Author Interview with Elizabeth Graver
To the privileged Porters, Ashaunt Point, on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, is far more than just a summer home; it is the place where the family has retreated for five generations to find sanctuary from the harsh realities of life. As World War II approaches, the Porters’ separate peace is threatened by their son’s war service and the establishment of an army base on the Point – but this also makes for an exciting season of unsupervised adventure for teenaged Helen and her younger sisters, Dossy and Jane. For Bea, one of their Scottish nannies, this pivotal year proves to be her last chance at romance before spinsterhood sets in. Readers see from her perspective how the summer of 1942 brings a death to hopes and to innocence, only compounding the trauma of the war’s casualties.
In a seamless shifting of sympathies, the passing of time is conveyed through Helen’s letters and diary entries, narrating the beginning of her academic career and her worries about the legacy she is passing on to her children, especially her fragile oldest son, Charlie. Decades pass, but whether as a drug-addled college dropout or an earnest human rights lawyer starting a family of his own, Charlie finds Ashaunt a haven – though it, too, is now under threat of both development and decay.
In an astonishing historical sweep, from Ashaunt’s first colonial settlers through the cultural upheavals of the twentieth century, Elizabeth Graver’s family saga with a difference questions parent-child ties, environmental responsibility, and the dictates of wealth and class. Her complex, elegiac tale, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Liza Klaussmann’s Tigers in Red Weather, offers multiple points of view in a sympathetic gaze at a vanishing way of life – but an enduring sense of place.
Boston-based novelist Elizabeth Graver was kind enough to have her publishers send me a review copy of her latest novel, The End of the Point, and then to answer all my many questions about it – and about her writing life. Here’s what resulted.
RF: The End of the Point, which came out in March, is your fourth novel. Can you give readers a quick tour through your career thus far?
EG: I’ve been writing since I was little and grew up in a house full of books. I’ve published three other novels: Unravelling, The Honey Thief, and Awake, as well as a short story collection, Have You Seen Me? [For which Elizabeth was awarded the 1991 Boston College, tending to my ill father (to whose memory my book is dedicated), and otherwise busy with a full and varied life.
RF: How did the book’s structure (six different time periods, three main characters, both first-person and third-person sections) suggest itself?
EG: I wanted the unifying voice of a narrator who could move fluidly through time to serve as the connective tissue for the novel. While most of the book is narrated in close third person, I zoom through time in a way that is more omniscient and breaks with the conventions of close third. The passage of time is an important part of the book for me. The ability to rove through time could only occur in third person, since the characters can’t see the future. Helen does get an extended first person section in the form of letters and diaries. Here, I wanted to capture her young, impetuous voice, as well as to play with materiality of the letter and diary form. Some of the things she writes become artifacts or messages later in the book. They carry on.
Sense of place
RF: What captured you about Buzzards Bay?
EG: It’s a region where I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 17 years, as my husband’s family has a summer cottage on a spit of land on Buzzards Bay. Ashaunt is a fictional version of this real place. I was interested in how such a place is at once isolated and subject to the forces of history, as well as in how it serves as a kind of crucible for family life, a site of both refuge and tension. We live in a time filled with migration, and Americans are known for being nomadic. I wanted to look at another side of the picture – a place of relative stability and annual retreat – though in a complicated way that takes into account the costs of privilege and the ultimate fragility of the place itself. And I love the sea.
RF: What places have meant as much to you as Ashaunt does to the Porters over generations?
EG: My “home place” is the mountains, fields, streams and woods of Western Massachusetts, where I grew up. I love that land and spent much of my childhood playing elaborate imaginary games in the woods there. There’s one spot – a birch grove with very fine, green grass, next to a ravine – that I conjure up whenever I want to settle my mind on a peaceful place. My own extended family, unlike the Porters, is far-flung – Jews of the diaspora – and does not have a central place to return to. In my family of origin, I never experienced the intergenerational return to place of the characters in my novel. This may be part of why I was fascinated by it.
Though The End of the Point is about being in one place over a long stretch of time, I’m equally interested in what it means to be out of place, which is an experience I actively seek out (even as I always come home to Massachusetts!). Last summer, I taught a course (designed the previous year by my close friend, the novelist Suzanne Matson) in India called “Writing Out of Place.” The idea was to take a group of undergraduates on a journey far, far from everything they knew and then have them write about the experience. Interestingly, they ended up writing both about their glimpses of India and about how home looked from afar. We spent a month in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was an extraordinary trip and among the most exciting teaching I’ve ever done. I brought my family along, and it also really opened up the world to my young daughters.
