Author Rachel Urquhart Brings Local History To Life In ‘The Visionist’
Photo by Sarah Shatz.
Rachel Urquhart, part-time Tyringham resident and frequent contributor to Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and many other well-respected publications, recently published her debut novel, The Visionist, which tells the story of a transformative friendship between two teenaged girls carrying two very different types of burdens. The novel, set in an early 1840s Massachusetts Shaker community, explores the roles that charity and devotion play in lightening the loads and lifting the spirits of ourselves and others. In anticipation of her local appearance on March 30 as part of the Stockbridge Library’s “Sunday Speaker Series,” we asked Urquhart about the inspiration behind her new book.
Rural Intelligence: Since the novel takes place in this general area, did you do a lot of your research and writing here?
Rachel Urquhart: I did most of my research and writing here. I spent at least three summers at Hancock Shaker Village, where at first, I just walked through the buildings over and over, telling myself my story and trying to imagine what my characters would have seen and done and felt as they went about their lives in similar surroundings. When I saw a bedroom, I tried to hear how the beds would have sounded as the girls tossed and turned at night. When I saw medicine jars lined up on shelves in the healing room, I imagined how my characters might have troubled themselves forever putting things in order. When I saw the single remaining open fireplace in the kitchen, I thought about the danger of skirt fires. That sort of thing. I also spent time in the archives, which yielded up some amazing artifacts. My favorite was a handwritten journal of medicinal “receipts” (an old word for “recipes”) that dates back to the early 1800s. Between the gorgeous names of the herbs — coltsfoot, fleabane, meadow rue — and the way the receipts were worded, many of the entries read like poetry. Finally, when it came to actual writing, I spent day after day at Lenox Coffee and in the library at Simon’s Rock while my sons were in camp. And whenever the conversations taking place around me became too interesting, I’d just put on my headphones, listen to Thelonious Monk, and keep on typing.
RI: Did the idea for the novel come to you fully formed, or were you inspired by a certain part of the story, whether it be the Shakers, the friendship between the girls, or of something else?
RU: Weirdly enough, the idea did come to me fully formed, though only after I’d read about the Visionists, whom I’d never heard of. Very quickly after that initial plot download, I began to hear the voices of the girls, and to think about the profound friendship they shared — what it meant to each of them, how it would change them. It took forever for me to figure out the voice of the detective — Simon Pryor — but when I finally got it, I had fun galloping through the action with him.
RI: Was there a reason you chose a friendship versus a romantic relationship, seeing as how both types of intense feeling were frowned upon by the Shaker community?
RU: I chose to focus on the intimacy of friendship rather than romance because I felt that a story of full-on forbidden love in a Shaker enclave would be a pretty cheesy cliché. It’s true that while the Shakers approved of a general sense of affection amongst the believers, they felt that anything more exclusive would throw “union” out of balance in the community. So the close friendship between the two girls in my novel is a form of forbidden love. It’s just not one that involves the passionate flinging of bonnets and ripping of petticoats. It is much more about intimacy, which, especially when expressed in a restrained manner, is infinitely subtler and more revealing than sex.
RI: Because Shakers were so strict, were you nervous about depicting them in a negative light? How do you feel about the religion now that you know more about it? Are you religious yourself?
RU: At a certain point, I simply had to write a story I felt was true, even if at times it might make people see the Shakers in a dark and possibly negative light. I trusted that the years of research I did would help me paint an accurate if more complicated and interesting portrait of the group than the bland and saintly one I was accustomed to. They were real people, after all—people who brought a lot of personal baggage on their journey “into the light.” As far as my own feelings about the sect go, I’ve always been pretty nervous around organized religion of any kind. So setting my first novel in the most rule-bound religious community imaginable must have been some kind of attempt on my part to understand that way of thinking. I’m not sure that I will ever be able to grasp what it means to completely give oneself over to one’s faith, but something that was clarified for me in a very satisfying way was the difference between the formal aspects of Shaker life and worship, and the wildly expressive spirituality that animates them. I would say that I am, in my own peculiar way, quite a spiritual person, and by immersing myself so deeply in imagining what it might have felt like to be a Shaker, I grew more so. The fact that such a practical people could embrace their inability to explain so much about the world appeals to me. They rejoiced in wonder, and I think that was sort contagious for me.
RI: Was it difficult writing from more than one perspective, and writing from the point of view of people “from the past”?
