In 2006 I was nearing the end of my graduate studies at Texas Tech University and Jacqueline Kolosov was the new creative writing professor on campus. Rumor had it she published in all genres. As a prose girl myself, I couldn’t imagine publishing any of my sad, cliché-filled poetry and I was fascinated by this woman who could seemingly do it all. I quickly learned that Kolosov’s writing ability was more than a rumor—she wrote it all. And she still does. Kolosov is on her third poetry publication, Memory of Blue, as well as an impressive list of novels, chapbooks, creative fiction and nonfiction in anthologies as well as literary journals Jacqueline Kolosov
What struck me most on my first reading of “Lessons from the Master” was Kolosov’s vivid use of detail (Camera Obscura, Issue 6). It is through these descriptions that she constructs her protagonist, Leslie Oliver, a woman who has the ability not only to create life, but to sustain it. Her colorful and specific gardening descriptions captured my attention from the start: “Before leaving home, I contemplated digging up at least one of the roses, not the temperamental Bourbon but the all-flowering, hardy Centifolia, or perhaps the lush, fragrant Damask, but ultimately decided that they, too, must remain part of my past life.” Kolosov’s well-crafted prose is as precise as it is gentle.
It certainly isn’t only the descriptions of gardens that Kolosov paints so well. “Lessons from the Master” includes details regarding many other forms of art such as food, painting, and the written works of Henry James. It is the ease with which these elements are woven together that really make this first person narrator come to life—Leslie’s love of art is how the reader “learns” her.
Kolosov took some time out from her busy schedule to answer some of my questions in the hopes of obtaining a better understanding of how her story was put together.
Doench: I’m fascinated by all the references to art in “Lessons from the Master”: written works, paintings, galleries, and even the art of gardening. There are so many blooms of color in every paragraph. Was it difficult to weave in so many different types of art into this story?
Kolosov: These references came very naturally. Santa Fe is a haven for artists and art lovers, and visual art is one of my abiding passions. Now that I live in the Southwest, I make several treks a year to Santa Fe and spend a good deal of time meandering through galleries and looking into windows. As for gardens, and that art form, they, too, are present in Santa Fe, though in a much subtler form given the desert climate and the necessity for water conservation. I happen to love cacti and Russian sage and the hollyhocks and other drought-resistant plants that thrive there. At the same time, gardening—creating a thriving beautiful space—seemed very natural to “Lessons from the Master” and to the main character’s challenges. So, I suppose I’m saying that gardening and visual art are both about process, patience, beauty, and attention, qualities I associate with Henry James—who stands behind the story—and qualities I associate with my main character.
Doench: It’s interesting that the protagonist, Leslie Oliver, takes on her late husband’s love of the author Henry James. There are so many references throughout “Lessons from the Master” to James and his style of writing. Did you do research into the life and works of James for this story?
During my 20s when I was finishing my masters degree in literature at the University of Chicago, and had the luxury of lots of time to read, I devoured Henry James, became obsessed with him, all thanks to Professor John Wallace, a marvelous scholar who told me to read Portrait of a Lady. I couldn’t put that novel down and proceeded to read practically every other novel by James and more than one biography over the course of the next five years. So my research was informal and already deeply integrated into my personality by the time I wrote “Lessons from the Master.” In some ways, the story is a tribute to James, though I now find him more difficult to read, perhaps because I don’t have that luxury of time now, not with a 6 year old, 3 dogs, a horse (yes!), and a full-time academic job. Like Leslie, I assume I’ll return to James later in life, to Portrait of a Lady and especially to his trilogy of late novels, among them The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove. The subtle way that James does treachery is one of the qualities in his work that I most admire, and Jamesian treachery is at the heart of Leslie’s challenge in the story.
Doench: In many ways, by the end of this story Leslie and her husband are “even.” They have both had extramarital affairs and indiscretions. In the beginning of the story, Leslie seems to be keeping track of these indiscretions and comparing her level of commitment with her husband’s. After his sudden death, Leslie meets the Yusipov family and soon compares the relationship to “the beginning of a love affair.” Is this “love affair” another way for Leslie to even the score between her and her late husband? What does Leslie find in this family that she is desperately missing in her life?
