Maybe it is the grey clouds of several consecutively rainy days that makes crave assertive color. I am in love with yellow in all its variations. I am dazzled by daffodils, hibiscus, daysies, some Bonnard paintings, Bakst and Bilibin sketches. I am planning a in shades of of pale gold, buttercream, mango, mustard, and touches of ochre. So far, I have a fistful of paint chips, four watercolors, sixteen yards of yellow checkered cotton for the curtains, creamy toile lace, and two yellow quilts. It is just a beginning, but living by the millstream one learns to take its its song to heart. The tempo is adagio.
Adagio is precisely the tempo is I hope the friends who will stay in this room will embrace. I chose the colors and art for the light hearted feeling they convey. I want this to be a space where guests can recover the playful feeling of being on a wonderful camping trip. I am no particular fan of camping or fishing, but love the spirit of adventure, the disconnection from daily responsibilities and sameness camping awakens in aficionados. In a sense, I want my new guest room to have the atmosphere “Gone Fishing” signs bring to mind. At times such as ours when economic trouble, war and disaster are rife we all need havens. I can neither avert war nor disasters,. All I can do is make a haven to my friends and family. It is a very modest accomplishment, but I leave grand projects for those who have the talent and stamina to carry them out. Adagio, adagio and all grace notes I can muster. This is how I live by the old millstream.
Caleb Cheeshahteamauk is an extraordinary figure in Native American history. How did you first discover him? What was involved in learning more about his life?
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head/Aquinnah are proud custodians of their history, and it was in materials prepared by the Tribe that I first learned of its illustrious young scholar. To find out more about him I talked with tribal members, read translations of early documents in the Wopanaak language, then delved into the archives of Harvard and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, especially the correspondence between colonial leaders and benefactors in England who donated substantial funds for the education and conversion to Christianity of Indians in the 17th century. There are also writings by members of the Mayhew family, who were prominent missionaries and magistrates on the island, and John Cotton, Jr., who came here as a missionary and kept a detailed journal.
There is little documentation on Caleb’s actual life. What parts of his life did you imagine? Do you feel you know him better after writing this book, or is he still a mystery?
The facts about Caleb are sadly scant. We know he was the son of a minor sachem from the part of the Vineyard now known as West Chop, and that he left the island to attend prep school, successfully completed the rigorous course of study at Harvard and was living with Thomas Danforth, a noted jurist and colonial leader, when disease claimed his life. Everything else about him in my novel is imagined. The real young man—what he thought and felt—remains an enigma.
Bethia Mayfield is truly a woman ahead of her time. If she were alive today, what would she be doing? What would her life be like with no restrictions?
There were more than a few 17th century women like Bethia, who thirsted for education and for a voice in a society that demanded their silence. You can find some of them being dragged to the meeting house to confess their “sins” or defending their unconventional views in court. If Bethia was alive today she would probably be president of Harvard or Brown, Princeton or UPenn.
The novel is told through Bethia’s point of view. What is the advantage to telling this story through her eyes? How would the book be different if Caleb were the narrator?
I wanted the novel to be about crossings between cultures. So as Caleb is drawn into the English world, I wanted to create an English character who would be equally drawn to and compelled by his world. I prefer to write with a female narrator when I can, and I wanted to explore issues of marginalization in gender as well as race.
Much of the book is set on Martha’s Vineyard, which is also your home. Did you already know about the island’s early history, or did you do additional research?
I was always intrigued by what brought English settlers to the island so early in the colonial period…they settled here in the 1640s. Living on an island is inconvenient enough even today; what prompted the Mayhews and their followers to put seven miles of treacherous ocean currents between them and the other English—to choose to live in a tiny settlement surrounded by some three thousand Wampanoags? The answer was unexpected and led me into a deeper exploration of island history
You bring Harvard College to life in vivid, often unpleasant detail. What surprised you most about this prestigious university’s beginnings?
For one thing, I hadn’t been aware Harvard was founded so early. The English had barely landed before they started building a college. And the Indian College—a substantial building—went up not long after, signifying an attitude of mind that alas did not prevail for very long. It was fun to learn how very different early Harvard was from the well endowed institution of today. Life was hand to mouth, all conversation was in Latin, the boys (only boys) were often quite young when they matriculated. But the course of study was surprisingly broad and rigorous—a true exploration of liberal arts, languages, and literature that went far beyond my stereotype of what Puritans might have considered fit subjects for scholarship.
As with your previous books, you’ve managed to capture the voice of the period. You get the idiom, dialect, and cadence of the language of the day on paper. How did you do your research?
I find the best way to get a feel for language and period is to read first person accounts—journals, letters, court transcripts. Eventually you start to hear voices in your head: patterns of speech, a different manner of thinking. My son once said, Mom talks to ghosts. And in a way I do.
May 2011, Tiffany Smalley will follow in Caleb’s footsteps and become only the second Vineyard Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard. Do you know if this will be celebrated?
In May Tiffany Smalley will become the first Vineyard Wampanoag since Caleb to receive an undergrad degree from Harvard College. (Others have received advanced degrees from the university’s Kennedy school etc.) I’m not sure what Harvard has decided to do at this year’s commencement, but I am hoping they will use the occasion to honor Caleb’s fellow Wampanoag classmate, Joel Iacoomis, who completed the work for his degree but was murdered before he could attended the 1665 commencement ceremony.
Alice Bliss is a 15-year-old girl in 10th grade, living in upstate New York, deeply connected to her dad who is serving in Iraq with his Reserve unit.
ALICE BLISS the book grew out of Alice Unwrapped, a musical. What was the inspiration for the musical and how did it evolve into a book?