RU: The idea of staying inside the head of a single narrator terrifies me, so in choosing three, I think I picked the simpler route. That said, having to puzzle together multiple separate but simultaneous plotlines nearly split my head open on more than one occasion. I felt like a plate-spinner with far too much twirling to attend to. As far as writing in the voices of people from the past goes, it was difficult, yes, but it was also something I never could have imagined doing differently. I think that the novel has a certain strangeness to it — I think of it as New England magic realism — and so I feel that the language needs to be old-fashioned, contemporary, expansive, blunt and other-worldly all at the same time.
RI: What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Shakers while researching the book? Perhaps something you found out that didn’t make it into the book?
RU: Well, of course, this is all over the book, but I never really knew about the Shaker attitude towards family before — the fact that they demanded the dissolution of all “blood ties” as a condition of signing their covenant. That was really fascinating to me. But on a smaller level, there was so much that didn’t make it into the novel — and I’m still coming across amazing tidbits. Last week, I was looking something up in a really great book called One Shaker Life (by the local Shaker scholar and writer, Glendyne Wergland), and I came across the mention of three Shaker girls being punished for watching flies mate. Granted, it was 1793 and the religion was in its wild and wooly early days, but you can’t make up stuff like that.
RI: Since Rural Intelligence focuses mainly on this region of the country, what are the things you enjoy doing when you’re here?
RU: I’ve lived in the Berkshires during summers and weekends for my entire life, so my favorite things are a hodge-podge of nostalgia and discovery. I have adored the Tyringham Steak Roast ever since I was a child, when it was known as “The Block Dance.” I love hiking the section of the Appalachian Trail from Fernside Road in Tyringham uphill into Beartown Mountain State Park. It took me until last summer to discover the walks on Mt. Greylock. I have celebrated my birthday every year for the past two decades at the Inn on the Green in New Marlborough and, more recently, have become addicted to the margaritas at the Southfield General Store. I enjoy listening to jazz at Mission in Pittsfield—especially when the incredible and gracious 13-year-old guitar phenom Nico Wohl is playing. It’s kind of obvious, but every time I go to MASS MoCA, I come away amazed by at least one thing I’ve seen — and there’s a great gift shop to boot! Finally, I find the events and lectures sponsored by the Bidwell House in Monterey to be fascinating and fun. My favorite event? The contest for best pie at the museum’s annual summer fair!
Rachel Urquhart will discuss and read from The Visionist at the Stockbridge Library on Sunday, March 30 at 4 p.m.(0) Comments
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Little Failure, Big Success: Gary Shteyngart At Vassar
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
By Robert Burke Warren
When bestselling author Gary Shteyngart delivers the Alex Krieger Memorial Lecture at Vassar on March 27, attendees will get more than a talk; Shteyngart is a performer, an avid YouTuber and Twitter maven. He’ll be reading from his recent memoir, Little Failure, which is actually a big success, due in part to his relentless promo action, including an online book trailer featuring James Franco, Rashida Jones and NYC literati interacting with a madcap Shteyngart. (Franco plays Shteyngart’s husband.)
Shteyngart spent his first seven years in Leningrad, immigrating to Queens with his parents in 1979. Since his 2002 debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, he’s earned a reputation as a deft satirist, using his hardscrabble Russian background as fodder for his books, all bestsellers. Shteyngart promotes his efforts with a theatrical persona, a darkly witty, self-deprecating jester, hamming it up in print and onscreen. In addition to the Little Failure video, he and his publisher, Random House, produced a trailer (also featuring Franco) and a short film for his last novel, Super Sad True Love Story (currently in development as an HBO series). The film, Super Sad True Book Club, features award-winning actor Paul Giamatti as Shteyngart’s hapless roommate.
“Hooray for book trailers,” Shteyngart says. “I teach at Columbia, and my students are very passionate about literature. But in the country as a whole, literature has been increasingly marginalized. Fewer people read, and books just aren’t as central to our culture as they used to be. So you gotta do trailers with movie stars now. Otherwise, who’s gonna buy your book?”
Little Failure is a bit of a departure for Shteyngart. While his previous book output falls under “thinly veiled fiction,” his memoir delves deep into his own story, a tale rife with pain and anxiety, not to mention real people, including his parents. Shteyngart had been circling around it for a while. “I’ve always written [autobiographical] essays for the New Yorker and other publications,” he says, “so that helped stir the pot. It took about two years to fill in the connective tissue between all the essays and the new stuff, which accounted for about 80 percent of the book.”
Shteyngart and his wife (his real wife, not James Franco) have houses in Germantown and Red Hook, NY, and while much of Little Failure takes place in Queens and Manhattan, he did most of the work on the memoir in the country. “It was nice to write most of this book upstate, where I spend half the year,” he says. “The distance from New York made the city come alive more for me. There’s nothing like distance.” How does writing memoir compare to fiction? “In a weird way, there’s more research,” Shteyngart says. “You’re always checking your memories against the facts. Close to a dozen friends and family members were interviewed for this thing. The transcripts alone would take up several volumes.”
