For six months in 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda lived in a rented house at 244 Compo Road South in Westport, Conn., as he wrote his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned. The house is now a private home.
Fitzgerald was 23 at the time, fresh off the success of his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. He and Zelda were newlyweds and known–not always in a good way–for their love of liquor and parties.
Westport, a beacon for artists of all kinds in the 1920s, was a perfect place for the couple. “Summers at Westport, Connecticut, exceeded the riotousness of New York,” said Westport resident and painter Guy Pene du Bois in his 1940 autobiography Artists Say The Silliest Things. “There, gin and orange juice ruled the days and nights. Talk was an extravaganza. Work was an effort made between parties.” And gin was one of the Fitzgeralds’ favorite. In Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, biographer James Mellow describes their “mad rides along Post Road with abrupt stops at roadhouses to replenish the supply of gin.”
The gin rickey was often their drink of choice. Perhaps a great way to celebrate the lives of this legendary literary couple would be to mix a pitcher and bring it to Westport’s Compo Beach at sunset, followed by a stroll down Compo Road South to see the house that ended up being immortalized in The Beautiful and Damned:
The gray house had been there when women who kept cats were probably witches. … Since those days the house had been bolstered up in a feeble corner, considerably repartitioned and newly plastered inside, amplified by kitchen and added to by a side-porch but, save for where some jovial oaf had roofed the new kitchen with red tin, Colonial it defiantly remained.
Some believe Westport also was the actual inspiration for The Great Gatsby, rather than parts of Long Island. Articles in the WestportNow and The New York Times’ Connecticut section explore this possibility, plus include quotes from those who remember the Fitzgeralds during their time in Connecticut. But if gin is still on your mind, hold off on the Gatsby exploration until after you spend a few minutes enjoying this great Open Culture post about Fitzgerald conjugating the verb “to cocktail.” You may want to have a gin rickey in hand.
Hear Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Joseph Finder & Elizabeth Alexander in the Literary New England Radio Show archives
- Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Balm. Set shortly after the end of the Civil War, it’s the story of three people who have come to Chicago in search of a new life: Madge, who was born with magical hands that heal; Sadie, who can talk with the dead; and Hemp, who is searching for both redemption and his missing family.
- Joseph Finder on The Fixer. The latest stand-alone thriller by this New York Times bestselling author that focuses on a former investigative reporter forced to move back to his childhood home, where he makes an exciting and dangerous discovery about his father’s past.
- Elizabeth Alexander on The Light of the World. A gorgeous memoir by an acclaimed poet and Pulitzer Prize finalist about the beauty of married life, the trauma of her husband’s death, and the solace found in caring for her two teenage sons.
Was a great episode! Definitely check it out!
I have an acute case of Writer Envy. I felt it coming on earlier this month, as I sat in a surprisingly comfortable folding chair at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to hear author Jennifer Tseng read from her debut novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (published by the always fabulous Europa Editions).
Despite my exhaustion from traveling all day and sleeping little the night before, I found myself leaning forward as she spoke. I couldn’t help it. Her sentences were like Sirens–poetic pathogens made up of words and phrases that lured, serenaded and hummed; that I wanted to get closer to; that wonderfully infected me with pure, unadulterated jealousy: How come I’ve never written anything as gorgeous and compelling as that? I want to! I want to now!
She started the reading at Chapter 1:
It began at the library. While the young man waited quietly to be helped, I stood neatly in thrall to the world outside the window. Momijigari was ending; leaves were falling in drifts like snow. Blackcaps were eating the trees, striking the bark with their beaks then rapidly chewing it, in that annual burlesque of sheer appetite I always found vulgar. When I turned, he cleared his throat and asked for a library card. He explained with darting, downcast eyes that although he’d been coming to the library with his mother since he was a child, he’d never had his own card. There was something in his manner–softness, reverence, a hesitation in the face–this is particular to a son close to his mother. Doesn’t intimacy foster reverence more completely than anything that can be taught? As I handed him the form and then watched as he filled it in–his fingers fumbling a bit with the tiny pencil–I didn’t think of having him yet, I simply gaped at his beauty. I had the thought: he is out of reach, a thought that, had I been younger, might have spurred me on, but in middle age, warned me to retreat.
Like Jennifer, protagonist Mayumi is a 40-something-year-old librarian who lives on a small island remarkably like Martha’s Vineyard. As Kirkus described in its review, Mayumi is also a woman “emotionally marooned in a loveless marriage, clinging for warmth to her 4-year-old daughter, and drifting toward middle age [who] finds unlikely, forbidden love and gasp-inducing passion in the arms of an alluring 17-year-old.”
It’s a complicated love story that, as it unfolds, Mayumi can’t help but compare to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. She, after all, is not just a librarian, but a voracious reader and re-reader. Yet Mayumi is no Humbert Humbert. And the relationship Mayumi and the never-named boy develop is nothing if not beautiful, despite the social mores she unapologetically sets aside:
I saw within myself a cup marked complacency and a cup marked disappointment, the contents of both spilling over. I saw that I had been staring impassively for years at the spectacle of my own pain overflowing, as if at a hideous waterfall. Now I turned my gaze toward the young man. … I saw that there was also within me an empty cup marked pleasure and I resolved at once to fill. I refused to be thwarted.
Who of us who’ve reached middle age haven’t felt that kind of longing for fulfillment of desire, whether that desire be for love, sex, the creation of art, the exploration of new places or so many other things? All of us have dreams and desires that are more than just wants. The brave, unconventional and unexpectedly erotic Mayumi shows that while taking risks and going after fulfillment has the potential to end in despair, it can also lead unimaginable happiness, unexpected friendships and unregrettable moments.
Someone said Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness “veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid,” and it’s so true. No one who reads Maymui will be surprised to learn Jennifer is also a poet. Each sentence sings.
A few days after that Bunch of Grapes event, I had the pleasure of spending part of an afternoon with Jennifer. Despite the rain, we sat on the back porch of the West Tisbury Library as I recorded an interview with her for the Literary New England Radio Show. That conversation will air at 8 pm Monday, July 6. We’ll also give away copies of Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness on that show, so don’t miss tuning in.
If you you’re going to be in Martha’s Vineyard this weekend, you can meet Jennifer in person at 6 pm Saturday, June 27, at the West Tisbury Library. As the flier below shows, the event will feature bubbles, cake, book talk, book signing, Mayumi swag and more.
In the meantime, no matter where you are, pick up a copy of Mayumi. Within a matter of minutes, you’ll be swimming in your own Sea of Happiness. Even for writers susceptible to contracting Writer Envy, this ravishing novel is absolutely worth the risk.
– Cindy Wolfe Boynton
“I was strong and he was not, so it was me who went to war to defend the Republic.”
Neverhome, Laird Hunt‘s gorgeous historical novel about a woman who leaves her comfortable home and gentle husband to fight for the North in Civil War, was recently released in paperback. The New York Times called it “enthralling … at once sentimental and aloof [about] a savior and a killer, a folk hero who shuns her own legend, a fierce and wounded woman who finds strength in her troubled past.”
We call Neverhome a must-read and have a copy to give away to you! Here’s how to win it:
The blurb for Neverhome describes protagonist Ash Thompson as a hero, a folk legend, a madwoman and a traitor. Which one of these four things are you? Tell us by Tweeting @LitNewEngland before midnight Friday, June 19, being sure to use the #Neverhome hashtag.
We’ll pick one winner at random out of those who Tweet us, and then announce the name June 20!
When Neverhome was first released in hardcover, we featured Laird on the Oct. 27, 2014 Literary New England Radio Show, which you can hear in our archives. Other guests that night included Gregory Maguire on Egg & Spoon, Randy Susan Meyers on Accidents of Marriage and Anne Girard on Madame Picasso–such a great show!
- Laird first got the idea for Neverhome 18 years ago, when he was reading An Uncommon Soldier, a collection of letters by a woman named Sarah Wakeman who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Civil War.
- Singapore, San Francisco, London and rural Indiana are among the many places Laird has lived and that have influenced him and his writing.
- His grandmother was born on a farm that inspires all the fictional ones he has written about. He poignantly wrote about her, the farm and Neverhome for LitHub.
- Neverhome is his sixth novel.
- Laird spent a memorable and productive writing residency at New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony, the oldest arts colony in the United States.
- His Twitter feed suggests he dreams a lot.
- He has a cat named Mouse.
- In Neverhome, Ash has no problem learning how to shoot a musket. In fact, her shooting earns the praise of fellow soldiers.
- Neverhome is the first of Laird’s novels to be published in the United Kingdom.
- The Guardian called Neverhome “a brilliant and breathtaking blaze of a novel, lit the ferocious will and all‑too‑human spirit of its unforgettable narrator.” Wow!
Forgive the cliché, but I’m excited and can’t help myself. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel this entertaining, and I want you to read it, too.
Smart, imaginative and set in small-town Iowa at the turn of the 20th century, The Magician’s Lie tells the story of the Amazing Arden–the most famous female illusionist of her day. She’s renowned for her trick of sawing a man in half. But on the night that begins in Chapter 1, Arden exchanges her saw for a fire ax. Soon after the show, Arden’s dead husband and the ax are found underneath the collapsed stage.
Police Officer Virgil Holt is sure Arden is guilty. After a night of drinking to try to forget the injury that could cost him his career, his wife and his life, Virgil catches Arden trying to leave town. But the story she tells as the two sit alone in the police station makes Virgil begin wonder whether perhaps there’s a way they can both be free of their burdens.
