Interview by Rebecca Johnston
On a chilly day in January, I joined Maisie Houghton over Zoom for a warm and illuminating conversation about her book Pitch Uncertain, finding one's voice in writing, and life in quarantine. A graduate of Radcliffe College, Houghton published her memoir in 2011 and currently has begun working on poetry, with several poems published in a variety of journals. Because of her fond memories of visiting the Athenæum as a child, Houghton renewed her membership when she moved back to Boston with her husband, served on the Board of Trustees, and has since become a trustee emerita.
Please tell us a little about Pitch Uncertain.
MAISIE HOUGHTON: People say to me, “Oh, I read your autobiography!” Which is so silly. It’s not an autobiography. It’s the story of growing up. Fifteen years out of my early life and my childhood, growing up in Cambridge right after World War Two had ended. There’s a chapter where I describe meeting and marrying my husband fresh out of Radcliffe—you know, I swore I’d never be a June bride, and there I was married—and that’s where the story ends. It’s always fascinating to me to think that’s 15 years—yes that’s a chunk of time, but it’s not amazingly long. But when you think of a child growing from age five to age 20, that is a big span of growing up and learning and discovering the world around you.
Q: How did you go about writing this story about your own life?
MH: I told this story because I had been working on another book, a biography of the American actress Ruth Draper who was the premier monologist on the American stage; she had great success and she was knighted in England. I knew Draper when she was in her early 70s and I was about ten or 12, as we went to the same summer community on an island in Maine. Much, much later in life I became fascinated with her and wanted to write a biography of her—and I did. Start to finish. Had an agent, showed it to publishers. Of course, no one wanted to publish it. They said, “You’re unknown, she’s unknown.” Which I disagreed with, because people in the theater world highly respect Ruth Draper. But one editor did say to me, “What does interest me in the manuscript is the story of Maine and your sisters and you, three little girls growing up together in the summers in Maine, and that’s where we meet Ruth Draper. You should write something about that—but of course you probably don’t want to do that because you’re so set on this biography of Ruth Draper.”
So I came home, and I was irritated, and I thought, “Damn it, I’m going to just write this story.” I had been taking a memoir class in New York City, which was built for people over 50 who don’t consider themselves writers. Which was me, really. And so I wrote! I put together some sketches, and then I began to piece them together as [the teacher] said, “Put them together like pieces of a fan.” The book isn't, “I was born and then I went to kindergarten and then first grade,” I don’t do it that way. It’s just what stood out to me, 50 years later, about my childhood.
This took a long time to find the right publisher. Everybody said “You should just self-publish it,” but I was determined not to do that. Then I met Jock Herron, who has this esteemed and wonderful small publishing firm in Cambridge called TidePool Press. I love the name, which they said is because, “you never know what comes up in the wash.” They’re interested in doing, what is the word, “small"—not War and Peace length books—but also and particularly about people’s lives. I met Jock because my son was a friend of his. He said, “My mother has this manuscript,” and Jock tells the story that his heart sank because he thought everybody has a story but not everybody has a book. Thankfully for me, he did publish it, and now it’s been ten years that it’s been out. Everybody can remember different parts of their childhood—and even though mine was extremely sheltered and certainly white privileged, it would seem to exclude whole other stories of lives—I think anyone can identify with stories and anxieties, the learning experiences of growing up.
Q: What are you going to write next? Do you have any upcoming projects?
MH: The book came out, and everybody said, “Well, now what are you going to write?” And I thought, well, now I’m going to do the Great American Novel. And...that’s too much, too hard, I decided.
So, I had a friend who was taking a poetry class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and she showed me some of her poems. I liked the idea that I could write in—as Robert Frost said, “Free verse is playing tennis with the net down.” And so I began! I joined the group in Cambridge. A group leader encouraged the class to send in poems and said it’s important that you show your work, that you send it for publication, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t care about that, I’ve published a book, I’m just doing this for myself.” But some poems were submitted, and they began to be published. It’s not that I sit down everyday and work on poems, it’s much more of when the mood hits me. My poems are really just about my life and circumstances, and not even really so much lockdown poems. It’s more about family life. And now in the pandemic, my husband and I live in an apartment in Boston, and it’s a very quiet life. Totally different. We moved back here about ten years ago. For me, growing up in the 40s and 50s in Cambridge was a very different experience than Boston. Boston was not the lively, vibrant city that it is now. It was much more the last, sad gasp of the WASP and the literary WASP community. And my parents hadn’t grown up here, they were all from New York, and we never—I think we came to the dentist in Boston and that was about it. Now it’s been fun to discover a much livelier Boston.
Q: Speaking of the pandemic—what have you found inspirational in this time? Have you written more? What have you been spending your time doing?
MH: When the lockdown in Boston first began, the New York Times to which I subscribe said, “Everybody must write in how you’re spending your time, and what’s changed in your life.” There was one little letter that I cut out, because I like to make collage and I was making a pandemic collage, and it said in tiny print, “My wife and I are in our 80s, and we never go out anyway, so not much has changed.” That's kind of the way my life is. But I’m extremely spoiled in that I have two kids, and my son lives in Beacon Hill, he and his wife and his daughters. So that gives me much more of a feeling of not being cut off from regular life.
Q: How else are you occupying your time in quarantine?
MH: The thing is I’m a tremendous reader. And you know it’s wonderful to have lots of time to read. When the pandemic started, I read the third or the fourth volume of the Hilary Mantel series. And now I’m also in a reading group, and the sort of subgroup of the reading group, we just have started, we’re attempting Joyce’s Ulysses. We have a very gifted teacher who is a scholar of Joyce. In addition to the published version, he has recommended the annotated Ulysses, which was done by a very brilliant professor many years ago at Williams, and so I have the two books side by side when I'm reading so that I can look up.
