed. I hadn't finished the first chapter—it was very early. I had read about Nightingale years before in that very damning biography, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. As you may know, it portrays her as a harridan. It’s a brilliantly written book. You enjoy hating her, or making fun of her, I should say, along with the author. Then I discovered Florence’s book Letters from Egypt. As soon as I read that, I changed my opinion of her. She's a brilliant writer with a terrific sense of humor.

 So19: Obviously, Flaubert and Nightingale are historical figures. Are the characters that surround them in your novel also based in history?

ES: Yes. Almost everybody in the book is a real person. I delved deeply into the lives of Nightingale and Flaubert, and into the lives of the people surrounding them, like the Bracebridges and Mary Clark. I read books Clark had written—she was an interesting writer too. I tried to represent people like the Bracebridges, with whom Florence travels, accurately, but I didn't know much about their personalities, so I had to make them up. Similarly, I couldn't find anything in the historical record about Nightingale’s maid, “Trout.”

So19: Can you talk a bit about the drafting process? Do you outline, or is the drafting more intuitive—what Maud Casey calls “crashing around”?

ES: I'm not the kind of writer who writes outlines or knows in detail what I'm doing before I do it. I knew a few basic things. I knew that they were going to be very taken with each other. I knew they were not going to end up together—that the relationship would be broken. That was my plan, so called. I like that term ‘crashing around’—it’s perfect. It's like driving in a tunnel. You can see a few feet ahead of you, and if you are lucky you can see the very end in your mind.

I wrote the book pretty much in the order in which you read it, with a few exceptions. But I discovered what was going to happen in each chapter as I wrote it.

So19: The basic “given” of the book—the fact that a British woman and a Frenchman are traveling in Egypt—allows readers to see three cultures sort of bumping into one another, in ways that show them all of distinctively and vividly.

ES: I'm glad you feel that way. I felt that was a very important element of the book, as well as the class distinctions. They were something I found endlessly fascinating. Here is Florence, a woman who wants to change the entire world, though she can't reach out to or get along with her own servant.

So19: That whole uneasy relationship of the gentlewoman with her servants is so much a part of 19th-century history. I think it’s hard for most of us today to imagine what it would be like to have someone always around you: someone who knows you intimately, but about whom you know almost nothing. And Trout, of course—Christa Troutwine, to use her full name—has secrets of her own.

ES: As I mention in the notes at the back of the novel, I found a book about the life of a servant—The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick, Victorian Maidservant. Cullwick lived a tad later, perhaps thirty years. Most servants didn't keep diaries, of course, but this one suited the plot perfectly in its depiction of the relationship between Cullwick and her poet “lover,”Arthur Munby.

Trout doesn’t judge her relationship with the character I based on Munby, even though it’s bizarre by today’s standards. In fact, when I read the scholarship about Cullwick, I encountered many pathological terms, such as fetishism, infantilism, sado-masochism. Yet I'm sure Hannah didn't think her love for Munby was pathological. And Trout doesn’t either. I mean there she is, happily licking her man’s boots.

So19: Before Freud, without so many reductive clinical names for things, they could be at least a bit less self-conscious.

ES: They didn't have one major normative category that we take for granted—the concept of “normal.” They more or less lived their lives guided instead by religious morality.

So19: In the novel, Trout’s hidden life is so rich, as is Flo’s relationship with her.

ES: It's something that Americans don't have much experience with, except perhaps for those with real status: having a lot of servants to do everything for you. Until Trout became ill, Flo had never dressed herself. Her clothes weren’t made for that.

So19: Going back to early impressions of Nightingale, I remember reading these very laudatory biographies of her—books in which she sounds too assured or effective to seem quite human. I found it moving to read your depiction of her, and also of Flaubert, at a time before they’re successful—a stage in their lives when they’re both really struggling for their vocations.

ES: Absolutely struggling and totally driven. Another big thing they have in common is that they're both geniuses. They don't fit in with most other people and they’re not certain about what they're trying to do. 

Flo suffered from terrible episodes of depression. I don't know what her diagnosis would be today. After she came back from the Crimea, the current thinking is that she had brucellosis, which is a disease of livestock that you can get from drinking goat's milk or eating undercooked meat. It causes something like chronic fatigue syndrome, but worse, in humans. It’s beyond the time frame of my book, of course, but she was in bed for 11 years after she came home from the Crimean War. She was an invalid for much of her life.

So19: Hard to believe! Again, I grew up thinking of her as so purely heroic.

ES: She still got so much done. I think her invalidism was in part her way of controlling people's access to her. She really didn't get along with her mother and sister; after she came back from the Crimean War, she had a rule that they couldn't visit her together. She really loved her family, but she did not know how to deal with them—maybe there was no good way to deal with them. So she just controlled their access to her. I'm sure they didn't like it much, but she lived on her own, so they couldn’t stop her.

So19: Invalidism is such a fascinating strategy in the lives of 19th century women…a way to gain control, for individuals who otherwise had no control.

As you depict them, Nightingale and Flaubert also share huge ambition.

ES: Yes. Flo’s parents nixed many of her plans. At one point she wanted to volunteer at the local hospital, but her parents were aghast. They said it was a disgusting idea—that it would shame the family. They believed that only loose women worked as nurses, and that all nurses were opium addicts and sluts.

So19: Yet it’s a period when medicine is beginning to change dramatically, and when lay people are making huge strides in science.

