Ciji Living the Writer’s Life

May 24, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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This is the place where the “Two Sides of Ciji” are likely to turn up as I write about my dual-track fiction and nonfiction careers and ruminate on why I’ve chosen to sort of do the “Left Brain/Right Brain” thing when it comes to living the writer’s life.

I come from a long line of “Uppity Women” of Scottish-American descent, and my great-grandmother, Elfie McCullough–the tall, statuesque woman second on the left in this picture of five generations of McCullough women (my mother is the babe-in-arms)–lived to be 94. Until her death when I was fifteen-years-old, she and my Great Aunt Marge filled my head with exciting family lore, and claimed that we were descended from the famous (some say infamous) Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon.

Now, you need to understand that Hazel (Elifie McCullough’s daughter and my grandmother, Hazel, dressed in white, sitting in the rocker holding the baby) was mortified by a mother who ditched her hard-drinking husband and ran away from a Missouri cattle farm to New York with an itinerate violinist. Nana Hazel, in fact, along with my very practical mother (the baby in the picture) cautioned me “not to believe a word Elfie McCullough ever said.”

Years later I ran across a short monograph detailing the tumultuous life of “The Match-Making Duchess” and immediately felt a burning desire to learn everything I could about this eighteenth century “Woman of Fashion” who was the confidante of kings, in love with two men for more than thirty years, the rival of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, the patroness (and suspected paramour) of the poet Robert Burns–and connected through her five daughters’ dynastic marriages to three dukes, a marquis and a baronet.

While tootling along as an on-air “personality” for ABC Radio and TV in Los Angeles for more years than I’m willing to admit here, I spent some five years researching the life of Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon on my own time and during vacations. I made about five or six trips to visit her haunts throughout Scotland and England; traced the Scottish kilted regiments that fought in the American War of Independence; and even slept in her bedroom in the house she built in the Highlands. Sadly, I could never actually prove that my McCulloughs married into the Maxwells of Monreith a few generations before Jane Maxwell was born in 1749. However, it certainly was fun trying…

Island of the SwansWhen I learned that this book would be reissued, the first thoughts running through my mind was “Am I about the luckiest historical author in the world?”

My agent Celeste called me to say that Sourcebooks’ historical novel imprint, Landmark, was interested in purchasing all my backlist for reissue, along with a new historical I had recently completed. I was particularly happy that Island of the Swans—first published twenty years ago in 1989—was going to find a new generation of readers and be published in this beautiful trade paperback format with an exquisite cover. I had always loved Daphne du Maurier and Anya Seton’s works and thought of my books were written in that tradition—in other words, as historical novels, not romances, though there is always a strong love story threaded through everything I’ve written. When I saw the draft cover for Swans utilizing the Romney portrait of the Duchess that hangs this very day in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, I literally burst out crying, feeling that my new publishers “got” what I had been trying to do as a writer from the first day I started to create this novel—my first.

When I picked up Swans after not reading a word of it in more than a decade, I had this eerie feeling that I was reading a book someone else must have written because I loved it! If that sounds immodest, please forgive me, but I’d forgotten many of the twist and turns of the plot.

The assignment became: what should I “tweak” for the new edition, and what should I leave alone?

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