Hey everyone, this is Elyse, the Publishing Intern at the Writer’s Center. Fortunately for me, the Center has a great program for its interns- a flexible work schedule, a great work experience, and a free workshop! I took Sarah Blake’s Creative Writing: Getting Started and Sarah was kind enough to agree to an interview on her book Grange House.
I’m very much into historical fiction, so Grange House- set at the end of the Victorian era- was right up my alley. The novel takes place in 1896 Maine, in an old manor house-turned-hotel, the eponymous Grange House. The hotel is one of those buildings full of Gothic mystery, as great a fixture in the fictional landscape as Wuthering Heights, and the summer home to cast of intriguing characters. The main character is Maisie Thomas, 17, fanciful and desperately aching for more. Her summer begins ominously when one foggy morning she discovers a pair of ill-fated lovers, drowned in the bay by the Hotel. Add in a reclusive authoress with a mysterious past (Miss Grange), ghosts of all kinds, your usual Victorian love triangle, and more mysterious deaths and you are sucked into a world of gentle mystery culminating in a very unique coming-of-age story.
1. How long have you been working at the Writer's Center?
I started teaching at the Writer’s Center in April, 2008.
2. What classes have you taught?
I’ve taught two classes: What’s the Plot?, a reading workshop on plot—what it is, how to find one, how to write one, how you see it working in great novels; and Beginning Fiction.
3. Now, on to your fabulous book, Grange House. The novel resonates with overtones from Victorian literature- both in Maisie's reading material and in the novel itself, in a quite impressive metafictional layering. How difficult was it to keep this balance?
Writing Grange House was very much an act of literary ventriloquism for me—it sprang out of my love of long Victorian sentences, of Victorian plots, and the sense that characters inhabit a textual world: in novels of the period much is revealed in the guise of characters talking about what they are reading, what they are thinking in terms of life or art, etc. So the balance between Maisie’s reading and Maisie’s story is its own subplot—and one that was fun to play with.
4. Maisie's interest in reading and how the sorts of books she reads influences her character reminded me a lot of David Copperfield, when Dickens lists all the books he thinks every child ought to read to form a more perfect understanding of humanity in general. Why did you chose the books you did?
The novels and poems that Maisie is reading—Jane Eyre, The Mill on the Floss, Swinburne, Tennyson—all narrate the stories of mid/late 19th century girls becoming women—and much as a present day seventeen year old would hold her life up against a character’s in a movie or on TV, Maisie’s guides for behavior are these. But Grange House is also a novel about writing novels(and lives)—and Maisie is charged with finishing an older woman’s story, finding out the ending and then writing what happens. In so doing, Maisie reads and then writes her own life. She is writing her story then, very much mindful of not repeating the Bronte and the Eliot. It’s as much about how women become writers as it is about girls becoming women.
5. I believe you have a Ph.D in Victorian literature; what about the books of these period interests you the most?
I love the leisure with which the big old novels of the Victorians take on the world—and I love the capaciousness of that world. Middlemarch, for example, sets so many characters in motion, and then sets back and watches (for pages and pages) the many multiple arguments on race, class, politics, social expectation, art, beauty, immortality, banking—play out.
6. Grange House was a very different coming-of-age story wherein the heroine ostensibly looks for love but finds herself instead. Did you set out to write Grange House with this twist in mind, or did it develop during the writing process?
I didn’t know what Maisie comes to know until I was nearly at the end of the first draft and realized—oh! that’s who she is. It was very exciting in the writing.
7. Could you describe the particular process of writing Grange House?
Grange House sprang very much out of my doctoral work—I had come to the end of my orals exam preparation (which basically requires you to read every single relevant novel of the 19th century) and just wanted to read another Bronte novel. Meanwhile, I had begun writing little sketches of a family living in the 19th c. off the coast of Maine, a family that behaved as though it had a secret, though I didn’t know what that secret was. Then my grandmother died and my aunt gave me a leather box full of about 200 love letters exchanged between my great-grandparents, Maisie Thomas and Jonathan Lanman, written in the months before they were officially engaged. I began to transcribe them, and one day I was reading and transcribing the letter in which Maisie describes how her father fell through the floor of an old tower to his death. I had chills—reading and writing simultaneously—and I realized that that was the beginning of my novel, and that somehow Maisie’s story intersected with the Maine family’s secret. That letter of Maisie’s and the subsequent answer from Jonathan are both in Grange House, fully intact.
8. Do you have a particular process when you write, or does it differ from piece to piece?
I’m not sure I have a particular process other than to get up every day and try and figure out what on earth I am doing, based on what the writing is telling me. This second novel has taken a blisteringly long time—as I try and understand what my characters are up to, I have written two whole novels that will never see the light of day in service to this one that will, thankfully, appear.
9. I was lucky enough to take your beginning fiction class, but for those who didn't, what do you think is most important for a beginning writer to know before starting in on a project?
That what you have come to say is almost always a mystery, and that you have to have the patience of a blind man navigating around a new room, every single time you sit down to write.
10. And finally, you've got a book coming out in 2009. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
My second novel, The Postmistress, is set in the year before we enter World War II, and goes back and forth between the lives of a radio war correspondent who works for Murrow during the Blitz, and a postmaster in a small Cape Cod town until their lives intersect because the postmaster doesn’t deliver a letter to a woman in town saying that her husband has died. I am interested in the gap in time before we know the news—and in this case, the gap in time when we were almost at war, but not at war as a nation.