Little Failure evokes quite a lot. Shteyngart makes his story both distinctive and universal; with exquisite narrative grace, he paints the tribulations of a troubled, asthmatic Russian Jewish immigrant with cruel parents (“Little Failure” was his mother’s nickname for him), while also breathing life into the New York City of the 80s, a bygone time of synth pop and big hair. “It’s nice to stir people’s memories of time and place,” he says. “People will come up and talk to me about their SANYO cassette players with anti-rolling mechanism. Whatever the heck that was.”
This annual lecture series is given in memory of Vassar student Alex Krieger, who was killed in an automobile accident during the spring of his freshman year. One of Krieger’s keenest interests was distinguished American writing that incorporates humor as a primary element. In consultation with his family, Vassar has invited outstanding American writers and humorists to deliver the annual speech, including Tom Wolfe, Wendy Wasserstein, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Ira Glass and Mo Rocca.
Gary Shteyngart, Alex Krieger ’95 Memorial Lecture
Thursday, March 27, at 8 p.m.
Vassar College Students’ Building
This is a free event.
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A Portion of Thyself: Barbara Bonner Is Inspiring Generosity with Her First Book
By Nichole Dupont
“Giving away an old coat you wouldn’t be caught dead in isn’t exactly generous,” says philanthropy consultant Barbara Bonner, glancing over the top of her red-framed glasses. “It doesn’t have meaning. True generosity is giving away something that has meaning to you. It’s a gift. Generosity is a gift.”
Bonner, who is a veteran board member and fundraising and management consultant for nonprofits – Kripalu, The Museum of the City of New York, Bennington College – is offering up her own gift to the world. Inspiring Generosity (Wisdom Publications, Feb. 2014) is a book that she hopes people will buy and “then give it as a gift to someone else.” The book is a compilation of Bonner’s own lyric and simple observations that are intertwined with hundreds of quotes (from Euripides to Mother Teresa to FDR) and true – sometimes famous – stories of modern-day generosity at play in the lives of ordinary people. The official book launch is slated for Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m. at The Mount in Lenox as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.
“When I tell people about the book, readers anticipate feeling guilty. They say right off the bat ‘I should do more.’ People feel guilty somehow,” Bonner says. “They have to deal with the issue of privilege.”
Paying the message forward has been a long time coming for the Columbus, Ohio native who, by her own account “grew up in a world of economic privilege” in the 1960s, in a society that was “by and large quite oblivious to a larger world of human need.” And while Bonner never doubted that her parents and surrounding neighbors were kind people, they were not truly generous, she says. But then again, that’s a subjective term, too.
“The way generosity is crafted in our culture…it’s limited to the giving of any material goods. There’s a big distinction that needs to be made between philanthropy and generosity. Philanthropy has become a business,” Bonner says. “It’s a relationship of exchange. In many cases it’s giving for fame. But what motivates people to give? I’m most interested in what it means to live a generous life; to have generosity as your compass.”
According to several reports and studies on charity, those who have the least tend to give the most. For instance, the Philanthropy Roundtable reports that of the $300 billion that is donated to charity every year in this country, 15 percent comes from foundation grants, 6 percent from corporations, and the rest, individual donations from people living in the most modest income bracket. While the origin of that impulse remains somewhat elusive, Bonner surmises that those who have experienced need have the empathy and the wherewithal to give, regardless of their own financial status.
“To feel real need makes you want to be generous. You are grateful to be in the position that you are the one giving,” she says. “I hear about these Lebanese families living in these incredibly poor border villages, and they give everything they have to the Syrian refugees who are crossing over. They are making sure that these people are being taken care of despite their own poverty. I feel really lucky that these stories exist. Sure, they’re not on the front page, but I’m ‘tuned in’ to them.”
Through her eyes, the stories are abundant and they are everywhere. Inspiring Generosity provides a glimpse of that truth in the short three-page tales of giving; an Indian all-star chef ditches his career to deliver food and haircuts to the most impoverished citizens of Madurai, a Staten Island medical technician devotes her life to helping war torn children receive prosthetic surgery and a new lease on life. Even locally in the Berkshires, Bonner finds ultimate generosity in the life of State Representative William “Smitty” Pignatelli, who, with the help of local contractors and friends, was able to rebuild Ninth Ward resident Stanley Stewart’s house after it had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Yet, despite making nine trips to New Orleans over the course of nine months, Pignatelli considers his efforts as an unavoidable human duty.
