How I Wrote ‘Capriccio: A Novel’

THE WRITING OF CAPRICCIO

I have written three completely different versions of this novel, over fifteen years, each version entailing many drafts. The first novel was called simply ‘Assia’, and was based on what little I knew of her life. Most of my information came from scholarly works on Hughes or Plath, plus a study of Hughes’s poetry.

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A newspaper article back in the nineties, reprinted from  the Guardian, sparked my interest. It was called  ‘Haunted by the Ghosts of Love’,  and was the little-known story of Assia Wevill, who was the ‘other woman’ in the Plath-Hughes saga. I sensed a grave injustice had been done to this woman, judging from  the few paragraphs about her. Indeed, Assia  seemed to be written out of history. She was viewed only as the ‘scarlet woman’, the Jezebel who seduced Ted Hughes and therefore could be blamed for the death of Sylvia Plath.

During the writing of ‘Assia’, I discovered  a biography, ‘Lover of Unreason’ by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren.  It was a comprehensive biography of Assia Wevill, and was completely factual. At first I was dismayed, and wanted to give up my project, because  others had got there before me.   I abandoned my own attempt for many months, thinking it would pale beside the real story. Later, ‘Lover of Unreason’ became my ‘bible, with Eilat and Yehuda’s support and enthusiasm for my fictional version of Assia’s life.

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Eventually,  encouragement from my writing groups enabled me to pick up the work again, this time calling it ‘The Haunting of Sylvia Plath’. It was a deliberately ambiguous title: was Assia haunted by Sylvia, or was Sylvia the one haunted by the exotic woman who had bewitched her husband? This was an ambitious novel, divided into four distinct parts, each introduced by a quote from Ted Hughes’s ‘poetry sequence called ‘Capriccio’. The poems all related to Ted’s tumultuous relationship with Assia. They are vivid, frightening, sometimes vicious, and rarely loving.  Hughes’s ‘Capriccio’ draws on the ancient Hebrew myths of Lilith and Nehama, highlighting Assia’s Israeli-Russian-German origins. I had found the perfect title for my next and final version of Assia’s story: ‘Capriccio’, meaning in Old Italian ‘hair standing on end’ or ‘at the whim of a mountain goat’. Thus themes of horror and fate would also run through my novel.cropped-tumblr_inline_n2y67fvb6d1qawc7q.jpg

Aware that titles are exempt from copyright,  I contacted Ted Hughes’s publishers, Faber and Faber, for permission to quote a few lines of the ‘Capriccio’ poems to introduce each chapter. My structure at that stage closely followed the trajectory of these poems, so they were integral to my text.

Six months later I received a second shock which almost ended the writing of my novel: not only did Faber & Faber, Ted’s publishers, refuse permission for me to quote even a single line of Hughes’ poetry, but the Hughes Estate insisted that I change the names of the characters. My novel, as it stood, was not publishable in its current form, unless I were willing to be sued.  Again I came close to giving up the whole enterprise; indeed I stopped writing ‘Capriccio’ for four years, and began a second novel.

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Drawing by Jarrah Steinberg, aged 12

Then one day I found a new  resolve, determined that those fifteen years, three versions,  and over twenty drafts, would not fade into obscurity I decided to comply with the Estate’s request, remove all quotes and change all names. So Ted became Larry. Sylvia became Grace, and Assia became Esther (actually her second name). I had already changed the names of Ted and Sylvia’s children, who at that time were both still living. Their daughter Frieda became Fleur, and son Nicholas was re-named Timothy. I even changed street names so that the work would be entirely fictional.

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Knowing that mainstream publishers can take years before a book is launched into the world, I contacted an old friend whose son manages an independent publishing company, ‘Cilento’.  To my delight Cilento accepted my manuscript, and  within only six months, ‘Capriccio: a Novel’ was born. It was a less literary work, but perhaps had more general appeal.  I used a chronological structure, rather than the more complex episodic one of my previous versions.  I wanted my book to appeal both to readers who knew the true story, and also to those who could relate to the joy and pain of an obsessive relationship. The meticulous editing from Cilento’s Leone Sperling, together with Evan Shapiro’s graphic design skills, created the finished product you can read today.

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