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"Want a book that you can sink into? One that gives you a real feel for life here on the Cape with all of its ups and downs? Add a touch of romance and you have 'The House on Oyster Creek' by Heidi Jon Schmidt"
--Titcomb's Bookshop, Sandwich, MA
Talking about THE HARBORMASTER'S DAUGHTER, with Heidi Jon Schmidt
Q. This is your second novel set on Cape Cod. Why did you want to return there?
A. So many of my favorite authors, from Jane Austen to William Trevor, write out of a deep knowledge of one place and the people in it. I'm saturated with the beauty and trouble of this place. One of the characters in the book observes that every single life is a heroic journey, and you never see this as clearly as you do in one small, isolated town.
Q. How does living on the Cape inspire your fiction?
A. I feel so lucky to be one thread in the weave out here. It's like Rome here; there's layer after layer of history. You walk down the wharf on a dark night and you can feel something of what it must have been like to be a young man shipping out on a whaling voyage in the 1800's. And modern as we are out here now, we aren't that far from being a parish in Jane Austen's day—we’ve known each through all kinds of changes, we all play a part in each other’s lives.
Years ago the man who delivered pizzas also drove the hearse—he was a wild hippie in his pizza incarnation but impeccably formal at a funeral. I would also see him in line at the supermarket and pass him when I walked my daughter’s carriage by every day. So, though we weren’t friends, we knew each other surprisingly well. Novels need that human interconnectedness.
And then there’s the light— it affects a writer as much as it does a painter—sets so many moods and shades of feeling, like the background music in a movie.
Q. The novel was sparked by a real-life murder. Can you explain?
A. The Outer Cape is haunted by several murders, most recently the death of Christa Worthington, a single mother whose three year old daughter was at her side when her body was found. It was ghastly, and to me as a mother with a young child, very hard to look away from. I was looking for truths that go way beyond any single incidenet, about how violence begets violence, how the cycle can be broken.
Q. The novel is a coming of age story, but also the story of a mother and daughter, and of the divisions between neighbors in a small town. How do you see it?
A. Maybe most of all as a story of resilience. Every character is keeping his or her balance despite serious loss. Vita is so young when her mother dies that she has no conscious memory to reckon with--just a cold dread that feels like truth to her. Yet there's an artistic flame burning in her that defies despair. And LaRee nurtures her so that talent can bloom, which helps Franco come to understand his daughter too. It happens through community.
***stay tuned, more to come here...***
HEIDI JON SCHMIDT on THE HOUSE ON OYSTER CREEK
Q. Why oysters?
A. My sister is a shellfish farmer. I envy her life and admire it: she's out on the water all day and has the intimate knowledge of the natural world that can only come through hands on, daily effort. It's backbreaking labor, and I feel sort of sheepish about having such a soft job myself. In one way, though, a day at the desk is like a day on the tide flats: you've felt a vital connection to life; you've worked at something worthwhile.
And, Cape Cod is my home. I've been greatly affected by the struggles here, between those who've been here for generations and those who've just moved in. So many people are barely scraping by, while others pop in, buy a house that costs a few million dollars, renovate it for a few million more, then decide they'd rather have a place in Provence. The estuaries, salt marshes, and the tide flats where oysters are farmed are the most fertile, beautiful places on earth, and it's painful to see them turned into a commodity, into "million dollar views." I was excited to work on this book and think about it all in depth.
Q. Is there really anything new to be said about love?
A. My guess is that everyone alive has something new to say about love. Every love has so many layersthe hopes and dreams and fears of both lovers, their different experiences, the complications of class and culture and belief. Oyster Creek is centered on a marriage full of love and difficulty, like most marriages, and on a love affair that has great meaning even though it's unlikely to end well. And, of course, Fiona grows according to her parents' love, like a vine scrambling up a trellis.
Q. Yes, maternal love is as important as romantic love here.
A. The minute my daughter was alive in the world I became braver, more capable. Like Charlotte Tradescome, I wanted to "walk toward the light, keeping the little hand tight in mine." I saw that a huge part of motherhood was just being myselfthe most honest self I could beso my daughter could learn by osmosis. As I focussed on that, I started taking more chances as a writer. I was truer to my own perceptions, less afraid to make mistakes. I want my daughter to feel comfortable being herself, and to dare to try things, even things that might not work out. In other words, I think a lot about motherhood, so I naturally end up writing about it.
Q. Why do you call this an ecological novel?
A. Every novel is its own ecosystem; it documents the immense effect each person has on others, and the ways these effects ripple out into the world. In Oyster Creek, one character's anger brings out the worst in the people around him, setting off a chain of troubling events. Another's generosity strengthens the community. "As every drop that fell into the sea had its effect on the oysters, everything anyone did here affected the town. Ada's birth and the story that was made from it, Darryl's flight and his prodigal return, Charlotte's arrival, Tim's bite out of Rob Welch's ear...even such a pale, delicate thing as an embryonic love affair would change the climate here. They needed each other, knew each other, they would become closer to each other whether they wanted to or not."
Q. What kind of research did you have to do for Oyster Creek?
A. I loved the research I had to do for Oyster Creek. I've always wanted to know how things work, and at first the idea that you could grow oysters in undersea gardens the way you might grow corn in a field was mind-boggling. I was so glad to have a good excuse to study it! I spent as much time on as many different oyster farms as I could, listening to
what the farmers had to say, trying to get an intuitive sense of the work, the experience of it. We went out at sunset on an August evening, and before dawn on a November morning when the wind was as sharp as a knife and we had to work by the light of a miner's lamp. I've never felt so ridiculous, clomping around in a huge pair of waders, trying to maneuver a basket rake, or to pile bags of oysters into a canoe without tipping it. I wanted to really feel the work, in all its beauty and difficulty, and people were very, very kind in helping me do that.
Q. What's it like, to live on the Outer Cape in the winter?
A. There's the strongest sense of community out here, because we're marooned together all winter when everything's boarded up. We rely on each other; we have to. Then we stick together to face the inundation of summer visitors. There's only one main road out here: Route Six. Everyone drives it: to work, to school, to the hospital. If you see someone turning off in an odd spot, you wonder why. Secrets don't keep very well, and when you can't keep secrets you're more aware of everyone's humanity, their fragility.
And human life is dwarfed by natural life. We're on a shifting sandbar, almost surrounded by water; the towns are fitted into the few spots best sheltered from the wind and waves. You learn to tell the temperature of the air by the color of the bay, and to
understand what's going on in the water by the smell of the air. You develop a sixth sense for weather and tides.
Also, contemporary life is dwarfed by history. The Pilgrims landed here, did their laundry, and moved on. Half of our apple trees washed in from a shipwreck years ago. The towns look very much the same as they did during the Revolutionary War the streets are so narrow, you can almost feel what it would have been like to live here in whaling times. And our shoreline is still controlled by the "King's Law." It makes a difference to be so close to nature, and so close to the past: you see how life is shaped by these immense forces, so much greater than yourself.
I love it here; I've wanted to bottle the experience so everyone could have some.
Q. Any other experiences you've wanted to bottle?
A. The real surprise of lovethe absolute irrationality and deep meaning, and the way, when you look closer, it's all much more sensible than you'd ever think. The truth is, I want to bottle every experience. I wish I had an apothecary full of little bottles of different senses and feelings and adventures.
Q. Can you tell us a little about how you came to be a writer, what you've written in the past and what you hope to write in the future?
A. I grew up in a very isolated spot, down a dirt road, miles from anywhere. I was always inventing little societies: towns, families, schools, islands. I'd draw out the school bus routes and plan the menus. You could say it was a bad habit that got out of hand. I loved novels that had maps as endpapersI'd pore over them to see how every piece of the imaginary world fit together. As I grew up I loved Faulkner and Jane Austen and the territories they invented based on the places they knew.
Oyster Creek is my fourth book (the others are: The Rose Thieves, Darling?, and The Bride of Catastrophe), and the first set on Cape Cod. The next will take place out here too. Painters talk about the inspiration they get from "cape light," the special quality of the light out here. Cape life is just as fertile for a writer. We have fishermen from the Azores and psychiatrists from Manhattan and everyone in between. We all see each other every day; our kids go to school together; we chafe against each other and learn from each other and fall in love with each other, and the stories just come bubbling up.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What experience would you bottle, and how would you do it? What are the particular details, the sights and sounds and smells that would really make that experience vivid for someone else?
2. As its title suggests, Oyster Creek is very much a novel of place. What place or places have strongly affected you, and why?
3. Charlotte's marriage to Henry evolves over the course of the book. At first Henry is almost a father figure, but after Fiona's birth Charlotte becomes the stronger partner and husband and wife drift apart. Charlotte's love for Darryl has an intense, though unusual effect on her marriage. Do you think there are common stages of marriage, just like stages of life?
4. Henry Tradescome, glacial by nature, fears global warming above all things. Late in the book his wife finds out some things that change her understanding of his coolness. Have you known men, or women, like Henry, who keep themselves distant even from those they love most? Do you see this as a weakness or a strength?
5. Throughout Oyster Creek, the characters' lives are shaped by history, from the changes brought about by the sinking of Billingsgate Island to the effects of the "King's Law" to the ways the characters are influenced by their childhood experiences. Charlotte tries in many ways to have some good effect on the future, with only partial success. How has history affected your life? In what ways have your actions changed what may happen in the future?
6. The author suggests above that everyone has something new to say about love. What have you learned about love? How has loveromantic or familial-- surprised you, changed you?
7. How do you imagine the lives in Oyster Creek will continue? What will become of the characters? What do you hope and fear for them? Are there things you wish you knew about the inhabitants of Oyster Creek and their lives?