A Q&A with Elizabeth Graver on her recent book, The End of the Point, a portrait of one family's journey through the second half of the twentieth century
How did The End of the Point originate?
My novel The End of the Point took me a long time to write, both because of the particular challenges and pleasures that went into it and because over the past decade, my non-writing life has been very fullwith the birth of two children, the illness and death of my father, the daily routines of teaching and family life, and, perhaps most centrally, the growing sense that I didn't want to rush; time moves fast enough on its own. Over they ears, as the story took shape, I spent a part of every summer and many fall and spring weekends at the real place that my fictional place grew out of. Often,while I was there, I wrote. I walked the paths, navigated the rocks to swim in the ocean and began to feel that the landand the one-room cabin my husband had built on itwas a kind of home to menot(as it is to my husband and our daughters) a first home, but a surrogate second home, at once alluring and vexed. I watched my children learn to walk, swim and ve in nature there, the place a great gift for them but also a complicated privilege and even a dangerfor how fully it can shelter and how much it can exclude. I used this real place as a way to begin to imagine my fictional Ashaunt Point.
Would you share more about the novel's setting?
I wanted to portray a small place but go deep, to use a narrow lens to examine larger issues of social class, money and property,of parenting and care-taking, of what adults pass on, both literally and figuratively, to children. I look at how this kind of private seaside community can function as a protected or contested space, isolated but never entirely, as its boundaries are porous and the events of history are never far away. I realized partway through that I was also writing about a world whose ways are fast-fading, a world on the way out (for better or worseprobably both). In the early 1920's, my husband's grandparents and great-grandparents bought twenty-five acres on a small spit of land on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. Several of their friends from New York and Connecticut purchased land there too. Due to the rocky coastline, the area was not a popular vacation spot (and even today, remains much less developed than Cape Cod). Generations of my husband's immediate and extended family have spent summers at this place, the land getting increasingly divided up, as smaller cabins were built behind bigger houses and property changed hands or was sold off. During WWII, part of the peninsula was taken over by the army, which established a Harbor Entrance Control Post where it stationed 200 troops. Later, new property owners, "outsiders,"bought land and built houses with heat and swimming pools. What used to be fields kept low by sheep have grown into thickets. Still, muchthe rocks, the sea, the road cut down the middle, many of the families who spend (increasingly small) portions of the summer therehas remained largely the same. I have liberally fictionalized this real place to create my own imagined place.
What significance does a place like Ashaunt Point hold for you?
My relationship to this sort of place was initially that of a complete outsider. My own grandparents were poor Jewish immigrants. My parents went to city colleges in New York. No one I knew growing up owned a second home. For vacation, we'd sometimes rent a house on the water, but never the same place twice, and I never lived near the sea. Partly because of my own history, the idea of a mile-and-a-half-long finger of land and its intergenerational layers of summer people fascinated me, first from the almost anthropological perspective of an outsider and then, as time went on, from the perspective of an in-law somewhere on the margins, neither in nor out (a great position for a writer).
What was your writing process for the novel?
The book went through several radical revisions, partly because my idea for itto portray the complexity of a place and its people across half a centurywas an ambitious one, and partly because I was dealing with a daunting mix of fact and fiction. My husband's mother and her siblings were raised largely by two Scottish nannies who never married, lived with the family for fifty years, and returned to Scotland in their retirement. I was fascinated by these women (both long dead by the time I came along): who they were, why they came to America, why they stayed so long and then left; the enormous presence they still have in family lore. Their story led me to my fictional character, Bea. The other central characters soon followed, their stories braided with Bea's but also very much their own.
What kid of research did you do?
I traveled to Forfar, Scotland, where the real nannies were from, and spent two weeks wandering the streets there, poring over newspaper archives, finding facts but just as quickly spinning them into fiction (one example: the real nanny was a farm girl, but I read about steam laundries in Forfar and was so taken with the imagery that I changed her own and her mother's job). I also did research about the army base that took over part of the real Point during WWII. After much sleuthing (and with help from a college student research assistant), I located a man in his nineties who had been a soldier on the base. I interviewed him, along with his wife, whom he'd met because she had served on the Rations Board in town. I had some old photos that prompted their memories. The man gave me a copy of the army base Christmas Menu from 1942. He told me about the Cinderella Dance on the base and how he spottedand dove forhis future wife's blue slipper, a detail that made its way into the book. Other areas of research involved reading about the Vietnam War and about psychoanalysis in the early 1960s. I read about the Wampanoag Indians who had been the original inhabitants of the land, and the early Anglo settlers who had convinced them to "trade" land for blankets, axes, hoes. I also interviewed a number of people who had lived or worked on the real Point. Much of what I learned is invisible in the final version of the novel, but the research informed my sense of the world I was creating, and the treasure hunt was itself a delight.
With so much history interwoven in the story, are there any real people how make an appearance?
Only one "real person" walks the pages of this novel, and that is Helen's grandmother, Mrs. William Starr Dana (or Frances Theodora Parsons; she married twice and published under both names). In real life (as in The End of the Point), she was the author of several wonderful nature guides, including a children's book titled Plants and Their Children (Scribner's, 1896). This volumeby turn charming and didactictakes its child-readers on a detailed tour of plant life in New England across four seasons. It tells how plants cross shores, grow new roots, struggle, thrive, perish, reseed. The author writes (in a passage I have borrowed for my book's epigraph): "You discovered that certain plants actually pushed their young from their cozy homes in no gentle fashion, much as a mother bird shoves her timid little ones from the edge of the nest." My husband's great-grandmother died when he was a toddler, and he has no memories of her. In my own story, Mrs. William Starr Dana (or Grandmother P.) only has a walk-on role, and yet her bookwhich asks its child-readers to slow down and learn to seeserved as a taproot for my own.
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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