OC: You hail from Toronto but have based your first book-length fiction on a fishing village in Massachusetts. Obviously, you have had some contact with Rockport, but what really triggered your decision to tell a story based on this other time and place?
CKH: I'm still very much a Canadian (with a green card!) and the decision to tell a story set in a 19th century fishing village in Massachusetts was somewhat accidental. In 2002, after a New England hike, my husband and I decided to recover from it in Rockport, Massachusetts on Cape Ann. It was a fairly random choice, right out of the AAA book as we rode along the coast. Not too romantic, I suppose and I was unprepared to fall in love with it, but out of that visit grew the seeds of Marianne Elizabeth Parsons' life. The inn where we stayed (The Linden Tree Inn) enchanted me with the notion of lives lived there before, just as so many houses do that are 100-plus years old. And after several visits to the same Inn over a year or two, I began to imagine a story taking place in that very house.
Because I've always favored books set in other times and places, it eventually felt comfortable for me as a writer to create a life and a story in a voice from another era. As a high school student, my fiction sounded Victorian; the voice didn't match the time in which I'd set my stories and I regularly got in trouble with my teachers for that. But with this novel, I had found a place to 'plug in' Marianne's voice, as anachronistic as that might sound for the era. The notion of a sea captain's wife may not be unique, but there are many stories told about similar kinds of characters and the stories are as unique as the writers who dream them up.
But I've fast forwarded through the trajectory that landed me fully in the 1850s. Earlier, I said 'eventually' about being comfortable with the voice, time, and place because my novel’s setting was modern (early 21st century) in its initial form; set in a house in Rockport, Massachusetts, yes, but with a contemporary female as the protagonist and a Victorian female as a ghostly companion. I wrote a few hundred pages of that modern story, interspersing it with journal/epistolary bits from the female character who'd lived in the same house 150 years before. It felt hokey and too done. Finally, I was bored with my modern novel's protagonist, feeling too close to her; there just wasn't enough authorial distance between us and I found myself getting peeved at her, at myself, and stalling terribly. But the character of Marianne Elizabeth Parsons, whose journals I'd already begun to create as a part of this contemporary story, were taking on breath of their own. Finally, I surrendered to her and became immersed in building her world and her life into the novel I've been writing since ... well, I don't want to admit when I started.
OC: How did you balance the opposing tugs of research and invention? When we spoke by phone we agreed that research exerts an awful pull, a sort of vortex of truth that can threaten to drag under the little world we intend to invent. But at some point we pull back from that vortex and get on with the job of creating a universe of our own. How did you make the transition?
CKH: I really like the way you phrased that; opposing tugs of research and invention. And it is, in an almost literal sense, a great, big vortex, fitting to the process. Early in my first draft of the novel in its current form, I fell hard for the romance of research, of fact-finding and truth-seeking. It cast a spell not unlike the town of Rockport and provided me numerous costly opportunities to visit the town and stay in the Linden Tree Inn. You bet I justified each return to Cape Ann as a research trip, taking my husband along for the ride. What grew out of that tug between the writing and research was what I like to call the Blurry Realm between the world I was creating and the one I was experiencing as a writer in search of authenticity. I fell harder for that research for a while so that the novel was neglected; after all, with research came results, tangible and thrilling results. There were people in the town of Rockport who were eager to help, sitting with me for hours of conversation that tossed me into the world I was creating; there were curators of historical societies, town historians, friendly innkeepers, librarians, long hours of musing in the settings that existed in the real world, and now in my novel, during which I felt a commitment to research that threatened to supplant the urge to write the book.
What snapped me out of it was that I was also in graduate school for my MFA and had to commit to a thesis to graduate. My kids and my husband had supported and cheered my efforts through the early writing. When they saw how I'd begun to stall, that this tug between the two processes tortured me a little, I simply told myself that the research had to stop; at least, it had to pause until I had a proper, full draft of the novel. Ultimately, though I did look up a few things during revision in order to give at least some credence to herbal cures, kitchen gardens, and the superstitions of 19th century New England fisherman (still working on all of those things), the writing became the more important thing again and research was put on hold.
Of course, I’ve arrived at that stage when giving truth to the world I’ve created is important again. Research will be necessary now, so it’s probably time for one more trip to the region of inspiration!
OC: The journal form, which you employ in Seagoing Vessels, may tempt authors with rewards and dangers. It's clearly engrossing to share the protagonist's world from day to day. At the same time, the author must come to terms with the narrative demands for suspense that almost every author uses to drive a story forward. I appreciate that you haven't completed the manuscript yet, but how do you think you're coping with these demands?
CKH: Well, admittedly with some difficulty. Throughout the writing of the novel, I've encountered some real resistance to the journal format and I know it's going to be detrimental to my novel if I don't infuse it with the tension of a traditional narrative (even if I decide to keep the journal/epistolary structure). Yet, while the story is linear, I've recently begun to realize that certain things can be moved around to accomplish the suspense that might be missing, so I know that's part of my strategy as I revise for about the fourth time. The deceptively easy - and even forgiving - thing about writing a novel is that initially you can write and write before things have to happen because you don't have a real limit for length. But when it idles in place, something has to shift. Suspense isn't my specialty; I tend to feel most comfortable in character development, so I'll be leaving my comfort zone and answering to that demand to keep the story engaging from start to finish. If it means re-shaping the structure, well, I'm vaguely considering the possibility.
OC: There is a multitude of mid-nineteenth-century historical novels and not a few set in New England. Ahab's Wife was a recent success. Do these predecessors affect your work in any way?
CKH: Confession? I've never read Ahab's Wife, nor many other books like the one I'm writing. Part of the reason for that is fear of over-absorption and accidental, hmmm ... emulation. I think what has truly affected my work is the sensibility of the works that have come before it. So, it doesn't have to be a book set in a New England coastal village to inspire me. It can be a Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), Thomas Hardy (Tess of the D'Urbervilles), Tracy Chevalier (name any one of hers), Anita Shreve (ditto there), or D.H. Lawrence novel; all of these authors' works, written in the time in which they were set or written today and set in a bygone era, have affected and inspired my story and my approach in some way.
OC: After four years, you're nearing the end of the Seagoing Vessels project. What problems are you facing now, so near the end?
CKH: Quite literally, I'm facing the End. When I began to write it in earnest four years ago, determined to finish it for graduation from the MFA program, my thesis advisor and dear friend told me to write an ending already. She said that simply doing that would help me write toward a finish line and that I could change it, of course. So, I wrote that ending, hurtled toward it, engrossed in the writing and convinced that it might be the conclusion I needed after all. Well, it isn't. So now I'm faced with the very real specter of an unearned ending that I need to correct. To do that, I'll be re-reading the story, resisting the urge to do another line-edit (a false sense of accomplishment seems to settle on me when I do that), to turn over little, inconsequential fact-finding stones that will lead to more such stones. My biggest problem is that I get side-tracked very easily. Time isn't on my side, though, with a teaching job that ends in June and begins in September and, of course, a husband, three kids and two dogs who all need love and attention, willing as they are to give me the time and space I need these last several years. (Oh, my, am I into several?)
Ocean Cooperative Publishing is indebted to a number of web sites for images used in our pages devoted to Seagoing Vessels. You can learn more about the history and district of Rockport, Massachusetts by following these links.
The Linden Tree Inn, Rockport
The Captain's House, Rockport
The Sandy Bay Historical Society of Rockport
Windcrafts: Local History Books of Cape Ann and Beyond
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