BY SUZANNE KELMAN
November 9, 2016
It’s done. It’s finished, put to bed and on its way to my publisher in New York City. Yes, I have finally finished book two in the Southlea Bay series. After a couple of hallelujahs and a swift gin, I decided it was time for a well-earned rest, and what my worn-out brain needed was color and literacy. Joining a good friend of mine, Eric Mulholland, on the East Coast, we decided to go on a road trip, visit some of my favorite authors’ homes, and see the leaves change color along the way.
In the last few years, I’ve visited many classic writers’ homes, and each one has taught me a valuable lesson about my craft. As I am in the process of writing another book, about how each of those homes has impacted me as a writer, I thought this was the perfect time to do some more research and share a little armchair traveling with you.
After meeting up with Eric, and then staying in New York with friends, the first stop on our tour was to Lennox, Massachusetts, to visit Edith Wharton’s home. Wharton is known for such classics as “The House of Mirth” and “The Age of Innocence.” The day we set off for Lennox, it was freezing, literally 30 degrees. Having traveled from Whidbey Island with just one carry-on bag, I ended up wearing eight layers of clothes just to fight off the East Coast chill! But Wharton’s home was well worth it — a sprawling estate modeled in a French chateau style.
Dressed in woolen gloves and hats, we moved in awe about her home. With a love of home design, she’d created lines and architectural detail that makes the heart sing with the appearance of grandeur, but also retains a high level of intimacy. A guide revealed to us that, although there was the appearance of opulence, Wharton actually preferred small, intimate dinner parties. Bearing that in mind, it didn’t surprise me to learn that Wharton wrote most of her novels in bed and not in her gloomy library. Outside her bedroom window, there is an incredibly expansive view of trees and water. It made me think that, if I looked hard enough, I might just see the Van der Lyden’s cottage, where Newland Archer meets his love in The Age of Innocence. The whole environment was inspiring and stimulating.
“Set wide the window. Let me drink the day.”
The second home we visited was in complete contrast to the Wharton estate. Emily Dickinson, the 19th-century poet, shared Wharton’s need for intimacy but expressed it in a very different way. Surrounded by, at the time, a working farm, Emily’s home was in the center of Amherst, Massachusetts, and was a much smaller and more private dwelling. There were many surprises about Emily’s life and personality that I will write about in more detail in my book, but one of the most interesting facts was that Dickinson had a gregarious personality that is in contrast to the depression and sadness that is often associated with her. Walking around her house was like visiting the home of a friend who had stepped out of the room for a moment. Filled with light and airiness in every room, the house gave the feeling of being a well-loved member of the family. With so many windows and so much to see, I could imagine Dickinson being stimulated to write by all the nature that lay outside. One moment that particularly moved me was when we sat in the last room, learning about her life, looked out the window, and saw a light snow starting to fall. It was as if Dickinson was setting up the perfect environment for one of her very own poems.
“It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.”
The last home we visited was Louisa May Alcott’s, author of “Little Women,” in Concord, Massachusetts. Set on a grand road, the little brown wood house seemed mildly conspicuous next to its prosperous neighbors. As we moved from room to room in this delightful home, we learned much about this radical family. Ahead of their time, they believed in respecting people of all creeds and color, a view that contributed to her father being fired more than 30 times for what he believed. They had lively discussions around the dinner table, which included the right for women to vote. The irony is not lost on me that I am writing this blog post a day before the general election that could usher in our first woman president. “Little Women” was the first book of its kind to be written directly for women, and Alcott’s upbringing and family helped her believe such a book was even possible.
As I moved through these three houses, I started to let go of all the shackles of smallness one feels when creating one’s own work and realized that, as a storyteller, I’m part of a much bigger world. That’s one of the things I love about visiting authors’ homes.
“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations.
I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty,
believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”
Louisa May Alcott
I flew back home to Whidbey truly inspired, excited to get started on the third book in my series. I carry back with me the beauty of Edith Wharton’s landscape, the intimacy of Emily Dickinson’s farm, and the fire of the Alcott family encouraging me to cast my own small light into the literary world.
“There are two ways of spreading light:
to be the candle or the mirror that receives it.”
Suzanne Kelman is the author of “The Rejected Writers’ Book Club” and an award-winning screenwriter and playwright. She was a Nicholl Fellowship Finalist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; was awarded Best Comedy Feature Screenplay at the L.A. International Film Festival; received a Gold Award at the California Film Awards; and received a Van Gogh Award at the Amsterdam Film Festival.
(Suzanne Kelman’s photo was taken by Kim Tinuviel)
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