Fall is late this year. It is already mid-October, but for the first time the woods have a tinge of gold, just beginning, and the sunlight’s yellow is intensified when it shines through the trees. These are the kinds of days I count as finite in my life. All our days are finite, of course, but some seem to belong in a category as different as a gemstone to a handsome pebble.
Life hasn’t seemed, really, to have returned to normal for us. The contagion levels are still high where we live, so although we have tentatively dined outdoors a few times—and enjoyed it thoroughly—the cold weather will end that small bit of normality. The world feels smaller.
In pre-COVID times, I would go now to the Island. It is one of the places where the golden light of fall permeates everything. The long, empty roads mean I can walk for miles without seeing a car, and the dogs, who return to me instantly when I call, can run off-leash. We wander through golden lanes, and my brain, usually obsessedly plotting and exhausted by the extraction of writing, is distracted by the resonating vibrancy of the color. I remember these walks repeatedly, and return to them in my dreams, and in my books. They are, I think, how I would spend eternity, if I could.
But we are mistaken if the wet days, the bleak and dreary ones, are not treasured, too. My dogs, who love to swim, but hate the rain, nevertheless run joyfully through wet weeds and brush, shaking themselves with vigor when they come in, smelling of mud. Dogs have a capacity for appreciation that my ideal self would try to emulate, but I am not a dog, and can’t seem to achieve their purity of mind.
My joy ebbs and flows with the seasons. I have never fully understood spring, with its mud, its dirty snowpiles, its cold rains, and its disappointed hopes. For me, joy comes when fall it is at its peak, and even still later, with the stark, purple cold of winter. Once the leaves and crops are stripped away the sculptural shapes of the trees and the shape of the earth is revealed, and the light pours down, undiffused. The world seems a brighter, clearer, purer place. That cold clarity purifies me.
In our mortality, I wonder whether there is, too, a clarity that comes as we can, at last, see the end. There is no need for the extraneous, just the focus of comfort, where we can; of love, if we are blessed with it; and the firm hope that when the seasons pass, the essence of what we are will always be.
It was pre-dawn and I had been working for hours. I had just stepped out onto the porch at the house we’re renting in Maine, and was enjoying the calm, when I heard a soft, rhythmic noise. Tock-tock-whoosh, tock-tock-whoosh. I thought at first that it was drops from the eaves after all the rain we’d had, but that wasn’t quite right. I stopped, listening, trying to identify it. The sound grew louder, and I realized it was moving and coming from the water. I leaned against the railing to look out at the lake, waiting for a craft to come into view.
It was a shell with one rower. Elegantly thin, moving at a great clip, and leaving geometric designs in the water that widened and faded in its wake. The sound of the oars reverberated across the lake. I thought about the rower’s early morning, rising to be on the water before the sun rose, and felt a bit of envy at the pleasures of deep exercise, alone, with the sun just hidden behind the mountains at the east side of the water. I rise in the dark, too, but depend on hot coffee—although, perhaps, the same combination of joy and willpower—to sit comfortably on a chair, my legs crossed under me, pressing toward my writing deadline. I count words every morning, gauging my progress. Only two months left.
As he rowed back twenty minutes later, his pace was still strong, but just barely slower. Tock-tock-whoosh. The sound rose and fell as he approached, then moved off into the distance, fading into the morning’s birdsong.
It was a moment of deep and unexpected beauty.
It’s surprising sometimes the things that can make life magical.
The house we rented in Maine is very old and very large. It has history. Perched on a small hill above the lake, it has sprawling porches, front and back, and lovely views. There’s a spacious kitchen, a laundry room, and five roomy bedrooms with four baths. There’s a massive stone fireplace in the living room. But it does not have wi-fi, and the cell signal is only one elusive bar, which seems to flit from room to room like a butterfly, and then disappear.
It has been a long time since I have left my phone sitting on the night stand, turned off, and walked away for the day. I feel released from electronic bondage. The impulse, in an idle moment, to look down at the phone is gradually being replaced by a willingness to look up, to think, to let my brain idle. That’s how writing happens.
I had become increasingly aware of the way my phone had taken over my life. I am continually scrolling through my messages. There’s not a scene that passes before my eyes that doesn’t make me reach for the camera. There’s not a drive that isn’t accompanied by a podcast. It’s too much. It’s too many voices. It’s too much externality. And none of those things are good for a writer.
This week I wrote in the mornings. I hung around with my family. We did a complicated puzzle. I sat on the dock and dangled my feet, and thought about things. I jumped into the cold lake. I cuddled children. I drank cocktails. I went to bed with a book.
It was a kind of detox, and it has put me on the path to getting my brain back.
The temptations to return to my old habits will be strong, and I imagine there will be a gradual regression toward over-use. But I have a plan to keep it in check, and at the moment, it doesn’t even seem appealing to go back to my old ways.
Back in the pre-covid days of festivals and conferences, my husband used to travel a lot, and my closet overflowed with tote bags. This essay appeared in the now defunct Weekly Standard September 26, 2018.An article in today’s NYTimesbrought tote bags and all their environmental baggage once again to the fore.
I seem to recall an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he predicts that the world will be subsumed not by fire or flood, but by an overwhelming mound of common pins. It hasn’t happened so far, but that may be because we have shifted the cultural weight, as it were, to a far more voluminous enemy: the tote bag.
My husband is on the festival circuit. He goes to exotic and beautiful places like Maui and Aspen, cavorting with celebrities and beautiful people, while I stay home with the dogs. It’s not as bad as it sounds, really, and it has the advantage of enhancing spousal appreciation, but it does have a curious byproduct. Every time he returns, he presents me with a tote bag.
Tote bags are nothing new. They have been the mainstays of museum gift shops and the low-cost premium for subscriptions to magazines and public television for decades. Environmentalists made them important by urging us to pile our groceries into their bacteria-infested depths week after week, rather than wounding the earth with the clean, fresh, disposability of plastic or paper grocery bags.
I love the earth. But I have questions about tote bags.
I have never had a statement handbag, but then, I live in the Midwest where things like that are considered ostentatious. I do find, however, almost against my will, that I have begun to select the tote bag I want depending on where I’m going and who I will be seeing. There is a hierarchy to tote bags that is more subtle than the kind of car you drive. Tote bags can brag without your ever having to say a word. They are signaling mechanisms to announce your affiliations.
The local grocery store gives out a flimsy, paper-thin canvas wine bag when you purchase more than one bottle. It’s okay if you leave that one behind at your friend’s house. I have a beautiful well-made canvas bag with a painting of the Flatiron Building that I purchased in a museum gift shop. It is sturdy enough to carry books and signals my cultural sophistication. This may have slightly more cachet than the thin fabric WNYC tote that seems to suggest that I am a donor (I am not) or that I am part of the East Coast intelligentsia (I am most definitely not). I have a bag from the American Enterprise Institute, proving that I am “Fighting for Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise.” That sounds nice. The TaxPayers’ Alliance signals my support for fiscal restraint, and the Hoover Institution is a nice way of encouraging people to enquire whether I have met Milton Friedman or George Shultz. I have bags from book conferences that suggest my writing bona fides. I have one that declares “We Can Change the World,” a claim whose sincerity I don’t doubt, but about whose particulars I am somewhat skeptical. Perhaps my favorite is my niece’s gift, a utilitarian lightweight “Totes Ma Goats” bag in which I carry my own books (especially my novel The Audacity of Goats) for publicity events.
But of all the tote bags, the most exclusive are those presented as swag to attendees of various high-level conferences, like the Aspen Ideas Festival. We now have three or four Aspen tote bags. One is beautifully made from military grade canvas with leather handles and represents philanthropy to a veterans group. A bag from an exclusive corporate philanthropic retreat has a lovely insulated pocket underneath to carry your properly chilled bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc or possibly a can of bug spray that wouldn’t mix well with the potato salad.
Does Davos have a tote bag, I wonder? Do Davos attendees ever do anything that requires the use of a tote bag? Or do they bring them home as a bonus gift to their nannies?
As my husband’s spoils of conquest accumulate in the hall closet, and the door becomes harder to close, I have begun to feel the need for some form of triage. How many tote bags does one family require? I ought to sort through, choose the most exclusive, and chuck the rest, but I’ll probably keep the nice plastic one from the now-defunct local bookstore. It’s easy to disinfect.
It is a balmy, beautiful August morning. I sit drinking coffee by the lake, the dogs around me. Elderly Pete basks peacefully in the sun. Auggie snorts impatiently, waiting for me to engage with his ball-playing, and young Eli has left his watch post at the end of the dock to lie next to my chair. A lawn mower purrs in the distance. A door slams. Fish jump. Ducks quack and splash. Squirrels chatter. Birds call. A bull frog grumps.
All should be well.
But across the world chaos reigns. Death, destruction, fear, murder, torture, rape, and slavery threaten. People climb onto departing airplanes, clinging to the wings, in desperate fear of what is to come. The planes depart, and the bodies can be seen hurtling to earth, prey to the most horrific final fears as they fall.
An American flag flutters in the breeze across the lake.
Here, there is comfort in powerlessness. With no recourse but to drink my coffee, I can stay comfortable. I can’t fix Afghanistan. I can’t save a single person. Lucky me.
I am ashamed.
And yet…and yet…this day, this calm, this comfort, this stroke of fate that brought me here, to have been born in a free state, in a liberal democracy…this is fortune. And to leave it unnoticed, to ignore it, not to savor it, is the very definition of sin.
I envy my dogs in their innocence.
There are no clouds in the sky, but there is a cloud over this day.
Yesterday was a spring day of transient weather, but during an episode of sunshine (and between chastising Eli for chasing the neighbor’s dog) I took photos of the wild flowers blooming: blood root, violets, bluebells, and trout lilies. Later before bed, I opened up the photos from one year ago, to see if there were any fun reminiscences of 14 month old Eli’s puppy antics, and there were photos of the same flowers, exactly on time, blooming one year ago. When we had a snow storm a week or so ago, I opened my photos to find the storms of years past. Same patterns, to the day.
My mornings are usually the same. I wake in the dark, pour myself coffee, and wander into either my office or our cozy library to write. My writing is usually more productive in my office, but my ability to observe the morning rituals of the woods is better in the library, and this is where I usually end up. As the dogs settle into their customary places, I drink coffee and write. I like seeing how the tilt of the earth changes the location of the sunrise behind the trees, and I gauge the time of year by its place along the long horizon visible from the ridge where our house sits. With the leaves not yet out, the sparkle of the lake down the hill forces me to move my chair so I can see, but in a week or so, the lake will have disappeared behind the foliage.
I can see the turkeys flying down from their roosts, the deer browsing, the plump raccoons waddling up their trees to bed. On a sullen morning like this, there is no burst of sunlight, only a gradual undarkening. On sunny days, the mists rise from the valley in a haze of purple. For the dogs, the scenes of life outside the windows are riveting, too. I like watching the rhythms of life, the interplay of the different creatures who wander in and out of one another’s paths, and the sameness of it—with only small variations to account for the seasons—is reassuring.
At this time of year, in a ritual I now understand, the turkeys are dividing themselves from the large winter flock into smaller family groups. The males parade up and down before the females in full regalia—spectacularly beautiful and with great pomp—making a mechanical thrumming sound like enormous insects—I think by vibrating a set of feathers that skim the ground like a 19th century train’s cow catcher. The females scurry back and forth, cackling, in some kind of hierarchical battle with one another. In the end, it is unclear to me who choses whom, but there will be five or six adults in each final group, and they will pair off to start families. Every morning there will be fewer and fewer remaining from the main flock, until they have melted into the woods for summer. We won’t see much of them again until fall, when they come together again. Finding a nesting hen is extremely difficult, but they nest on the ground, and stay in place from the moment the eggs are laid until they hatch, with no apparent help from the males—although I suspect they keep watch nearby in military readiness to fend off attackers. Turkeys are fierce.
The deer, who do their pairing in the late fall, are already heavily pregnant and browsing hungrily, as are the raccoons, whose cumbersome travels up and down very tall trees make me hold my breath in suspense. I recall one spring watching the antics of a raccoon family, as five or six babies, chirring excitedly, popped out from the hole in their hollow tree, while their mother frantically clung to the tree with her back legs and used her front paws to stuff them back in like someone trying to close a drawer filled with too many socks. No sooner would she get one in, than two or three more siblings would pop out from another hole further down and swarm the tree trunk. They would fall with quite terrifying thumps to the ground, and call wildly for their mother. Then, while she made a laborious trip down to take them by the scruff of the neck to carry back up, more would fall like hail from the den above, while the sound of their frightened and excited calls came from above and below. She would try to carry two at a time: bringing one up a few feet, leaving it to cling to the trunk, returning to the ground to retrieve another, like a relay, while the first one promptly fell past her head with another resonant thunk. The cycle of babies was unceasing as they continued popping out, swarming, and falling with more thunks as is if they were in a cartoon. Mama’s increasingly desperate attempts to gather them up and stuff them back in were as futile as they were comically pathetic. This went on for more than an hour, and I can only imagine how tiring it is to be a mother raccoon. It’s remarkable how much noise a baby raccoon can make when it falls, and even more remarkable that they seem utterly unfazed—which is more than I can say for their mother.
