Recently, I met with Taylor Polites, author of the historical fiction novel The Rebel Wife, and author of stories appearing in Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting and Providence Noir. Originally from Alabama, Taylor has lived in places such as New York City and Provincetown, before recently settling in Rhode Island. He teaches in the Wilkes University Creative Writing MFA Program, at the Rhode Island School of Design, and occasionally teaches creative writing courses at Roger Williams University. I wanted to learn more about him and his inspiration for writing and creating art. On November 18, 2014, as part of the Talking in the Library Series, Taylor will be part of a discussion panel with RWU history professor Jeffrey Meriwether titled “From the Stacks to the Pages: How Research Tells the Stories from History.”
From the start, Taylor was gregarious and animated as we sat down to talk at the Seven Stars Bakery in Providence. He was happy to discuss his work with me and share his inspiration for writing and creating.
“I am interested in place, and I find that wherever I am, I’m naturally tuning into the setting and my surroundings,” Taylor said, as we talked over coffee and cookies in the warm bakery in Providence, on what was on otherwise chilly fall day. Providence, where he currently calls home, provides a wealth of creative inspiration for both literature and other forms of art for Taylor. He is interested in both the history of the city and the current vibrant, intellectual city life surrounding him. That atmosphere was evident all around us as we chatted inside the busy coffee shop. We were surrounded by people talking animatedly, just like us, or sitting quietly to read and work even in din of conversation. The place had a unique, artistic vibe that lent itself to our conversation about Taylor’s creativity.
History and place have inspired Taylor’s sense of creativity throughout his life even before he lived in Providence. When asked about the inspiration for his first novel, The Rebel Wife, he said his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama was his greatest influence.
“Growing up and seeing these antebellum homes and the way people talked about the war, even though it was 150 years ago, had a real effect on me and I was fascinated by this period of history from a very young age. So I began creating my own towns and drawing maps of the towns,” said Taylor.
Because he was so interested in creating houses and towns, he decided to try architecture in college. However, he soon realized “it wasn’t really the houses that were as interesting to me as the people who lived in the houses. So these imaginary towns, these houses, all of this became a place for me to create stories.”
He told me that The Rebel Wife is the result of his urge to tell stories about the people in the towns he created, using his hometown in Alabama as a historical source. This novel features a strong female protagonist, as Taylor was also influenced by strong heroines in the books he read while growing up. Set in 1875 at end of Reconstruction, the novel tells the story of woman from a family that was ruined by the Civil War, whose husband has just died, and who believes she will inherit money and be in control of her own life. But that all comes crashing down.
“She begins to think about the stories that she’s been told and the things that she’s been told to believe and compare that to her lived experience and the experiences of the people in the house with her, who are former slaves seeking agency in their own ways,” explains Taylor.
By setting up the novel this way, Taylor explains that he wants to examine the tension between myths, stories, and the way people remember something versus the academic perspective of historians trying to tell an objective version of history. He says that the atmospheric backdrop of the end of Reconstruction gives him the opportunity to explore themes of conflict, upheaval, racism, and the devastation of the war through one woman’s very personal story.
Tension and conflict are not themes that Taylor shies away from in his writing; in fact, he seeks out moments in history that feature opposing views coming together and people struggling for something. He calls these moments in history “hinges” or “turning points” that allow him to explore and ask questions, such as, “How did we get to today through these moments of tension in our history?”
Taylor is currently working on a second novel, this one set in 1860 during the eve of the Civil War, which was another period of upheaval and tension. He wants to continue to explore these provocative themes in multiple novels featuring turning points in history.
Since Taylor is well into his career as a successful writer, I asked him how he got to this point and what inspired him to become a writer. He was clearly happy with his choice, as he talked excitedly about his path to doing what makes him happy.
“The impulse to create stories was always in me. In the 5th grade I was writing plays for my English class,” Taylor said. But when he went to college he felt pressure to get a job and thought pursuing writing would be crazy. Since he also loves history, he majored in history as a way to tell stories.
However, he ended up moving to New York City and working in the financial industry – but he said that the impulse to write was always there and it did not go away.
“At a certain point I said, ‘This urge to tell stories, and these places down in Alabama and the stories, are still alive inside me.’ And I thought, ‘I have to take a chance now, I have to put some effort toward making this a reality.’”
We discussed the fear that keeps people from pursuing their dreams and his careful planning to be able to have a career that makes him happy. He says that he went into it with a sense that it might not work, but he had to try. Now, because of taking that risk and acting upon his urge to write, he gets to write, teach creative writing, and live in a community of writers. Looking around the Seven Stars Bakery and the surrounding area, I could see why living in such a community would be so enriching.
“Everything I do has a relationship to writing and making and crafting,” said Taylor.
Taylor is much more than a writer; he is an all-around artistic and expressive person. He explains, “I can look at myself as a maker, and writing is just one component of that.”