RF: In Helen’s diary she says “Only nature can hold me, in its obliviousness to all that consumes me.” You write such beautiful natural descriptions, especially of plants and birds. What role does nature play for your characters, and for you?
EG: I think that in the moment you refer to, Helen is seeing herself in scale, as a speck in the wider scheme of things. Nature allows her – and this is true for me as well – to step outside herself, to see herself as one of many living creatures. It gives her a sense of scale, and it reminds her of the beauty that is all around her, a beauty that is unselfconscious and not full of striving, and that has historically endured outside of human time. Birds in the novel were particularly important for me in how they, like the people in the book, migrate to and from the Point.
RF: On a list of hobbies on your publisher’s website, you include “raising kids in nature and off technology”; how successful has that attempt been?
EG: Fairly successful, although we are also not Luddites, and as our girls have gotten older (they are 10 and 12 now), we have slowly allowed more technology in. I appreciate the gifts of technology – the way it can allow people to connect, to find knowledge, community, etc.—but as a parent, I feel a strong need to limit its use and encourage my kids to think critically about it. We are lucky to live right next to a nature sanctuary and to have children who need to be outdoors. They spend a lot of time wandering the fields, x-country skiing in winter. We also travel as much as we can, as all four of us can’t seem to get enough of exploring the big wide (actual) world.
RF: Your title (The End…) could suggest a note of apocalyptic hopelessness. How hopeful are you about our environmental and cultural future?
EG: Not nearly as hopeful as I would like to be. It’s hard to be, I think, when you really look at the evidence. This said, it was a last minute title, a compromise between myself and the publisher. I did think of it myself, but I did not write the book with that title in mind. I really wanted to call it Plants and Their Children, and while I hadn’t thought of this until now, that title is quite a bit more hopeful, in that it involves a continuing of generations (even as you could also read it, I suppose, as the human world dropping out and other forms of life continuing). I did finally settle on The End of the Point partly because I liked that it operated on several different levels. I certainly do mean to signal the possible demise of the place, both for the families that go there and are running out of money, and potentially (in a more dire way) as a place at all, as seas rise, etc. I am happy for different readers to have the title signal differently, though I don’t see nihilism as part of my own vision at all (even in the bleakest possible outcome, it all matters terribly in my own view).
Home and Family
RF: Charlie thinks “Ashaunt is his mother, a second mother, as in a second home, except that for him it’s a first home, perhaps even a first mother, both in how it holds his mother’s traces and in how it nourishes him as she often could not.” To what extent are all of the characters searching for home and a mother’s love?
EG: Bea is the most cast adrift, in that she has lost her mother and is literally far from home, but she also had the stable early grounding of a mother’s love; this gives her strength. All of the central characters are trying to figure out who they are. That early relationship of child to mother is, of course, a key one in terms of how one negotiates independence, views selfhood, and feels anchored – or not – in the world. I was interested, too, in broadening the narrow definition of mother. Bea “mothers” Jane as her nanny. Ashaunt, a piece of land, mothers Charlie in some vital ways.
RF: Motherhood, both longed-for and resisted, both natural and surrogate, is indeed a central theme. What did you hope to convey about motherhood? In what ways are your parent and child characters detached from each other? How do the various parents nurture or fail their children?
EG: I see Mrs. Porter as a woman very much of her time and social class, as well as quite caught up in her own troubles – an ill husband, a son who has enlisted, etc. I also see Helen as threatening her mother with her restless energy and intellectual ambitions. Mrs. Porter is not a terrible mother, but she does not manage to give Helen quite what she needs. Later in the novel, Helen has four children of her own and struggles with motherhood for different reasons: her own intellectual ambitions, the ways she puts too much weight on the achievements of her eldest son. I’m interested in how the parenting of one generation can get translated into the parenting of the next, in a long, complex chain. I have always been fascinated (it’s a central theme in my three previous novels as well) in the mother/child relationship, which in its intensity can serve as a lens through which to explore questions of autonomy and independence, nature vs. nurture, gender roles, ambivalence, love, and so much more.
RF: I thought the novel’s preface, in which you imagine the early history of Ashaunt when the Native Americans negotiated with the first colonists, was just stunning. How did you manage to create this sense of continuous history, from the Point’s first inhabitants to the present day?