Q: Speaking of books, how did you discover the Athenæum? And what do you enjoy about it?
MH: Though I said earlier we never went to Boston, we did go to the Athenæum. My mother was a friend of Walter Muir Whitehill. The Athenæum was always very welcoming, it seemed to me, to children. In the summer, because we would have these long summer vacations, we would be in Maine, and we were given summer reading lists from our school. These wonderful packages would arrive from the Athenæum, I can still see them wrapped up in brown paper.
When I moved back here to be near our son and his band of young daughters, I was getting settled and I thought, what will I do this afternoon? And I realized I could walk up to the Athenæum because I live in Back Bay, and it’s a lovely walk up the hill. And so I became a member.
Then I was on the board for a brief time. As interesting as that was, I realized I am not really suited to board life. So I am not on the board any longer, but I've always had a strong interest in the Athenæum, and your new director is someone my husband and I met through Harvard connections. We were very happy to hear that she had been chosen as the new director. Obviously the Athenæum is such a beautiful building and it has wonderful collections of books, but I know they're looking to get away from the old-guard Boston.
The Athenæum is my lending library. There are many, many outlets for scholars here. It's a great resource for the general reading public. I used to take my grandchildren to the reading on Saturday mornings.
Right now, they’re doing a children's story time on Facebook Live.
MH: Yes, they realize how important it is for kids. I remember there was a small branch of the Cambridge Public Library quite near where I lived. And the fun of being able to walk by one’s self, have your own library card, it was always a big part of my reading life.
Q: What books were you reading as a child?
MH: Well, certainly, Little Women. My oldest sister and I were utterly fascinated by that. It was a great treat, we would be driven to Concord to visit the actual house. It meant a great deal. And, of course, which character do you model yourself on or do you most identify with? One of the characters is named Amy, and now in reading biographies of Louisa May Alcott, I realized that she changed her mother's maiden name. In actual life, Mrs. Alcott was from the May family, and that “Amy” was changing that name slightly.
There were a lot of family stories too, you know. There was a series about a family called the Moffats, and there was another wonderful series about the Melendy family, “The Four Story Mistake.” And I was reading, you know, as an adult, children's literature and how often—in fact, practically always—that the parents are absent, maybe one parent or sometimes both—preferably both—are dead, and they're raised by some great uncle. There was an English series about theater called “Theater Shoes” or “Ballet Shoes” about a family of English children, brought up by a great uncle, but they had a devoted governess. And then there was E. Nesbitt, who had another family with either two children or four children, but it always seemed to be a prerequisite that the parents were nonexistent, or they’d gone on a long trek.
Q: Let's go back to your book, because I was struck by how it’s such a personal story. Was it challenging to write?
MH: When the book was part of TidePool and either just published or about to be published, Jock Herron said, “It's a book about your parents.” I was taken aback by that because I thought that it was me, me, me, I, I, I. Then I realized he was right. When the book was published, both my parents were dead. And so unconsciously, I was able to publish it. Because, as my older sister said to me when I was telling her this story, and I asked, “Do you think our parents would be upset by this book?”, she said, “Are you kidding? They’d be horrified.” They were of that very discreet, private generation. But I'm very frank about the fact that it wasn't a happy marriage but they stuck together.
But as far as writing the book, I mean I don't really talk about my sisters much, it's much more me. And then the experience with Ruth Draper. I think there was only one family that I changed the name of, just to very thinly disguise. But it's my world. The people that appear in the story, mostly my family relations, were all dead by the time the book came out, so that did make it much easier. I have two sisters, one sadly died, but my oldest sister said right from the start, “I see things differently, but I support you,” and she was extremely helpful in lending family photographs and correcting technical mistakes. She never said, “You can’t tell this story.”
That's such good support. And that was a really cool part of the book too, the pictures from throughout your childhood.
MH: I never thought about having pictures because I didn't even know the book would ever see the light of day. But when it was picked up by TidePool, Jock had a very sympathetic and able colleague who helped put together the actual presentation of the book and she asked right away, did I have any photographs? Fortunately, I come from a family that took lots of the box brownie type photographs. So there were pages she could sift through, and my sister lent me at least five or six photograph albums. Then Ingrid Mach went through them all. It was interesting because she chose with an eye to the story—not like, this is a nice picture of Uncle Edwin, or this shows my mother looking pretty or something. It was much more to identify parts of, or to relate parts of, the story.
It brings to mind what you said earlier about it being a very relatable story. That's certainly what I felt in reading it, and the fact that the pictures are just of everyday life fits that.
MH: Right, right. That was Ingrid, the credit goes to her.
Q: One final question, because we like to ask about education too: do you have any favorite takeaways or favorite lessons from those classes you mentioned earlier?
MH: Before I started thinking about writing a biography of Ruth Draper, my husband was in a terrible automobile accident. It was never a question of life and death, but it was a long recovery. He spent a lot of time in hospitals for special surgery and lots of rehab. Anyway, that was a chunk of our lives, and when he began to be fine and go back to work, I suddenly thought, “I don't want to go back to the life that I had before, this is a clean slate now." And then I found out about this class at the West Side Y, which was in my neighborhood in New York. The teacher was very adept. She would give the assignment: write about a radio you remember from your childhood, or write about whether your family had a car…you know, specific things—and that would prompt all these memories that began to flood out of me! The first assignment was to write about a car that had associations with your childhood, and I wrote, “my father was the car.” And now that line is in the memoir today. That class was a wonderful bedrock. The teacher was very gifted and she gave us all—certainly gave me—confidence, by saying, “Yes, you can write.” And she didn’t say, “This is how you do it,” she respected each person's voice.