When I asked him about how he is a maker, he told me about how the incredible arts community in Providence helped enrich his life. His neighbor is a screen printer who taught him how to screen print and make his own personal book plates. Taylor explained, “There’s a satisfaction to making something with your hands, and learning this craft opened up a new world of creating and making and having fun.”
In addition to screen printing, Taylor also knits, does antique photography, and letterpress printing. He said that these other crafts find their way into his writing, as well as an adorable inspiration of his own:
“I love my dog, Clovis, and I love knitting sweaters for Clovis, and that became the subject of an essay.” The essay about knitting sweaters for his Chihuahua appears in an anthology called Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting.
Clovis is featured in Taylor’s other artistic endeavors as well; Taylor hands out Clovis t-shirts and Clovis cards as a personal touch at events or to send thank you notes. Taylor’s career, doing what makes him happy, seems to combine all of his passions: making, writing, history, and Clovis. I was a little disappointed that Clovis couldn’t join us in the coffee shop.
When asked for tips for aspiring writers, he gave advice that reaches beyond just writing: “Being a writer is a form of play . . . that’s true for life. Anything that you do can have that spirit of wonder and play in it, and if you bring that attitude to the thing you’re doing, it’ll enrich your life so much more and open you up to the wonders around you. Then you can take advantage of what life has to offer and relish in living it.”
Come see Taylor as part of the Fall Talking in the Library Series.
Topic: “From the Stacks to the Pages: How Research Tells the Stories from History.” RWU history professor Jeffrey Meriwether and author Taylor Polites will discuss how research has informed and shaped their works in fiction and in scholarship.
When: Tuesday, November 18, 2014 (4:30 PM) in the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center in the University Library
Behind the Book takes an in depth look at the world of the book through articles and interviews about the creative process, issues in publishing, and the writing life.
A Few Minutes with Padma Venkatraman
Padma Venkatraman is a remarkable woman who refuses to pigeonhole her passions — she has been an oceanographer, a teacher, and a novelist, among many other things. She was born in Chennai, India, and lived there until age 19, when she moved to the United States to begin her graduate work as an oceanographer. Although Padma’s initial career path was in the field of science, she has always harbored a love of literature. Even while she was conducting research around the world or working at the University of Rhode Island, she was pursuing her love of writing.
She has written math and science books, children’s books, and most recently young adult novels. For her literature she has won numerous awards and honors, including starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA, SLJ, and BCCB for her most recent young adult novel, A Time to Dance.
As part of the Talking in the Library series, Padma is visiting RWU on October 7 at 4:30 PM in the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center in the University Library. But, as a sneak peek, Connecting with Your Library intern, I caught up with Padma over email to talk about Padma’s novels, her life, and her inspiring advice to young writers!
Abby: First, I want to get to know you as a person a little better — how do you spend your time? What is a day in the life of Padma Venkatraman like?
Padma: These days I am quite limited in what I do because spending time with my husband and child is my priority, other than writing. I’m lousy at tennis but like it, I ice walk (holding on to the boards, while my family skates), do yoga every morning, and read a lot! I used to hike, snorkel, canoe, [and] cross-country ski but that was pre-child. I also did more volunteer work at that point.
Abby: Your primary occupation was in the sciences as an oceanographer, but of course you are a successful novelist as well — how do these two aspects of your life come together, or do you keep them apart? Do you use your scientific knowledge to inform your writing?
Padma: I pretty much keep them apart when it comes to writing. Science writing is by nature didactic and full of explanations – two things a good novelist avoids.
Then again, I feel science informs my life as a writer. It gives me a great appreciation for the vastness of space and time, for the immensity of the universe, and thus, I hope keeps me from getting too self-obsessed.
My scientific knowledge came into play a little in Island’s End, in which there’s a Tsunami, and which is set on islands I visited as an oceanographer. I also was, for a while, the only female of color and yet chief scientist on research cruises — that gave me an understanding of what it means to lead despite being a “minority.”
Abby: You were born in India and then moved to the United States — how have your life experiences influenced your writing?
Padma: I’m American now, and in most ways I’m more American than I’m Indian. Then again, growing up in India gave me both an understanding of the depth and largely accepting spirituality that prevails in that culture as well as an experience of the many unfortunate social restrictions and inequities. Thus far, this has heavily influenced my first and third novels, but not all my work will be set in India (if I live long enough to write more, as I hope to do).
Abby: A Time to Dance is your third and most recent novel — will you explain what it is about in your own words?
Padma: A Time to Dance is my most recent literary novel. It’s about Veda, a dance ingenue who loses her leg in an accident. As she struggles to recover physically, she grows as a person, becomes more open and giving, and discovers spirituality. Her journey is one that progresses through the 3 different stages of love, if you will — from Eros, through Charis, to an awakening of Agape.
Abby: While your novels are very different, they often feature strong female characters facing hardship on various levels– what made you want to explore these themes? What do you want readers to take away from your works?
Padma: I had a very difficult childhood, in part because I was a girl growing up in India, in part because the family I was born into is dysfunctional. When I came to the United States for graduate school at age 19, I was one of the few women in the then male-dominated profession of oceanography. I think the challenges I underwent make me gravitate toward characters who also face hardship. I invite characters I admire into my mind, strong people whose voices I can happily listen to for years on end as the novel evolves, interesting people whom I enjoy seeing in the movie that plays in my mind as I write.
Abby: What is your favorite book (or who is your favorite author) and why?
Padma: [There are] lots of authors I like, no single favorite.
Authors I admire: Kazuo Ishiguro, Vikram Seth, M.T. Anderson, Da Chen, Laurie Halse Andersen, Ursula LeGuin, Jane Yolen — because they have such a range of media that they explore [and] they write for such a wide variety of age groups or else they’ve all managed to explore different types of writing, different genres.
Some favorite books: The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, How Green Was My Valley, A Step from Heaven, Many Stones, The Book of Daniel, Olive Kitteridge, The Case Against America, Midnight’s Children, Brideshead Revisited, The Rainbow, As I Lay Dying, East of Eden, the Gitanjali, Savitri, The Hungry Tide, Vol de Nuit, Siddhartha.
Abby: Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers or college students in general?
Padma: Three things:
First, truly concentrate on mastering this: Learn to love the internal rewards that writing gives you. As writers we tend to crave external awards and recognition and while I doubt we can overcome this yearning, we have to learn to at least keep it under some kind of control. Without that, you can destroy your family and forget what love is. More than taking a huge number of classes in the craft of writing, which I certainly never did (given that my training is as an oceanographer), I think aspiring writers should learn yoga and meditation —so they can at least try to meet the ups and downs of this life with somewhat greater equanimity. Life is especially hard for a writer in America if you are a person of color from Asia/South Asia, I think, because we just aren’t accepted or seen as American. Our work is always classified as “Indian” or whatever other kind of ethnicity.
The second thing — read. Spend more time reading than you spend writing. Read critically but never criticize a living writer in writing. Young writers may have a nonsensical notion that reading will “influence” them and steal their originality — but it can’t. And if you’re really worried about “influence” read whomever you think is a great writer and get influenced by them.
Third, take writing risks. Writing a book in which spiritual discovery, in a non-religious way, but nevertheless through the framework of a non-majority religion in the United States was a huge risk. Sometimes I wondered if I should just keep to the safer theme of Veda just overcoming her physical difficulty [because] that in itself is a remarkable story. But I’m glad I took up the tremendous challenge of tackling her spiritual awakening. It is the hardest thing to write — to make spirituality and the power of art concrete — but it was central to Veda’s character and her story. And thanks to my having the courage to do it, I think, A Time to Dance has received starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA, SLJ, and BCCB, in addition to rave reviews online and in newspapers across the nation.
Moral of my story: be brave, experiment boldly but don’t lose compassion when you experiment. Compassion and empathy, as well as courage, are the keys to writing well.
Behind the Book takes an in depth look at the world of the book through articles and interviews about the creative process, issues in publishing, and the writing life.
The Artistic Life
By Kevin Marchand, ’16
As is often the case, when she came to Roger Williams University in 2003, Nora Almeida did not know what she wanted to study—or even what she wanted to do. After taking a few courses towards an education major, and then contemplating Marine Biology, Nora eventually gravitated toward her passion: Poetry. Before long she was enrolled in a number of Creative Writing and English Literature courses, which became her major and minor respectively.
Nora spent the rest of her days at RWU devoted to the arts. Thinking back to those days, Nora remembers “driving around with a miniature tape recorder in the glove compartment so that I could ‘write’ while driving around campus.”
Following her graduation, Nora headed to Brooklyn College, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts in Poetry. She’d been eager to get out of Rhode Island. “I grew up in Warren,” she says, “and I was tired of living right outside of my hometown. I was beginning to feel a bit like a townie.”
Unfortunately, when Nora graduated from Brooklyn College, the effects of the 2008 recession were being felt everywhere. She spent the next year juggling a number of part time jobs, which made “me become broke and sick of the city.” Her frustration led to a year of traveling, eventually landing in Tennessee and rural Georgia. In the south, she found a variety of positions—from working as an adjunct professor to volunteering at a few local libraries. All the meanwhile, Nora continued to write her poetry and hone her craft. But looking ahead, she did feel the need to create a less transient life.
In 2010, Nora returned to New York City to attend the Pratt Institute’s Masters in Library and Information Science program. It was a career that made sense to her. While in the south, she had taken an affinity toward working in libraries. Now she’d be able to combine her passion and commitment to the literary arts with her vocation.
Nora is currently the Reserve Coordinator at Baruch College’s William and Anita Newman Library in New York City. As the Reserve Coordinator, Nora “occupies a curricular support role in the library” – a term that can be used to describe any academic service or function that is peripheral to a curriculum but is important for that curriculum to be ‘realized.’ As Nora explains it: “I support students and faculty by providing access to and managing resources that they need for their courses (some of these resources would not otherwise be available and some would not otherwise be as accessible). In the same way, a University IT department might provide technology for use in the classroom.”
As if that were not enough to fill her days, Nora is also the founding editor of a literary magazine called Staging Ground, a print magazine that focuses on visual art and poetry, including original works, works in translation, interviews, and artist features.. (It also publishes original content on their website.) Nora says, “We’ve had two print issues so far, this first coming in October 2012, but would ideally like to move to a bi-annual release schedule, money permitting.”
Between the time she devotes to her job in the library and the never-ending work she does for Staging Ground, Nora is demonstrating what it takes to make it as an artist in today’s world. The passion for writing that was lit inside of her at Roger Williams University is still a big part of how she lives her life. Clearly, the flames that ignited in her car so long ago still burn bright.
Behind the Book takes an in depth look at the world of the book through articles and interviews about the creative process, issues in publishing, and the writing life.
By Leah Catania ’14
Acclaimed illustrator and author Mary Jane Begin shares her artistic journey – and tips for visual storytelling – in the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center Talking in the Library Series – From creating characters to framing a scene, Mary Jane Begin reveals her dos and don’ts for crafting great visual stories
BRISTOL, R.I. – With the advancements of high-resolution cameras that capture vivid color saturation on high-definition digital screens, technology makes it effortless to view the vibrant colors of the world. But it’s still valuable to recognize that color shapes the way we interpret our surroundings and – consciously or not – imbue it with meaning. For Mary Jane Begin, a celebrated children’s illustrator and faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design, color consumes her life – as a child she relished creating dazzling hues, a passion that later catapulted her to award-winning author and illustrator of acclaimed children’s books.
True to RWU’s ongoing writer’s forum, Begin – vivaciously attired in a bright turquoise shirt and an iridescent purple and pink scarf – told her personal story, peppered with advice for burgeoning illustrators, at the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center: Talking in the Library Series on February 25. Begin, a professor of visual art at Rhode Island School of Design, has 10 children’s books under her belt, including a new edition of Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale, “The Wind in the Willows,” with 30 of her full-color illustrations. She is also known for writing and illustrating her own spinoffs on Grahame’s timeless children’s story and most recently a collaboration with Hasbro, “My Little Pony: Under the Sparkling Sea.”
Here, Begin reveals her dos and don’ts for aspiring storytellers based on her own creative journey:
- Don’t just draw a picture – tell a story, she advises. After Begin completed a college assignment illustrating the letter “Z” with a zebra, her professor told her that it didn’t say enough – she wanted to be told a story through the image. Emulating the way zebras’ stripes appear painted on, Begin depicted the zebra as the artist. But she created more than just a picture: her zebra had personality, as well as action and a motivation.
- Do observe the world carefully in order to re-create it well. As she learned from one particular art assignment, artists who don’t study their subject may be obliged to have the following exchange with the professor: ‘No, you didn’t think to look at an actual boy’; and, ‘Yes, in your painting, his head does look like a cowbell.’
- Do layer your stories with meaning, even in children’s tales. On the cover of “The Porcupine Mouse,” young readers easily understand that one mouse is messy and the other is neat, but placing one mouse in shadow and one mouse in sunlight subconsciously conveys the idea that these two mice are like yin and yang – opposites that complete each other through their friendship.
- Do dally with details. Good visual stories are all about the details, Begin says. Link your characters and scenes together graphically so readers can “follow the bouncing ball” from page to page. The author should ask herself, ‘Does the character change his appearance every page?’ Keep a key detail and reference it – the blue and white stripes on the boy’s pajamas, or that his loyal dog gambols around in the background of every scene.
- Don’t leave it to guess work. If you’re having trouble drawing accurate proportions or dimensions, find a model you can study in detail, Begin says. Luckily for her, when she was working on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” her daughter was the right size and age for the young girl in the story, serving as the perfect model when Begin was having trouble visualizing certain scenes.
- Do use size, shape and perspective to keep serene stories interesting, even when there’s very little action. Drawing a close-up of a mouse held in a bear’s paw resonates with children who see everything around them as large and imposing, she suggests.
- Do base your character on people you know, even when the characters are animals! For Begin, a bear wearing a flannel shirt might be based on her stepfather, while the traits of a goldilocks mouse might originate from her personality.
- Do save yourself time, trouble and expense by making photocopies on your own art-quality paper once your final sketches are complete – but beware of paper jams!
- Do break up the monotony of compositions created for certain page sizes by placing frames around the illustrations, she says. Sometimes scenes feel too boxed in and would benefit from bleeding off the page (publications-speak for having the image extend to the edge of the page). At other times start out with a frame, and then slowly break through the border. In “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Begin pops a bucket out of the frame when the apprentice starts losing control, until everything is in complete chaos and water spills out of the frame to bleed off the page.
- Don’t forget, colors tell a story, too. Begin says that changing the color palette alters the emotional content. One of Begin’s favorite palettes is the pearly iridescence she used in “My Little Pony: Under the Sparkling Sea.” She tapped the shimmering colors of the sea, such as the inner side of an abalone seashell, to bring out the essence of being underwater.
What are the library’s plans for winter break?
By Leah Catania
After the last blue book is turned in, the last research paper sent off, and the last dorm locked up, surely the library must close its doors as well. You may think that without students frantically printing papers and searching for that one last elusive research source, the librarians should be able to rest easy until the beginning of spring semester. And yet, RWU’s library stays open for the duration of winter break. But what exactly goes on without the students’ hustle and bustle of the regular semester?
One key benefit of the break is that it allows the librarians to focus on their various projects. Some will present at regional and national conferences and publish papers just as classroom professors do. Others will be able to focus on direct enhancements of library services. Here is a snapshot of some of those projects that will consume the RWU library staff:
- Christine Fagan, Collection Management Librarian, will collaborate with libraries and museums across the country to create the annual John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Exhibit, this year celebrating the 75th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Fagan will be compiling documents and artifacts and designing the exhibit for the main exhibit space at the entrance to the University Library.
- Instructional Services and Campus initiatives Librarian, Barbara Kenney, will be balancing her preparation for the international students’ library instruction pilot program with a visiting class from Mt. Hope High School. She and University Archivist, Heidi Benedict, will be building lesson plans for each group, as well as an assessment to ensure the programs are helpful and instructive.
- Susan McMullen, Research Services and User Engagement Librarian, will be preparing for research assistance in support of several student/faculty groups through the University’s Community Partnership Center.
- Mary Wu, Digital Scholarship and Metadata Librarian, will be updating the Library’s digital Faculty Scholarship Register.
- John Schlinke, Architecture/Art Librarian, will be working on the reconfiguration and relocation of the Architecture Library’s reference collection.
- Web & Digital Services Specialist, Lindsey Gumb, will be testing and rolling out the Library’s new cloud-based image management system, Shared Shelf. Shared Shelf will eventually replace the current image database, MDID, and will be integrated into ARTstor to offer students and faculty seamless access to the thousands of images in our Art History & Architectural image collections for teaching and learning.
Who knows? You may return to campus at the end of January to find more seating available in the library. Remember that Fall 2013 user satisfaction survey you may have taken earlier this semester? John Fobert, Electronic Resources Librarian, is currently working with the Association of Research Libraries to formulate the results of that survey into useful information. He plans to reevaluate and consolidate the library’s collections to free up more room for student collaboration and seating.
Survey says: Students all have positive comments about the library’s staff. Every break, the lull between classes gives the staff time to enhance students’ experience, whether through building interesting and informative exhibits, helping with what the academic classes don’t always have time for, or simply creating more room to study. It makes it that much easier for the students when the eventual hustle and bustle returns to the library floors.
In observance of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assasination, Roger Williams University Professor Adam Braver’s book, November 22, 1963, was highlighted by Dallas Morning News as one of their picks “for the best JFK books…” Here’s what they had to say about Braver’s novel:
November 22, 1963, by Adam Braver (Tin House Books)
Published in 2008, this novel, like DeLillo’s, is another exercise in postmodernism. It zeroes in on Jackie Kennedy and captures the horror and trauma of the murder of her husband. For readers more interested in emotion than history, this novel certainly puts the reader there, in that limousine, in Dealey Plaza, in history.
— Don Graham, J. Frank Dobie regents professor of American and English literature at the University of Texas at Austin.
Adam Braver is on faculty and writer-in-residence at Roger Williams University, and has been a regular writer-in-residence at the NY State Summer Writers Institute. For more information visit his website.
By Leah Catania
Though Rhode Island has long had a storied history filled with tolerance and acceptance, in the early 19th century, the state was not immune to the rising tensions that gripped the rest of the United States. Race and class often came to a head in the poorer districts of Providence. The low rent in areas like Hardscrabble and Snow Town brought different races together, along with crime and businesses that were looked down upon by much of society. In 1824, a white mob formed and razed twenty homes in Hardscrabble that belonged to blacks. The riot in Snow Town seven years later resulted in the death of four whites by the militia called in to control the mob. Both riots were incited over minor or individual acts, but they caused the population of Providence to demand a stronger police force from their government.
When it comes to Rhode Island African American history, there are few people as well versed on the subject as Ray Rickman. On November 5th, at 4:30 p.m., he will be in the Mary Tefft White Center speaking as the last installment of the Talking in the Library Series. Interestingly, as a former State Representative, one of the bills he worked on established Rhode Island’s Poet Laureate position, currently held by our first speaker, Dr. Rick Benjamin, our first speaker in the Fall 2013 series. In addition to his lawmaker duties, Rickman has served as secretary of the Rhode Island Historical Society, and he was also formerly the president of The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and is currently a Senior Advisor. On Tuesday, he will discuss the Providence race riots, how race and class were factors, and the demand for a larger police presence in the city.
An Interview with Hester Kaplan
By Leah Catania
Hester Kaplan’s first collection of short stories, The Edge of Marriage (1999), won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. The Tell (2011), her most recent novel, examines the ways in which gambling can tear apart a marriage. In the fall 2013 issue, Roger Williams University’s literary journal, Mount Hope published Kaplan’s short novella “This is Your Last Swim.” That publication includes her appearing in the Mary Tefft White Center’s Talking in the Library Series on October 22nd. She teaches in Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. Hester lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where we conducted the following interview by phone.
LC: Your novel The Tell incorporates so many different themes and idea. What was your first idea that served as inspiration for the rest of the novel?
HK: My first inspiration came from finding myself in a lot of casinos sort of by accident. I didn’t go there to gamble. I don’t gamble. I don’t like gambling at all. But in various places in the country, I found myself in casinos for one reason or another. I was just drawn to the people who were there, trying to figure out what was going on in this place that made me feel really so awful, so depressed. Then from there, I really thought, who was the most unlikely woman I could put in the casino and have become a slot machine addict? And that turned into Mira. And then I built a world around her. You know, I was interested in casinos but I’m most interested in marriage, particularly in this book. This was just a bad bump in the road for [Mira and Owen]. To further see whether this was even a viable idea, I did a lot of research on gambling, particularly women on slot machines, and ended up talking to a number of women who are addicted to slot machines. I found some of the stories so unbelievably devastating and hard to fathom, these quick demises that really seemed almost sudden and inexplicable to these women. One day they were not addicted, the next day they were hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. It was really quite stunning. And living in Rhode Island, you can’t really ignore the conversation that goes on all the time about whether we will have a casino of our own. It just seems to be a topic that comes up all the time. So when I started writing the book, the idea of a casino in Rhode Island was very much in the air, and now it looks as though we have one.
LC: You include such vivid detail in your writing, and much of that detail is directly tied to the settings of the novel: Providence, Rhode Island and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. How did you decide which details to include and which might be too obscure?
HK: I’d like to think that no detail would be too obscure. That if it’s well enough drawn, it will be sort of “visible” to the reader. Rhode Island, particularly Providence, is a wonderful place to live as a writer because it’s so rich in really amazing contrasts. Wonderful stories, amazing contrasts—many of them upsetting, troubling—but it’s just a very rich and vibrant place to set a story. Particularly among the architecture, where Mira and Owen’s house is. Cape Cod—I really just have a passion for the place. I’ve gone my entire life. It really feels to me like the antidote sometimes to city living, even though I’m not sure I would call Providence city living so much. In my mind, the Cape is still a pure place. I don’t think it’s really like that but that’s my imagination. You have to look hard. But details, I don’t know. I think reading is an act that involves all your senses. Even as a reader, you’re not necessarily aware of it. But as a writer, to be precise about smell and sound and all the senses, I really believe that helps draw in the reader, and brings them fully into a story.
LC: Do you think that The Tell would have turned into a different story if you had chosen a different city or state?
HK: I do think so. There is a real flavor about Rhode Island. In the book, there’s a section where Owen goes downtown, and he talks about the city gangs that are proud of being almost backward. That’s really how I feel. People are very protective of status quo in Rhode Island. For better or for worse. But yes, a very different story in another place. Absolutely. I can’t tell you what that story would be, but yes.
LC: So you never even considered a setting other than Rhode Island?
HK: I was firm in Rhode Island, absolutely. I had set some stories here, but I had never written a novel here. In Providence, I am just fascinated by the architecture. That was a way every day to sort of brighten the picture for myself. To walk around or drive around and look at these houses—and people do take an enormous amount of pride in their houses, I think, in Providence—as I’m sure they do in other parts of the state too. People are proud of the history of Providence. And it shows in the architecture. I think in some ways it must sort of bleed into how people view the city itself and their place in it. Very steeped in history.
LC: That actually brings me right to my next question. Did you intend for the Thrasher house, with all of its rooms, objects and portraits, to be a character in itself?
HK: Yes, and I’ve seen the power that houses have over people. Certainly they’ve had power over me. Not houses I’ve ever owned, but for instance my grandparents’ house, which in my memory as a child was just this enormous, labyrinthine place full of mystery and secret rooms and hidden spaces, that sort of thing, and it was just a wonderful place to let the imagination go wild. You could imagine anything happening in those rooms. So I do love the idea of people being almost captive to their homes. I don’t mean that I love it in terms of that’s how I would like to live, but that they do feel that they interact with their homes in the way that they might interact with another person. They have an intimate relationship with their home. It’s often love and it’s often hate.
LC: Can you tell me more about the writing process you went through while working on the novel?
HK: Well, I think for me the most memorable part of the process was that I had worked for about three years on the book, and it had the same characters, but it was set somewhere past Warwick, and it took place at a point in time after the events that are in the book now. I’d worked on it for about three years and I had this just sinking feeling that I was starting the book in the wrong place. I kind of pushed that feeling aside for quite awhile until I just couldn’t ignore it anymore. And then I realized I had to essentially ditch what I had done and start the book from a different place, from a different time. All the interesting stuff, where the heart beat the loudest in what I had written, was all in the past. You can’t really—I can’t really write a book that way. I needed to be unfolding in the present. So that was part of the process: finally admitting to myself after way too long that I needed to put it down and start over again. And then, for me, writing a novel, which is not my more natural form I don’t think, is a sort of circular process. I start it at almost an arbitrary point and just circle over and over again, so it’s just layering and layering on. So by the time I’ve finished one draft, I know so much more about the characters than I did when I’d begun. Then I go and circle over it again. At a certain point I just have to say “Okay, stop, that’s enough , now you’re driving yourself and everybody else crazy.” I know the book is done when I get to a point where I say “Okay,” to these characters, “You’re on your own. I cannot deal with your problems anymore. Really, you know, just stop complaining and just go do something. I’m done with you.” And that’s a nice feeling: “Okay, I’ve put in my time, you’re on your own now, see ya.” That’s really part of my process. And most of my process is just basically sitting down and working at it. I don’t ever believe there’s any sort of secret process. It’s just a long, long, haul and a lot of very careful attention and intention.
LC: You have a novella and a collection of stories coming out in the spring, correct? Is there anything else you’ve been working on?
HK: The novella is part of a new collection of stories, called Unravished. I’m putting the finishing touches on that collection. That’s stories written over the past five or six years. I’m always writing a story if I’m working on a novel, and if I’m working on a novel, I’m working on stories; I think one will give me relief from the other. Of course that’s pretty much just an illusion. So that collection is coming out, and then I’m toying with something that I’m refusing to call a memoir. I’m calling it instead a nonfiction narrative, because I think the word memoir is a little too loaded. And again, it is centered around a house. It’s really very very much about a particular house that I grew up in in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the ’60s and ’70s. At this point, I’m sort of poking around the edges of that. I have not quite committed to it yet. In between, I’m writing stories. I just finished a new one last week, but I’m sort of anxious to get going on some others. In the meantime I do a lot of teaching. That can often take some of the writing time up. I try not to let it too much, but it often does.
LC: Now do the stories and the novella coming out in the spring mostly focus around marriage as well?
HK: That’s an excellent question. No, they’re. . . Let me see, yes, they’re about marriage. For the most part, they’re about marriage. They’re about slightly older, or longer married people now, trying to take a look at where they are and some of the decisions that they’ve made. I also think that they’re a sort of—people might argue with this—but a sunnier bunch of stories than I generally write. People often say that I write stories that are very depressing, and very dark and claustrophobic, (And that happens to be the kind of stuff that I like to read!) But with these I’m trying to interject, or inject, a lot more joy and playfulness into the narratives. One of the stories, the “Aerialist,” which is about a man who loses a tooth and sort of bonds (bonds, there’s a nice pun) with his dentists who puts in a new tooth for him while they both watch an aerialist. It was just a real pleasure to write. It was almost like learning how to fly a trapeze myself. It was really quite different. I always hope to get back into that state, whatever that state of writing was. I hope to find that again someday. Hopefully tomorrow. Or after I get off the phone with you even.
LC: I actually thought you did a fantastic job injecting just a little humor to balance the darker subjects in The Tell, as well as the novella being published in Mount Hope, “This Is Your Last Swim”.
HK: Good, good. The thing that’s always sort of confounded me a little bit is that I don’t consider myself— in terms of my writing, I’m very serious in my career, I’m very serious—but I’m really sort of a big goofball. I make lots of jokes. I love dirty jokes. One of my favorite movies is Jackass. I will laugh at anything, it doesn’t matter how dumb. So I think that’s sort of part of my inclination, to show that there’s often humor in every situation. Sometimes it goes over the line, but you can always laugh. That sounds a little bumper sticker-ish, but it’s important to see the humor in situations too.
Rhode Island and its Native American Heritage:
A Lesson for Today
By Leah Catania
As Rhode Island celebrates the 350thanniversary of its royal charter this year, founder Roger Williams’ progressive ideas continue to circulate. His passion for equality extended to all areas of his life, including, most notably, the Native Americans in the area that would become Rhode Island. Tribes such as the Narragansett and Wampanoag lived, farmed,
travelled and hunted for several thousand years in the area before the Europeans stepped off their ships. In fact, it was the Wampanoag that first took in Roger Williams following his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay colonies. Williams’ ideals were so inclusive that he refused to simply settle wherever he pleased, as most colonists did, so he paid the Narragansett for the land he called Providence and continued his peaceful negotiations with the tribes in the area.
The legacy of the Native tribes is still very much a part of our state’s identity. As Roger Williams University honors the life of our namesake, we need not do anything more than look out of our campus windows to see Mount Hope rising gently on the horizon, one of the most important Native American sites in Rhode Island. In a nearby swamp, Wampanoag sachem Metacomet’s murder marked the turning point in King Philip’s War, the most destructive conflict in New England during the 1600s. As richly documented by Nathaniel Philbrick in Mayflower (the University’s 2013 Common Reading selection), Roger Williams tried his hardest to prevent the war, but could not reconcile the two sides.
Today, when understanding and tolerance are so important to our state, we can look at Mount Hope and recall what happened in the past when our founder’s ideals were ignored in favor of violence and bloodshed.
As part of the Talking in the Library Series, archaeologist and anthropologist and RWU adjunct professor, Alan will be speaking about his work at Rhode Island’s archaeological sites on Tuesday, October 8th, at 4:30 p.m. With twenty-five years of experience in cultural resource management, Leveillee’s focus is on sharing information gleaned from archaeological research with nonprofessional audiences. Currently, he works as a principal investigator for the Public Archaeology Laboratory, lectures for the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, and serves as an advisor at four local museums.
In the Mary Tefft White Center, Leveillee will discuss archaeological finds from as far back as 11,000 years ago, what those artifacts can tell us about the populations that lived off the same soil we walk on every day, and how those ancient peoples are related to present-day Native American tribal groups.
By Leah Cantania
Poetry: the art often overlooked by today’s general public. As an artistic expression built primarily on the emotions of the writer, and one that makes little money, poets no longer hold the same prestige they did in the days of the travelling bard. However, the United States still appoints a Poet Laureate, and in 1989 Rhode Island made a move to recognize the importance of poetry by establishing a State Poet.
The State Poet of Rhode Island is typically an individual who represents poetry’s highest achievements in the state. Every five years, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts receives nominations for the State Poet. A panel of experts in the literary field (from out of state, to avoid any potential conflict of interest) then presents their choice to the governor, who makes the announcement. To date, there have been five State Poets, each serving a five-year term.
There are no officially assigned duties for the State Poet of Rhode Island. Rather, each State Poet devises his or her own contribution. Michael Harper, the first State Poet, wrote a poem honoring the christening of a navy ship in Newport. Following him, C. D. Wright published a literary map of Rhode Island, and Tom Chandler wrote a column in the Providence Journal containing commentary on different poems. The last State Poet, Lisa Starr, produced (and continues to produce) the Block Island Poetry Project each April.
Perhaps the most important contributions the State Poets give to the Rhode Island community are their readings at public schools, colleges and universities, assisted living centers, writing groups, and many other venues. After all, what could be more important for the State Poet than to spread the joy of poetry throughout the general public? Tom Chandler, State Poet from 1999 to 2006, points out, “Always and still, we crave things that are genuine and handcrafted.” In poetry, we can enjoy both.
Dr. Rick Benjamin is the current State Poet. In addition to his monthly poetry column in the Providence Journal, Benjamin has set his agenda toward promoting ideas of community and the role that poetry can play in building a more compassionate citizenry. Speaking at the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center’s Talking in the Library series, he talked passionately about the duties of citizenship, and the ways in which we can be connected to and serve our community. And though poetry may be an art form sometimes not fully understood by the general public, Rhode Island’s State Poets, each in his or her own way, has been dedicated to showing us that in fact poetry is all around us—speaking for us, giving context to our world, and helping us tell our own stories.
But perhaps we should let the poetry speak for itself. Following is a poem from Rick Benjamin’s first collection, Passing Love:
What It’s All About
It might be about
preserving life for life’s
sake: someone planting
pachysandra at the foot
of the Japanese maple
& watching it come back
year after year. Some folks
stretch harvest past
what their bodies
can store, their hedge
They’ve seen the slightest bounce
bruise beds where their seeds
still sleep in the warming
ground: better to bury
as many as you can.
bodies up-beach where
they were born, burying
hundred of eggs for a few
even if they survive
sand-crossing, head-first hurtle
through surf, years-
worth’s swimming through
seas, may still not live
to spawn the next
All of us stand
by our young ones’
beds hoping for a better
bounce. & some of us
sea-turtles don’t even
look back. We trust
what we’ve buried
in the ground.
Photograph of Rick Benjamin & Adam Braver by Jill Rodrigues