The creative whirl: Authors awed by their muses
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Last Sunday, August 12, a sextet of authors, with bundles of their new books, sat side by side at Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven during the Celebrate the Arts stroll. Some of them were clearly astonished by the sudden attention their recent and debut work has created.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault has danced this dance before. A well-known personality nationally and on the Island where she maintains a residence, her persona and her new book, "To The Mountaintop," drew fans and friends immediately.
While Ann Napolitano has been published once before, London barrister M.L. Stedman, Boston investment banker Amor Towles, Massachusetts native Maryanne O'Hara, and writer James Sullivan were taking their first bites of the book publishing apple. And it's tasty.
Each of them seemed startled at the power of their muses. And the thread of their conversations with The Times tells us that while writing demands work, it also requires an ability to respect creative intuition, aka The Muse, and that we all have it in some form or other. The authors we spoke with don't show up as unapproachable geniuses but more like people you'd want to have a cup of coffee with.
"I'm a little stunned," Ms. Stedman said on Sunday. "Right now I'm trying to figure out which way is up and make sure I put my shoes on the right foot. This is the kind of thing I've seen happening to people but here it is happening to me," she added before a crop of new fans descended on her place at a round table she shared with Ms. Hunter-Gault and Mr. Towles.
No wonder. Turns out her novel, "The Light Between Oceans," shot to number seven on The New York Times Bestseller list within a week of its U.S. release last month, following similar reception earlier this year in her native Australia and in Europe. The story of a childless couple and a foundling in a post-World War I Australian outpost also got the Oprah kiss of approval.
Publisher Random House has organized a full-blown U.S. author's tour winding from California to Toronto. Ms. Stedman is not your average author/huckster type. Her book jacket contains a one-paragraph bio and no picture. Nor will you find one here as she politely demurred a photo op.
"It's lovely to meet the people, the readers," she said. "We don't do it like this at home. Readers ask extraordinary questions. Things I've never thought about."
Ms. Napolitano nodded assent and explained how a whimsical muse entered her head six years ago as she struggled to write her new novel, "A Good Hard Look."
"I remember the moment clearly," the New Jersey native said. "My husband was talking to me about the book and my eyes were drawn to a copy of [author] Flannery O'Connor's letters in the bookcase behind him.
"I remember thinking, 'Flannery should be in this book.' There was no reason for thinking that. There really isn't a lot of writing by New Jersey authors about Southern literary icons," she said and smiled, adding, "but it was clear to me."
Now, six years later, Ms. O'Connor is a fictional character in "A Good Hard Look," a title which comes from Ms. O'Connor's work, Ms. Napolitano said.
Evidently the muse was right. The book was selected as a best new book in August by The New York Times Bestseller list.
For James Sullivan, a piece he wrote for The Boston Globe about the suspension of the annual football game between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket in 2009 was the fulcrum for "Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry," released in July by Sony Electronics.
A veteran newspaper and magazine writer, Mr. Sullivan said he smelled the book after the Globe story in 2009. "The Globe story got a lot of attention. As I began researching and interviewing, the book became a story of two very different communities, both with a middle class putting their kids through the school system and struggling to maintain their place in the community.
"This is also a book about two communities who believe strongly in their place and struggle to understand why anyone would choose to live on the other island," he said of Island Cup, which includes photographs by Ralph Stewart, photo editor at the MV Times.
Maryanne O'Hara's debut novel, "Cascade," details a plan in Depression-era western Massachusetts, Ms. O'Hara's home turf, to flood the heroine's hometown to create a reservoir for Boston's growing water needs. The title plot is a sub-text of choices between career-building and helping family.
Ms. O'Hara has plenty of short story writing and editing chops and her skill attracted Penguin Books to publish her novel, which officially debuts this week. On Sunday, she was soaking it all in. "This is unbelievable," she said, looking at an overflowing crowd teeming through the bookstore. "I've never done this before," she said, before turning her hand to creative inscriptions in her first book for her new fans.
West Chop resident and New York investment banker Amor Towles is an overnight sensation as a debut novelist, hitting number 16 on The New York Times hardcover list last week.
That's "overnight" provided you don't count four decades of continuous writing and polishing and an earlier novel manuscript now residing in a drawer. Mr. Towles wrote "Rules of Civility" in a year.
"I've been writing since I was a kid," he said. "Always. Constantly." A complete review of the novel — set in New York in the 1930s — will appear in the August 23 issue of the MV Times.
Six authors. Different people, different backgrounds, different voices with one thing in common: they believed in their Muse.