EG: I’m glad you liked that section, as it means a lot to me in terms of my conception of the book. Although I only focused in on a little more than half a century (from 1942 to 1999) in the main narrative, I hoped the prologue would gesture toward the fact that this story might have landed in lots of other places. The place, its people and its history are extremely layered, both materially (in terms of bones, bits of pottery, artifacts) and in terms of the cycles – human, animal, geologic – that play out there. The prologue ends with a line about how the land is a “bargain, theft or gift.” That tension between what is owned and what is not, between stewardship and stealing – is one that runs through the whole novel, in both the land and the relationships between the people.
RF: One real-life character, a botanist and author named Mrs. William Starr Dana (also known as Frances Theodora Parsons), makes it into the novel as Grandmother Porter. I was intrigued by her presence – how did you discover her, and what made you decide she had to be part of your story?
EG: Mrs. William Starr Dana was my husband’s great-grandmother. I never met her, but I have felt her presence in his family, which is full of people keenly attuned to the natural world. I draw the novel’s epigraph and one section title from her nature guide for young readers, Plants and Their Children (1896). At one point, I wanted this to be the title for my novel, recycled from her book. She was a fascinating woman, strong-minded and brilliant and, from what I’ve gleaned, a bit remote. My book contains her book as a kind of (pardon the pun) “seed” text.
RF: Helen thinks “the problem was having too many choices, too much money.” Do you think the presentation of history is biased through your portrayal of a rich, WASP New England family? Do the portraits of ordinary people (for instance, Bea and the soldiers) provide a necessary counterpoint?
EG: I think all presentations of history are biased. Social class was central to my vision of this book, but I wasn’t interested in writing a social satire; I wanted all the characters to feel fully human and complex. The characters all have limitations, but many of them – including Helen – struggle against their blind spots and try, not always successfully, for a wider vision. My hope, I guess, is that by landing inside various different biases, you begin to get a picture that is rounder and more complete. Bea is a central part of that.
A Life with Books
RF: What authors and books influenced the writing of The End of the Point, consciously or unconsciously?
EG: Virginia Woolf, to be sure – both Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Annie Dillard’s novel, The Maytrees (Anne was my teacher in college [at Wesleyan University]). A reader noted recently that Helen has echoes with Charity in Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, a book I read years ago; that may be an unconscious echo. Alice Munro is a strong influence for how she darts about in time and for the quality of her psychological perceptions (and for her sentences). Toni Morrison. Michael Ondaatje. John Berger. Marilynne Robinson, particularly her novel Housekeeping, which captures the passage of time and the layers of family history in stunning ways.
RF: You’re in the middle of a book tour now; what have been some of the highlights? What insights have you gleaned about your book from perceptive readers?
EG: I’ve had great fun seeing old friends and meeting readers, as well as getting to hang out in independent bookstores. A reader the other day asked me to talk about the relationship between nostalgia and anger in my book (apparently, I compare the two in my prologue). That stopped me short. I’m still trying to figure it out.
RF: What are some of your favorite books or authors to teach at Boston College? How do your students surprise and teach you?
EG: I like helping students navigate books that might seem hard at first, but that open up new possibilities in terms of what narrative can do and take them into unfamiliar worlds. I recently taught Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – a dense, funny, harrowing book full of ideas and history and characters and layered narration. The students did really well with it (it helped that Díaz visited campus and came to talk to my class). I feel lucky to get to sit around and talk about literature and writing with a bunch of smart young people. Students often notice things in texts that I didn’t notice. And I’ve had student research assistants who have uncovered treasures; one of them found me a 94-year-old soldier who had served at a Harbor Entrance Control Post on Buzzards Bay in WWII. His wife worked on the Rations Board. They gave me the idea for the Cinderella dance in my book.
RF: What recent books would you say Bookkaholic readers must be sure not to miss?
EG: I read as much as I could about India before my teaching trip there last summer. I was blown away by Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an extraordinary look at one small place: the slum next to the Mumbai airport. She spent over four years doing the reporting for the book, and it shows. I really liked Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Are You My Mother? Also Emma Donoghue’s Room; she does an amazing job of narrating in a young child’s voice. [See our list of novels with great child narrators, including Room.]
RF: Are you working on anything new?
EG: I’m playing with ideas for a potential new project based on my own family history. My maternal grandmother was a Sephardic Jew from Turkey who came to New York as a young widow in the 1930’s by way of Spain and had an arranged marriage to my grandfather. Her story, one of radical, serial displacements, is a very different one from the story I told in The End of the Point, but it too involves place and displacement, memory, the fashioning of a life. My grandmother was an incredible storyteller – I taped her years ago – and I’ve long wanted to write something about her and share bits of her voice.
Many thanks to Elizabeth for sharing her time and thoughts. Do check out The End of the Point – it’s one of the best books from 2013 so far.