Ties that bind

Bill Eville writes about love and family — and about all the challenges that come with both — in his new memoir.


When you’ve worked for newspapers as long as I have, you’re bound to have congratulated more than one colleague on their new book. This is my turn to applaud Bill Eville’s “Washed Ashore.” Like many people on the Island, I’ve read Bill’s essays over the years in the Vineyard Gazette. Eville is editor there now, and his writing is poignant, funny, and many times it makes my eyes water, like so many freshly chopped onions do. This new book hit me just the same, as I spent an entire Sunday afternoon and into the evening reading it all at once.

“Washed Ashore” is a memoir that reads like a long walk through the woods, or like you’re having a leisurely conversation with Bill; he’s telling you his story, and you know you’ll get your turn soon.

We learn about the family he grew up in, and the family he grew into. Bill’s family has long ties to the Vineyard, but his branch ended up settling in New Jersey, where he and his brother Jim grew up. Bill spent summers here, though, and he and his wife, Cathlin Baker, pastor of the First Congregational Church in West Tisbury, ended up coming to the Island to stay with his ailing grandmother in the early 2000s. When a post at the church opened later, they decided to make the move to the Island. It would be Cathlin’s first solo pastor position. Their son was a preschooler, and their daughter was still a baby when they arrived full-time in 2008.

Bill spent the early days of his career aiming to please everyone but himself, it seems, settling on a banking job in New York City after college. It didn’t last long, and he eventually discovered that sort of job never suited him. He worked in the film industry too, and spent a whole year dog-sitting all over Manhattan, not really calling anyplace home.

He writes about those days, and about how he always wanted to write, how he would take time every morning to work at it even though it wasn’t very good, and wouldn’t see the light of day. He kept at it: “While working in banking and then the film industry, I scribbled on the side, taking classes at night, and getting up early in the morning to write before heading off to work. But I had nothing to show for it, never put out into the world what I had scribbled. And what I’d written wasn’t very good anyway. That’s not modesty; I hadn’t found what I needed to write about. And so, on the Vineyard I turned to what was in front of me — my family.”

You’ll meet all the members of his family, and see them through his eyes and through his words, in “Washed Ashore.” And other people you meet in the book are Islanders you’ll recognize — Cynthia Riggs’ urging Bill’s daughter Pickle to get baby chicks through the mail, Bill’s Edgartown walks with Edward Hoagland, parishioners at Cathlin’s church, and more. It will be a comfortable read for Islanders, especially those already familiar with Bill’s essays. Somehow, though, in book form, they shine brighter, and they move the reader a little more deeply. Maybe it’s because you’re reading his essays one after the other like a waterfall of words, when we’re more used to a delightful trickle every once in a while.

Mostly the book is a peek inside one man’s evolution from a high school wrestler to a beer-loving college student to a man smitten with the woman he’s known most of his life to the father he became and is still becoming. It’s pure Bill Eville, and won’t disappoint those who already love reading his work in the Gazette, and will make good reading for those who are less aware of year-round Island life.

I asked Bill a few questions about the book, and about writing:

How many essays do you think you’ve written while you’ve been at the Gazette? 

How many essays? That’s a hard one, as I have written lots of different types of essays. The longer ones, with my byline in the Gazette, probably number in the 50s, but then there are the Notebook pieces. I wrote that for 11 years, twice a week for many years, and then once a week for three years, so they number around 1,000.

What do you think it is that compels you to get up and write every morning, and do you still do that?

Every day begins by getting up in the dark before anyone else is up, lighting two candles and writing in longhand, pencil on paper. Often it’s nothing that will add up to anything, just putting down words on a page, like doing calisthenics to keep limber and strong. When I have an actual idea for an essay, then my morning routine gets focused. The key is putting words down on the page every day, so that the writing voice feels free, and so when an idea arrives, I am ready to write without worry, and don’t have to fight with my inner editor as the essay is unfolding. That fight has to be reserved for after the first draft is finished. What compels me to do this? If I don’t, I become a miserable person. It’s as simple as that.

Your writing is so open and vulnerable. How does your family feel about it? Do you ever worry about putting so much of yourself into a story or essay?

I don’t really worry about putting so much of myself into a story or essay, I think, because I don’t set out to write a vulnerable story. I just set out to write a story about something — a feeling or an event, or a moment that clicks in my mind and heart. That is the driving force. But I know I have to feel the emotion fully, so I guess that is where the vulnerability comes in. My family has been wonderful about not reining me in — and I think that is because, at the core, all the essays are love stories to them. At least that is what I think they are.

What comes next? What are you working on?

I am currently working on a new book. All I will say for now is that it is fiction this time, but with autobiographical elements.

Bill Eville will speak at an upcoming memoir-writing event,” Martha’s Vineyard as Muse,” at the M.V. Museum, on Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 5:30 pm. He’ll be joined by Nancy Slonim Aronie and Sherry Sidoti. 

“Washed Ashore: Family, Fatherhood, and Finding Home on Martha’s Vineyard,” is available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes.