An Interview with Beth Gutcheon
Leeway Cottage is your seventh novel, and the second to have an historical element. Can you tell us how it evolved?
My father, who spent his boyhood summers on the coast of Maine with his cousins, kept a guest book from a summer house that no longer exists called Fagerheim (pronounced FOGgerhime). The house had been built by a Norwegian musician in the 1880's, then sold to another musical family whom my grandparents used to visit at the turn of the 20th century. The guest book is full of sketches and doggerel by, in many cases, the grandparents or great-grandparents of people who still summer in that colony today. I always wished it were possible to know what lay behind those entries. What did the people mentioned in its pages look like, what were they wearing, who was in love with whom, who feuding with whom, what made them laugh, and what exactly did they do all day? Since I couldn't make the Fagerheim guestbook talk, I started thinking about a novel that would take place in such a summer colony, with the guestbook of a particular house as the spine of it.
I wanted to examine a certain kind of 20th century American marriage, in which the husband and wife, as they have grown and as life has changed them, appear by mid-life to be so different as people that outsiders (or insiders their own children) can't understand how they chose each other in the first place. And yet in their generation, born right before or right after the first World War, oddly-matched couples usually stayed together, kept their promises (or appeared to), and even appeared devoted to each other. Theirs was the last generation to be pretty much untouched by Freud, by the psychologically examined life, for good or ill. For some of both, probably. I wanted to try to fully imagine what such a couple each thinks they are each seeing in the other when they fall in love, and when they marry, and how they handle the surprises to come as they grow to understand what it is they have actually chosen.
Did the idea of making Laurus a Scandinavian musician come from the house, Fagerheim?
Well, it was an obvious and useful narrative shorthand for the differences between Laurus and Sydney that Laurus is European and an artist, and Sydney a rich and provincial American with no idea of what she doesn't know. The fact that Laurus is specifically Danish has a different source. It made sense that he be from a small country with a history and culture not as familiar to American readers as perhaps France's or Italy's, because it would be more interesting both for me and for the reader. That said, Denmark was the obvious choice for me because I had fallen for it the first time I went to Europe when I was seventeen, and had subsequently spent a summer there as a pathetically ill-equipped au pair. During that summer, I learned something of the Danish Resistance during WW II, though how much I really understood of it I can't tell you, having now lived with my research so long that the chickens and eggs are all in a heap together in my brain. As that part of the story began to evolve for me, the shape of it was at first very different from what it became.
In what way?
I first thought I would tell it from the point of view of a Jewish family, in fear and jeopardy, and the drama of their rescue. The easiest books to find on the subject dealt in most detail with the stories of the Jews who were saved. Their stories were riveting, but once the refugees got to Sweden, as the very great majority did, their story from the novelist's point of view is effectively over. While for my characters the trauma and drama continued. As I delved deeper into the subject I came to see that the less well-known story is of the Danish partisans. It is true that almost all the Danish Jews survived. But a tremendous price was paid by many of the Danes who saved them, those who lived and the many who didn't, and the Danes as a people are so modest and self-deprecating that they weren't talking about it. So Laurus' sister and brother became partisans, like so many young Danes of sixty years ago, and that took me where it took me. What happened to Nina helped tell the real story of Sydney and Laurus' marriage. As a safe, lucky, American, there was so much Sydney never understood about what it was like for Laurus: what he remembered, what he regretted, what he mourned for, even after she had lived with him for sixty years.
Do you see Sydney and Laurus as metaphors for their countries? Or for the US and Europe?
Can you say more about that?
I'd rather not.
I will say, though I don't much want to talk about this either, that I live six blocks north of what we used to call the World Trade Center, and that I was standing on the roof of my building looking south when the top of the south tower slumped sideways and fell off, followed by the disappearance of the rest of it. Being in the presence of so many souls streaming into the ether at once certainly made for a paradigm shift, for me and so many others, and was certainly with me as I wrote the proposal for this novel the following spring.
Leeway Cottage is a story. It is about something, for me, but its job is to be a story about specific people, as true as it can be about its own time and place. Sydney is as much shaped by the fact that she has a monster mother, that she is an only child, that her father died when she was young, and by her simultaneously deprived and over-privileged upbringing, as by being American. Similarly, young Laurus, whose parents and siblings are cheerful, optimistic, humorous, and emotionally generous, thinks that's what family life is always like, because he comes from that kind of family, not because he comes from Denmark. Even if he sees signs that Sydney lacks some of those qualities, he doesn't read the signs because he doesn't expect them to be there. Many readers of Leeway Cottage go through the same process with Sydney. When she's a little girl, they sympathize with her, as we usually do with children, and they expect her to grow up to be a heroine because they were rooting for her in the early chapters. In fact, there are a lot of signals in those early chapters that Sydney may be socially tone-deaf, that her loneliness in childhood could just as easily leave her inept or unable to imagine other peoples' realities as make her sensitive or sympathetic. And especially, that being simultaneously deprived and overprivileged could make her angry without good inner controls over her anger, and vain about the wrong things in life, just as likely as it could have made her flexible and loving. The fact that a person has been badly hurt in childhood does not necessarily lead to kindly adulthoods; we know this in life, but apparently don't expect it in fiction. Dickens may have a lot to answer for here.
Does it concern you that some readers seem taken by surprise by the kind of wife and mother Sydney becomes?
No. The seeds are there, to the extent I can fairly sow them, given that I believe in free will. It was never pre-determined that Sydney would turn out as she did. If she and Laurus hadn't been apart for those long years of the war, she and the marriage might have been quite different. If she'd had only sons, she might have been a different kind of mother. If she'd kept up with her music, and taken herself seriously in some way other than as a big fish in a small pond, things might have been different. For her in childhood, many outcomes were possible. But as we all know, every major choice we make closes off other options. She tended to make choices based on impulse, and in reaction to emotions she hadn't much understanding of, while Laurus who has much more discipline, both intellectual and emotional, tended to make decisions out of principle. That worked out well for Sydney, to the extent that anything did.
You've written about daughters with difficult or "monster" mothers before. Can you talk about that?
It's just one more way of looking at the mystery of personality. The subject could just as easily be fathers and sons, except I'm not a man and would more likely get details wrong. I believe that most children of difficult parents have a special fear of becoming like those parents when raising their own children. Some do anyway though, some don't, and some split the difference. I have a novelist friend who says that he never puts his hand into his mother's cage without its coming out bloody. There was something about the wives of that mid-century generation, at least those who had a certain level of privilege it could have been caused by a hundred things, and I have my theories and readers will have theirs but in a way that you don't often find represented in song and story and American myth, a significant sample of them seemed to hate their daughters, or their sons, or their grandchildren. Why? Were they jealous, were they angry about restrictions in their lives that didn't exist for their daughters? It seems worth trying to understand.
Since you brought up Dickens, who are your influences?
Dickens, of course. We read David Copperfield in eighth grade and I never stopped. At Harvard back in the day, one of your four major courses junior year was a small or even individual tutorial (as I recall it) in whatever area of your major you most wanted to study in depth. Esther Purpel and I wanted to read Dickens and there was only one instructor in the department who was willing to take us on, Donald Doub, God bless him. The rest were all trying to write their own doctoral theses, or striving to publish or perish, and far preferred you read something they already knew, like Shakespeare, or something there wasn't much of, like Austen. With Dr. Doub we read comic literature, in translation if necessary, the first term, from Gil Blas and Don Quixote through Fielding and Smollett, and in the second term, all of Dickens' fiction. All. It was an absolute feast. For the rest, if influences mean what you read over and over again, Austen, Evelyn Waugh, Scott Fitzgerald, and Willa Cather.
What are you working on now?
I'm a long way from the writing stage of what I'm working on, but I know where I'm going. When you work in a long form you have to have, or develop, a long attention span, but at least in my case, the concomitant of that is you don't do well with interruptions. So I can't really settle into the next book until I can lock the doors and turn off the phone and stay that way for about two years. I'm still seeing Leeway Cottage along its course toward open water, which still feels like part of the working on it. But from the beginning, my editor and I have known that the novel after Leeway Cottage would be about what happens when Sydney and Laurus' children inherit the house together. My grandmother apparently used to say that you don't know what kind of parent you've been until you see your grandchildren. Similarly, I won't have finished looking at Sydney and Laurus' marriage until I see what becomes of their children. So I'm working, in the sense of reading and thinking, on who they grow up to be. And I'm collecting stories of the family politics of inheritance. And I've structured the Moss family's time frame such that the two daughters of Sydney and Laurus go to the same boarding school, in the same years, as the characters from my first novel, The New Girls. Maybe I'll use that and maybe I won't, but it's fun knowing it's there.