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.