 ES: I just read a fascinating book called The Age of Wonder, which is about how romanticism and science intersect in the 19th-century. People who could afford to were collecting insects and rocks and orchids; everything was just being categorized and scientifically studied. I think there were a lot of people with tremendous ambition, especially in the sciences. Flaubert’s ambition is in literature and Nightingale’s is in medicine, but it’s the same drive.

Many people consider Flaubert the first naturalistic novelist. Scholars also call him the inventor of the free indirect style, one of the foundation blocks of modern novelistic writing. And Flo was eager to be involved in what later came to be called Public Health. She ended up running the medical system in India from her bedroom. She'd do statistical studies, then write policy reports, called blue books, for the government. Even though she never went to India, she had a huge hand in how the barracks and hospitals were built. She also had very strong ideas about cleanliness. Though she did not accept the germ theory, she was so committed to cleanliness and fresh air, that she might as well have accepted it.

In terms of the Crimean War, she drastically lowered the morbidity rate. It was very, very high when she went off to Crimea. By the time she came back two years later, it had dropped drastically. That's why she was such a heroine.

So19: Another fascinating thing about the period is that there was still room for lay people to be influential in the sciences and in public health. There wasn't the kind of division that we take for granted today.

ES: Absolutely. Science hadn’t really been professionalized at all, so a talented amateur could become the expert in a field.

So19: Moving to another issue: I was awed by the vividness and accuracy of the material world as you evoke it in the book—Egypt, the travel, the monuments, the clothing, the food. That can be tricky material to research for a historical novel, because research sources don’t necessarily talk about, say, what it feels like to wear a corset in the Middle Eastern heat. Can you talk about your research process? Did you go to these locations yourself?

ES: I didn't go to Egypt, but I have lived in the Middle East, and I think that helped enormously. As a matter of fact, I realized after the book came out that I too took a gap year in the Middle East just like Flaubert. I lived in Israel for a year and then later, I lived in Turkey for a summer—about 3 months, I guess. That time informed my whole sense of what that area was like. I would have loved to go to Egypt during the research for the book, but things in the region were very unstable at that point. 

I did all kinds of research. Werner Herzog has a film on sand dunes in the Sahara. I watched that and it was really helpful to visualize the sand dunes at different times of the day. I probably read 200 books, mostly primary sources.

I was also able to obtain a copy of the exact guidebook that Florence used when she went to Egypt. It was dated 1848, so it was perfect for the novel. It was very hard to find and cost me $500, but it helped me immerse myself in the way she would have viewed the place. How else would I have known how to get rid of the fleas on a Nile boat? The guidebook suggested that if you really want to be sure when you rent your dahabiya that it doesn't have fleas, you have to submerge it. I thought, oh my God. Amazing.

So19: Though you use a lot of detail, I never felt that the novel was offering period information just because you had it. It all feels fully experienced by the characters, and intrinsic to the story.

ES: When I teach, I always tell my students that being a writer is like being a singer. In order to have credibility, you have to be able to sing in four octaves. But not every song is written in four octaves, and the strength of your voice will come through even in 8 notes.

So19: That's a great analogy.

ES: You do your research and most of it doesn't end up in the book. It just informs the way you approach your material.

So19: But it must be difficult to leave some things out.

ES: Mostly it was scenes I had to cut, rather than facts. My son-in-law was saying, "Oh, you should have the outtakes on your Facebook page.” I don't think anybody's going to care, but I had a pretty good sex scene, between Flaubert and his girlfriend, which had to be cut.

So19: His sexuality comes across very clearly even without it, I think. For example, there are those notes for what might be called his encyclopedia of the female genitals.

ES: Yes. He really liked women.

So19: As I read those passages in the novel, I was struck by how oddly Victorian his impulse to accurately describe and categorize was, even if what he was describing was erotic. It’s almost scientific; he might be writing about corals or some other exotic specimen.

ES: You're right. It's funny, this idea that you have to be complete in your description. He had a terrible time with description in his writing because he always included too much. His very best scenes are the ones that are descriptive, but his very worst scenes are also highly descriptive. It was a tricky area for him, I think—not to know how much to include. I think he had trouble killing his darlings.

So19: You’re a poet as well as a fiction writer, I know. Can you talk a little bit about what you're working on now?

ES: I have just finished a new book of poetry which I'm starting to circulate. I’m also working on an anthology of erotic poetry by contemporary women.

So19: Do you plan to write another novel?

ES: I don't know. I’m not sure right now that I want to make that commitment. It took me a long time to write The Twelve Rooms of the Nile.

So19: How long was it altogether?

ES: Seven years. I thought it would be around two, not seven. Part of the reason it took so long was that the book was orphaned three times. I sold it first to Random House, but then they fired my editor so I took it back and sold it to Simon & Schuster, who published it. My agent also quit the business and I had to get a new agent! These difficulties slowed me down.

So19: Since you also write short stories, you have fictional options other than a novel.

ES: Yes. And I may undertake a new story collection. What writing this novel taught me for the umpteenth time was that while I can write good sentences from now until doomsday, that doesn't mean I have a plot. This book does have a strong plot, but it evolved slowly, as I went along. Every scene has to work in a couple of different ways when you're writing fiction.

So19: Whatever the next published work is, we’re looking forward to it! Thank you so much for your time.

A photograph by Maxime du Camp, with whom Flaubert traveled to Egypt
and who appears vividly in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile