Lost Son tells of the life of Rainer Maria Rilke. Who was Rilke?
That is a bigger question than I could pretend to answer, and Lost Son is less an authoritative portrait than it is a letter sent to a ghost. Rainer Maria Rilke is almost universally recognized as one of the world’s greatest poets. But he is perhaps best loved in the United States for the prose of his Letters to a Young Poet, a slim little volume offering some remarkable, unorthodox perspectives on such things as love, solitude, grief, art, and fate. It’s a book cherished with near religiosity by many people young and old. Rilke was born in Prague in 1875 and died at age 51 in Switzerland.
What drew you to telling Rilke’s story?
I am fascinated by how wholly and entirely Rilke lived and breathed as a poet, almost to the exclusion of everything else – and am particularly fascinated by his much-expressed conviction that living this way was his only real method of surviving in the world. One gets the sense, while reading his amazing work, that Rilke was a nerve laid bare to everything around him, that every impression and experience affected him almost physically, vibrating inside him and eventually becoming transformed to poetry. The unique way in which he “utilized” his vulnerability would ultimately take him from provincial-born, sickly, psychologically mistreated child to enduring master artist held dear by readers all across the planet. I wanted to live in, explore, and evoke that strangely inspiring, sometimes disturbing process of artistic development and all its reverberations.
Why did you choose to explore Rilke’s life in a novel rather than a biography?
It seemed that a novel would allow me to explore the poet's remarkable life at a level of intimacy that a more academic format just would not permit. For a figure of such great specialness as Rilke, the fictional form seemed appropriately special. Amidst his powerful poetic output, Rilke authored a single novel called The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It’s an astounding book, pungent and luminous and unlike anything else in the realm of fiction that I know of. Malte is semi-autobiographical, and I’ve always been intrigued by Rilke’s urge to novelize his own life story to some degree. Likewise, I’ve always found his real biography irresistibly intriguing, and I suppose Lost Son first began with the thought, ‘why not take the actual life and novelize it in full?’ – from Rilke’s childhood being raised as a girl and then being abruptly shipped off to military school, to his passionate affair at age 21 with Lou Andreas-Salomé, a famous intellectual 14 years his senior, to his close friendship with the great sculptor Rodin. All the dramas and relationships of a strong novel were there waiting.
What sort of research went into Lost Son?
Well, aside from exploring Rilke’s body of work, I’ve read pretty much all the major titles about Rilke available in English (biographies, commentaries, etc.), but most of those I absorbed early from mere personal fascination, prior to any plan for this novel. Otherwise, I’ve done quite a bit of Rilkean traveling, visiting places of importance to the poet: Prague, Munich, the Swiss Valais, etc. Once I got well into the writing of Lost Son, I traveled to Paris and stayed for a few months in the neighborhood where Rilke lived. In Paris I did a bit of archival exploration, mainly at the Rodin Museum where a great number of Rilke’s original letters to the sculptor are kept. But my research, aside from exploring the available information relating to Rilke’s life, was largely impressionistic: traveling and observing, walking around Paris and doing lots of imagining.
Did you find yourself having to re-order, leave out, or distort biographical facts while writing Lost Son?
The material of Rilke’s life – his experiences and relationships – was so rich already that surprisingly little manipulation of fact was required in order to get to a story of great drama. Lost Son tells Rilke's story quite faithfully.
What’s your favorite work by Rilke?
I think my answer to that will change depending on when you ask me. Right now, I’m most in admiration of The Book of Hours and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.