02.17.2022

Rachel Slade

February 2022

Interview by Mary Warnement, edited by Carly Stevens

Rachel Slade is an accomplished journalist and author. She started her career as an architect in Boston before becoming an editor and writer. After working as an editor at Boston magazine for ten years, she published her first book, Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and an NPR Best Book, and won the Mountbatten Award for Best Book. Slade and I spoke over Zoom in early February about her career as a journalist and about her upcoming book, American Hoodie. To learn more about Slade and explore some of her work, please visit her website

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Can you tell me about your background, both personal and academic?

RACHEL SLADE: I’m from Philadelphia and after college, I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my Master in Architecture. That was an incredibly intense experience, trying to learn fluency in a new language, the visual language. I worked at a Boston architecture firm doing institutional work. When the firm downsized, which happens in that industry, I decided to try writing about design.

To get writing gigs, I began reaching out to the architecture firms I thought were doing terrific work, asking them if I could trot their best projects in front of editors. In a short time, my byline was popping up in a lot of different places. One day, I got a cold call from Boston magazine. They said, “Would you like to run our home design magazine?” And I thought, ‘I’m an architect. I can do anything.’ Well, it was not easy.

I ended up writing and editing all kinds of stories—politics, crime, real estate—which was a great education. I left Boston in 2016 and immediately felt the panic everybody gets when you leave a full time job, so I started pitching like crazy. One of the first stories I pitched was to Yankee magazine about El Faro, the American container ship that sunk in October 2015. While I was reporting that story, I had a feeling it would become a book. I put together a proposal, published a book, and the book did well. Now I’m working on my second book.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum?

RS:  I can’t tell you when I first heard about the Athenæum but I was under the impression that it was a highly exclusive club. During the pandemic, we all found we needed to find our so-called third space. We have our homes, many of us are fortunate to have a work space or an office somewhere, but the idea of a third space has become increasingly important. 

I wanted to be in a place where I could focus all day, and that drove me to the Athenæum. Then I started looking at the bookshelves and could not believe how blessed we are. What a strange collection of stuff!

I love that it’s a community of scholars. Everybody understands that if you sit down with a book or flip open your computer, you’re working. If you stay all day, nobody’s going to give you the side-eye or wonder what you’re up to. It’s a legitimate place to get work done. 

Q: Can you tell me how you found the story of El Faro?

RS: When I left Boston, I knew I wanted to write about Maine, so the first thing I did was set up a Maine list on Twitter and begin eavesdropping on all the newspapers and media sources in the state. My feed filled up with car accidents, school board meetings, that sort of thing. One day, I saw a tweet about some Maine families settling with a shipping company for the loss of their loved ones. I clicked on the article and went down the El Faro rabbit hole. I couldn’t believe an enormous American commercial ship had gone down three months before and I hadn’t heard about it.

I was further embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t know anything about maritime culture in the United States. We have ships, but who’s on those ships? How do you learn how to sail a ship? What kinds of people go into this industry? Turns out, there’s a huge maritime community in Maine. 

A lot of people in this region have gone to Maine Maritime Academy or Massachusetts Maritime Academy and are making a fine living on ships sailing around the world, just as so many others have done over the centuries. Of course, the ships have changed. The things on the ships have changed. The way we pack ships has changed. Where we go has changed. But the idea that you can lose somebody at sea has not changed. 

I was obsessed with finding out what happened to El Faro. Why did it sail into a hurricane when they had all the modern weather prediction and communication tools aboard? I also wanted to learn our maritime history, and how we’d lost our connection to the sea. 

When the book came out in 2018, I did a lot of speaking around New England, Philadelphia, and New York. I would talk about how we think we’re connected by the internet but that’s only partially true. Ships connect us globally. If the internet went down, we would feel it less acutely than if global shipping broke down.

Now, in 2022, I don’t have to preach anymore because shipping and the supply chain are top of mind. We see empty spaces on store shelves, we’re having trouble manufacturing cars and all kinds of things due to supply chain issues. The huge backups in Long Beach, California, are now on the front page of the New York Times

Q: What were the challenges and joys of conducting and using interviews for Into the Raging Sea

RS:  That was the most difficult reporting I had ever done. Not only had people lost family members, but some of the family members were very young. When you lose somebody at sea, there is no closure. There is no body. You cannot say goodbye fully and wholly the way we humans need to. It was very painful.

It’s always a gift when somebody is willing to talk to you and entrust their story to you. I learned that people were willing to do that with me. That was one of the joys. That also meant I had a tremendous responsibility to tell the story right, which is why the hardest moment was sending out copies of the book to those same family members. If they didn’t feel that I had been honest or fair, it would have been devastating. The stakes were so very high. Fortunately I got some lovely messages back from folks and I continue to get messages from mariners around the world saying they felt the story was well told.

In fact, I wrote about a third of the book on a ship. I took a cargo ship from Italy to Baltimore, Maryland—a 12 day voyage. I wrote from the bridge looking out at the Atlantic, observing the captain, the mates, and the helmsmen going about their days. I cannot think of a better way to write a book about a cargo ship than on a cargo ship.

Q: Can you tell me more about the book you are currently working on?

RS: The book is called American Hoodie. It explores the political, economic, and social history of textile manufacturing in America. The book asks, ‘Can we make things in America in the twenty-first century? Is it even possible anymore?’

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from American Hoodie?

RS: I want people to understand the value of things. We have a tendency to go to the store and quickly flip through racks and piles of things. This object right here [Slade holds up a small gray bag with a zippered top]—think about the technology required to make this fabric and the ingenuity it took to create a zipper. Think about the craftsmanship it takes to design a sewing machine that will do all of that in a fraction of a second. There are millennia of information and human intelligence packed into this object. It is an incredible thing. And that’s true with all the objects we interact with every day. We’ve forgotten that. We’ve lost touch with that meaning because stuff is so cheap. The price we currently pay for things does not reflect their value. I hope that through this book, readers will share the marvel that I have of what it takes to create the things we often take for granted.

Q: Did the Athenæum’s collections assist your research?

RS:  There is an incredible wealth of information in the Athenæum about the textile industry and I asked Curator Ginny Badgett to help me. She found this crazy little pamphlet published in Boston in 1765, written to address the growing number of homeless women and orphans living on Boston’s streets. In ornate prose, the pamphlet proposed that these women and orphans start manufacturing linen, because there was a need for it. There was little textile industry in America during the colonial period—nearly everything came from England. England was rapidly industrializing and the textiles coming to America were cheap and of high quality. Just before the American Revolution, people were starting to think, ‘Maybe we should have a textile industry here.’ It was not until after the revolution that it became a necessity.

While working on this book, I’ve stumbled onto some really wonderful stuff that I’ve been able to work into the book. In the Portsmouth, New Hampshire section on the fifth floor, I found the log of a cargo ship that came from England in 1635. So, what did England think the settlers in Portsmouth needed? Well, here’s the entire tally of everything that was on that ship—just sitting there on a shelf! 

The Athenæum is a cabinet of wonders. It’s a unique, wacky, and wild collection of things that people over the past 200 years thought might be valuable to keep around. That makes it quirky and fun to explore.

Q: Do you have a favorite spot to do work at the Athenæum?

RS: Like a Maine lobsterman, I’m not telling you! 

Q: Fair. 

RS: I do like to say that working for an hour on the fifth floor is like working five hours anywhere else. American Hoodie would not be what it is without the time I have spent at the Athenæum writing it. The Athenæum has a deep respect for objects. There is such faith in the printed word. Being in this space gives me the courage to believe that what I am doing has value.

01.28.2022

John G.S. Hanson

February 2022

Interview by Mary Warnement, edited by Carly Stevens

John G.S. Hanson was born and raised in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He studied English at Harvard College and went on to earn his MBA from Georgetown Business School. He worked for 25 years in management consulting and has spent the last six years as an executive at Akamai Technologies, an internet services company in Kendall Square. 

Hanson recently published his first book, Reading the Gravestones of Old New England after spending time in New England graveyards documenting epitaphs found on gravestones. Read more about his work collecting and cataloging gravestones on his website

Q: How did you find your way to the Athenæum?

JH: I gained my proprietor’s share the old-fashioned way: I inherited it! My family has been a shareholder since, I think, 1826. Share 212 dates back to my great-great-great grandfather Doctor Edward Reynolds. 

It’s interesting, a fair number of the family members who have held that share number in the past are not particularly scholarly. They’re certainly not writers. They were always serious readers. They were the classic profile of a nineteenth-century Bostonian family. Nonetheless, I consider myself very fortunate to have received the share. It brought me in here, and I haven’t left. 

Q: Have you ever looked at any of the records from the Athenæum? To circulate books we had a big ledger for the year and each person had a page with the books they checked out.

JH: I had not heard of that but I should absolutely cross reference a few of my ancestors. Alfred Greenough held the share from 1838 to 1863, and he was a serious book collector. In fact, a few years ago I donated his copy of The Works of Lord Byron to the Athenæum.

Q: It is interesting to see what people read. We have digitized them as well. That can be handy when you want to goof around at home. It is also a lot of fun to come in and look at the page.

JH: That resonates with one of the stories I stumbled across in my research about a colonial woman who was a subscriber to a lending library. I was reading this in a secondary source and the record of what she had checked out was a sort of ‘who’s who’ of devotional writers who show up in epitaphs.

The project, at its best, brings to life the reading habits of these early New Englanders. I learned that you just can’t overstate the importance of Isaac Watts in their devotional reading. I have these images of farm wives who may have just 20 minutes to spare during their busy day. They sit down to read their Isaac Watts, or their James Hervey, or their Edward Young and put their favorite quotations in their commonplace books. There is a world of individuals incorporating their reading into their religious thinking, into their attitudes towards life and death. It makes the epitaphs much more than sentimental doggerel.

Q: That’s true. It had meaning. It was internalized. 

JH: It was internalized and intentional. Someone made this point to me after I gave a talk. I hadn’t realized it, but it’s true. The early stones, they weren’t bought off a rack. They weren’t bought off a shelf. Someone chose the verse. In many cases, we won’t know who did the choosing. Someone paid to have this carved in stone so that there would be a permanent expression. You have to respect that. 

Q: What first attracted you to this topic?

JH: It’s a great question. I’m not sure I can answer it. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who can’t quite explain where it all started. I say in the book it started with trips. I’m sure my mom was just trying to get us out of the house. My father would put a few of us kids in the car and go for a drive to these old cemeteries. I think he liked the historical angle—the names, what you could learn about the professions or the pecking order based on how richly carved the stone was. I was a reader, so I became fascinated by these texts.

My interest went into abeyance for a while but it started to come back when I found an old notebook. What kicked in then was “where did these texts come from?” If you find John Milton quoted out in the middle of what was then a small frontier town, you have to start asking yourself: how did that text get from New York or New Haven or Boston, out there? It just became this thing. You find a new writer, that’s exciting. You find a new expression. It’s a search for “how did this fellow or this woman get here?” 

Q: You mentioned you found an old notebook. What is this old notebook? When does it date to? And do you still have it?

JH: I still have it. When I was ten years old, I was a very good, straight-A student, except for penmanship. I would squat down in front of graves in Lanesborough, Massachusetts and Vermont, on field trips with my dad. 

I found it when clearing out my parent’s house, after my father’s death but before my mother’s. That time of life when thinking about the great exchange of worlds was a little bit more relevant than it was when I was ten or 11. 

I will tell you, because you’re probably going to ask, that the Athenæum as a resource came into play several times in this. The first was because of the superb collection of town histories. Many of them have short sections on the inscriptions of the founder’s gravestones. Other books are anthologies of all a town’s inscriptions, like Samuel Green’s wonderful Groton Transcriptions, which I first found at the Athenæum. I now own one hardback and one paperback version of it. 

I also tried to learn and pass on to the reader a bit about the religious scene of the times. Many people will read Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God once or twice and then move on with their lives. In the collection at the Athenæum, you have a wonderful selection of old sermons, every one of which will tell you the exact same thing. There is this notion that you and I are only sitting here talking because it pleased God not to drop us into a furnace an hour ago. Therefore, what have you done today to prepare yourself? 

I mention in the book, one pleasant summer afternoon, I was at the Athenæum reading these blood-curdling sermons, and I thought, “Imagine you’re sitting in a drafty farmhouse in 1780, and that’s to improve your soul…” Back then, it was very important to hold those documents in one’s head. These same pamphlets would have been sitting in ministers’ libraries, and in these small farmhouses.  

Q: I notice on your website, you mention ‘my collection.’ Obviously, you have not hefted up these tombstones and taken them home! What is the collection?

JH: I collect contemporary editions containing the works from which these epitaphs were sourced. I don’t claim by any means that these particular copies were extant in the towns of New England at the time, but I try to get editions that could at least have plausibly been in circulation. I have my copy of Addison’s Rosamond! Not many people do. I have a beautiful edition of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. It’s a great big block of a book. 

Q: At what point did your interest in epitaphs become something that you write and talk about? 

JH: Great question. When it was still just a hobby, it dawned on me that I can’t just go through life with index cards of epitaphs. I started creating a Word document, and I began thinking of how to organize it. It is arbitrary and a bit personal, but there was a taxonomy. 

At the simplest level there are epitaphs that recur all the time. Things like “friends and physicians could not save this mortal body from the grave,” or “afflictions sore, long time I bore, but physicians in vain.” Which appear everywhere! Those were obviously composed by someone, anonymously composed and distributed. Then there are ones you can identify with a little research, such as Pope, Milton, and Young. Scripture, you can always tell. 

The Word document is what got me interested in book collecting, which historical associations got wind of. The Association for Gravestone Studies have been wonderful mentors to me. Same with the American Antiquarian Society. They said “Oh! You should give a talk on this!” Next thing you know you’re giving a talk and then someone says “you should write that up!” So you do an article, and then someone says “Okay! Where’s the book?” 

Q: What were the great struggles of writing articles, and eventually a book, about gravestones? The great joys? 

JH: One challenge is the condition of the old gravestones. Two and a half centuries of neglect, weather, acid rain, and sometimes vandalism have rendered many of them illegible. The other challenge is that for too long these epitaphs were dismissed as mere sentimental doggerel; well-intentioned professional and amateur genealogists have published many volumes of gravestone transcriptions, though they all too often (for my purposes) content themselves with just the name-and-date information, ignoring any verse further down the stone. 

These are trivial compared to the joys of identifying an obscure source text for a verse, whether in an Isaac Watts hymn or the work of a long-forgotten eighteenth-century poet. Time and again, my work has brought to life for me how the books and reading habits of these early rural Congregationalists informed their faith and helped them express their deepest feelings about life, death, and eternity on the occasion of the passing of a loved one.

Q: When you travel are you constantly taking side trips through graveyards?

JH: Yes, absolutely. My wife has grown accustomed to the squeal of breaks. Many graveyards are still right in the middle of town where they always have been. In some cases, like Monterey, Massachusetts, what used to be the center of town is now a second growth forest. The graveyard just sits there a good 25–30 yards off from what is now the road. There is no structure around it for ¾ of a mile. You can find these things on old maps. For example, in 1976, Berkshire County did a wonderful edition of all known burial grounds in the county, but it is 45–50 years old. To find some of those off the beaten path is tricky.

Q: Any projects on the horizon you’re able to talk about here? 

JH: This project is just getting started! My collection of epitaphs keeps growing and I keep discovering new sources. I am trying to understand more of the role of the carver in sourcing and suggesting appropriate verses. There is so much work to be done looking at the probate records of carvers, ministers, and individuals to see how often the books quoted in a graveyard appeared in the libraries of the townspeople.

12.17.2021

Bob Frishman

January 2022

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

Bob Frishman is known for his expertise on the subject of clock and watch repair and history. He has professionally repaired nearly 8,000 timepieces and is author of numerous articles on the subject of horology. He is currently working on two books, one focused on Edward Duffield and one on the Mulliken family of Massachusetts. Bob and his wife, Jeanne Schinto (a previous Athenæum Author whom you can read about here), live in Andover, MA. For more information about Bob, click here.

Q: Where are you from, and where do you call home now?

BOB FRISHMAN: I grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, where I’m speaking to you from. The house I grew up in is about a quarter mile away, and my elementary school is about a tenth of a mile up the street. I haven’t lived here the whole time since I was a child, but Jeanne and I came back in the 1980s and moved into Andover in the early 1990s. I made the great circle route, because I was actually born in DC, which is where I went to college at George Washington, and then worked on Capitol Hill for about a decade for different members of Congress. Then I came back up here to work for my dad’s business. 

Q: How did your interest in clocks and watches develop?

BF: I already had clock and watch repair and collecting as a hobby since 1980 when I met somebody who was into it, and then I got into it as a real serious hobby. I joke that since I worked in politics during those years, it was such a joy and relief to come home and work on a clock or a watch where you actually got something done. At the end of the day, you actually had something to show for it, unlike politics where either nothing happens or if something happens, it’s usually bad. Maybe it helped me keep my sanity.  

Q: How did you pivot your interest into a business? 

BF: When my dad’s company closed, I picked up where I left off when I left DC, where I was about to start my own antique clock repair and antique clock selling business. In the early 1990s, I segued into full time clock repair and selling, and it instantly became both gratifying and successful because there are so few people anywhere anymore who can fix antique clocks. There are tens of thousands of antique clocks still around today, many of them in New England. Within an hour’s drive of my house, there are more broken antique clocks than I could ever fix! In New England, lots of families pass them down and no one wants to get rid of them, so there’s a lot of old tickers around that people want to get fixed. It was a very successful venture. 

Q: How does your interest in horology tie into your interest in history?

BF: All along, I always loved history. That was one reason my degree was in political science and why I liked that part of politics, the historical context of it all. Right from the start, I wasn’t just the Maytag repair man. I really was deeply interested in a scholarly way in clocks and watches, or horology. So for each clock I fixed, I told the people about its history. I started building a library, which now has over 800 books about clocks and watches. And I started to write about it too, now more than 100 articles about the various aspects of horology. I have a book coming and another waiting to be written after that one. That’s why I love this: the history is so deep and there are so many important things relating to its history I can sink my teeth into. Some people picture me like the guy who fixes your dishwasher, just bent over a machine. I just lived and breathed this; if I wasn’t fixing a clock, I was reading a book about it, preparing a lecture, or something related. The subject is so broad, it really suits my temperament and personality.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s interested in learning about the craft of repairing clocks or watches? 

BF: It requires patience. Because these are 200-year-old machines. If the clockmaker from 1790 thought somebody would still be using his clock, he’d die laughing. This was an appliance. Nobody thought they were making things for posterity. They were making useful machines for the time. Nursing them back into health after 200 years is difficult and challenging and not many people can do it. The cost of impatience is really high—if I make a mistake, it’s pretty clear when I deliver a clock to someone and it stops a week later. Nothing subtle about that! That pressure can be challenging. 

Q: How did you build your knowledge of horology? 

BF: It was fate. Thanksgiving 1980, we were invited to some guy’s house, and almost didn’t go. But we went, and then almost didn’t go to his basement. But we went to his basement, and it was full of all this clock and watch stuff. Now I already liked mechanical things. I had worked on sports cars at the time, but I was ready for something mechanical that was indoor work and not so dirty and noisy and dangerous and expensive. So I met Jack, who got me started, but you have to learn, or at least practice, by yourself. There are plenty of examples of guys who never sought real training or even study, and I see their work a lot. They figure “I can fix anything,” and they basically ruin the clock because they never learned the correct way. I had Jack’s help at the beginning, and I also took a few short courses at the American Watch-Making Institute in Cincinnati that showed me the right way to do it. Then you do it, as I have, 8,000 times, and you start to actually learn the right way of doing it and pretty soon you learn the wrong way when it doesn’t work when you’re done. It’s the same kind of template I use when people ask me about learning clock repair: You have to do it yourself, but I’m happy to help you. It wasn’t a big investment in equipment but it was a huge investment in time as I slowly gained expertise. I made enough mistakes to learn how to avoid repeating them.

Q: How did you get into dealing in clocks and watches?

BF: I loved antique clocks, and after a while, like almost every collector, I had too many so I had to become a dealer, too. I couldn’t keep them all and I had to support the acquisition I kept doing. It turned out to be an excellent business model too, because I would bring my restored clocks to an antique show to sell, which was also the perfect marketing tool for my repair business. Roughly every tenth person at an antique show has a broken clock at home, so it was great targeted marketing. I couldn’t have lived just by selling, but I wasn’t relying on the selling. The selling fed my repairing and the repairing kept me going. That’s how I got well-known, and how I even got a lot of lecture gigs at places like historical societies, libraries, and museums.

Q: Do you have a favorite in your collection?

BF: It’s a tough question to answer. Having a favorite means that all 10,000 others are not my favorites. I like so many of them! On the flip side, there are certain clocks I don’t like and won’t fix. Those include cuckoo clocks. Many people were disappointed when they called me for a repair and I said I don’t fix them. They are the worst combination of cheap and complicated. Some are hundreds of years old and are wonderful, but the millions that came here with tourists who brought them back from Germany in the last fifty years stop working after a while and are either impossible or very expensive to fix. So I turn those away. I think they’re fun when you look at them, but they’re nightmares mechanically. I stay away from cuckoo clocks. 

Q: Do you still repair watches and clocks? 

BF: I’ve reduced my repairing to almost zero, because it’s challenging and I don’t need to make the money I used to need to make. Plus I have other horology projects to work on. Instead of banging my head against the workbench trying to make a two-hundred-year-old machine work, it’s much easier shooting my mouth off. The consequences are far less serious. I do occasionally take work, but I spend only about three or four hours a week at my clock-making bench. What I mostly like to work on are English tall clocks, or Grandfather clocks (even though they weren’t called that back then), from the late 1700s and early 1800s. There are a lot of those around, and I like working on those. They’re lovely to work on, and each has a history I enjoy. There are American ones that dovetail with my research on American clockmakers from the eighteenth century. I have five in my workshop right now, and one or two of them are from museums. I will offer to repair their clock for free, as well as give a lecture about the clock, its importance, and time-keeping in general. I got to take a look at their clock, and at the end, I brought them back a clock that hadn’t worked in a long, long time. And now it’s ticking away in the museum like it should be. You know that if people go into a museum and the clock’s standing there not working, they’ll think, “What else is wrong about this place?” That’s why I love the fact that the clocks at the ​Athenæum are running. 

Q: What else have you enjoyed about the ​Athenæum ? How did you join?

BF: I have a two-direction approach with these types of institutions. I want to support the Boston ​Athenæum, now as a proprietor, because it’s important to me to support institutions that are historic and local and meaningful to the history of the community. I also want to get the people at the ​Athenæum interested in horology. If the ​Athenæum even moves one percent in the direction of buying more horology books or hosting more speakers like me, that works with my mission. I don’t make any money at this, it’s missionary work for me. I just want people to get as excited about clocks and watches as I am. So, a friend had suggested we visit and attend some events. Initially it was Jeanne who began doing research there. And as often happens, I tagged along to see what was there that was clock and watch related. Specifically I worked with Catharina Slautterback on finding clocks in her print and photograph collection, and she got the bug as well. That synergy was wonderful. I was able to connect with the staff there. I love walking in the Athenæum, I love the whole aura there. Just going in and feeling like I can breathe more easily for a few hours, just browsing. It’s such a goldmine of information, undiscovered. 

Q: Touching on your writing projects, what were some of the great joys and challenges throughout your process?

BF: It always stuns me that it flows out of me in an almost-finished form. My wife used to joke about that, because I was a speech-writer on Capitol Hill. I wrote 84 speeches for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm during her final years in Congress. Before that, I’d done some writing. But somehow, when I get the subject and it spins around in my head for a while it comes out in a way that always amazes me. Sure I have to edit, but the creative process continues to astound me and gives me great pleasure. I think the research is just as exciting, especially coming to a place like the ​Athenæum. The joy is in the discovery, and then the joy of creating something out of the research is equally satisfying. God forbid, I’ve never experienced writer’s block—my problem is stopping. 

Q: What projects are on the horizon?

BF: This book that is nearing completion now, that’s been a few years in the making. It’s about the Colonial clockmaker Edward Duffield. It’s been a different process for me because it is so long compared to my previous work. This is going to be a big picture-book with pictures of as many of his clocks as I can find. Part of the book is just going to be a catalogue with all of the clocks we know of and their descriptions, but the other half is his biography. Sad part is, he left no ledgers or letters behind. He was an active citizen though. So not only do I have his clocks, which are the legacy of his clock-making work, I also have the things he was involved in as a fairly affluent, civic-minded person. What I find so interesting is that he could have done something else. He probably didn’t need to work as a clockmaker. He was born into money, and that’s part of the story. The nightmare is the book being published and a descendant landing on my doorstep with a trunk full of letters. But for every year of his life, I have something, even if it’s just how much he paid in taxes, which can tell you a lot. In my book, I’m equally interested in the man, not just the clocks. Especially because I do have a unique perspective as someone who’s also spent time bent over the workbench. 

Q: What is the next project you’re looking forward to?

BF: The next book is about the Mulliken family of clockmakers from Massachusetts. There were a number of members of that family who made clocks, and many of them are in the area. I’ve already found 200, which is a greater number than the number I found by Edward Duffield. My collaborator, Damon DiMauro at Gordon College, has uncovered primary materials about the Mullikens, which will be helpful because there’s a lot more than about Edward Duffield. The book will be published by the Concord Museum, which owns six Mulliken clocks, and it will have greater local context. There are so many great clockmakers from this area whom have not been written about to the extent they deserve, the Mullikens certainly among them.

12.10.2021

Natalie Dykstra

December 2021

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

Natalie Dykstra is a highly acclaimed biographer, author of Clover Adams and an upcoming biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, both of which have been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Until recently retiring, she taught writing and literature at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She now lives in Waltham with her husband while she continues to write. She was kind enough to tell me about her writing journey, beginning with inspiring professors and incorporating the BA along the way. For more information, visit her website, www.nataliedykstra.com

Q: When and where did you grow up? Where do you call home now?

NATALIE DYKSTRA: I grew up in Michigan and Illinois and now live with my husband in Waltham, where he owns a business. I always thought I’d live west of the Mississippi, after getting my Master’s degree in American Studies at the University of Wyoming and a PhD in American Studies at the University of Kansas. I still pine for those big western skies, especially in the winter. But the stories I wanted to tell, and the archives and libraries connected to those stories, drew me eastward. 

Q: Did any classes or teachers have a particularly strong impact on you?  

ND: Two professors come immediately to mind. Ken Bratt, my classics professor at Calvin College (now Calvin University), wove together lectures about myth and art and poetry, so that we were utterly immersed in an ancient world. Sometimes, after his lectures, I couldn’t sleep at night, with that old world shimmering in my imagination. Barry Shank, at Kansas (now at Ohio State University), taught a course on cultural theory, in a way that was completely unexpected, original. One time, when I was talking with him, I was overcome with emotion because of one of our course readings and couldn’t stop my tears, though I desperately wanted to, making all sorts of sounds to that effect. He said to me quietly: “Always pay attention to what moves your heart.” That line shifted how I saw my work and writing.

Q: What is your profession? How did you get your start?  

ND: Until last May, I was Professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where I taught for 20 years. For many of those years, my college accommodated my living eight months a year here in the Boston area. So, my writing life grew out of my teaching life.
 
Q: Please tell us a little about your book, Clover Adams. What were some of the struggles you had researching and writing your book? The great joys?

ND: A great pleasure of writing biography for me is who and what I get to think about. There were so many fascinating characters and themes in Clover’s story. Henry Adams, of course, was a complicated man, especially flawed as he got older, but also a genius and prolific writer, who penned some of the best letters of the nineteenth century. And there are innumerable others—Clover’s mother, Ellen Sturgis Hooper, a wonderful Transcendental poet; Henry James; the architect H.H. Richardson; and the Washington, D.C. socialite Elizabeth Cameron. But it was always Clover who drew me the most to my desk. It struck me as unfair that she’d been known for her marriage to a famous man and because she had died by suicide at the age of 42. She was so much more than her worst day—funny, a quick study, acerbic, creative, and often vulnerable in disguised ways that posed a challenge for anyone trying to understand her both in her own time, and now. Her death was a tragedy for Henry, and his overwhelming grief and guilt shrouded her in obscurity. But she was a gifted photographer in the years before Kodak and in her last years she recorded aspects of her life in gorgeous, sometimes heart-stopping images, which often speak to what she could not, or did not, say. Her photographs and letters are archived at the Massachusetts History Society and viewable on their website.

I missed her terribly after my book was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012. I still do. 

Q: Are there any projects on the horizon you are able to share? How are things going with Isabella Stewart Gardner? 

ND: I’ve been grateful to have an all-absorbing project to work on during the pandemic and grateful, too, to be working with my same editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which has changed names and is now Mariner, an imprint of HarperCollins.

The challenges of writing a biography of Gardner are many. She had an enormously big life, lived to 84, knew a lot of people, and was extraordinarily smart and capable. Sometimes I find myself intimidated by her, but I think she would have liked that. One had to earn her trust. She was also great fun, full of stories, self-aware (most of the time), by turns generous, demanding, mercurial. And her life became larger and larger as she got older. Her eponymous art museum was her “letter to the world,” to borrow Dickinson’s line. When it first opened to the public in 1903, she was about to turn 63 years old. That timing is part of what drew me to the story. I find the shape of her life—an early promise, terrible losses, a long quiet, and then a coming to fruition, a blooming, much past the time otherwise expected—to be immensely moving. And she lived long enough to fully realize and enjoy what she’d accomplished. That’s rare.  

There’s a line I love from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: “How I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half-sheets of notepaper. I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate works, like the shuffling of feet on pavement.” It feels important, somehow, to keep Woolf’s lines close in my imagination when writing this complex life from a past that is both eerily familiar yet also remote.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum? Do you have any particular memories from when you first visited?  

ND: I knew about the Athenæum because the people I wrote about were library members. Then, I had the thrill to give a Clover book talk in its wonderful auditorium in 2012. How much I enjoyed that day! From the start, I loved the hush of its rooms, the way the light pours in on the fifth floor.

Q: What appeals to you about the Athenæum? Have you found any hidden gems you would like to share?  

ND: First of all, I appreciate how the library handled changes during the pandemic and how it ensured access to its collections, even when the doors needed to be temporarily closed. Impressive. I love the history of the library, its location at the top of Beacon Hill so near the State House. I like to imagine all the readers over the years entering its rooms and all the writers at its tables. I did a lot of reading on nineteenth-century fashion at the Athenæum and tracked down first edition copies of some of Gardner’s favorite novels that she read as a young woman. The library has a large collection of titles about Boston published in the 1920s and 30s, and those are filled with vivid, sensory details about growing up in the city. I love to scan the shelves for the books I know I need, and in doing so, discover books I didn’t know I needed. That’s the best.

11.05.2021

David Tory

November 2021

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

Retired from his careers in the computer industry and philanthropy, David Tory has spent the last few years researching the arrival of English colonists in New England. Exploration: The Stanfield Chronicles is the result of those years of research, following the fictional Isaac Stanfield through a life of adventure in the early seventeenth century. Originally from England, for 30 years David Tory has called Essex County, Massachusetts, his home with his wife, Helen. For more information, visit his website at www.davidtoryauthor.com.

Tell me about yourself.

DAVID TORY: I was born in England, in Sheffield, Yorkshire. I was educated in England, and I entered the computer business in 1962, as a programmer. I started a software company in 1971 which I sold to a Swiss company, and we moved to Geneva in 1979. Then that Swiss company merged with an American company, which meant I moved the family to Long Island in 1980. In 1988, I was asked to run a software company in Boston, so I moved the family up to the North Shore. I ran that company for seven years before retiring in 1995.

Q: How did you get involved in philanthropy?

DT: When our two girls went off to college, my wife decided to go to college too as a mature student. She went to Bradford College in North Essex County and met two friends there who were just graduating and wanted to start a nonprofit to bring art to young kids in Lawrence. My wife joined them. I got involved a year or so later in 1995 when I retired. I was also persuaded to start helping other small nonprofits, helping them organize their boards, teaching them the business practices they didn’t understand (like business plan, projections, budgets, etc.). That resulted in me starting a community foundation, the Essex County Community Foundation, in 1998, which I left in 2011.

Q: How did your work develop into a research project?

DT: I started writing a thesis about philanthropy in New England. I had the impression from talking to lots of friends and colleagues from different parts of the country in the philanthropic industry that New England has something of a reputation for being a challenging place in which to raise money. I thought that the Puritans might have had something to do with this. “I give of myself, not of my wealth.” So I started doing research, and in the course of it, I found that there was a great deal more to the Puritan story and their arrival in New England than I had been taught or was aware of. It was actually a much more complicated and enthralling story. In fact, there were some things I found that didn’t even match the common understanding of what and how it all happened. Based on the events and people I uncovered I thought, “there’s a great story here,” but I was torn between writing a history and telling a story that incorporated the history. 

Q: And how did you make the choice between nonfiction and historical fiction?

DT: As a young boy I was introduced to the author G.A. Henty. Mr. Henty wrote at the latter part of the nineteenth century stories for boys about history, and each book of the fifty-odd he wrote was about a particular event or situation in history. In each case, the book was written from the perspective of a boy who was involved in that event. So for example, in a book about the American Civil War, he wrote about a 16 year old who joins the confederacy. I read all those books and they stuck with me. From that came my love of history. I first thought I would write a synopsis for a history course, but with Henty in mind and in talking to various people, family, obviously my wife Helen, and other friends, they said that it was really a story that needed to be told.

Q: So, given your research, what led you to The Stanfield Chronicles?

DT: Writing a work of historical fiction, in which the narrator can be an observer and participant, allowed me the freedom to imagine as well as to describe historical events and people from a particular perspective as it was happening. I also didn’t want truth to necessarily get in the way of a good story! So I had all the pieces, now how do I put them together? I created a character called Isaac Stanfield who has a friend in Dorchester, Will Whiteway, a real person born in 1597, who became an important man in Dorchester, England. More importantly, he also kept a diary. Isaac and Will were the same age, they went to school together and were lifelong friends. When Isaac Stanfield starts his adventures he writes a journal and sends the entries on a regular basis to Will for his safe-keeping and edification. The story starts in 1613, when Isaac is 16, with a fire that really happened in Dorchester. I have Isaac believing he is in some way responsible for starting it. The whole book starts at that moment. He leaves Dorchester hotfoot and goes down to Weymouth, where he gets put onto a boat, the Sweet Rose, as a cabin boy. The historical events and people reveal themselves. The political, commercial, and religious intrigue that led to the Mayflower leaving Plymouth England in 1620 is described by Isaac as it happens. Isaac has a love interest named Aby and finds himself being seduced by one or two other people along the way. It’s a coming of age story for Isaac as well.

Q: What was the most difficult part of that writing process? 

DT: Stopping the research! The research was a wonderful journey. I had never gone to university, so the idea of doing academic research was foreign to me. In the computer industry, you didn’t have time to do research because new things were happening constantly. You didn’t have time to go back, and there wasn’t much to go back to. In doing some initial research, I started at a Manchester-by-the-Sea bookstore, Manchester By the Book. It’s a secondhand bookstore, and they have a section full of books—some very old—written about the early period of exploration in New England. I started buying these books and reading them and then using the bibliography of those books to find other authors, and so on. And then going on the internet and doing some really deep research, finding all of it so fascinating. It was a major problem for me to stop the research, despite the innumerable exciting rabbit holes I went down.  The historical context was there, and I produced a calendar and filled in everything I knew happened based on the historical record. Now what I needed to do is find out how Isaac fit into all this. Writing the historical bit was pretty straightforward. But when Isaac came into it, very quickly it reached a point where I would sit down at my computer, and I would say, “Okay, Isaac, here’s the situation, tell me what happened.” And we would just spontaneously respond to the situation. However, the other problem was how to get the book published. I was a total unknown as a writer so I couldn’t get a literary agent. And you can’t get it published by a traditional publisher unless you have a literary agent. So I had to go an alternative route in order to get the book printed.

Q: What did you enjoy most about the process?

DT: The process was really trying to curtail the research, which I found absolutely fascinating. I’m 79 years old, and I thought, “this is not the time to start a career in writing.” I was doing this because I wanted to tell the story, not necessarily to become a successful author. So I wasn’t constrained in my writing by worrying about whether the subject matter and genre were commercially viable. I wanted to make sure the book had literary merit, and I had lots of people assuring me that it had. People would ask who my reader was, “who are you selling this to?” I’m not selling it to anyone. I’m writing a story that pleases me. And if it pleases other people as well, great! What I found most exciting was not knowing the human interest side of Isaac and where he was going. I had no idea at the beginning of the book how he would end up, other than he had to end up at the end somehow or other involved with the Mayflower leaving for New England in 1620. The joy was people I knew reading the book and saying “I love it.” When I do presentations, I read from the book, and I find I’m so involved in it. I love the book, and get emotional reading certain parts, even though I’ve read it I don’t know how many times. So the joy is also in the fact that it’s alive. It’s part of me, I’m a part of it. And I look forward to the next one.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum?

DT: I have a granddaughter, Rue, and she is a very interesting lady. She is very erudite, and she is a writer, an explorer of minds, and a philosopher. A quite extraordinary young lady. She became a member of the Athenæum several years ago. She’d come in on a regular basis and study and do her homework here or whatever else she was doing, and she loved it. So when I needed another source for information on specifics from the period in Boston, I asked her to introduce me to the Boston Athenæum. A few weeks ago, I came in with Rue. She introduced me and showed me around. I love it.

Q: What have you enjoyed the most during your time at the BA?

DT: I think it’s a wonderful area for contemplative research. There’s such a wealth of information here. But even if you’re not actually using the books, coming in and finding a corner somewhere and doing the research in this wonderful academic environment is absolutely a delight.

Q: In the future, what can we look forward to from you?

DT: Yes, Exploration is published, the first book in The Stanfield Chronicles trilogy, and the second book, Retribution, will not be published until next spring. Then I have the third book in the trilogy to write. The great thing now will be getting the audio version of Exploration out, which I will be narrating myself. 

10.15.2021

Hayden Sousa

October 2021

By Hannah Weisman

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Hingham High School senior Hayden Sousa, the winner of the Athenæum’s 2021 National History Day in Massachusetts prize for excellent use of primary sources. Sousa’s paper, “Communications in History: The Impact of Ted Sorensen’s Speechwriting During JFK’s Presidency,” earned him the award during the spring of his junior year. 

Sousa found himself interested in the Kennedy family after reading Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye, which spurred him to learn more. In his reading, he encountered Ted Sorensen’s name. So, when Sousa learned the 2021 History Day theme was “Communication in History,” he decided to create a project about John Kennedy’s speeches, and specifically those that Sorensen wrote for him. 

At the encouragement of his history teacher, Ms. Petrie, Sousa sought out primary sources focused not only on Kennedy and Sorensen, but also on the people who worked with and around them. Sousa found transcripts of forums that had been held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. From them, he was able to ascertain that Robert McNamara and other members of the Kennedy administration recognized that the relationship between Sorensen and the president transcended that of a typical speechwriter and politician; together “they were creating something huge.” 

In addition to mining primary sources, Sousa consulted secondary sources. When I asked Sousa if he could recommend a title to people interested in learning about the Kennedys, he was hard pressed to pick just one, but did name Grace and Power by Sally Bedell Smith and Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek. 

Ultimately, Sousa’s research led him to his argument that, “the unique relationship between JFK and Sorensen allowed them to produce speeches that compelled a younger generation and the African American population to believe in the United States and to push for progressive change.”

To present his argument, Sousa chose to write a paper. National History Day competitors create a project in one of five formats: documentary film, exhibition, paper, performance, or website. For Sousa, the choice was strategic. He had considered making a documentary film, thinking it would be helpful for the viewer to hear John Kennedy speaking. But the main focus of his project was not the way Kennedy delivered his speeches, but rather the words Sorensen wrote. He decided that writing a paper featuring quotations from speeches would help his reader focus on the text rather than the oration. 

With his project now a few months behind him, Sousa has had time to reflect on his approach to the topic and his treatment of the Kennedys in his paper: “What I’ve noticed is that I make the Kennedys, specifically JFK, seem perfect, and they really weren’t. Like everyone, they had their faults. If there was one thing I could change in the paper, I would go back and point out some of those flaws. It’s important to point out faults because history is about learning…we should be not only learners of history but also critics of history.”

Given the careful attention Sousa put into his project, from topic to research methodology to format, it is not surprising he imagines history and writing as part of his future career plans. Although he does not aspire to be a politician himself, Sousa can see himself writing for one: “Writing and reading are the best ways to get points across, get inside the human mind, communicate…To have the chance to write a speech for someone who can say something important would be really cool…I love history, politics are interesting, [and so are] government and civics…I might not want the spotlight, but [would like] to help someone else.”

As our conversation came to a close, Sousa offered a final recommendation: “Anyone who’s interested in JFK should definitely study RFK…He stuck up for what he believed in. He was willing to change his mind. Not everyone is open to that today.”

If this wise young historian is any indication, the future of our country is bright.

08.30.2021

Julie Carrick Dalton

September 2021

Interview by Carly Stevens

Julie Carrick Dalton and I chatted on a Zoom call early last month. She is a journalist and more recently a farmer and a novelist. Her new novel, Waiting for the Night Song, was published earlier this year and she is already working on her second. Our lively discussion focused on life on her farm, her family, and, of course, her writing. You can visit her website here

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, both personal and academic?

JULIE CARRICK DALTON: I grew up in Maryland and partly on a military base in Germany. I’ve moved all over the country. I’ve lived in Washington, Texas, Virginia, Delaware. We landed here in Massachusetts about 20 years ago. Now, I divide my time between Massachusetts and New Hampshire where I own a small organic farm. 

I’m a journalist. I’m not working for any publications right now, but I do still write articles. I’ve written for the Boston GlobeBusiness Week, parenting magazines, and all sorts of different publications. Now I mostly write about writing. I write for the Chicago Review of Books and Orion Magazine doing book reviews or interviews with authors. I’m new to farming. I started about ten years ago which was about the same time I started writing my first book. I built my farm from the ground up in the same year I was writing the book. They’re kind of one story to me. There were a lot of days that I was writing at night after having been working on the farm all day. A lot of the imagery and the backdrop for my story comes from the farm where I work. 

Also, I am a mom of four kids and I have two dogs. Life is pretty busy.

Q: What are you working on right now?

JCD: I’m working on another book called The Last Beekeeper. It’s coming out in early 2023 by the same publisher. It also has environmental themes.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about it?

JCD: The story is set in the near future, not a distant future. It looks very much like our world, but there is an event that hastens the collapse of our pollinators at a more rapid pace than what we’re expecting right now. The story is about the relationship between a beekeeper and his daughter, how it declines, and how they find their way back to each other as the bees are dying. It is actually a hopeful story, though—it sounds really dark when I say “the bees are dying and their relationship is breaking down!” There is a lot of hope in it in the end. It’s really about a relationship and the environmental elements are in the background of the story.

Q: Can you elaborate on how your personal life impacts your writing?

JCD: It goes back to the farm. I bought the farm kind of by accident. One hundred acres of land near our family home in New Hampshire went to market for timber development so they started clear cutting the woods. It was near the home I live in and we have bears, moose, and deer that walk into our yard all the time and they were clear cutting the forest where they live! I had this panic attack moment where I said to myself, “they’re going to tear down this forest! The moose are going to be homeless! What should I do?” A lot of people go panic shopping for shoes. I panic shopped a forest. It was in the pit of the recession and real estate was reasonably priced at the time, so we bought the land. 

Then I needed a reason to own it because I’m a writer, I’m not a farmer. I partnered up with a friend who runs an equestrian business and built a farm on the land that had already been cleared. She keeps her horses there and runs a riding program and I grow vegetables. While I was doing that, I was also writing my book. The context of the farm—like the scenery, the agricultural research and environmental research I was doing—shows up in my book. Elements of climate change show up in my story. They were all influenced by things I witnessed on my own land that I didn’t know about. I wanted to put all these ideas I was learning about in my story. 

I’m also a mom. A lot of my mom life shows up in the book. Interactions with the kids in my book and the literature the kids read were all elements of my kids. They show up in sneaky little ways in the book. There is a whole lot of me and my family life that shows up in this book. 

Q: What are the joys and challenges of putting so much of yourself into your writing?

JCD: It is funny because talking about it now I see how much of myself is in the book. When I was writing I didn’t do it intentionally. I would always take my kids out picking blueberries, so this idea of the little kids out in a rowboat picking blueberries was like the central image that started the book. But other than that little central image, the story is fiction. It’s a murder mystery so it is not based on anything that happened in real life. I promise there’s no bodies buried in my woods! I was doing things and incorporating my own childhood very subconsciously. When my mother read the book, anytime Katie, the main character, was getting into trouble or something bad was about to happen, she said to herself “no, Julie, don’t do it.” She equated Katie with me because I was writing myself. I didn’t do it on purpose. I wasn’t trying to recreate my own childhood, but I kind of did. 

There’s a young teenage girl in the story named Sal. She is my main character’s best friend’s daughter. When I was writing her character, I was writing the teenager that I wish I’d been. She is brave and outspoken. She stands up for things. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, and she doesn’t care what other people think. She is all the things I wish I’d been when I was 13. There are parts of me that show up in all of the characters in different ways. I wasn’t doing it on purpose. That is probably common with the first novel in particular because the character traits most accessible to me are my own. 

Q: Are you continuing this process with your second book, are you trying to avoid it, or how are you bringing yourself into it? 

JCD: The Last Beekeeper has a lot of me, too. The main character in my second novel is not as closely me as Katie was in the first book. There are definitely some similarities. She has a fondness for growing food, which I do. She’s very attentive to the vegetables she’s growing and the land. She is very in tune with nature. That is very much a part of me. But then, Katie is also mechanically minded. She’s a tinkerer and fixer of things. I couldn’t build myself out of a box. So there’s a lot of her that’s very different from me. I don’t feel like this character is as closely linked to me. The relationships in the story aren’t based on real relationships. There’s much more imagination on my part in this book, rather than relying on my own life. There are definitely still little flickers of me.  

Q: Can you walk me through your writing process? Did the pandemic impact your writing in any way?

JCD: I did not know what I was doing with my first novel, Waiting for the Night Song. It was the first time I tried to write a novel. It was kind of a mess. I wrote by the seat of my pants. I just sat down and wrote whatever came into my head. I could only see one page ahead of me. I didn’t know where the story was going and the result was a really messy draft. There was a lot of revision and cutting tons of work that I just threw away because I hadn’t put a lot of planning into what was going to happen. The revision process was really tough. When I was actually writing the novel, I had four young kids. So I spent a lot of time writing in stolen moments in the car waiting to pick kids up for school, the ballet waiting room, or a doctor’s office waiting room. I did not have a schedule. A lot of writers are great about structure. I’ve never had a schedule. I pieced together moments. 

The second book, The Last Beekeeper, is a different story. My kids are much older now. They’re all self-sufficient. I also understand how to plot a novel now. I outlined this book in pretty good detail. I am allowing myself room to change as I need to. If I get to a point in the outline that isn’t working anymore I will change it. But, I still know where I’m going. I know how the book is ending. I know the arcs for my characters. It’s a much more controlled way to write. I think this is how I will write in the future. It feels better to me than when I was writing Waiting for the Night Song. I kind of know what I’m doing. 

As for the pandemic, I had a very hard time writing for the first half of it. I didn’t write much at all. I finished up copy edits and some last minute details for Waiting for the Night Song last summer. In the fall I had a very, very hard time writing. I just couldn’t focus at all. I had all the time in the world and I could not write. I know that happened to a lot of writers. I don’t think that’s rare. I’m back in a really great writing groove right now, so I hope that lasts for a while. This book is due soon, so I would like it to last.

Q: What differences do you see between writing fiction and nonfiction?

JCD: Nonfiction is a really different muscle for me. When I was a journalist, I really thrived on deadlines. I got a rush out of deadlines. I could always do it. I could just find it in me to do that thing really quickly. However much time you give me is how long it’s going to take. I will take up the entire amount of time. 

Book projects are long and big projects. I have a harder time with deadlines. It’s not that I don’t meet them. It’s just that I have a harder time breaking a big project down into small tasks. With an article, I could do the research and get the notes. It’s a defined small piece of writing and it felt very controlled, whereas a novel is a really unwieldy beast. Some authors write very chronologically. They start at chapter one and they write through to the end. Both of my books have alternating timelines so I tend to be all over the place. I’ll write a chapter from the childhood timeline and then I’ll write a chapter in the middle of the book from the adult timeline based on what part of the story I need to tell. That makes for a really complicated mess in my head when I’m trying to think about it as a whole project. I’m working on getting better at that. I’m still developing the skills at managing my time as a novelist whereas I totally had it down as a journalist. I’m still working on the novelist part.

Q: Are you a big reader?

JCD: Yes, yes. 

Q: Have you always been a big reader?

JCD: Yes, I was that kid that would go to the library and check out 20 books and couldn’t see over the top of the stack. I’ve always been a reader. There’s a subplot in Waiting for the Night Song about these two young girls in a boat who see a boy appear on a pier. They make up the story about this mysterious boy in their head. They start delivering books to him in secret. It’s the only communication they have with this boy. The list of books I chose were my favorite books from when I was a kid. They’re all the books that formed me as a reader and made me love literature. It was actually really hard to narrow down which books to include. 

Q: What were the titles you included?

JCD: Swiss Family RobinsonRobinson CrusoeThe OutsidersAre You There God? It’s Me Margaret, and Pippi Longstocking. Oh, and The Dark is Rising was one of my favorite books as a kid. These were the books that got me really excited as a reader. It becomes like a form of communication between the kids. That all came out of my passion for reading as a child.

Q: What do you hope readers will get from your book? 

JCD: Primarily, I hope readers enjoy it as a story. That it’s a good story. That it’s compelling and it makes you want to keep reading. I hope they empathize with the characters and want to keep turning pages to see what happens. Beyond that, there are environmental themes in my story and I didn’t write them in there intentionally necessarily. They are things that matter to me. 

It’s not a book about climate change. It’s a book about the relationship between two friends whose relationship is torn apart because of a traumatic childhood incident. Waiting for the Night Song is about them finding their way back to each other. It’s really a story about a fierce friendship, secrets, and redemption. However, there are things in the book that might change somebody’s mind about some small things, if they open their mind to it. Primarily, I want people to enjoy it for being a really good story. 

Q: Can you tell me about some of your favorite books? I know it’s a tough question so you can list as many as you want. 

JCD: How much time do you have? Haha. I would say right now my current obsession is the author Charlotte McConaghy. She’s an Australian author. In 2020, her first novel, Migrations, came out. It was a huge international bestseller. Benedict Cumberbatch is making a movie out of it soon! It’s brilliant and so beautifully written. The language in the story is so tender and lovely. It’s also a story that deals with climate. She has another book that came out more recently called Once There Were Wolves. It’s about the rewilding of wolves in the Scottish Highlands after they’ve been eradicated and hunted out of existence. They’re both really about our relationship with this planet that we share with other creatures and what our responsibilities are. I love The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. That is a classic. I also loved Richard Powers’s The Overstory which came out a few years ago. The Kindest Lie which came out this year. It is a debut novel by Nancy Johnson who happens to be one of my best friends. I’m a little bit biased, but it’s a really fantastic story about race and class right at the dawn of the Obama administration. She was writing this book for years and it came out right as our country was having a racial reckoning. It’s the perfect book to read right now. My final recommendation is The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner. It’s set in eighteenth-century London and focuses on a female apothecary who brews up concoctions to kill off men who are harming women. It’s so good! Lots of good books!

Q: What are you reading right now?

JCD: I just started a book called Appleseed by Matt Bell. Another book I just finished a few days ago that I loved is What Strange Paradise by Omar El-Akkad. I loved it. It is a story about a boat of Syrian immigrants that capsized and a young boy who washes up on the shores of this island and he doesn’t speak the language. It is really a story about the moment we live in. Everyone should read it.

Waiting for the Night Song is currently on sale for $2.99 on all major platforms this week. It’s usually $13.99 for the ebook and $26.99 for hardcover. The sale ends Sept 5.

07.29.2021

Joel Farrell

August 2021

Interview by Carly Stevens

Author Joel Farrell and I sat down to talk about some of his recent and upcoming projects. Mr. Farrell had a career in computer science before retiring and shifting his focus to historical research and writing. He’s published Venice’s Finest Hour and The Radical Greek Idea. His next project, still in the beginning stages, focuses on the antebellum migration of New Englanders to Kansas. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Q: Can you tell me about your background, both personal and academic?

