Your novel is set in the year 1958. Why did you choose this date?
I knew that I wanted the story to take place in a more conservative and repressive era than our own but still seem familiar. This use of the past allows us to see our own time from a more objective perspective—what has changed and what has not. The early 50s seemed too remote while the late 50s felt like a harbinger of the present; and though I didn’t know it at the time, 1958 was a seminal year for cultural change and self-examination on several fronts. It saw the fruits of Rachel Carson’s pioneering work on the environment and the damage caused by chemical pollutants. Second, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, translated into English in 1953, was a bestseller and widely discussed. Third, in that year, the anti-psychiatry movement originated in this country and in France as seen in the work of Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault. By the mid-1960s all these events were incorporated into the counter-culture movement which is foundational to the present.
In Going Widdershins, the reader learns a lot about hysterics and hysteria. How did you become interested in this topic?
Strange as it may sound, my interest was sparked by my great admiration for the novels of Henry James. I had read his biography, knew he was the brother of William, a pragmatic psychologist, and that they had a younger sister, Alice. I wondered whatever became of her, living as she did in the same household with these two towering intellectual giants. Did Alice manage to live a fulfilling life? Alas, no. Dead by the age of forty-four, Alice was plagued for most of her adult years by emotional and mental turmoil, and because there was no sign of organic illness, the diagnosis given was hysteria, a disease that affected mostly women, which was also something to wonder about. Alice was an active child and judging from the diary she kept for four years, gifted as a writer, but her familial environment and the repressive conditions imposed on women in the Victorian era surely played a role in her illness. With no way to realize her own talents, her sickness was a war between her body and her mind. When I first conceived of Emilena, who was well-intentioned but doomed nevertheless, I remembered Alice James, even though their situations were completely different.
Did you set out to write a novel having nature religion as one of its themes?
Absolutely not. In fact, I began without any plan, outline or diagram of plot points, a manner of writing that entails an enormous amount of rewriting and revising. Thus, in Ch. 10, when Sam is at Summerland checking up on Emilena and finds Mrs. Manley in the garden watering her roses “naked as a toad,” I was just as surprised as my readers have been. The scene came from nowhere but now seems like a gift because it set the direction for much of what was to follow. Apparently, the story had a plan, even if I didn’t. That my reverence for the natural world should wind up in my writing was not a surprise because it has been an integral part of me since I was a child. There was a woods near where I grew up—really just a bit of leftover acreage—but to an impressionable ten year old, the place was pure enchantment. In the spring, I caught tadpoles in a little creek and watched them grow legs, or pretending to be Luther Burbank, tied scraps of rag on the top of saplings to measure how much they had grown by fall. Such privileged experiences then prepared me for my reading of Walden in high school, birthed my desire to live on a farm, and explain my interest in the religions of indigenous peoples.
What aspects of your novel are based on your own experiences?
The appearance of Summerland closely approximates a building and its grounds that I stumbled upon as a child on one of my extended bike rides. It was a Neoclassical mansion, built in the 1940s, that had been turned into a private school in the 1950s and suffered a terrible fire, forcing the school to move. Though only a charred hull remained, it, like my woods, was a magical place. Next to the building, there was a pond with a small island in the middle and not far from it was a pergola constructed of six or eight marble columns, resting on a marble floor and topped with capitals covered by a thick canopy of honeysuckle. To walk into that outdoor room on a balmy summer day, smell the dense fragrance, and hear the murmur of bees was transporting. I suppose the gazebo featured in the Dance of Life ceremony owes its presence in some remote way to that pergola. I revisited the place several times in the ensuing years, until it was razed, and the memory of it still feeds my imagination.
Were the characters based on people you have known?
There is the famous response of Flaubert when he was asked how he ever came up with a character like Emma Bovary. “Chez moi,” he said, meaning I am she, she lives in me: I write who or what I am. It’s not unlike being told that the people in our dreams are all aspects of ourselves. Thus, my characters are not based on actual people but on certain traits, gestures, quirks and behaviors which I’ve had occasion to observe in myself and others. For example, I have a friend who can lift one eyebrow as May sometimes does to show her displeasure with something just said. Fiction is not memoir but alchemy—working with mud, hoping for gold. The end result is such a fusion and diffusion of elements and experiences that the causes are indistinguishable from the effects.
Your other two books are works of nonfiction. Why and how did you make the transition into fiction?
My first book, Arthur Dove: Nature as Symbol, is the result of art historical research; it analyzes the cultural influences that inform the paintings of America’s first abstract artist. The second book, Why We Look at Art: An Appreciation, is a work of creative nonfiction, a relatively new genre of writing which entails a subjective interpretation of objective phenomena. I chose to write the book in this manner because facts alone, the stuff of history, do little to account for art’s emotional and psychological impact upon the viewer. Writing from this more personal perspective fueled a long-buried desire to write fiction. I’ve always been a voracious reader of novels, so it seemed quite natural to try my hand at writing one, but I had never actively considered how much hard-won craft went into their construction. For this reason, I found myself reading a huge number of how-to books before I even began writing and often went backwards before I went forward. The invention of a novel, “a new world,” is a journey like none other—arduous, slippery and serpentine, with pitfalls and false starts—but also a gratifying adventure full of unexpected surprises. Now it’s all I want to do.