In her latest trilogy of books, author Stephanie Ann Smith has found inspiration in the Vineyard’s beauty and solitude, as well as its history.
Ms. Smith, a professor of literature at the University of Florida, has been spending time on the Vineyard for many years. She has participated in two residencies at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts (formerly Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency) in the past year and a half and is currently back for a third time.
“It’s a great place to work for any artist because you have the gift that Justen [Ahren, Noepe founder and director] gives you of unrestricted time, and for inspiration you have the Island,” says Ms. Smith.
During her last stay she completed the second book of the trilogy, “Baby Rocket,” which was published this month.
Ms. Smith will be at the Oak Bluffs Library this Saturday, June 22, reading from her latest book and talking about some of the research she has engaged in on the Vineyard. “Baby Rocket” focuses on the search for identity by a woman abandoned as a baby. After the death of her adoptive father, the protagonist discovers some clues to her past and goes on a journey of discovery that eventually leads her to Martha’s Vineyard — the setting for the second half.
“My protagonist is trying to recover from some devastating information she discovers about herself and her family,” says Ms. Smith. “She comes to the Vineyard to collect herself and begin the healing process. It’s very much about recovering from a body blow having to do with her family.”
The third in the trilogy, “Content Burns,” which will be published in October, follows the stories of two women who have survived trauma of some sort. Both share a name — Content Burns — but are separated by three centuries. One woman is a 9/11 survivor; her predecessor, a Wampanoag, lives during the time of the Salem witch trials.
“What was interesting to me is that we often think of the witch trials as somehow separated from what was going on,” says Ms. Smith. During her research she discovered that violent episodes like King Philip’s War (an early conflict between Native Americans and the English colonists named for an Indian leader) helped foster an atmosphere of fear and suspicion that engendered the infamous witch trials.
Ms. Smith, who will discuss some of her research at the upcoming talk, was impressed with the role that the Wampanoags played in the early days of the European settlement of New England. “The Wampanoags were technically King Philip’s people and they refused to join him,” she says. “They were fiercely independent of the mainland and of being swayed by politics that they didn’t agree with. I was impressed by their tenacity and their independence.”
Ms. Smith, a Moby Dick expert who will have an academic article on Herman Melville published this summer, also admires the Wampanoags for their skills. “They were the original whalers. They were known for their absolute fearlessness,” she says.
Ms. Smith became interested in local history during her first residency here in spring 2012 and refocused some of the narrative of her trilogy to the Vineyard. “I visited the museum and talked to librarians,” she says. She also interviewed a number of local people including an Edgartown relative with a wealth of knowledge about local history. “I used a combination of archival and anecdotal research,” she says.
Previously, Ms. Smith published two young adult fantasy novels and an adult science fiction novel. Now, she says, she always includes some history in her fiction. She describes her latest series of books as, “a trilogy about contemporary American women. All three deal with women who have encountered and survived some kind of trauma. A common thread in all three of them is a permeable line between the real and the unreal.”
Author’s Talk with Stephanie Smith, 2 pm, Saturday, June 22, Oak Bluffs Library. Call 508-693-9433 for more information.