JOEL FARRELL: I grew up in Kansas where I went to Kansas State University. I got my bachelors in computer science, but I started as a history major. I was torn between science and history. I decided to go the scientific route and have history be my avocation. Now that I’m retired I’ve switched it around. After graduating, I moved to upstate New York to work and then I transferred to Cambridge. In between there I got a masters in computer science. I’ve been living here in the Boston area since ‘96. This is a home base for us.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum?

JF: Some people told me about it. When I first looked into membership, the way to join was rather involved. You had to know somebody to write a recommendation. I thought about it for a while, then I went to the Boston Book Festival where the Athenæum had a table with materials. Then, I went to one of their exhibits and I just decided to join. I have not regretted it.

Q: What books have you written and what are you currently working on?

JF: My first book was called Venice’s Finest Hour. The book grew out of my interest in Venice. I wondered how you could have this small city that was a world power for hundreds of years. I was fascinated. My book is about a pivotal episode in its history in the fourteenth century when Venice almost lost its power and would have never been heard of again. From there, it became the great empire and cultural center we think of today. There were a lot of materials here in the Athenæum that I used. 

The second book I wrote came from a long time interest of mine: ancient Greece. The Radical Greek Idea is a story of the birth of democracy but with a focus on how it developed, how it worked, and how it worked under pressure. I looked at how the first experiment in direct democracy could actually succeed in a place that had to fight big wars and manage an empire. It’s hard to imagine. 

I’m currently working on a third book which is about a completely different topic. It turns out that before the Civil War the admission of the territory of Kansas as either a free or slave state was an enormous issue. It dominated the national press and congressional debates. A group here in Boston organized an immigration system to bring New Englanders to settle in Kansas so they could vote on a constitution and legislature to make Kansas a free state. Many people in Kansas can trace their roots to New England and Boston in particular. There is this great connection between that story and how Kansas was founded and the principals it was founded upon. It’s interesting that the Athenæum has books by principal characters in the story and some donated by those same people.

Q: How did you transition from writing a book about Venice in the Middle Ages to one on democracy in Ancient Athens? How do you transition to these new ideas? How do you come up with ideas? 

JF: When I first started thinking seriously about doing historical writing I was very interested in the research and writing aspect. I looked at a lot of different possibilities and for the first book I wanted a fairly narrow topic. I knew about this episode in Venetian history, the Chioggia War, from other reading that I’d done, which was a really good way for me to dive in. I knew that primary sources I could read would be a big problem. I did find things and I got some translations and I relied on some other people’s translations but it was very difficult. 

Like I said, I have a great interest in ancient Greece and ancient history in general, so I started to look around for what sources were out there. I found that there are so many resources that could really help me. The idea of democracy in Greece came to my mind because of a reading I’d done about the time there was a big problem. My idea was originally a little different for the book, but you have to keep an open mind when you’re doing research. I changed my course part way through. 

Q: What do you hope readers will get from your book?

JF: I’ve always agreed with “history is philosophy teaching by example.” I wouldn’t call what I’m doing philosophical history, but I hope people gain a greater perspective. With Venice’s Finest Hour, I’d like people to discover what Venice really was and maybe ask some questions about how all of Venice could come to be. Most people see Venice as this tourist’s vacation playground. 

With The Radical Greek Idea, it’s easier to get a perspective on what is happening now and our political processes and our democracy if you can step away and look at it through a different lens. Everyone was involved. There were no representatives. There was no president. It was just “we all decide everything.” Being separated from all our current issues and ideologies I think could really help people to see things a little more clearly and see what is really important. 

Q: What aspects of our collection did you use in your research?

JF: The collection of historical works on Venice here is very deep. There is also a collection of state papers between the Republic of Venice and England and that throws a lot of light on what was going on at the time. It was a really excellent primary source. Other than that, the Athenæum doesn’t have a lot of primary sources on Venice but there are a few. 

For Greek history, I think the Athenæum’s collection reflects the interests and standards of an educated and cultured person at the time of the early days of the Athenæum. There is an enormous classics collection. I was able to find everything I wanted as far as primary sources in both English and Greek. That was an excellent resource and a big help to me. For all of my research, the access to JSTOR I get through the membership has been invaluable.

Q: Can you talk about your writing process? Does it vary from book to book or topic to topic? Has the pandemic affected the process? 

JF: My first book was before the pandemic, but I generally try to get an idea of what I want to work on and then I do a lot of general reading. Once I’ve gotten to a certain point then I start narrowing in. I do deep research and I keep a lot of notes. I go through and organize those notes a lot so when I’ve completed the main research phase, of course you always have to go back and do more later, I‘ve got it to where it almost writes itself. My writing doesn’t take long at all. Since I don’t work in computer science anymore I’ve got time. The pandemic came right as I published my second book last spring/summer. I started doing my early reading for my next project. I didn’t have much else to do. I had less distraction. It didn’t affect me as much as other people. 

Q: What parts of the writing and research process do you like? And what parts do you dislike?

JF: The research phase, in some ways, is my favorite part. I get to do things I enjoy like learning. The initial writing is probably the thing I enjoy the second most. It tends to flow pretty fast because of the amount of preparation I’ve done. Then comes revisions and the editorial process, which is not as fun. I push to get it done. I mean it’s important. I want a high quality deliverable, but it’s not quite as stimulating. 

Q: Do you have a favorite study spot in the Athenæum?

JF: If there is nobody there, I like the third floor. If there is, I’m usually on the second floor. I find there is too much competition for the fifth floor and it is too far away from the places that I have to go, like the drum. When I come for relaxation or just to find books for my own pleasure I’ll often sit down in the art reading room. In some of the newsletters and such, people talk about how this is an undiscovered place, and I say “well, stop talking about it!” 

Q: What are some of your favorite books? I know it’s a tough question so you can name as many as you like. 

JF: My favorite set of novels is the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. The language is mesmerizing and the images are just amazing. Unfortunately, he didn’t do a lot more than that. One of my favorite history books is John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice. I find that his prose style for describing history, places, or any of the other things he has written about is remarkable. When I retired, a friend of mine and I took on a big reading project to read Proust. A lot of people abandon that about halfway through the first volume, but I actually liked it. I got to like it more and more. I now rank that as one of my favorites. 

Q: What are you reading right now?

JF: Of course, I’m still reading a bunch of books from the 1850s and 60s about territorial Kansas. I just finished Mary Beard’s The Parthenon. Amazingly, she was a presenter here at the Athenæum a few years ago. I’m now reading Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland, which is a science book. 

07.02.2021

Jeanne Schinto

July 2021

Interview by Jackie Bateman

Jeanne Schinto has been an independent writer since 1973. She is the author of several books, including Huddle Fever: Living in the Immigrant City (Knopf, 1995), a memoir of the ten years she lived in the old textile-mill city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. She has also published articles on art, history, and the material culture in a variety of publications, including Maine Antique DigestFine Art ConnoisseurThe Atlantic MonthlyGastronomicaJohns Hopkins Magazine, and DoubleTake Magazine. Her essays and reviews have appeared in numerous other places: The Washington PostThe Boston GlobeThe New York TimesThe Christian Science MonitorBoston MagazineThe Women’s Review of BooksYankee Magazine, and The Nation. Her creative nonfiction has been in The Yale ReviewThe Virginia Quarterly ReviewShenandoahThe Antioch ReviewMichigan Quarterly Review, and many other literary periodicals. Ms. Schinto is currently working on a history of the nineteenth-century Christian missionary movement that originated in part with the theologians, Bible scholars, preachers, teachers, translators, printers, and ordinary townspeople of Andover, Massachusetts, where she lives today with her husband, horologist Bob Frishman. Its working title is The Missionary Factory.

Q. Were you always an avid reader? 

JEANNE SCHINTO: Yes, certainly. Growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut, I remember distinctly getting my library card and signing my name, which was a big deal, and I was very happy. I remember that, like kids sometimes do, I wanted to check out the same book over and over again. One was Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats. That was a phase that passed. I just read all the time.

Q: I figured from the breadth of your work you would be a big reader. 

JS: Well, as a freelancer I didn’t really have a beat until I started writing for Maine Antique Digest, which I did for 17 years. I am really happy I have been able to pursue and learn so much about so many different topics.

Q: Speaking of your writing, can you take us through your process and how you go about finding these new topics?

JS: I’m constantly realizing there are article and book ideas all around me—stories. Everything I’ve ever written has been a story—even the auction reporting I did for M.A.D. So, anyway, you get the idea and you’re all excited, and hopefully you find an editor who is excited about it, too. But then the honeymoon is over, because now you have to do the work. Often it’s a slog. But it helps to break it down into small tasks. And then there’s publication. That’s hard, because then it’s a little island out there and you can’t get to it and fiddle with it anymore. Then people read it, and they always find strange things in it that you never expected. Then the process starts over again.