“I am honored and extremely humbled to be included with all these extraordinary people whose riveting stories of unselfishness and innovation have changed lives and inspire us to be better people,” he says. “We all have the generosity inside of us that it takes to make a difference in us and in others!”
Tapping into that generosity may be a challenge, but Bonner is confident that it can happen…every day. As for the most generous thing a person can do, well, she says, that’s easy.
“Give people the benefit of the doubt. The act of forgiveness is a generous act. That’s when we start to move forward.”
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A Winter Warm-up: Berkshire Festival of Women Writers Prepares For March With A Week Of Workshops
By Amy Krzanik
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”—Alice Walker.
As this quote flashes on the screen, so begins Miss Representation, the 2011 documentary that shines a harsh light on how the American media portray woman—as bodies used to sell goods—and how they don’t—as powerful and influential three-dimensional human beings.
The topic of the film is something that Dr. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez [top photo, top right], Chairwoman of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and longtime professor of writing and gender studies, knows all too well. She began the Festival in 2011 as a way to “create encouraging, supportive platforms where women and girls can share their ideas and perspectives in the public sphere.” The reason creative outlets and a community in which to share them are so important, especially to girls and young women, is because, as Marie Wilson, Founder of The White House Project, states in the film, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
“Men’s voices still dominate in the public sphere, whether in politics, media or the arts,” Browdy says. “The Festival aims to counter that trend, and I am hoping, with the new Writing Workshops for Women, to give more women the tools and encouragement they need to begin to take their own ideas seriously, and step out into the world with them.”
Known for its month-long festival every March during women’s history month, the BFWW now has branched out to serve the area’s creative community year round, with a new monthly Lean-In group that includes upcoming themed workshops for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, and now a week of creative writing workshops scheduled for January 13-17.
The four six-hour writing workshops (each broken up over a two-day period) will be offered at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington. Open to women of all ages and at any stage in their writing careers, the workshops culminate on Friday with a public reading by participants that is open to the public (yes, including men).
In her workshop, Suzi Banks Baum, creator of BFWW’s “Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others” and publisher of An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice, will coach participants on how to use online sites and apps like Twitter, Facebook, and their own blogs to their advantage in an age when artists of all kinds are expected to be expert self-promoters.
“Writing The New Nature Poem” with Hannah Fries, associate editor and poetry editor of Orion Magazine, will show writers how to link their personal experiences to the natural world in order to create more forceful work about the earth and their place on it.
The award-winning author of two YA/Adult crossover novels, Jana Laiz, will host a class on how writers with a love of young adult literature can attract both teens and adults to their work, taking advantage of the success of series like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
“What’s Your Story?” with local author and jazz singer Lara Tupper will help writers work past the false, embedded ideas of themselves that are holding them back from telling the “true” tales they long to express.
Proceeds from this week of reasonably priced workshops go toward funding BFWW’s month-long festival in March, in which almost all of the 58 events are free of charge, including a talk by Gloria Steinem [top photo, bottom left] on March 4 at MCLA in North Adams as part of that college’s Public Policy Lecture Series, a special lecture-in-song about the women in traditional and contemporary folksongs given by Peggy Seeger [top photo, top left] at the Guthrie Center on March 18, and a performance of an expanded version of ENUF!, a musical featuring the stories and talents of 12 young African American women from Pittsfield on March 30. On March 9, International Women’s Day, BFWW will hold a program featuring three generations of artistic and socially active women from an Argentinian Jewish family—Raquel Partnoy, Alicia Partnoy and Ruth Irupe Sanabria [top photo, bottom right]. This is only a sampling of the performances, events, and author panels that will be part of this year’s festival.
“My not-so-secret ambition with all of this is to change the world for the better,” Browdy says. “If more women’s perspectives were being heard, the discourse would be more about nurturing and less about violence; more about collaboration, less about competition. I’m old-fashioned enough, as a feminist, to be able to say such a thing and mean it.”(0) Comments
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Novelist Glenda Ruby Conjures Up A “Death at Olana”
By Marilyn Bethany
The fictional character of Lindsey Brooks, an expert on antiques, fell into sleuthing early in her career at the behest of an acquaintance in law enforcement who understood what convenient containers antiques can be for smuggling contraband. In addition to running an international auction house, Miss Brooks has, over the years, occasionally partnered with the authorities, sharing her insider’s instinct for suspicious deals, as well as for spotting false bottoms, hidden drawers, and hollow legs. Now retired to a riverfront house in the Hudson Valley, she finds herself re-enlisted by the local sheriff to help solve a crime that was committed perilously close to home.
Thus begins Death at Olana, a novel by Glenda Ruby (below), a New York marketing executive. Ruby and her partner Ros Daly have lived part time for the past 30 years in a riverfront house that is a veritable stone’s throw from Olana, the c.1870 quasi-Persian pile built by Hudson River School painter Frederic Church.
RI: Death at Olana is your first published novel. What compelled you to start a new career writing fiction just when so many of your contemporaries are happily kicking back?
GR: I’ve always written fiction… short stories or casuals, mostly. Also poetry, back in the days when men were men and tables were round. But it’s the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, and Ruth Rendell that have captured my imagination since childhood. Not just the meticulously planned plots, the cleverly placed clues, but the wit and irony we find in Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Tommy and Tuppence, Adam Dalgliesh, and Inspector Wexford. Even Kate Atkinson, who also writes brilliant, serious fiction, is unable to resist creating a hapless detective, Jackson Brodie. All of these characters exist in and grapple with the human condition. That is what I am writing about, really. I have always wanted to try my hand at mystery writing, and I find it is great fun.
RI: It shows in the work! Your book is filled with amusing insights into a familiar social dynamic hereabouts: the inevitable tensions that arise between administrators, staff, board members, and donors at not-for-profits. Have you personal experience sitting on such boards?
GR: Years ago, when we first moved here, I had no time to devote to boards, and I suspect the moment has passed. We have always, of course, supported fund-raising by attending galas, dinners, fetes, parties, etc. I have offered my marketing expertise on a pro bono basis several times but have no takers, as yet. I had a great idea to change the name of the Thomas Cole House to the Thomas Cool House, but that seemed not to fly…
RI: Every sleuth needs a Watson and yours is, to my mind, a paragon: Bennett, Lindsey’s post-modern butler, combines the usual duties of driving, mixology, etc. with stepping in as madam’s date for cocktail and dinner parties, as well her companion at table when she’s dining in alone. Not quite a husband (Bennett keeps his place), he’s no forelock-tugging Carson or Jeeves either. What a dreamboat! How did you come up with the divine Bennett?
GR: Who among us has not wanted a handsome butler even if he isn’t named Rhett?!??!
RI: Your novel is more Agatha Christie than John le Carré. Can you tell us a little about how these genres are faring in the fraught publishing industry right now?
GR: It’s complicated. Publishers seem to feel The Thriller is the genre of the moment. It is very important to have a high body count in the first few pages, blow ‘em up, slash ‘em, etc. Gore is good, dismemberment gets remembered, but keep the writing simple. Without naming names, most best-sellers today are written at a 6th-grade level. Christie and the others I mentioned are not interested in lurid writing. John le Carré, whose niche is espionage, sells well but not as well as, say, David Baldacci; that is because le Carré’s books are, in fact, literature, and fewer people are comfortable reading literature. Christie is the largest selling author after Shakespeare and still sells 5 million books each year. In 2002, her publisher did a relaunch and books first published 50 years ago went back on the best-seller lists. She, of course, has been criticized for not writing particularly well; she has a very straightforward style—this is offset, however, by the intricacy of her plots and the psychology of the characters.
RI: In addition to its mordant humor, your novel delights with its erudition, not just about Frederic Church and art history in general, but about the region. The travelogue you provide of the Amtrak route between Hudson and Penn Station—one of the best train rides of all time—is priceless. Is it incumbent on authors of this type of mystery to keep us engaged above and beyond the central question of who-done-it?
GR: I think the mise en scene is important in any genre. Christie and Sayers write about an England that probably never existed but that one nonetheless likes to remember fondly. The rich history of our Valley is fascinating. And there is always more to know. We who live here are thrilled to learn about the area because we love it so. And you must admit the inhabitants—past and present—are colorful, to say the very least.
RI: (At left, the porch where plots thicken for both the author and her protagonist.) I understand you are working on a second novel. Please say it’s about another historic house in the region. Murder at Hyde Park, perhaps? The private life of the Roosevelts (that mother! that marriage!) is such a rich vein.
GR: A Murderous Summer at Bard. So far, three people have died but I’m only half-way through. Things may get worse. The third novel, busily gestating, involves pirates and buried treasure, always a crowd-pleaser.
Death at Olana, by Glenda Ruby, published by Greendale Books, is available at Olana; Thomas Cole National Historic Site; The Hudson Train station; Spotty Dog, Hudson; Oblong Books, Rhinebeck and Millerton; Rural Residence, Hudson, and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Paperback, $20; Kindle edition, $9.95(1) Comments