In The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. (Harper, Mar.), an authentic manuscript of The Bell Jar turns up at a Boston auction house, leading to revelations about Sylvia Plath and a fiercely jealous rival.

Many books have been written about Sylvia Plath. What inspired you to make her the subject of a novel?

It was an interesting path for me. I worked in publishing, and then in a mental hospital—the same one that led Ken Kesey to write One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There, I rediscovered Plath’s The Bell Jar. My second reading revealed a parallel story about writers of very personal “confessional” poems: Plath, Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and Robert Lowell, among others. I wanted to explore that circle of poets.

You frame the narrative with a present-day discovery of a handwritten draft of The Bell Jar. What sort of perspective did that give you, while viewing Plath and her 1950s Boston cohort from the present?

Estee, the master curator at the auction house who is handed the manuscript—she’s basically me. Like me, she had to delve into the journey that led Sylvia to writing. In the process, she discovered her own deep connection with Plath.

You add a fictional character to Sylvia’s circle, a woman you name Boston Rhodes. Tell me a little about her.

Boston is partly based on Anne Sexton, a poet in Sylvia’s circle. That is, I said, “Let’s take the best parts of Anne Sexton, and mix them with some really villainous fictional parts,” because the story needed a villain. Like Sylvia, the real Anne Sexton had bipolar illness, and she felt she failed at the 1950s expectations for women. She felt deeply rivalrous with Sylvia. In the story, as Boston Rhodes, she does some pretty evil things. The three threads of the narrative—Estee, Boston, and Sylvia’s psychiatrist, the real Dr. Ruth Barnhouse—round out the depiction of Sylvia.

So they do. You’ve worked as a psychotherapist yourself. What strikes you about the way Plath was treated for her bipolar illness?

Confessions points to a major ideological shift in the 1950s against Freud’s theories. Hospitals now favored new drugs, and electro-convulsive therapy, the latter of which is still used today with modifications. Other treatments like insulin-shock therapy and ice baths probably did more harm than good. Unfortunately, Sylvia was subjected to those, too. Dr. Barnhouse, in contrast, took her patients on supervised field trips, and allowed them to learn beekeeping on the hospital grounds. Plath never forgot Ruth’s kindness, writing a wonderful series of poems on bees. Dr. Barnhouse’s major contribution was to walk alongside her patients, treating them as human beings, not cases.