A Lens Through a Lens
A conversation with Marianne Wiggins
In her novel The Shadow Catcher, just released in paperback, Marianne Wiggins echoes themes from her earlier work with the keen eye and sure hand of a writer at the peak of her powers. A National Book Award- and Pulitzer-finalist, Wiggins uses the enigmatic life of photographer Edward Curtis as a springboard for a layered exploration of such timeless themes as the collision of legend and reality, the intangible lure of the solitary landscape of the American West, and the complex emotional dances between fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, and writers and their subjects. Blending historical biography with personal narrative, Wiggins examines how time, distance, memory and desire can alter the truth.
As Wiggins has two New Mexico signings this week, it seemed like a good time to talk about writing, family, living in the 21st-century West and The Shadow Catcher. Wiggins is—in short—a delight, and our phone conversation was much too far-reaching to reproduce in full here.
Wiggins says the first seed for The Shadow Catcher was planted years ago, when she still lived in London. Whenever she visited her daughter Lara Porzak (a Los Angeles art photographer whose striking photo graces the hardcover edition of the novel, Wiggins proudly points out), she’d naturally gravitate to Porzak’s bookshelves. It was here that she “developed a man-crush” on Curtis, whose photographs of the American Indian have long been considered iconic.
But the more Wiggins researched, the more she found that the man bore little resemblance to the myth. She soon realized that she wanted to show Curtis through a lens, "the way he showed the American Indian through his lens." Curtis’ wife, Clara Philips, struck Wiggins as the perfect voice. "The more I researched her, the more she seemed to disappear, as women do, from the historical record," she says. "As sad as this is, it gave me permission to invent her—who she was, what she read, how she felt about things."
By the time she was two years into researching the book, Wiggins says she knew she wanted to write about the nature of photography as well: “How it informs our idea of historical truth and whether or not photographs lie.” Wiggins notes that photography, with its received images, can serve as a catalyst for the imagined landscapes of creative writing.
Wiggins teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Southern California. During her first class of the semester, she says she hands out photos. "I ask my students to make up stories, not just about the photograph, but about what happened just before it was taken, or just after," she says. "I do think it’s a loss that things are over-described, because we don’t create things in our own minds, we don’t own them. We need to allow readers to be companions in the art of creation. That’s why I don’t sketch in faces. I leave that canvas empty so the reader can create it.”
One of the narrative devices Wiggins uses to marvelous effect in The Shadow Catcher is a character named Marianne Wiggins. Choosing to use herself as a character grew out Wiggins' own self-discovery while writing The Shadow Catcher, she says. “The book had gotten to a certain point when I was faced with Curtis being an historical individual, and I did not want to change the facts of his life,” Wiggins says. At the same time, turning 60 made her want to re-examine her own life through the prism of Curtis and Philips’ story. Wiggins knew it was time to go deeper, in a way she hadn’t in her previous novels.
Still, using her own life as material was not a decision made lightly. “I did not feel that I had the proprietary right to tell family tales without my sister’s collaboration," she says. Wiggins let her sister read The Shadow Catcher in manuscript form. "As it turned out, my sister was over the moon. 'Oh, my God,' she said. ‘You put a picture of Mommy and Daddy in this book, which will still be there, long after we’re gone. This is a wonderful thing you’ve done.’ That was the embrace I was looking for.”