It pleases me to understand these patterns, perhaps because it makes me feel a part of the cycles of the earth. Later, less charming cycles will begin: the annual infestation of deer flies who torment dogs and humans equally with wicked bites, the mosquitoes, the unceasing battle against invasive garlic mustard and buckthorn plants, and one peculiar festival we have come to refer to as “personal fly season”, when a walk down the driveway invariably includes one—and no more—fly to accompany each individual, buzzing and landing on our heads. They don’t bite, but their relentlessness is exasperating, buzzing with a particular emphasis on entangling themselves in hair and crawling on ears. A hat is essential, and preferably a handheld electronic bug zapper, which sizzles satisfactorily when it encounters the enemy. Success makes no difference, since a new assistant ineluctably appears to take the place of its fried colleague.
It is usually at this moment that summer in the woods ceases to charm, and we gather everybody together and decamp to the lake. There, we will inevitably find a different cohort of creatures with their own summer patterns, and we will begin our own. It is a modest place, a rickety cottage with only the water as an amenity, but that is amenity enough. There will be the pleasures of a quiet summer morning on the dock, drinking coffee with a blanket tucked around our toes, of wet dogs and floating, of visits from friends and family, of cocktails at sunset.
There are also the millions of wet towels to drag home to wash, dishes and pans to wash in the tannic water, muddy feet from wet dogs, and the back and forth of various necessities from one household to the other. It’s joyful at the beginning, but by fall I will be tired of the discomfort and upheaval, and ready to settle in at home again. Even as I anticipate the joys of summer, I am already excited at the prospect of the beauties of fall, and its own patterns of renewal.
When we return to the woods, the deer, unmolested by barking dogs, will have browsed the hostas and lilies to the ground, the raccoon babies will have grown and wandered off on their own, the turkeys will be returning to gather their clans together for the winter. And the sun, whose slow track across the horizon will have continued unobserved by me, will be rising far to the south as the days continue to shorten.
My city friends wonder how I can live without the museums, theater, restaurants, and vibrancy of the city. But I wonder how anyone could live without this vibrant scene of the earth, the animals, and their own dramas.
I have lived in the city and felt my soul shriveling among the pressures of a life removed from nature. Here, I breathe, and my soul drifts out among those of the animals and trees, their calls and their battles, and I know I belong, too.
As I write, the horizon brightens, and I hear the last sleepy calls of the great horned owls conversing with one another. The dogs sit up, alert to the presence of the deer in the dark, the turkeys thrum and cackle, the sun hits the water of the lake, and I settle into myself, content, and glad to be alive.
I like silence. Perhaps it is a commentary on the state of my nerves, or maybe it’s because I’m a former musician and my brain is aurally focused, but I find unwanted noises distracting. I need silence to think and to write, and when I want sound, I prefer to choose whether it’s words or music. So I find the contemporary taste for household appliances that ping, beep, and play tunes extremely annoying.
If I seem cranky, it’s probably because I have been trying desperately to write a novel amidst continual interruption from household appliances.
I have a notion that devices should A) make your life easier and B) not require distraction from your thoughts, and, come to think of it, C) achieve their purposes in silence while leaving me alone.
In my quest to break my writing stalemate, I recently packed up and left home for the seclusion of the Island. The house I rent when I go away to write is a place I know well. I have been going there for years, and it’s like a second home. It’s a charming place: roomy, but cozy, with a wonderful property where I can walk in privacy with the dogs, and a lovely landlady who knows the precise formula of solitude and companionship to feed a writer. I have written parts of all my books there, and there’s something about the atmosphere that inspires productivity. My days there are a perfect pattern of writing and walking, and no one disturbs me unless I want to be disturbed. The house is not old, but my landlady had just replaced the range, the refrigerator, and the washer-dryer, all sparkling new and ready to be used. She is a generous woman, and likes to buy quality things.
Throughout my first day, unfortunately, I spent a great deal of time debating when to tell my host that there were red squirrels nesting in the roof. I knew it would upset her, and I also knew it would mean workmen disrupting my writing. The squirrels’ chirping and scratching was irregular but loud, and I feared they were doing damage. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I finally realized that it wasn’t squirrels, but the new refrigerator. I have no idea why a refrigerator should make a noise like red squirrels. Maybe someone thought it was cute. Or maybe no one ever spent any time in a room where it was running. I suppose it was companionable, in its way. I mean, at least the noise resembled living things.
The stove however, was much worse than squirrels. Writing can be both lonely and vaguely excruciating, and it is during these moments that I usually take a break to cook something nice for myself. Sometimes the food in my novels is actually something I’ve just made. Food, for me, is comfort, and when I’m alone, I look forward to meals as a way of permitting myself a break, and as a kind of companionship. In some ways, it’s as much about the cooking as it is about the eating. Cooking is a pleasant diversion, and creative, but as I’m chopping onions or browning beef, my mind is able to continue the intellectual rambling necessary for building a story.
So, having grown accustomed to the refrigerator squirrels, after a few hours of work and a long walk in lovely silence, I turned on the oven, and was jolted out of my plot-related reverie by a jaunty little tune. It wasn’t just a beep, but an actual musical phrase, only with tinky-tonk noises. When I set the timer it produced another tune, and like so many electronic devices, instead of one smooth dialing motion to set the temperature, I had to press it each time I added ten degrees, each time producing another beep. When the oven reached the temperature I had laboriously set, it sang yet another tune. Apparently each melody has a specified meaning, but I’m not interested in providing room in my head for determining which is which. I found myself missing my vintage stove at home, whose only noise is the satisfying “whomp” it makes when you light the oven with a match.
Then there was the new washing machine. I pack lightly when I go away to write. I mean to say: the car is full of stuff—much of it dog-related, and some of it bourbon—but I don’t bring a lot of clothes, so I’m happy to have a washer dryer in the house, and I often throw something into the washer while I’m writing. This new machine could be featured in a museum as The Loudest Washing Machine in the World, and it makes what I can only describe as a rhythmic mechanical gagging sound for the entire cycle. It’s some sort of water-saving design, which is, I guess, mandatory, but seems a little silly when you’re only steps away from—literally—a quadrillion gallons of water. I found the gagging somewhat less charming than the nesting squirrels. As if this were not enough, it beeps. Not once, for each time you choose a cycle, or once when it’s finished, but every 30 seconds after the cycle, until you interrupt the sentence you’re writing to get up and open the lid. I have had the care of less demanding puppies.
Thankfully, I was able to close the door to drown out the worst of the noises, but the beeping penetrated the walls. Not surprisingly, the matching dryer is also an electronic nag. But the thing is, if they make weird gurgling noises and show signs of nausea, how would you know until you got them home? I have a new washer and dryer at home, and they both have the options to turn off the signals. I made sure of that. Of course, I don’t live in the same room with them, either. So there’s that.
It used to be that appliances would sit silently and make themselves useful. Now, for reasons I do not understand, they seem to feel a need to call attention to themselves, as if, like electronic toddlers, they are announcing: Look at me! Look what I’ve done!
It strikes me as an indication of a deeply flawed society. What personal failings have led us to develop narcissistic appliances? Is it a reflection of modern life, the electronic equivalent of so-called influencers, who must announce their doings on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook, or be forced to question the value of their own existences? Have we created appliances like ourselves? Is there anyone who likes this incessant mechanistic signaling? Or is there something about the electronic miasma in which we all exist that assimilates our nerves into a state of noise acquiescence? Is there some consumer movement I need to join to dissuade manufacturers from this evil path?
The last time I bought a microwave oven I asked the saleswoman which ones beeped only once and stopped. It was clear by her reaction that no one else had ever asked this question, but she dutifully investigated the beeping of each one, no doubt thinking bad words that I am grateful not to have heard. But each time I buy a new appliance, I find that the noise factor has intensified, as if this has become a signal—as it were—of improvement. I believe it is, instead, an instrument of consumer torture.
A few days after I got home and settled into a new appreciation of my quiet appliances, the brand new, very expensive water heater silently burst a valve and unobtrusively leaked water all over the basement floor.
It is extreme early morning, and I have risen to sit in my chair by the fire. It is not a place for lounging, but for writing, because I discovered a while ago that I need the fire, and the view, and the companionable lickings and scratchings of the dogs to feel most at ease, and best able to write. But lately, it is not a productive place. My computer glares its ugly light at me, probably contributing to the addled state of my brain.
I am becalmed, unmoored, directionless, my rudder stayed. No words come.
Writing for me is normally a joyful process. The words spin a music in my head, and I record them. I know from experience that showing up to this place at this time is the only way to prod myself to create. But now, nothing is working.
I have written advice to other writers. “Just show up,” I wrote. “Write anything,” I wrote. “The muse will appear,” I wrote. But so far, my own advice has been useless.
My usual methods of procrastination are well known to me and to my husband. I paint a room. I organize my office. I cook. But these methods of avoidance are now habits, and a day spent in routine housework seems like a good day. But it’s not.
My brain feels addled, shallow, inadequate, like the gushing rain from the gutter that doesn’t nourish the ground, but spills over, ripping out plants, washing away the soil. Four books I want to write spin annoyingly around on the fringes of my thoughts, skipping away, avoiding my grasp. Is it the usual process? Or has something gone terribly wrong?
I try to pray. I try to meditate. I struggle to read. But always there is this random, unsatisfying, disjointed flutter of thoughts. No ribbon of continuity, just jagged lightning strikes of nothing very much. My brain flickers from thing to thing without any process.
I am not particularly interested in conversation. What used to be daily calls to friends have sputtered into sporadic text messages, without context, or any continuity. Lightning strikes brought to relationships.
In this pandemic, time is a limitless illusion, and therefore time does not seem precious. Long-term projects I could be doing: exercising, playing the piano, training the dog, painting a room, are all things I can do tomorrow.
I nap. Sometimes they are long, delicious naps, from which I usually awake with anxiety at the waste of a day.
I plan to read today. Long, engrossed, serious reading. I need to concentrate on something else. I keep hoping that turning away from screens and to words—my own and anybody else’s—will flip the switch.
But then I think of all the unplanned, unsuspected things that feed a writer’s mind: the sudden whisp of fragrance, the overheard snippet of conversation, the glimpse of light, or the flash of bird wing. These are the food for the inner world that comes out later in the scent of a character, her thoughts, or a description of a scene. I never know when something I’ve lived will come out in my books. But what if I’m no longer really living? What feeds the writing, then?
I walked outside in the unusually warm February sunshine this morning, and the dogs, startled by this break in routine, joyfully came along. I heard birdsong, and road sounds, and the slow dripping of melting snow in the eaves. Last night in the dusk, the sky was rose pink from the departed sun, and I heard, for the first time in months, the bells ringing vespers at the seminary nearby, and the soft chirp of flying ducks. The moon, almost full, rose and cast shadows on the snow. These are all markers for me, but they are not experiences of the sort I use most. I realize how much the natural world is my backdrop, the inner voice, but not the experience. Not the story line. And this surprises me, because I always thought it was.
In this long pandemic sojourn from the world, I have not been unhappy. I have felt calm, somnolent, and wrapped in solitude, almost like a fairy tale character set to sleep while the world passes. Cloistered, but not lonely. But in order to write, I need something more than being hidden behind a fortress wall. I know, beneath the melting snow, the bulbs have put down their roots, the trees are beginning to send their sap from their roots. I can only hope that somewhere my writing heart is stirring, too. But so far, hope is all there is.
It was three decades ago when J.F. Riordan discovered the island that would become her muse for four novels and counting. “I was in Door County,” she told me recently by phone, “just looking for something to do, and decided why not go see what’s on the island?” Washington Island sits some seven miles northeast of the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and is reachable by ferry. “From the first moment I set foot on that ferry,” Riordan says, “the magic of the place swept over me. And it’s really never gone away.” Riordan appeared at a Mystery to Me virtual author event September 10 at 7 p.m. with A Small Earnest Question, her new novel and the fourth in her North of the Tension Line series, which was also the title of Riordan’s 2014 debut. Click here to watch a replay of the event! The books have earned praise for their mix of mystery, humor, and the inevitable intrusion of small-town politics into daily island life. Riordan herself says, “The beauty of the mundane is really what my novels are about.” She said it while we were discussing her earlier life as a professional opera singer. Riordan was born in New Jersey but moved as a child with her family to Michigan, then Wisconsin. She learned to love music early, from her father, whose mother took him to weekly performances of the famed Metropolitan Opera. Riordan had barely reached her teens when she announced she would be an opera singer. “I was probably about 13,” she says. “I started preparing myself quite seriously. It was completely lucky that it turned out I actually had talent. That wasn’t a given.” At 16, Riordan left high school to enroll at the University of New Mexico, drawn by a particular teacher to study voice. “A mixed bag,” she says now of the decision. “Sixteen is pretty young.” Still, she fulfilled her goal and became a professional, a life less glamorous than perhaps perceived, with its backstage squabbles and constant travel to opera houses in small European cities. “I was lonely,” she says. “Homesick.” The experience produced an epiphany: “Your life is really how you spend your days. It’s your everyday life. It’s not some grandiose dream. I was miserable.” Riordan moved back, eventually earning a college degree in English and teaching three years in the Milwaukee inner city, where she coached a forensics team.
It was after she began another job, working for a foundation doing philanthropic research, that Riordan began to write, squeezing in time early mornings or late at night. She likes the essay form and considered a nonfiction book on her teaching experience. Slowly, however, the fictional story of former Chicago newspaper reporter turned freelance writer Fiona Campbell and her eccentric cast of friends and adversaries on Washington Island took shape. “I think it took seven or eight years to write,” Riordan says. “There’s a lot of self-doubt and questioning when you’re writing a first book because you don’t know if anybody wants it. You don’t know if it’s ever going to be read or published.” Her husband, Charlie, was supportive, laughing in the right places when he read the early chapters, and bluntly counseling her not to think about agents or publishers, when she raised the subject. “None of that is your business right now,” Charlie said. “Go upstairs and write the damn book.” When the manuscript of North of the Tension Line was finished, Riordan sent it to a few agents, scattershot, uncertain of the process. “I submitted my manuscript to someone who specialized in historic railroads,” she says. She also sent it to a few trusted friends, one of whom worked in the same office building as a book publisher. This friend’s wife loved the novel, and that was enough for the friend to talk to the publisher, Eric Kampmann of Beaufort Books, who gave Riordan the contact information of his editor-in-chief. Riordan sent the manuscript that night, a Thursday. Charlie counseled patience. “You know, it will be a month before they look at it. Start another book. It will be a while.” The following Monday, Riordan was at home checking email after a busy day at work. The editor was back in touch: “Loved the book, couldn’t put it down, read it all weekend. Attached is a contract.” Charlie was in another room. Riordan recalls, “He said I made a noise that made him think there was an animal in the house.” A life-changing moment. “That never happens,” Riordan says. “I was very fortunate.” And – clearly – highly-talented. Three more Tension Line novels have followed, and a book of essays, Reflections on a Life in Exile.
Of the new novel, A Small Earnest Question,Riordan says she wrote two endings and didn’t decide which one to put in the book until a week before she submitted the manuscript. The title came out of something her copy editor said in a meeting. “She is not a hesitant or timid person,” Riordan says of the editor, who nevertheless framed a query by saying, “I have a small earnest question.” Riordan recalls, “As soon as she said it, I said, ‘Oh, my God. That’s the title of my next book.’” Riordan’s love of Washington Island – so evident in the novels – is also mirrored in the title of her book of essays. “When I say I live in exile in Mequon, Wisconsin, people think I’m kidding,” Riordan says. “But I’m not. I mean that quite sincerely. I’d love to live on the island. It’s just not practical. Trying to get your whole family to pull up stakes and live on a remote island in the middle of nowhere is kind of a hard sell.” She concludes, “The desire to be on the island is part of my impetus to keep writing. I can pretend I’m there.”
A note from J. F. Riordan:
Mystery to Me in Madison, Wisconsin is one the most charming bookstores anywhere. and one of my favorites to visit. Help keep our neighborhoods filled with lovely stores like this by buying my books from an independent bookseller.
The telephone rang in the sleek, city office of Victor Eldridge. As he reached to answer the pain came again with a deep, resounding blow that made it difficult to breathe. He braced his hands against his desk, waiting for it to pass as it always did. The ringing phone, mixed in the wake of his agony, was almost beyond bearing.
Victor Eldridge was not a religious man, but what he experienced now was as much of a prayer as he would ever utter. Please, let this be the end of it. Please let the pain stop.
He did not care how.
The ringing and the pain faded at the same moment, and it seemed as if the room echoed with both. He stayed frozen in position, his breathing shallow.
He straightened slowly and leaned back in his chair. There. His breath became deeper and he could feel his heartbeat slowing to its normal pace. His reason returning from the chaos of suffering, he began to think. He had much to do but very little time. The pain was gone. For now. But he knew it would come again.