I’ve decided to write a Blog! It’s going to be an intimate glimpse into my life as a woman writer. Sometimes it will include short stories or articles that are too long for my newsletter or Facebook posts. It won’t be in any special order, because the mind of a writer is an effervescent chaos of ideas. It won’t always be the same length. Sometimes there will be lots of photos. I hope you enjoy them!
Christmas and dogs are two of my favorite things, so when I decided to write a Christmas novel, the first face peering out of the fog of my imagination was that of a dog, because Nantucket is a dog-crazy island. We deck our dogs out for the Christmas Stroll.
Of course I thought of humans, too, and family. Nothing says holiday for me like family. Blended, sometimes in a Cuisinart, family.
I married at 20 and immediately had 2 stepchildren, one whom I loved, the other not so much. That inspired my first novel, Stepping.
We eventually divorced but when I married again, I was aware of my own children being stepchildren to the man I adored, who was now their stepfather. Charley was an only child, and I wanted very much to please my rather formal and very beautiful mother-in-law (who lived two blocks from our house), especially at Christmas.
One thing Martha and I had in common was that we loved dogs. She had a longhaired dachshund named Dali. She brought Dali to our wedding and also to all Christmas meals. If you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see Dali patiently waiting at our Christmas table for his portion of the buche de noel.
Sylvia Plath said: “Fiction is a lie that tells the truth.” For me, fiction is the truth mirrored, shuffled, and decorated.
I decided to write a Christmas novel about Nicole, a newcomer to the island and a new stepmother, who hosts Christmas with a hostile and pregnant stepdaughter, and a dog needing a home for Christmas, because Christmas is about home and family, even if it’s an imperfect blended family. I wanted the novel to include the longing for home, and the uncontrollable messiness of home, and the gift of grace when, just for a moment, it all comes right.
When I wrote A Nantucket Christmas, I had lived on Nantucket for 28 years. My son and daughter were grown and busy in their own lives. Everyone came home for Christmas. Neil proposed to our daughter Sam on Christmas morning while Josh’s husband David videotaped it.
Then, my daughter had a baby.
I knew I had to have a baby in my first Christmas book! In fiction and in real life, babies are the true happy ending—and the happy new beginning.
This is the ereader cover of Spirit Lost, my favorite of all this book’s covers. The artist got that the book was about creating something new, conjuring something from thin air.
But it’s also true that in Spirit Lost I was dealing with the anxiety and loneliness of a new wife in a new place, a town where my husband knew everyone and I knew no one. I was passionately in love with my husband, and jealous of his memories, his past. Maybe even a little obsessed. Those emotions were the basis for the book and the character of Willy.
I was also, like John, an artist, spending each day alone in a room, trying to connect with invisible mysteries. As a writer, I could – can—see what others do not see. I hear voices others do not hear. Were the “daydreams” Southey warned Charlotte Bronte about producing a distempered mind?
Some of John’s concerns were grounded in reality, and valid. How does any artist, writer, musician, actor balance the desire to create honestly and from the heart with the requirements of the marketplace that provide money for food and shelter? How does any artist believe that what she is producing is good? When a writer writes a novel, is she seeing ghosts?
And what about Jesse Orsa, the ghost, the widow of the whaling ship captain, who is trying to woo John into bed and out of life? Where in the world did she come from?
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have written Spirit Lost if I hadn’t lived in Nantucket, where talk of ghosts is commonplace. It’s hard not to believe in ghosts when your feet touch the same cobblestones and bricks that people touched in the early 1800’s. Mention a ghost at a dinner party of ten people, and you’ll get at least ten accounts of ghosts they’ve encountered in the old houses on the island.
I had this early draft of the British edition of Spirit Lost framed because the artist wrote something a bit eerie at the bottom.
“Dear Michael—Here with a rough for Lost Spirit. . .As an aside, one of my neighbours (who modeled for the rough and agreed to do so for the finish) is American, comes from Nantucket and was brought up in a very grand captain’s house complete with widow’s walk.” Littlebury, Saffron Walden, Essex.
When our 1840’s house lost power the exact moment I typed that the house in my novel lost power, I phoned Charley, whose business was probably no more than six blocks away from our house. I asked Charley if he still had electricity, because often the power went out all over the island.
