Elizabeth Graver: “Everyone—and every place—has a story, a history, an untold life”

Elizabeth Graver portrait

Elizabeth Graver

After reading The End of the Point in early July, I interviewed author Elizabeth Graver on July 8. I found her responses just as thoughtful and beautifully written as the novel. The interview stands on its own and will, in fact, almost certainly inspire you to read her latest novel.

1. What inspired you to write The End of the Point?

I’d heard a story from my husband of a beloved Scottish nanny who took care of the children in his family for several generations and then moved back to Scotland in her old age.  When she died, she left all her money to the female grandchildren in the family she’d worked for.  Apparently, she’d had a romance with a soldier during WWII. That was the first seed: Why did she stay with the family for so long, why did she leave? It led me to Bea, and then to so many other questions—about place, social class, child-rearing, the intersections between historical events and personal history.  The book (slowly—it took me over seven years to write) unfolded from there.

2. You live and work in Boston. How much of a connection do you feel to the Massachusetts coast? Any particular spot(s)?

My own beloved landscape is the woods and fields of inland New England.  I grew up in Western Massachusetts, and I now live in a rural suburb outside of Boston, in an old farmhouse surrounded by fields and woods.  New England—its seasons, the shapes of its hills, its particular flora and fauna—is in my life-blood; this comes into particularly sharp focus whenever I live somewhere else.  I didn’t grow up on the coast, and perhaps because of this, the ocean always feels a bit vast and daunting to me—beautiful and compelling, but not my home place.  I do love to swim, though, and to be buoyed up by salt water.  My husband’s family has for five generations had a house on a little spit of land on Buzzards Bay, in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  I love spending time there, but it will never be a place of origin for me, though it is for him and for our daughters—and in a very powerful way.  My fictional Ashaunt is in part an effort to understand their relationship to the real place that served as inspiration for my novel.

3. The book is divided into five sections, each focusing on a different character (although always in third person). Why did you choose this narrative structure?

I was interested in inhabiting one place over a wide span of time and through a number of different points of view. I think of the book almost as a kaleidoscope. The first, brief section, “Fifteen Axes, Fifteen Hoes,” provides a sweeping glimpse of the long view, moving from the early Native Americans through to the turn of the 21st century. In the other four sections, I cover much less time but go deeper, landing (among other places) during WWII, during Vietnam, and at the end of the 20th century.  My hope is that the structure, in both its diving-ins and its jumps and ellipses, might suggest to the reader a lot of other, untold stories.  We land here, and here, but we could have landed somewhere else.  Everyone—and every place—has a story, a history, an untold life.  Here are a few.

4. Why is Helen so demanding of Charlie? In general, do you believe it is worse when the first child is a boy? When the family is wealthy like the Porters? How does one find a balance between expectations and genuine desire to see potential realized on one hand and unconditional love and encouragement on the other?

I see parenting as a complex mix of nurture and nature, and as very colored by one’s own past and the parenting one received. Helen is by nature ambitious, restless, smart.  But she also suffers a number of losses.  The loss of her brother, after whom she names her son—seems to me a central one.

And she comes of age in a time and place where intellectual ambition is, if not actively discouraged, certainly not put first for women. Helen begins life as the third child in her family and ends up, after the death of two siblings, the eldest one.  Charlie is her oldest son. She is young when she has him. She funnels too much into him.  The wealth is complicated, both enabling and inhibiting, I think.  Helen tries in various ways to move outside the circle she was born into, but its pull is powerful and its gifts not insignificant, and she always comes back.

5. What made you decide to focus on Bea in the opening section? I enjoyed the character and the time spent in Scotland. Have you been asked to write a sequel of sorts exploring Bea’s life in detail? (We know how it ends, of course, but filling in all the missing years.)

No one has asked for a sequel yet! I love Bea, and I had a great time going to Scotland to research that part of the book.  I’m not sure why I began with Bea, but it may have something to do with her insider/outsider status. She is trying to make sense of things at the same time that the reader is.  She finds Ashaunt too sandy, windy and chaotic for her liking.  I didn’t want this book to read as a nostalgic beach book in any easy way, though interrogating nostalgia is something I hope the book does.  Bea comes from elsewhere.  She leads us in. I’m also interested in expanding notions of “family” and “mothering” to include non-blood relatives and even land.  Bea, while technically childless, is in a funny way a mother to much of the book, just as Ashaunt is a mother to Charlie and perhaps to other characters too.

6. Two characters (and, arguably, even more) suffer from mental illness. You write about the nature and experience of mental illness quite knowledgeably. What is the story behind that?

If I hadn’t been a writer, I might have been a psychologist.  I’ve written about mental illness in my other books as well (most centrally in The Honey Thief). Mental illness can highlight fundamental questions we all grapple with: Who am I? How am I separate from or linked to the rest of the world?  What is the line between the real and the imagined? The past and the present?  My body and my mind?  My sister is a psychiatrist and helps me when I get stuck.  For better or worse, the line between mental illness and health feels like a quite porous one to me.  As a novelist, I never stop hearing voices.

