In the late fall of 1976, I was driving west on the Boston Post Road (Route 20) toward my evening job as a proofreader in Sudbury. West of Wayland in those days, the Post Road was a sleepy two-lane road with fields and bogs and water on either side of it. Abruptly I was watching the asphalt through someone else’s eyes. Her name was Jamie Averill. She was driving, very reluctantly, to her younger sister’s wedding. She was wearing a long plaid skirt fastened with a kilt pin, and she was driving a VW bus; I was wearing jeans and driving my late grandmother’s Rambler sedan.
Jamie was the protagonist of a novel. I was supposed to write the novel?
The following spring, I moved back to D.C., got a job, immersed myself in the feminist women’s community, and came out. Life took a sharp turn for the better. I started writing a lot, mostly book reviews and occasional feature stories for the feminist and gay press. Writing, I realized, was my way of responding to the world around me and forging my connections with it. The long-haul isolation of writing a novel I was nowhere near ready for.
But Jamie did not go away. Through girlhood and into her teenage years, she had spent part of each summer on Martha’s Vineyard, at a small horse farm belonging to family friends. Around 1984 the farm owner called Jamie out of the blue and asked her to come manage the horse operation. Jamie said yes. I was outraged. If she could move to Martha’s Vineyard, why couldn’t I?
I moved the following summer. I did not have a job lined up; I had saved enough money to live on very frugally for about a year. I told people (and myself) that I was going to work on my novel. Aside: This is a horrible cliché. If you move to Martha’s Vineyard, do not tell anyone that you are coming to work on your novel or your screenplay. They will assume that you are a trustafarian with more money than motivation and that you intend to drink, drug, or meditate yourself into oblivion without your family looking over your shoulder.
What I wrote my first two years on Martha’s Vineyard was poetry. I was still writing essays, reviews, and other features for the feminist, lesbian, and gay press, but poems were my way of responding to the strange new world I was in. I wrote a sestina about carrying no keys because no doors were locked. One of my earliest MV publications was “Sonnets on a Planning Board Meeting,” published in the Vineyard Gazette in 1986.
Back then you only had to be here a year or two to understand that (1) you didn’t know diddly about Martha’s Vineyard, and (2) Martha’s Vineyard didn’t care what you thought anyway. I put the novel aside. Around 1987 I got drafted as a temp typesetter at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, which turned into a permanent part-time gig as proofreader and eventually the job of features editor. I wrote theater reviews, I wrote feature stories, I rewrote a few million press releases, and proofread (read: copyedited) just about everything that went into the paper. I listened. I listened a lot.
After a few years of this, I knew just how little I knew about Martha’s Vineyard, which is to say that I’d attained probably the most important credential a writer who wants to write about Martha’s Vineyard can have. In 1993 I wrote “Deer Out of Season.” Both I and the editor who bought it for a short-story collection thought there was a novel in there. We were right, but it took a while to get there: the novel was The Mud of the Place, which was more or less completed by 2003 but not published till 2008. The novel I was writing when I moved here still isn’t done. It probably never will be, but one of its main characters has barged into The Squatters’ Speakeasy. She’s creating quite a ruckus.
Listening a lot is one of the places important things start. Animals do it, we would do well to all do it–I’m glad you mentioned it, I think it has to be a big part of what got you where you are today. And with your Facebook work, the commuinty you build there, you get to listen to a lot of people and us to you.
Back then you only had to be here a year or two to understand that (1) you didn’t know diddly about Martha’s Vineyard, and (2) Martha’s Vineyard didn’t care what you thought anyway.
It’s still true that you don’t know diddly after a year or two (or five, or twenty-six), but the number who think they do seems to be going up and up. I wish they would stop trying to explain the Vineyard and instead explain the customs of whatever place they came from (usually New York, Connecticut, or New Jersey) that seem pretty peculiar to me.
What a great “follow your dream” story, Susanna. It’s like you had a nonreligious calling from Jamie, and now you have become her. 😉
I hope you’ll share your new manuscript with me when it’s ready.