Q: Can you tell me more about your current project, The Missionary Factory?

JS: Well, I wanted to write about my own town, Andover, finally. So I started to look into it. Initially, I thought I would write about the history of printing there, because it is fascinating. But then I discovered that the printers themselves were dull. Luckily, what they printed was interesting. What they printed was often religious, which sounds dull, but when I got into the missionary stuff, I found a great cast of characters. The project does seem like a giant mountain I have to climb, and sometimes I wonder if I will ever get over the top, but every day I learn new and interesting things, so I am distracted from the immensity of it, and I’m just enjoying it. 

Q: You’ve found information here?

JS: Oh, constantly. Today I came across some lists of contributors to the missionary cause. They were listed town by town. So I could see exactly what specific people in Andover had donated, and it just made it so real. I am very interested in how the missions affected life at home in Andover. It’s a global story, because of the foreign missions’ locations, but it’s a very local story, too.

Q: How long have you been an Athenæum member? 

JS: I think my first visit was in 2008. I was working on a piece about the Walpole Society, a very private and exclusive club for men devoted to collecting American furniture and decorative arts. A couple of the members once lived on Beacon Hill, and when they died, their widows gave their papers and some runs of the club’s privately published journal to the Athenæum. So, I researched part of that here, and when it came out, the Walpoleans read it and actually liked it! Much to my surprise, they liked it so much they reprinted it in that privately published journal of theirs, which traditionally only has articles by their own members in it. So, I thought maybe I’ll write a bit more about them, and came back to do more of that research here. But when did we actually join the library? My husband and I were staying in a little shack on Cape Cod and it poured rain for days and we were just lying around reading and looking things up on the Internet. It was at some point during that week when we thought, Why don’t we join the Athenæum? It’s crazy just to be guests. I think we did it right from there in our sleeping bags. That may have been in the fall of 2013. 

Q: Do you write here as well, or just do research?

JS: I can’t write here. There are just too many distractions on the shelves. I don’t think I’ve ever written one word anywhere but my own study. 

Q: That’s interesting. It seems to me that many members have “their” place they routinely use when they visit, but it sounds like you drift, based on your needs.

JS: Yes, I come in with my little list of books, and I’m getting better at finding them myself rather than asking Jimmy or Arnold to find them for me. One time I was with the wonderful reference librarian, Elizabeth, in the drum, and I dropped a couple of them down into the open slot in the floor. They went down, down, down, several stories, and I was, like, Oh my God! But we managed to find them.

Q: You are not the first and you will not be the last! Don’t worry. Any final thoughts? 

JS: Elizabeth, Carolle, Mary—they’re all wonderful. And that’s, of course, part of the Athenæum’s great appeal. The staff—and the collection. So often I think that you’re not going to have what I’m looking for—it’s too old, too obscure—and then you have it, over and over again.

04.22.2021

Susan Barba

June 2021

Interview by Carolle Morini

Susan Barba is the author of two poetry books: Fair Sun (2017) and geode (2020). Her first book was awarded the Anahid Literary Prize and the Minas & Kohar Tölölyan Prize, and geode was a finalist for the New England Book Awards. She has received fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo, and her poems have been translated into Armenian, German, and Romanian. She works as a senior editor for the New York Review of Books. Barba’s literary guide to American wildflowers will be published by Abrams Books in the fall of 2022. We conducted this interview over email.
 
Q: How have you been doing this past year?  Has your writing shifted with the shutdowns? 

SUSAN BARBA: It’s been a challenge of course, but I’ve found new paths, new ways of doing things. I usually write when I’m away from home, somewhere, anywhere alone. This past year, out of necessity I’ve learned how to write in the midst of—work, family, remote schooling. I would have thought it impossible in the past, and at first it seemed that way to me—but because there was no alternative, I either had to figure out how to write in the midst of it or I wasn’t going to write at all—it wasn’t a conscious decision, I just found a way. It’s been a revelation for me.

Q: Good for you (and for us) for finding a way to continue writing. Do you remember when you first learned about poetry? 

SB: Yes, it was with me from the beginning—my mother read nursery rhymes to me and my grandfather would recite Armenian poetry by heart. The lullabies that were sung to me, the psalms and hymns I heard and sung in church, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson: these were some of my earliest encounters with poetry.

Q: Poetry really was with you from the beginning—it is a part of you. What is it about poetry that draws you to the form? 

SB: The silences, the music, the aptness of metaphor, the compression and the expansion of language, the urgency of the occasion, all of which allow poetry to communicate the essential, that which ordinary language can’t communicate.

Q: I agree with your thoughts. I can imagine that being an editor, a poet, and a writer has many benefits and maybe some inherent difficulties. Would you like to speak about each? 

SB: Yes, all the reading—it’s a strain on the eyes! I just saw the eye doctor and had to get stronger prescription reading glasses because my eyesight is deteriorating. But in all seriousness, being an editor and reading for work does help my own writing because of the depth and breadth of the reading, the engagement with language that editing requires, the attention to what will make the writing the most efficacious and most memorable. I heard a wonderful reading by the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, who is also an editor-poet, and who said, “I am so tired from all my work, I am like an athlete who is constantly working out: I am in tip-top shape from all this reading I do!” He referred to us poet-editors, as “Atlases who create.” A terrific image.

Q: Oh, that is a wonderful image! All your reading must be immensely fruitful. Keep the stronger reading glasses on order. What is the best and/or worse writing advice you received?

SB: It was probably one and the same—the professor who warned us creative writing kids in college that we should only set out to be poets if we truly could not imagine living otherwise. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant, and I thought of it as discouragement, but now I understand. It means that you will write if you have to, if that kind of excavation of the self and of sense is necessary to you, and if it is, then you should heed it and do what’s hard. 

Barba's Fair Sun from 2017

Barba’s Fair Sun from 2017.

Q: That truly does make sense—it is a fair warning and unveils the hard truth of the work one must do. Are there particular writers you admire or return to? 

SB: Yes, many poets and many prose writers too. I especially love essays by poets, artists, science writers. To name more than a few of those writers: Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Hannah Arendt, Osip Mandelstam, WH Auden, Eghishe Charents, Anna Akhmatova, George Oppen, Joseph Brodsky, Svetlana Boym, Natalia Ginzburg, Elizabeth Hardwick, Agnes Martin (her writings on art), Tove Jansson, Robin Wall-Kimmerer, Annie Dillard, Arthur Sze—I could go on and on! 

Q: What a fun list of writers and artists. Is there a line of poetry that you wish you wrote, or rather, repeats in your mind? 

SB: This past year whenever I’d go out walking, these lines by the mystic Julian of Norwich kept running in my head: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It’s a mantra whose repetition was healing for me, especially last spring, as I’m sure it has been for many since the fifteenth century when she wrote what was the first book (in English) by a female author.

Q: Those lines are fantastic and so relevant for any time, but especially for us this past year. I am sure Julian of Norwich had good reason to write them in the fifteenth century. Any particular journals or periodicals you enjoy reading—besides the New York Review of Books?

SB: Yes, the Review certainly! And also, The Paris ReviewThe Hudson ReviewRaritanLana Turner Journal, the New Yorker intermittently (I just can’t keep up with every issue), and Appalachia Journal.

Barba's geode from 2020.

Barba’s geode from 2020.

Q: The reading piles grow and grow—books, journals, online journals and articles…it never ends, for better or worse. What are you currently reading?  

SB: I just finished Anne Truitt’s Daybook, which is a journal of her life as an artist. It’s a brilliant book about making art and making a life concurrently.

Q: That sounds good to me. As we head into spring and then summer, do you have a summer reading list? 

SB: I have readings lists—lists for work and lists for pleasure. On the latter are The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste whom I just heard give a beautiful reading, David Copperfield (to read with my son), Inger Christensen’s essays in The Condition of Secrecy, the graphic novel This Woman’s Work by Julie Delporte, and In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova.

Q: What a great list! Mengiste’s book is on my list too, but now I have more to add. Any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?

SB: I’ve been compiling a literary guide to American wildflowers, which Leanne Shapton is illustrating and which will be published by Abrams Books in the fall of 2022. It’s been a great joy, learning about wildflowers and selecting texts about them that represent a long-held appreciation of these at-once threatened and resilient flowers and their representation in our culture. I’m also excited about a book I acquired for NYRB that will be out in the spring of 2022, Letters to Gwen John by the British painter Celia Paul (whose beautiful Self-Portrait we published last fall). 

Q: I look forward to the American wildflowers book and the Celia Paul book sounds wonderful. Self-Portrait is indeed a beautiful book! How did you learn about the Athenæum

SB: Through David Godine, a brilliant friend, bibliophile, and member of the Athenæum.

Q: Godine publishes great books. Any last thoughts? 

SB: Thank you Carolle, it’s been a pleasure! Long live the Athenæum.