Interview with Steve Jensen, author of The Poison of a Smile

I am truly delighted to be interviewing the mysterious and elusive Steve Jensen (or should we call him J D Salinger) today.

A warm welcome to my blog, Steve.

Can you tell us more about The Poison of a Smile?

The Poison of a Smile began life as traditional ghost story, but changed once I started writing. At first, the action centred around a haunted manor house and, despite all occupational hazards (clichés etc) of that type of story, I still intend to write a standard ghost story soon. As for The Poison of a Smile, I found that I didn’t need to reveal the characters as ghosts, or vampires and suchlike; my villains possess some of these creatures’ traits, but they bend the ‘rules’ on a whim. They are a law unto themselves, and recognise no boundaries between life and death; they have the quality that Peter Straub has his anti-heroine Eva Galli taunt her victims with in the novelGhost Story: ‘Could you defeat a cloud, a dream, a poem?

The creation of that Mistress of Death, Alatiel, which gave the story a new and vital impetus. She is everything her admirers desire, and everything her victims dread; she confronts them with themselves, and what they see is terrible.

The plot reminds me very much of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in that it is about a group of artists, models and their tangled relationships. Were you thinking of them when you wrote your novel?

I was intrigued by what I view as the ambiguous mindset of male artists, particularly those within the Pre-Raphaelite circle of the Nineteenth Century. I was struck at how idealistic, yet callous, some of these men were in their attitudes towards women. Although, as a human being, I’m appalled at the casual way these people stereotyped their women as saints or whores, goddesses or demons, I’m nevertheless fascinated by this extreme idealisation. For example, Alatiel bears some resemblance to Rose La Touche, the very young girl that the middle-aged art critic, painter, and champion of the Pre-Raphaelites John Ruskin fell in love with. Ruskin’s ‘love’ was, to him, pure, noble, ideal; yet note how his description of ten year-old Rose is literally critical, as if she were a statue, a portrait, or a thoroughbred horse; note how condescending the tone is:

“Presently the drawing room door opened, and Rosie came in, quietly taking stock of me with her blue eyes as she walked across the room; gave me her hand, as a good dog gives its paw, and then stood a little back. Nine years old, on 3rd January, 1858, thus now rising towards ten; neither tall nor short for her age; a little stiff in her way of standing. The eyes rather deep blue at that time, and fuller and softer than afterwards. Lips perfectly lovely in profile; a little too wide, and hard in edge, seen in front; the rest of the features what a fair, well-bred Irish girl’s usually are; the hair, perhaps, more graceful in short curl around the forehead, and softer than one sees often, in the close-bound tresses above the neck.”

Of course, the whole affair ended tragically – Rose died suitably young of ‘madness, anorexia, a broken heart, religious mania or hysteria’; suitably for John Ruskin, that is, because imaginative men like him find it easier and more refined to love an ideal rather than a person. Ruskin’s Dante-esque obsession ruined his mind (he began to imagine Rose as Saint Ursula, and to see the girl’s profile in 15th-century art featuring the Christian saint. Again, though I’m highly critical of Ruskin’s treatment of Rose, it was certainly Romantic…but divorced from genuine romance, not to mention reason.

Do you have a background in art yourself?

No. As it happens, I’m disastrously lacking in artistic talent. As much as I love art, and wish I were capable of creating it, you could say that I’m equally as interested in its psychological aspects.

How important do you think art is in society?

It’s utterly crucial, I believe, and yet it’s being marginalised more and more. Important works of art are now, perhaps, only viewed as motifs of a century rather than as something impacting upon it, as was the case in the past. I’m one of those philistines who believes that our times are lacking in great art – this is the Plastic Age, and its art reflects our throwaway culture very well. But it is what it is – soulless, bereft of grandeur and enthusiasm. Irony is played-out, yet it’s the only game in town.

What is your writing method? Do you have to fit writing in here and there or do you have a definite structured day?

I’m terribly disorganised and have few set methods. Spare time is at a premium too. I outline briefly, and work when the mood takes me. This isn’t laziness though…I don’t believe you can ‘force’ inspiration and produce something of a decent standard.

Where is your book available to buy? Have you any other books published or in progress?

The Poison of a Smile can be sampled, and purchased, from Amazon:

Amazon UK (Kindle), priced at 49p:

Amazon US (Kindle), priced at 80c:

Amazon US (paperback), priced at $7.99:

Presently, I’m writing Ariele Winter, A Ghost Story:

‘Ariele Winter is dead but she cannot rest.
Her father Joseph waits for her to return to him.
Her sister Celeste dreads the coming of night.
Ariele’s family have never sought her killer…
But is she really dead? And if so, who is tormenting her sister into madness?’

I hope to finish the book this summer. Thank you for this opportunity, Catherine.

I’m pleased to finally be able to interview you, Steve. Best of luck with your writing career.

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