Last night was my inaugural Portland reading from Lost Son, held at Annie Blooms Books in Portland's charming Multnomah Village. The event was well attended, and to my delight the majority of listeners were readers of Rilke.
It was a pleasure to gather and discuss the great poet and his work. Below are some snippets from the q&a, approximately recreated (and also embellished, at points, with things I wish I had said).
Gentleman in the back row: Would you speak a little about your feelings on whether Rilke led a "healthy" life?
Me: The question of Rilke's psychological "health" is an interesting one. My novel avoids (appropriately, I believe) a Freudian approach to Rilke, so its narrative doesn't really seek to answer the question in any conclusive way. I will say, though, that Rilke himself acknowledged, through his whole adult life, his own "complexes" and emotional and spiritual dilemmas. He was such an immensely sensitive, self-aware person that it would have been impossible for him to live in any kind of denial about these things. And he was always honest, sometimes painfully so, with those around him regarding his own shortcomings. The possibility of undergoing psychoanalysis was constantly on his mind, though till the end he resisted such treatment, choosing to recognize, instead, that his art was in many ways his own method of working through things (and fearing that pyschoanalysis would "rid him of both his devils and his angels too"). Rilke cherished a quote from Rudolf Kassner, which says: "The road from intensity to greatness lies through sacrifice." So, in a very conscious way Rilke knew that he was giving up a great many things, even perhaps choosing a less-than-happy life for the sake of his work as a poet, which he felt demanded solitude -- and he emphasized that quality of sacrifice. In the end, I believe he spoke his own authentic truth when he said that he could only be a poet -- that a life committed wholly and entirely to art was the only life he could really lead.
Gentlelady in the back row: Was there ever a point during the writing of this novel when you felt overwhelmed or daunted to be writing about somebody like Rilke?
Me: Yes, yes, yes. This novel was in many moments a terrifying journey for me. I mean, here I am, a kid from the suburbs of Northern California writing a novel about one of the world's greatest poets! At many points, I had to wilfully avoid thinking about it in those exact terms, because the material itself, the sheer mass of story and fact that needed to be shaped down to a digestible narrative--that alone was almost overwhelming at times. To entertain any fears about how the finished book might be received would simply have paralyzed me. Writing a novel, after all, is one of the most personal things one can do, and yet this particular novel, given the fame of its main character and the passionate responses he arouses, really felt like a dauntingly public act. In the end, of course, Lost Son is entirely personal, as it had to be. I felt that such a story, dealing with a figure as large and legendary as Rilke, could only be handled as something personal, as an encounter of sorts. In fact, I've been referring to the book as "a letter to a ghost."