The Last Word
Why I don't write about the Vineyard...
The other day someone complimented me on my book about the theater in Oak Bluffs. I smiled and said thank you, but I've never written about a theater in Oak Bluffs. I have, however, written about an old family owned movie theater in a little town called Moose River Junction. Hmmm.
When I wrote Hawke's Cove, a fair number of folks thought that I'd written about the Vineyard. My description of a World War II era summer resort, barely attached to the mainland, seemed to some to be a thinly veiled version of our Island. And, while I admit that I tossed in a few Island allusions, e.g. Linda's Restaurant and Wiggy's Pond, I did not write about the Vineyard.
There are a fair number of writers who do. Islanders Phil Craig and Cynthia Riggs have done so with great success, and a host of off-Islanders have used the Vineyard in their books, one or two without having been here for more than a minute. What's not to love as a writer? Beautiful beaches, quirky roads, spectacular sunsets. Skulduggery and romance. The Island clearly lends itself as a ready-made setting. Who needs to make up interesting place names when we already have such evocative locales as Five Corners, Beetlebung Corner and Tomahawk Corner.
Okay, so we like to name places where roads meet. Some of us know that Tomahawk Corner is the intersection of Wing, County, and Barnes roads. Others of us never heard of it. I was once asked directions by a guy with a stressed-out looking wife beside him. They were looking for their rental house, which had been described as easy to find because it was close to a famously big puddle. Island directions. As 'big' is relative, and it had been a dry summer, I was of no use. Therein lies one reason I don't write about the Vineyard. First of all, some of us call it the Island. Sometimes upper case, sometimes lower. One man's island is another man's Island. Or Vineyard, or, as my late grandmother always called it, "the bluffs."
Secondly, everyone has a different experience of the Island. My center of gravity is Oak Bluffs. My viewpoint, my sense of direction, my reference points. My Vineyard is not the same as yours. It's a bit like interviewing witnesses. Take a scene, let three people watch it, then ask them each what happened. You will get three different versions. Well, there are many versions of life on the Vineyard. A summer resident sees it in one way, an old-timer quite another; the well-off and the scraping-by have decidedly different views of life on the Vineyard.
A writer can't write with the feeling that her audience is peeking over her shoulder. To write about the Vineyard, or rather, to set my stories on the Vineyard, would have me self-editing every sentence out of the fear someone sometime would accuse me of, 1) getting it wrong, or 2) modeling some character on a real person. I certainly don't want readers to be looking for themselves or their relatives in my pages.
But I like small town settings for my books, intimate places where the story plays out on a small stage, so I make up little towns like Cameo Lake and Hawke's Cove and Moose River Junction that may share some of the small-town attributes for which Vineyard towns are famous: proximity to water, generationally owned businesses, seasonal residents - but, these places are not the Vineyard. Neither are they real places elsewhere. I love inventing winding roads with country names and being allowed great latitude in where things are located. Unrestricted to actual fact, I can draw these places without anticipating anyone saying, hey, it's not like that, you can't get there from here. What surprised me most when I decided to go back to Hawke's Cove for the setting of "Summer Harbor," was how much the place had changed.
For me, as with most writers, all experience is genetic material for the creative end product. I am the product of small-town life, I've been on the Island for a long time, by some standards, so naturally my work is affected by my having Vineyard sand in my shoes. But, it's not the Vineyard.
Susan Wilson lives in Oak Bluffs. She is the author of five published novels and is working on her sixth. She also freelances, specializing in equine topics. Her column will appear on the OpEd Page twice monthly. Ms. Wilson can be reached at email@example.com or at her web site: www.susanwilsonwrites.com.