Nathaniel Popkin lecture

One Writer’s Five-year Journey in Historical Fiction

One of the things I love about Arcadia’s English Department is its Visiting Writer Series. Every year, authors are invited to campus, where they give readings and speak to students. Recently, I was fortunate enough to find myself in the audience at a reading by Nathaniel Popkin, whose historical novel Lion and Leopard follows the family of the American artist Charles Willson Peale and is set in Philadelphia. Named after famous artists, Peale’s sons are destined to be painters, and the novel describes how their personalities affect their depictions of urban life in colonial America. The true plot line, however, is about what happens when the lives of the Peales intersect with that of John Lewis Krimmel, who died mysteriously.

With refreshments in hand and a copy of the novel in my lap, I directed my attention to the front of the room where the author stood. The environment was pleasant, as the window behind him had been opened, allowing the cool night breeze to drift in along with the distant shouts from the nearby athletics field. Every visiting writer is a little different, which makes each event rewarding in its own way. Before reading entertaining excerpts from Lion and Leopard, Popkin gave an in-depth look into some of the source material that informed his novel, including paintings by the real-life counterparts of his characters as well as anthologies that provided insights into the lives of Krimmel and the Peale family.

Nathaniel Popkin reads from his book.

Nathaniel Popkin reads from his book, Lion and Leopard.

As with other authors who have participated in this series, it was nice to hear Popkin bring his story to life with his own voice and inflections. But the best part of these sessions is when the floor is opened up to allow the audience to ask the author questions. I found my own hand twitching as I tried to decide what question I should ask. In the end, it seemed that all the inquiries I thought of were asked by others.

One person asked about the best piece of advice Popkin ever received. The author provided three answers. One was knowing what criticism to take and what criticism to reject, another was to read as much as possible, and the final was to expect writing a novel to be a long, difficult process.

This last one struck me as both comforting and intimidating. He said it took him five years to write his novel. Five! My first reaction was to feel disheartened, as if that was the minimum time one should be expected to spend writing a novel. But then when I thought about it more, it made sense. Popkin was also a full-time designer and editor at the time, which meant he was working on this novel in addition to all his other responsibilities. So yes, it took five years, but he did it, which is important to remember when considering any monumental project. Life gets in the way. I know I think about that sometimes when it comes to sitting down and doing my own writing, and it’s easy to get discouraged, but I’m going to remember Popkin’s advice and maybe, just maybe I’ll be part of the Visiting Writer Series one day as an Arcadia alumna.

Photos by Jennifer Kocsis ’17