The musical was a commission, actually, and the creation of a new form in music theatre: the one-act, one-woman musical. Paulette Haupt, our commissioner and producer, was inspired by Alan Bennett’s play: Talking Heads. Bennett wrote a series of searing, touching, funny monologues for BBC television. They were subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio and then performed live in theatres.
It was an extreme challenge to tell a story in 30 minutes with one singer. I actually wrote 3 stories for this commission, but found I loved the character of Alice best.
And, oddly enough, the very first germ of the character of Alice came from another musical that I wrote with Jenny Giering, Crossing Brooklyn. In that show, Alice was a teenage runaway, living in Prospect Park, sleeping in the carrousel at night. That character was cut from the final version.
With Alice Unwrapped, at 30 minutes, almost entirely sung, we could really only dramatize one key moment in Alice’s life. And I realized that there was a much larger story to be told. Which is when decided I wanted to write a book.
ALICE BLISS is a profoundly moving uplifting novel about those who are left at home during wartime and a teenage girl bravely facing the future. It chronicles the impact of the war on those left at home: children, partners, family members, the community. With the US in a war the story is quite timely. Do you have a connection to the world in which you write?
My father was a navigator/ bombardier in WWII, flying missions into Germany from his air base just north of Paris. Both my brothers enlisted in the Air Force in 1966. So, while I don’t have a family member serving in this war, my family has been deeply impacted by war.
My father suffered from PTSD following the war, a time he would never talk about directly. Nor would he talk about the experiences during the war that had so devastated him. The silence surrounding my father’s war experiences has probably been the single greatest mystery and inspiration in my life. I believe that my fascination with war grows out of my need to understand these experiences and to bear witness to this silent suffering.
What do you hope families experiencing a similar scenario take away from reading your book?
I hope they will feel that I am telling their story and doing justice to it.
While writing the book I was simply immersed in the story, but now that I’m done I can step back and look at the larger picture. It strikes me that you can live in many parts of the US completely untouched and unaware of the wars we’ve been engaged in for the last 8 years. And there’s something about that fact that is terribly unsettling. I think there is an enormous amount of unexpressed grief surrounding these wars and that ALICE BLISS, like good theatre, creates an emotional catalyst that allows us to feel that grief.
And because the book is not “about” the war, but about a family and a town and growing up, the emotional impact sneaks up on you.
What is your writing regimen?
When I’m writing—whether it’s a book or a play or a musical or an opera—I write every day. When I’m between projects, or researching and imagining a new story, I can spend weeks and months reading and walking and taking notes and asking questions and developing characters and a storyline. I find the in-between times very, very uncomfortable. Living with uncertainty, wandering around in the middle of mental chaos is very challenging. I’m happiest when I’m writing.
When you write do you have a story in mind and then the characters evolve to tell that story or do you create characters and the story comes from them?
I begin with the characters, with a strong sense of “voice.” I really hear my characters and learn a great deal about them by getting them talking. However, the story is evolving at the same time the characters are beginning to jell. Because what’s a character without a story? To me, story is paramount.
ALICE BLISS is not a book about war. When you were writing did you find it challenging to focus on the personal story of the family rather than the politics?
I made a strong choice early on not to go to Iraq in the book. I knew that the emotional impact would come from keeping the story focused on Alice and her family at home. At the same time, Matt, Alice’s father, is such a key character and we have so little time with him before he ships out. How do we keep him and his story present? Finding that balance was challenging and an interesting puzzle to solve.
What inspired you to write this book now?
I think that making the war personal is important. Telling the stories of those left behind, illuminating the lives of spouses and partners and children who have a loved one deployed is important. Do we know their stories, their struggles? Do we hear their voices? I hope we can begin to see this war one child at a time, one soldier at a time, one missing father at a time.
You capture the main character Alice wonderfully; her strength, vulnerability and awkwardness of being a teenage girl. Were you anything like Alice growing up?
I think we are all like Alice. That combination of strength, vulnerability, awkwardness and intensity is universal to those years.
I was the youngest of four children, and my siblings were quite a bit older, so I had a much more solitary childhood than Alice did. But there’s something about those years that I can still see, hear, taste, and feel. For whatever reason, I have intense empathy for teens.
What type of books do you like to read?
All kinds. If I’m researching a project, like Napoleon or Joan of Arc, or the American Civil war, I can get lost in my reading lists.
I love novels. I’d rather read a book than eat. I love history, I love great non-fiction, I love good writing.
What are you reading now?
Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader, a beautiful series of essays about books and reading and words. It turns out that Anne Fadiman was also a collector of big words, like Ellie.
Jane Smiley’s new book: Private Life, and Graham Robb’s, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris.”
My wish list is lengthy and always growing. I am a big fan of my local library.
Which aspect of your work do you most enjoy?
The freedom to think my own thoughts, pursue my own passions, indulge my own obsessions. The necessity of reading. Being able to think of reading as part of my job. How lucky is that? And the opportunity to learn a great deal, even to become a mini expert about all kinds of things, like Napoleon in exile on St Helena’s, Joan of Arc’s last 3 days in prison, Sherman’s march to the sea, the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, marathon dancing, etc, etc. It’s fun, and it’s never, ever boring.
Who are your heroes?
My parents. I’m inspired by them and guided by them every single day of my life.
The peacemakers. Whoever and wherever they are.
What would your colleagues be surprised to learn about you?
I’m constantly looking for ways to be a kid again, to play.
What is your most treasured possession?
My wedding ring.
What inspires you?
The world around me. Every day.