In early 2001 I went to an exhibition of William Blake’s works at the Tate Gallery in London. This sprawling display explored the many and varied strands of Blake’s life: his paintings, commercial engravings, books he printed and colored, illustrated poems, and prose and letters describing his radical thinking and bohemian world.

I was familiar with Blake’s poems from studying them at college, and his art from a semester I spent studying in London, but I had never seen it all pulled together. I remember standing in the middle of one of the rooms, bewildered by the variety and intensity of his work, and thinking, “This guy was crazy, or on drugs, or both.” At the end of the exhibition, I went into the shop and bought a notebook with a Blake image on the cover, thinking, “This is the notebook I will use for my Blake novel some day.” Two and a half years later, I opened that notebook and began taking notes.

I spent a whole year reading about Blake and looking at his work before I began the novel itself. There is so much written about him it’s kind of ridiculous, and confusing. I think Blake is a bit of a mirror – hold him up to yourself and you will see reflected in him your own interests and preoccupations. Poetry, art, philosophy, theology, erotica, politics, socio-economics: it’s all there if you choose to look for it.

Blake’s work is not easy to cope with. Much of his poetry is long, personal, and obscure. His illustrations are dark and anxious. By the end of the year I didn’t understand him any better than I had at the start – though I did at least come to realize that he was neither crazy nor on drugs. I kept looking for that one work that would explain him to me, but after a while I realized I was going to have to write it myself.

The works I kept coming back to were his two volumes, Songs of Innocence and of Experience – short, simple poems I had always loved and felt I sort of understood. I decided then that I would focus on Blake’s writing of Songs of Experience – to me the acquiring of experience contains more of a story than being in a state of innocence. The story of Adam and Eve is interesting because they tasted the apple, after all; otherwise there is no story.

Speaking of Adam and Eve, I also kept circling back to a story told about Blake and his wife Catherine. Supposedly their friend Thomas Butts visited them in Lambeth and found them sitting naked in their garden, reading Milton’s Paradise Lost to each other. Blake is meant to have said, “Oh, don’t mind us – it’s only Adam and Eve, you know!” Scholars dismiss the story as unlikely, but I love it, as it humanizes Blake. It also made me wonder what it was like to be his neighbor. So I put that together with Songs of Experience and came up with Burning Bright.