He still had electricity.
This was before the days of portable telephones, so I couldn’t keep talking to him for reassurance unless I stayed in my study. I had the door from my study to the rest of the house closed to keep the heat in. I wasn’t thrilled about the possibility of walking through the silent house alone. I was slightly anxious about disconnecting from Charley’s voice.
Somehow I found the nerve to hang up the phone and open the door. Our two cats were asleep on the sofa in the TV room. That gave me great courage. I was sure that if there were a ghost around, the cats would be freaked out, hair standing up on their backs. I grabbed a sweater, raced down the stairs to the front door, and out of the house.
Outside, the morning was fresh and still. Fog rolled around, but outside it was not as oppressive. I walked into town, and hung out with Charley a while. When I returned home, I found all the electricity was on again. Later, I phoned the telephone company. I had to know why the electricity went out in our house and not throughout the area our house was in. They told me that a truck had hit the electric pole next to our house. So I was reassured.
Although a truck slamming into an electric pole hard enough to knock it sideways would have made a noise, and I hadn’t heard a noise.
My sister Martha, who has often been the inspiration for my books, loved the ghost in my book.
Jesse Orsa was the widow of a whaling ship captain. In my novel, Spirit Lost, the heroine, Willy, says, “This street, Orange Street, used to be called the captain’s lane during the whaling days. The wives of the captains of whaling vessels could look out from their widow’s walks to see if a ship was returning to harbor. . .Sometimes the husbands were gone for three or four years.”
Martha had a replica of Jesse Orsa made as a present for me. The doll looks exactly like Jesse Orsa. Her face is melancholy, and her fingernails are very long. . .because a person’s nails continue to grow after death. She’s a beautiful doll, old fashioned, wearing lacy knickers. But I don’t think I want to give her to my granddaughters.
In 1984, Charley and I married and bought a historic house on Orange Street on Nantucket.
Nantucket is thirty miles from the coast of Massachusetts and because of its isolation and the farsighted care of preservationists, it is a kind of living museum.
From this beautiful island, sandy shoals hide just below the surface of the water. Over 700 ship were wrecked off Nantucket during the course of its written history, caused by the dense fogs that obscure the island or by the gale force winds that howl and rage several times a year. The center of the island is uninhabited moorland where mists gather and drift like wraiths over heather, wild berries, twisted trees. During the long winter months, many of the businesses are closed, leaving houses and shops dark and empty, day and night.
In the early 80’s, the year-round population was around 5,000. Schools existed, but no malls, no chain stores like Home Depot, no chain restaurants like McDonalds. The town’s electricity was provided by generators grumbling away down at the harbor, fueled by oil brought over by tankers. Often, due to high winds, the electricity went out, for hours at a time. One of the first things I learned was to keep plenty of candles and matches on hand.
The first book I wrote in this house was Spirit Lost, about a couple who move to the island from Boston into a big old house on Orange Street. John, the husband, is an
artist who establishes his studio in his attic, like a Nantucket artist I’d met. Willy, his wife, isn’t thrilled about the move but is glad for her husband who believes he’s inspired by the island.
John’s painting is going well until one night he is visited in his attic studio by a beautiful, compelling ghost. He falls in love with her. He becomes obsessed. He doesn’t eat, he doesn’t sleep, he spends all his time in the attic. Willy is frantic with worry at this change in her husband. Finally, John tells Willy he’s fallen in love with a ghost.
It was late spring when I wrote this. I used a small electric heater to keep my study warm as I sat at my computer, working on the last section of Spirit Lost. I was alone in the house. It was late morning, gray and fogbound. As I typed, I occasionally looked out my window toward the harbor, but all I could see was a thick mist.
I was working on the scene where Willy rages through the attic, yelling at the ghost: You don’t exist! Ghosts don’t exist!
I wrote: “The wind was screaming now, and shafts of icy air spun through the attic. With three small pings, the electric heaters went off and all the lights went out.”
As I typed those words, my computer went dead. My electric heater went out and all the lights in the house went out. It was completely silent. This is true.
Below, the ghost of Spirit Lost. To be continued on my next blog.