Publisher’s Weekly gave The Magician’s Lie a starred review, and with good reason. Colored with meticulous research and generous, well-placed details, the novel is clever, suspenseful, well-crafted and highly original.
Last month, Literary New England had the pleasure of hosting a terrific live Tweet chat and book giveaway with Greer. If you go to Twitter and type #LNEChat into the Search box, you can find and read our conversation, which was made that much more fun by all those who joined in.
Here’s a short excerpt of our #LNEChat:
LNE: Is it cliche to say writing a novel is like making magic?
GM: Lots of similarities btw the novelist’s art & the magician’s. We lie to a willing audience. … And if I do my job, you feel like the people are real, even though you know they’re not.
LNE: Did you take any magic classes to help you write The Magicians Lie?
GM: I tried to learn some magic, but it turns out, I’m terrible! That’s what’s great about words. They always work.
LNE: Please talk about your protagonist, Arden. Is she anything like you?
GM: Not much like me, really! She’s much more interesting. Me, I’m awfully normal.
LNE: Any advice for aspiring novelists?
GM: Hard work won’t guarantee you get published, but giving up guarantees you won’t. Keep going.
LNE: You Tweet a lot and have a strong Facebook presence. You enjoy interacting with fans?
GM: Oh gosh yes. I love readers THE MOST. Best thing about being a writer. (That & other writers, who are also readers.)
– Cindy Wolfe Boynton
Today would have been writer William Styron’s 90th birthday. The author of Sophie’s Choice, The Long March, Set This House on Fire and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, among other works, was born June 11, 1925 in Newport News, Va. Styron died on Nov. 21, 2006, at age 81 and was buried here, at the West Chop Cemetery in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
As he wrote about in several forms, Styron struggled with severe depression and the urge to commit suicide, which he described most vividly in his memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, also tackles the subject, telling the story of a woman struggling against insanity and the desire to kill herself. This YouTube video from Open Road Media features Styron reading a short excerpt from the work:
The quote on Styron’s grave comes from the end of Darkness Visible: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” It is a translation of the final line of Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, line 139: E quindi uscimmo a rivider le stelle.
In 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Styron’s youngest daughter, Alexandra, at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. There, she read and signed copies of Reading My Father, a powerful and mesmerizing memoir about her father who, as she candidly describes, was a drinker, a carouser and “a high priest at the altar of fiction.” Styron helped define the concept of the “Big Male Writer.” But he was also a loving father and a husband–a complex, compelling man who Alexandra was able to better understand through the writing of this book, and that she so generously shares with us. It’s a fabulous, insightful and inspiring read.
One of the official blurbs for the book says:
Alexandra offers a vivid look at the experiences that shaped William Styron’s life and his novels: the death of his mother; his precocious success with Lie Down in Darkness; his military service and his early loves. From Europe, where he helped found the Paris Review and met his wife, Rose, to New England where he would live out his storied career, William Styron is vivid in all his epic, tragic complexity in Reading My Father.
I loved Reading My Father and believe a most appropriate way to celebrate Styron’s life and birthday would be to add it, or one of his books, to your summer reading list. I’m adding Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner to mine.
– Cindy Wolfe Boynton
Fans of Carla Neggers‘ Sharpe & Donovan series can walk the some of the same New England streets that FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan do. The southern Maine town of Heron’s Cove that appears throughout the series is fictional. However, Carla said she had Kennebunkport, Maine, in mind when she created Heron’s Cove–specifically time she spent walking along Ocean Avenue. The Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm in nearby Wells, Maine, was also an inspiration. As the previous links show, both are spots you can visit, too … even if you aren’t part of a popular FBI crime-fighting duo :-)
Emma Sharpe, a former nun turned art crimes expert, and Colin Donovan, a deep-cover agent, have so far been featured in four of Carla’s books: Saint’s Gate, Heron’s Cove, Declan’s Cross and Harbor Island. Keeper’s Reach, the fifth book in the series, will be released Aug. 25. Carla also wrote Rock Point, a prequel e-novella.
“New England is a great place to set books,” said Carla when we she appeared on the very first Literary New England Radio Show in December 2011 to talk about Saint’s Gate. “It’s got everything–mountains, oceans, small towns, big cities. Lots of different people and things are going on. It’s also close to major cities like Washington, D.C., so it’s easy for Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan to travel from their FBI office in Boston to Washington. New England allows so many opportunities to create richness in stories. I love to hear from readers who say my books feel like a homecoming because of the strong sense of place. Others, who’ve never been to New England, have said my books make them want to come there.”
Carla herself is steeped in New England. The multi-times New York Times bestseller was born and raised in rural Massachusetts and now lives in Vermont.