By Abby DeVeuve, Connections Intern
Maria Flook is the author of four novels (Mothers and Lovers; Lux; Open Water; Family Night), two nonfiction books (Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod; My Sister Life: The Story of My Sister’s Disappearance), one collection of short stories (You Have the Wrong Man), and two collections of poetry (Sea Room; Reckless Wedding). She is a 2007 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award recipient and is currently Distinguished Writer-In-Residence at Emerson College. Her writing has made the New York Times Best Seller list, received a PEN American/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Special Citation, and won the Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series.
So where did such an accomplished writer go to school? Right here at Roger Williams, of course! Maria completed her undergraduate work as a Creative Writing major in the poetry track at Roger Williams College (the name changed from “College” to “University” in 1992). She then went on to receive her M.F.A. at the prestigious University of Iowa, Writers Workshop before returning to New England to settle in Cape Cod.
I was lucky enough to get in touch with Maria in advance of her February 24, 2015 visit to kick off the spring Talking in the Library series at the Mary White Tefft Cultural Center. In our email correspondence, Maria recounted the good times as a student at Roger Williams College (RWC) in the Seventies, discussed her journey to becoming an established writer, and shared her own inspiration that drives her to write.
Beginning the Journey
In 1970, when I was eighteen, I never graduated high school, and I didn’t have a high school diploma. I was admitted into the Creative Writing Program at RWC as a “special student.” The letter “S” appeared after every grade I received on my first report cards, until I had earned enough straight A’s to be taken off the “special student” list. I had been admitted to the college after showing a manuscript to the creative writing instructor Robert McRoberts. He saw that I was doing something interesting with my poetry, and he endorsed my application.
Inspirational Professors and Famous Writers
My years at the college were very exciting. The creative writing program invited many very famous American writers to visit the college, sometimes for days at a time. They gave readings, visited classes, and introduced RWC writing students to a world of literary options. William Styron. Thomas Wolfe. Kenneth Koch. William Stafford. James Tate. Robert Bly. Richard Yates, and many other contemporary poets and fiction writers visited campus. Meeting established writers gave us the belief that we, too, could someday be successful as writers. But we not only had very renowned visiting writers; our teachers were the bedrock of the program. Robert McRoberts and Geoffrey Clark encouraged us, both in workshop settings and in literature classes, where we were introduced to important writers who would influence our own voices. Our writing workshops were lively, challenging, and sometimes wacky.
My undergraduate experience at Roger Williams helped me believe that writing could be a lifelong commitment. This encouragement came from my teachers, my peers, and from a college that seemed to be very supportive to our creative writing program. In the late seventies, due to financial considerations, the college tried to remove support for the program and many of its alums came back to fight to keep it going. I’m glad to see that the program is again thriving.
Fond Memories of a Young Poet
Back then, creative writing students developed special bonds with one another, and we had a very intense social life. We especially enjoyed “after parties” at our professors’ houses. McRoberts lived in the lighthouse right beneath Mt. Hope Bridge. There is nothing more romantic than to have a post-reading party at a lighthouse! And, one time Geoffrey Clark had a party and everyone took turns trying out his new “water bed.” I remember the poet Robert Bly flopping around on the water bed, and giving it his thumbs up. Many unexpected things happened. Poet Tom Lux came to give a reading, and when he stood up at the podium he was so stone drunk he fell backwards in a swoon. But students ran up and helped him get back on his feet. He gave a terrific reading, despite his embarrassing start.
Other exciting things happened: Creative writing student Lou Papineau (his RWC poetry thesis is called “Matinees”), was able to get Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to come to the college to perform. They arrived very late at night in a beat-up van, after security had closed the event, but the band set up and performed for all of us who had waited for them show up. And while I was a student, we started a literary magazine called Aldebaran, and we were able to attract wonderful contributors. It was important to us to support young writers of our own, and to see their work published side by side with well-known writers.
On Writing Poetry
I’ve been A.W.O.L. from poetry for quite a while. But poetry was the genre that launched me as a writer. Of course, the lyric voice and a constant dependence on “poetic figure” is a given in literary fiction. “Image” is the shortest route to a walloping instance of perception. As a novelist I mine from my background in poetry. Poetry is a vein of ore and the lyric voice is a constant. But I’m interested in story-telling, and in character development. That requires the pages that fiction and nonfiction provide me. Poetry can tell a whole story in one line. Think of Emily Dickinson. But I like to follow my characters into their predicaments, room by room, disaster by disaster, and their transformations are looked at with the clarity of observation that sometimes requires full scenes and more pages than what poetry needs. As a student at Roger Williams, I was on the poetry “track” and I never took fiction workshops. I was interested in fiction and story writing, and I wrote a first novel right after college (never published), but I went from Roger Williams to the Iowa Writer Workshop as a poetry student. My professor at Roger Williams, poet Robert McRoberts, was very supportive of my progression as a young poet.
Writing Fiction: Inspiration, Characters, and the Sea
My story ideas come from a connection or a gut attraction to character. So you might say my work begins with “connection.” It’s an obsessive preoccupation with a character who faces a problem I identify with. I’m interested in family tensions, in love troubles, in lovers who make the wrong decisions, or make the wrong moves, in tensions between diverse groups of characters from different social spheres and different economic situations. I’m interested in “fringe” characters and how they interact with the status quo. And yes, I have set a few of my novels in Rhode Island. Open Water takes place in Newport, and I look at the underbelly of that town, with all its interesting ne’er do well characters. Working class characters, fishermen’s widows, and petty thieves are followed in their day-to-day predicaments, side by side with wealthy Newport society. My newest novel takes place in Middletown, and Mothers and Lovers takes place in a town called East Westerly which is, of course, a comedic invention. And yes, the sea is important in my work because the sea is important to me. My second collection of poems is called Sea Room which of course is a navigational term, but it has a metaphor resonance.
On Her Least Favorite Question: Who are Your Favorite Writers?
I always hate this question. Like, please don’t ask me my favorite foods, either! There are too many to list here. But I have a few writers who have been my influences and my pleasures. Edna O’Brien, Thomas Hardy, Denis Johnson, Jean Thompson, John Cheever, even Joyce Carol Oates. A new favorite of mine is Italian novelist Elena Ferrante whose Neapolitan series of novels have blown me away. In poetry it’s Keats, Dickinson, Neruda, Cavafy, Oscar Wilde, and Hart Crane. This list just scratches the surface.
Advice to Aspiring Writers
The “journey” of a writer, or of any artist, is to make the commitment to work. A lot of young writers are interested in living the “Lifestyle of a writer” but are not willing to engage in hours and hours of time at your desk. It really must be clear to anyone interested in making art that it is a solitary commitment of time. You must choose to work over all other things. Certain entertainments and pleasures have to be put aside. People have to come in second. Your loved ones and family have to learn to live without certain things that others take for granted. You must put your writing above all else, and to get the work on the page means a life of constant sacrifice.