The Sweetest Debut: Danielle Dutton on Resurrecting a 17th Century Iconoclast


Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Danielle Dutton’s Margaret The First is an imagining of the life of Margaret Cavendish, a scribbling Duchess from the 17th century. She wrote before women could be writers, and was a notorious celebrity of sorts before the age of mass media. Dutton spoke to us about blocking out time to write on her calendar, sitting at her desk, and getting inspiration from her subject’s writing.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Oh, I’m terrible at this. Maybe some people are really good at it, really natural? For me it just feels awkward. I’m an editor too, and honestly I’d much rather read a long, earnest description of what someone has been thinking and doing. And yet! Perhaps my best effort was when I described Margaret the First — in response to an interview question asking me to summarize it without summary — as: “A little like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man if Stephen were a woman living at a time when women weren’t allowed to be artists.”

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

It’s a novel about an eccentric 17th-century writer named Margaret Cavendish.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

About ten years.

What’s a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

Rebecca. I’m not sure it’s canonical, but it does seem people were recommending it to me for years. When I finally read it I was like, “Really?” It was so dull.

A book you’ve read more than two times.

I love re-reading, am a die-hard re-reader, so it’s impossible to pick only one. Taking just the shelf of books in the room where I’m sitting: many Brontës, every Austen, most of Virginia Woolf. Housekeeping. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Madeleine is Sleeping. Kathryn Davis’s Versaille. Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution. César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. A book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Margaret Cavendish’s own A Description of a New World Called The Blazing World, with its blazing stars that make the night as bright as day, its talking bears and spiders, its rivers of liquid crystal…

Who is your fashion icon?

Margaret Cavendish! Seriously. I even wrote about it, here.

If you could buy a second home to be your writing-only retreat anywhere in the universe, where would it be?

I’d like to get a bunch of thick socks and live at the late Roger Deakin’s Walnut Tree Farm in Suffolk, England.

Do you sit at a desk, bed or couch to write?

Desk, desk, desk.

Do you prefer morning writing or late-night writing?

Whenever-I-can-manage-it writing (as long as it’s at my desk).

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

I teach in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis and am the editor of Dorothy, a publishing project.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

My trick, if it’s a trick, has been to just fit it in when I can, especially since becoming a mom. But I’m trying something new: I’ve blocked out hours for “Writing” on certain days each week in the calendar on my phone. Now if something comes up and I open up my calendar, I have to stop and think: “Do I really need to do X? More than I need to write?” We’ll see. Fingers crossed.