Interview with Rhode Island Monthly

Rhode Island Monthly: You grew up in Massachusetts and now live in Virginia. How did you first come to Rhode Island, and what was your life here like?

John: I moved to Rhode Island not altogether by chance. I was born in Massachusetts as were my father and his parents (Ireland before that for the Caseys), and my mother came from New Hampshire where her father had moved from Massachusetts, so I’ve always felt myself a New Englander. I regret to say that one of my ancestors on my mother’s side was a fairly grim Puritan. The only poem I know that he wrote had these lines: “Let men of God in courts and churches watch/ O’er such as do a TOLERATION hatch.” He was unsympathetic to Roger Williams, someone I’ve always admired. So there was the New England connection…

There was part that WAS chance: my then father-in-law called his daughter and me up. We were living in Iowa at the time. He said that there was a very small island for sale; he could see it from his house. He offered to put up some of the money against his daughter’s inheritance if I could come up with some and mortgage the rest. He thought the price reasonable. I think it was $52,000 for 4.2 acres. 4 at high tide. I’d had a run of good luck selling stories and was feeling adventurous. I also thought I knew something about boats. In the next four years I learned how much I didn’t know.

RIM: What about Rhode Island inspired you to write Spartina?

John: Both the varied nature of the nature—salt marshes, salt ponds, different kinds of shore line both on the bay and the sound—AND the people I got to know, partly hanging out in a boatyard that had mostly lobstermen and quahog tongers as its clientele, tho’ I also got to know some men from larger vessels. I’d written a bit about Iowa farmers and was impressed by how much they knew about so many different things: carpentry, machinery, animals, soil. The same thing struck me about commercial fishermen.

RIM: Spartina fans may be surprised to discover that Compass Rose is a book about female relationships. Why were you drawn to this theme?

John: Spartina is about a gruff, vigorous and impulsive man who is fulfilled by building his own boat and putting out to sea to save her and then going out to the edge of the continental shelf to set his off-shore pots. That novel is from Dick’s point of view.

Compass Rose is from the point of view of three women who have to wait on shore and who have to deal with the problems he leaves behind when he goes to sea. But it’s more than fairness that drew me to May, Elsie, and Mary Scanlon, or Miss Perry or Rose. I heard their voices, and they were saying things that fascinated me. A lot of what they were saying was more interesting and wiser than the things I say or think in daily life. A pleasure of writing is that the subconscious and its buried memories can bring up visions of people who are beyond the reach of my conscious thought.

RIM: How do you write about women-particularly New England women-so well?

John: I spent eight years off and on writing Compass Rose. A lot of the time I was trying to be a method actor improvising and then playing the roles of the five principal women.

I wrote a story, “Avid” (New Yorker, 1989) from the point of view of the woman who was Jack Aldrich’s first wife. At a party a female professor came up to me and very nicely said, “I’m amazed that a man wrote that story! You understand women.” Standing nearby were my wife and ex-wife, who are friends. They looked at each other and had to put their hands over their mouths to keep from laughing outloud. In their trills of only half-muffled laughter, there is a lot to be learned. I’m working on it.

RIM: Did you learn anything about women while writing this book?
John: Yes.

RIM: Almost all of the women in the book inspire their share of male desire, but Elsie and Mary Scanlon do so most powerfully. What can women learn from them?

John: I’m happy that Mary Scanlon finds someone who knows the same songs she does and is smitten by her. I admire Elsie for her resolution to honor Dick’s efforts to be a father to their daughter. I wouldn’t dream of offering advice to women on what they might learn from Mary or Elsie. Well, maybe this: I think that both Elsie and Mary Scanlon are desirable for their other passions–Elsie for nature, Mary for cooking and song. To see someone ably doing work she loves is part of her beauty.

RIM: May remains married to Dick, but she is astoundingly tolerant of his relationship with Elsie. What can you say about May?

John: Without giving away too much of the story, Compass Rose has an arc but the arc is made up of a series of duets. The duet between May and Rose (as a baby, a toddler and as a teenager) is one that brings out a part of May that is surprisingly passionate and generous. It is also surprising to May herself.

By the way, the original impulse to write Compass Rose was to give voice to May. Although she is the most reserved of the women, she is the severe center of gravity.

RIM: For readers, this sequel feels like it has been a long time coming, although you began writing it before Spartina was published. Was there a particular challenge in getting this novel just right?

John: Yes, a long time coming. I wrote a first draft before Spartina was published. My editor liked Spartina, but thought the Elsie/May novel was a mess. My friend and colleague Tony Winner also thought it was a mess but potentially even better than Spartina. I tried rewriting it, but working on the first draft wasn’t working. Then I got diverted by writing The Half-life of Happiness, which took four or five years. I also translated two Italian novels and wrote some essays and poems. Then I took out a clean pad of writing paper and started from scratch—though I knew the characters. It went very well for a year or so. My editor had…various thoughts. Some of them were helpful. I wrote another two drafts. Tony Winner typed 8 pages of commentary, single-spaced. Very very helpful. I then figured out what the rhythm and the sequence should be. I rewrote it again, not changing much but paring it down. I also added a few short chapters, among my favorites, e.g. the short one in which Elsie sees Dick and Rose rowing. Done. But there were still some arguments about the title and the cover design. Many terse emails later both were settled the right way.

I’ve lived with the characters in Spartina, Compass Rose, and in a half-dozen short stories set in South County off and on for more than twenty years, including the six-year gap for other works. I’m happy. I’m satisfied that it was worth it.

RIM: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?

John: I prick a fingertip and write a word. Then I prick another fingertip and so on.

Okay, getting fanciful–but that’s the way it feels some days. There are other days when I go to my work shed and get lucky. I write longhand with a ballpoint pen. Correct with an accountant’s-fine-point pen. Get it typed up in the computer. Print it out. Cross out a lot and add things with fine-point pen. Get it in the computer…

With Compass Rose I also made a table of contents on index cards and pinned them up on a cork board. Moved things around sometimes.

RIM: What is your next writing project?

John: A student once asked me, What is it with you and the outdoors?” I said that I wouldn’t write if I didn’t read a lot but that I also wouldn’t write if I didn’t get out in the physical world, sometimes as a “sojourner in nature” as Thoreau puts it, but sometimes pushing hard enough to see the landscape differently.

A year or so ago my brother-in-law Benjamin (a tri-athlete twenty years my junior) were looking at the Delaware River between Port Jervis, NY and Milford PA. Benjamin said, “If we got in a canoe here we could paddle to Dodon.” Dodon is our father-in-law’s farm near Annapolis MD.

On the first leg of the trip we capsized once at Foul Rift. The current was so strong it tore our shoes off. But then there was this: the oil refineries near Camden NJ at 5 a.m. in a light rain—the vent flames and beacon lights mixed with the wind-blown mist to make something as beautiful as the wildest Turner painting. I was so mesmerized and at such length that Benjamin turned around and said, “John—I beseech you. Get us out of the shipping channel.