7. What is your technique/strategy for incorporating prose poetry into the novel without “overdoing” it and distracting from narrative momentum?

I try to keep time moving in the novel (not always forward, but in one direction or another) and to stay landed in scene most of the time.   If there is poetry, or highly poetic prose, it needs to be in service of the characters and story. But I’m also not aiming to write a fast-paced book. Not everyone will like it.  I hope readers who love poetic prose will be happy to linger when I do!

8. Were any other novels particularly inspirational or influential in writing The End of the Point?

Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees for its prose and seaside setting; Julia Glass’s Three Junes, for its structure; Virginia Woolf—all her books, but in particular To the Lighthouse.  George Colt’s non-fiction book, The Big House.

9. Why do you think so few men read fiction by women, even novels that are clearly not romance or genre fiction? For instance, why shouldn’t a man be intrigued by the title, cover art, and/or plotline of, say, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, Rilla Askew’s Kind of Kin, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior?

I happen to know quite a few men (and be married to one of them) who read a lot of fiction by women, so I may have a skewed vision. It may also not be a coincidence that I married a man whose shelves were filled with Grace Paley, Emily Dickenson, Louise Erdrich long before I met him. Some of why more men don’t read more fiction by women, of course, has to do with what gets reviewed, and where, and by whom (and you are helping with that with your wonderful reviews of fiction by women writers).  And with some of the covers and marketing, as a recent article pointed out.  And fiction is sometimes seen, at least historically, as “softer,” more emotive, less “useful” than non-fiction.  Also, though, it asks the reader to cross over all kinds of boundaries—of time, place, gender, etc. etc. That can be scary.  Also necessary, in my view.

10. Who are some of your favorite authors? For each author, could you explain briefly why his/her work is important to you?

George Eliot, for her wide social vision, her prose, her mix of empathy and rigor.

Alice Munro, for her narrative structures, language, use of white spaces, psychological insight.

Toni Morrison, for her poetry and the risks she takes in form and subject matter.

Edward P. Jones, for his explorations of generations and of the power of place, and for his handling of time.

John Berger…Marilynne Robinson . . . Charlotte Bronte . . . Michael Ondaatje . . . Angela Carter . . . Bruno Schultz . . . William Trevor . . .

11. What have you read recently that impressed you?

I’m in the middle of Colum McCann’s Transatlantic and really enjoying it. I’m interested in the structure, in the separate but echoing narratives. I was blown away by Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. I love really good narrative non-fiction, particularly books that take me deep into a new world.

12. What is your writing routine? I know you teach English and creative writing at Boston College; do you do the bulk of your writing on school breaks, summer vacation, etc., or do you manage to make it part of your daily life?

I do the bulk of my writing when I’m not teaching, though I do a lot of mulling, gestating, dreaming during the semester, and I revise in the cracks between other things.  I have two daughters, 10 and 13, so my daily life is very full.  I try to go away for a week or so every year—to an artists’ colony or to some other quiet place with my historian friend—and then I plunge really, really deep into the work.  A week can feel like a month when I’m in intense writing mode. It’s exhausting and exhilarating and necessary.  Parenting, teaching, and writing are all things I do intensely, and I’m grateful to have all three things in my life.  At any given moment, one thing might be at center stage. I work hard to put writing there some of the time.  This said, I’m in much less of a hurry to finish a book than I used to be—a gift of middle age, perhaps.

13. What are you working on now? How do you typically come upon the subject of your next novel or story? 

I’ve been poking about in my own family history and just spent a few days interviewing my wonderful 86-year-old Uncle David about his childhood in Spain and New York. What might come of it—a story, an essay, a non-fiction chronicle of some sort, a novel—I can’t say yet, but I’m having fun.  My maternal grandmother was a Sephardic Jew born in Turkey.  As a young woman, she moved to Spain, and later, widowed with two small sons, immigrated to New York.  I interviewed her when I was in college and have long wanted to do something with those tapes; she was a marvelous storyteller who lived a fascinating and quite dramatic life that involved a lot of cultural crossing.  Right now, I’m reading about Sephardic Jewish life in Turkey and Spain, interviewing relatives, playing around . . .

The subjects of my fiction come to me in lots of different ways, inspired by a dream, or a magazine article I’ve read, or by lowering myself down into research and seeing what happens.  Or a voice arrives.  I never know where I am going in the beginning or even what genre I’ll end up in.

14. Kindle, Nook, or good old-fashioned book?

Old-fashioned books.  I just got an i-Pad, but so far, I’ve only read newspapers and magazines on it. I figure it might be good for reading while travelling, and I’m itching to go somewhere far-flung with my family (I might get to use this new idea as an excuse to go to Spain!). But I do love the feel of a paper book—to be able to flip back and forth, write in the margins. I won’t easily give that up.


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