Kolosov:This is a fascinating take on the story and one that I had never considered. What Leslie is allured by in the Yusipovs, at least initially, is their Old World breeding, charm, lifestyle. The art of conversation and good food, the appreciation of gardens, of art—all of these take time. They are, to some extent, luxuries in our fast-paced mass culture. Now, don’t I sound like a disciple of James! James actually anticipated some of these dangers of mass culture, most notably in his critique of the sensationalism already at work in the media during his time. So, no, I didn’t think of Leslie evening the score with her late husband by entering into the “love affair” with the family. Rather, they are—on the surface—rather like characters out of Henry James. They have “class”—at least on the surface—and they appreciate the domestic comforts and what Laurie Colwin (another fabulous writer) called domestic sensualism. Leslie is drawn to this, and of course she is drawn to the Yusipov’s daughter, Tanya, and it is the daughter who compels her the most. In James, children very often embody or bear the burden of their parents’ vices and treacheries, and the neglect in this child’s case is very much a Jamesian echo. Leslie is very clearly lonely, and the family seems to fill that vacancy. When the parents disappoint her, she turns to Tanya and tries, futilely, to hold onto her.
Doench: I was just as taken with the Yusipov family as Leslie. The level of detail used to describe Sasha, Michael, and Tanya pulled me in from the start. We soon learn, however, that it has all been smoke and mirrors and I felt just as betrayed by them as Leslie. That’s a hard turn in a short story to pull off! As the writer, were you surprised by Tanya and Michael’s behavior as well?
Kolosov: Fabulous question! I wrote this story 14 months ago, so it’s a little difficult to recall the process now. I knew that I wanted treachery and betrayal of the subtle Jamesian variety in this story, and that was, to an extent, the starting point, along with Leslie’s situation and her background—widow of a James scholar, artist. Thinking back, I always knew that Sasha would be a dangerous figure, but I think Michael’s treachery snuck up on me. THAT was unexpected. I’m glad it worked for you
Doench: I love the ending of this story; Leslie returns to her late husband, at least in spirit. She salvages the original plan to travel to Venice and plans to read her husband’s beloved James. How does this story speak to the endurance of love and the resilience of the human spirit?
Kolosov: Another strong question—Venice is a complex city in James, and I was striving for that echo in the novel’s close. The Wings of The Dove, like Portrait of a Lady, both incorporate Venice. It is an old European city, one of the oldest, and so its ways are difficult to comprehend, particularly for ‘naïve’ Americans. Leslie is, to a large extent, a naïve American at the start of the story. The Yusipovs have initiated her into the duplicities and treacheries that one finds in James. I suppose, in having Leslie return to Venice at the end, she is yes, returning to the city that she loved—years ago—but she is returning changed. She is more like Venice, that Dowager in Black Lace, Venice, that city of secrets and treacheries. Leslie has lost her innocence. So there’s an intentional dark note here. But the darkness is not all that abides. She does return to her husband by carrying with her the works of Henry James which she will revisit and dwell upon with a changed mind and heart.
Doench: What other writing projects are you currently working on? Is there anything you’d like to add?
Kolosov: Oh, so many! “Lessons from the Master” is part of a story collection entitled Love, The BitterSweet. Right now, I’m seeking a home for that mss, and I’m simultaneously revising a story—this one influenced by Joyce Carol Oates and set in Lubbock where I live and teach—that I will likely include in the collection. I am also working on a collection of essays focused on motherhood, art, the life cycle—and Virginia Woolf. The title is “Motherhood, and the Places Between.” The last essay in the collection explores my relationship with horses. I began the collection when I was trying to have another child (I miscarried), and in the midst of the writing one of my best friend’s died very suddenly, and I found myself in a very dark place. Horses pulled me out of that place—or they largely did. So much of my writing now is focused on them, largely in creative nonfiction though also in poetry. And yes, I’m writing poems. My third collection, Memory of Blue, is coming out in the fall, and I’m working on the fourth.
What I’d add—write what you’re passionate about and ignore “Write what you know.” Passion will be a great teacher here. And read, read, read, widely and with abandon. Don’t just read contemporary work. Go back to James, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets….