Liza Wieland’s ninth book, Paris, 7 A.M., will be published by Simon & Schuster in June; in addition to four previous novels, she’s written three books of short stories and a volume of poetry. But her interest in Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), whom the novel follows through the 1930s, predates all of her writing. “Bishop has been in my consciousness forever,” Wieland tells me from her home in coastal North Carolina.
Beginning her undergraduate degree at Harvard in 1978, Wieland was disappointed not to be able to take a class with Bishop, whose seven-year teaching stint there ended the year before. At Columbia University for graduate study in English literature, Wieland taught Bishop’s poetry and discussed the poet in the coda to her doctoral dissertation. “I was exploring a sort of indeterminate space in texts by 19th-century writers such as Emily Dickinson—a place that is both in the world and not in the world,” she says. “Some of Bishop’s poems seem to move through that same space. There’s often a feeling of disorientation and dislocation, of being a stranger in a strange land.”
Though Wieland’s admiration for Bishop never swerved, writing about the poet initially felt like a creative detour. Wieland was working on another project when she started a short story, set in 1937 Paris, about Bishop and her friend Louise Crane. “I felt compelled by what I’d already begun—I’m actually working on that novel again now,” she says. “But I kept coming back to Bishop and the poems. I can’t say it was easy, because writing is never easy, but, for whatever reasons, that work on Bishop in Paris was much more welcoming to me than the other story was.”
The material about Bishop and Crane that Wieland drafted appears as one of the middle chapters of Paris, 7 A.M., which focuses primarily on Bishop’s 1937 stay in France. But the heart of the novel turns on Bishop’s encounters—actual and invented—with a different woman: Clara Longworth de Chambrun, an American scholar 38 years Bishop’s senior who lived in Paris after her marriage to a French count.
In Paris, Bishop and Crane rented de Chambrun’s apartment at 58 rue de Vaugirard, near the Jardin du Luxembourg on Paris’s Rive Gauche. “I became interested in Clara, who was the director of the American Library in Paris, by way of that apartment,” Wieland recalls. “I kept wondering about the woman who would gather those particular things, including the collection of clocks that Bishop wrote about in her poem ‘Paris, 7 A.M.,’ from which the novel’s title was eventually taken. In my reading, I discovered that Clara’s daughter had died at only 19. I seem to have this need to write about mothers or mother figures who have lost their children. I’m not sure what that’s about. Maybe because it’s the worst thing I can imagine, writing about such a horrific event feels like an incantation to keep it away. Whatever the cause, it’s a theme I write about often.”
De Chambrun, Wieland realized, was in some sense a mirror image of Bishop, whose mother died just as the poet was graduating from Vassar in 1934. The death, which reverberates through the novel, was not the first time Bishop lost her mother: Gertrude Bishop was institutionalized when the poet was only five and never released. “I kept returning to that idea of the daughterless mother and the motherless daughter,” Wieland says. “What would they make of each other—what trouble or risk might they pose for each other? I could imagine a longing, on both sides, for something that the other could never fulfill. I wondered, what might Clara require of Elizabeth that Elizabeth would have difficulty giving?”
Brett C. Miller’s 1992 book, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It, the first full-length biography of the poet, added another intriguing possibility. Miller’s note that Bishop’s journals break off during the period in which she was traveling to Paris serves as the novel’s epigraph. In the open space created by that silence, as well as the linkage of Bishop and de Chambrun, what became Paris, 7 A.M. gradually found its form.
Though the story’s factual elements build on extensive study of Bishop’s letters and papers, among other sources, the novel’s voice and strategy come from poetry rather than biography. “My core question was really where these poems came from, not where Bishop came from,” Wieland says. “I was more concerned with fitting in the poems than the incidents.”
In the course of writing the book, Wieland revisited long-familiar poems. To her surprise, she found that her certainty about Bishop’s work dissolving as she read and reread. “I’ve been thinking about Bishop and teaching poems, including ‘In the Waiting Room,’ for years,” she says. “But I suddenly felt that I didn’t really understand the poems as well as I thought I did.” She recalls myriad moments thinking, “I just don’t get this poem. I have to look at it harder.”
Wieland’s doubts notwithstanding, Paris, 7 A.M. melds its own distinctive voice with a vivid rendering of Bishop’s mode of perception, her way of experiencing the world. Lovers of Bishop’s poetry will notice imagery from Bishop’s work—the sea like a “case of knives” from the early poem “Wading at Wellfleet,” for example, or the “inscrutable” house, man, and apple trees of the later “Sestina”—though Wieland wisely makes no attempt to explain such imagery or Bishop herself in any literal way. In addition to doing justice to the consciousness that created the poetry, Wieland traces Bishop’s creative coming-of-age. “Through most of my book, she’s still trying to understand what kind of writer she needs to be,” she says.
Wieland’s novel evokes the sensory and cultural richness of 1930s France and the artistic inspiration Bishop found there. Juxtaposed with such pleasures is the ominous feeling of threat. The seeds of World War II had already sprouted by the time Bishop arrived in Europe, and the tension between awareness and denial, spoken and unsaid emerges vividly in Wieland’s story. “There was a clear sense that things were getting worse, and a mistrust of certain populations, most obviously Jews,” she says. “But people didn’t really want to talk about those things.”
Wieland has visited many, though not all, of the novel’s locations. “I’m that clichéd writer who loves Paris, finds great inspiration there, and is moved to tears every time I go,” she says. Unlike both Bishop’s and de Chambrun’s experiences of France, Wieland’s is shaped in part by her closeness to her daughter. Seeing Paris first when she was pregnant, Wieland visited the city again when her daughter, who is now 19, was one, four, and 15. “I’ve spent a lot of time there in the company of this person I completely adore, which makes Paris even more meaningful and alive for me.”
Bishop was a famously private person who eschewed the confessional mode popular among poets when she was in her prime and beyond. Wieland handles issues that Bishop hid from the public—including her homosexuality and alcoholism—circumspectly, neither flaunting nor avoiding them; it’s clear, reading the novel, that the author has not just respect but affection for Bishop’s natural reticence.
Before we close, I ask Wieland what it was like to write fiction about someone so little given to public discussion of her life. “What would she make of this book? Would she feel violated?” Wieland asks rhetorically. “She can’t answer that, and the only answer I can give inevitably sounds self-serving, even a little egotistical: I hope she would feel that she were in good hands.”
Suzanne Fox is a writer, speaker, and freelance editor in North Carolina.