What was your experience growing up in Cooperstown, New York? Did you always have a fascination with its history, or was that something that you came to later in life?
My family is not originally from Cooperstown, but I was born there, so I have always had a fierce, possessive pride in my town. I tried to mirror in my novel exactly the way I felt about Cooperstown: it's such a beautiful, rich place, though not without its irritations and drawbacks. I grew up in the heart of the town, about a block and a half from the Hall of Fame, right on the lakein a house named Averell Cottage, exactly the way I described it in the book, all haunted and wonkyat least to my overactive imagination as a child. I was a really shy, really bookish, easily frightened little girl with horrible eyesight, so when I awoke at night in my my creaky, drafty old house and the light from the window slanted a certain way, I really did see ghosts. Living in a house so old, one just feels as if one is living in layers upon layers of history. Also, in the basement of the house they actually did at one time find slave fetters, and that made a huge impression on meI wrote Hetty, in part, to try to rewrite what I knew about the house where I grew up.
Along those lines, did you discover anything surprising or unexpected about Cooperstown in your research? Do you think about Cooperstown in a different way when you return there?
Because my hometown was my companion for years and years, I do find that now I love it more deeplynot morejust with a better understanding and a better forgiveness of its flaws than I had when I was younger. I do grieve that Cooperstown has changed so much in my own lifetime, but one of the elements of my book is how we accept change, so I know I'm being a little bit of a hypocrite to mourn Smalley's Theater and the Farm-and-Home and all the non-baseball-related stores that used to line Main Street. Also, not everything I know about my town went into my bookthere was so much history I learned that I wasn't able to put in. When I visit now, I find myself discoursing on great length about, say, the hops industry in the late nineteenth century or the life and times of James Fenimore Cooperuntil I finally see that the eyes of my poor husband have been glazed over for half an hour. If he's lucky, I let him sidle away.
Willie and Vivienne are such great characters, both very layered, interesting, and complicated. Were there any people in your own life who inspired them?
Not per sebut every character in fiction comes from a place within that writer herself, so Vivienne and Willie both have some element of me in them, I guess. My mother would like for me to note that she is nothing like Vivienneshe is a hummingbird of a woman, very tiny and very happy, and was a majorette in college when Vivienne was a burgeoning hippiebut there are both a hidden depth and a fierce, overwhelming love in Vi that I think do come from my mother. Willie and I are mostly differentI grew up with a father, have brilliant, incredibly competitive siblings, and have always, for the most part, been much more secure than Willie isbut Willie and I obviously share a hometown and a house and a love of all things historical, and Willie's the kind of wild, reckless, beautiful girl I've admired from afar my whole life.
What was the writing process like for you? Did you write the story first and fill in the history later, or vice versa, or neither?
I always knew that I was going to write about my hometown, and that I was going to use a great deal of its history, but I did about a year's worth of research before I wrote even one word of the story. I ended up with four complete drafts, each vastly different, and Willie as she is wasn't even born until the last draft. At one point, the novel was a collection of six novellas, with little overlap; another, the ghost of Marmaduke narrated; in another, Willie was actually a boy. I write full drafts, then throw them out completely, and start anew. It's difficult, and very discouraging, but I do feel that I start the next draft in a much stronger way because at least I understand how I had failed the time before.
Who is your favorite character in the novel?
I wish I could be a good parent and say I love all my characters equally, but unfortunately I'd be lying. A few are especially dear to me, though for different reasons: Vivienne is so wacky and strange, deeply kind and warm: Willie has the most in common with me, though, as I said, we're very different people: and I'm fascinated by Noname. I adore the Running Buds, because they're modeled on my father's group of running friends, all of whom have been proxy fathers to me throughout most of my life, and who have such an incredible depth of love for Cooperstown and one another that it's really all I could do to try to harness some of that. Maybe most of all, I love Glimmeyhe's the beating heart of the book, to me. I don't think I'd feel the same about my hometown ifin the summers, when I'm deep in the middle of the lake, treading waterI didn't suspect that there's a benign, preternatural, ancient presence there below me, singing and beautiful.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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