The Island Itself
an interview with novelist Katherine Towler
by Felicia C. Sullivan
A dazzling debut, Snow Island (Macadam/Cage, $25) follows the dual stories of Alice Daggett and George Tibbits in a small isolated island populated by quahoggers and eccentrics during the Second World War. Towler weaves the two plot lines intricately, at the same time subtly relaying the nuances of the island's inhabitants through gossip and tales.
Sixteen-year old Alice Daggett, haunted by the tragic death of her father six years prior and the overbearing presence of her mother Evelyn, never quite fits into the strict societal rules of the small gossiping town. Her awkwardness as she becomes aware of her own sexuality-her fear of not understanding her role as a woman and her fear of her inability to fulfill it-is beautifully told. Snow Island also unravels the unique story of George Tibbits, a recluse in his forties, who returns to the island each year in order to gain some closure regarding the death of the two women who raised him.
Snow Island is an evocative work with characters carefully chosen and crafted. Moving and luminous, it breaks the clichés of war novels. The characters and their stories resonate and linger long after the last page.
Katherine Towler grew up in New York City and completed her BA at the University of Michigan. She also received an MA in writing from Johns Hopkins and an MA in English literature from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. She has been awarded numerous fellowships, teaches creative writing in a regional fine arts program for high school students, and lives in Portsmouth, NH with her husband and their cat, Zane Grey.
Felicia Sullivan: You depict the effects of the second World War on two inhabitants of a small, fictitious New England town, both of whom have experienced grave losses. What made you want to develop two central characters and parallel their stories?
Katherine Towler: My fictional Snow Island is based on a real island in Narragansett Bay (Rhode Island), where I lived one spring a number of years ago. The real island has just 125 year-round residents and is a place wonderfully untouched by modern life in many ways. I used the real setting, which was so vivid to me, and invented the characters and their stories. This may sound strange, but I believe the characters came from the place itself, which has such a powerful mood of isolation and solitude and changelessness. I began with the story of Alice. What I wrote first was actually a short story with Alice as the main character. This short story evolved into the novel, and somewhere along the way I wrote the opening scene of the book from George Tibbits's point of view. As I took the book through repeated drafts, I kept trying to get rid of George. I couldn't figure out what he was doing in the book, and the opening scene remained mysterious even to me. Yet every time I tried to cut the scene, I couldn't. I continued to be fascinated by it, even as I wasn't sure what it was doing there, at the start of the book. I took the book through three complete drafts, and in the final draft I added many of the chapters from George's point of view. It wasn't until this point that I made the novel about two characters with parallel stories. I suppose in doing this final revision, and adding a lot more about George, I answered my question, as best I could, as to what he was doing in the book. Once I arrived at this form, I liked the balance the two characters seemed to give the book, and the way their stories amplified each other. But I can't say that this is what I planned to do from the start. It was more like a series of lucky accidents in the writing process.
FS: How much research was required for the novel? Who and what were your resources?
KT: I did not intend to write a book set in the 1940s, and frankly, I was fairly alarmed when I realized this is what I was doing. I should have at least chosen a time period farther back, so there would be no one left alive to tell me I had gotten it wrong! But Alice's story evolved as one set during World War II. I did quite a bit of research, though I undertook research at the same time as the writing, and in some cases, not until I had finished the final draft. I didn't want the research to overwhelm the book or "lead" the story. I wanted to write a story about two characters that happened to be set in the 1940s, rather than writing a story about the 1940s. I read numerous books about the home front during World War II and the war itself, and lots of New England history-accounts by lighthouse keepers, accounts of the 1938 hurricane, that sort of thing. I read old newspapers and magazines and looked at old Sears, Roebuck catalogs. I also interviewed my parents and parents-in-law and others about their experiences of the war years.
FS: The two mother figures of the book, Bertie and Evelyn, are depicted as eccentric and sometimes overbearing characters...was this intentionally done?
KT: I never really thought of Bertie and Evelyn being similar, though others have pointed out a connection between their stories. I see Evelyn as fairly weak, and Bertie as more overbearing, but that's just my view of them. In early drafts, Evelyn was a more one-dimensional character, the typical abusive mother. I wasn't satisfied with this depiction and both softened her character and made it, I hope, more complex as I went through the various drafts. Beyond this, I can't quite account for either of these mother figures, except to say that relationships between parents and children is an obsession that keeps showing up in my writing. I am currently working on the second volume of the Snow Island trilogy, and the mother/daughter (and father/daughter, and mother/son) relationships are significant again.
FS: Alice's strength at such a young age is astonishing. Was she inspired by anyone you knew?
KT: Alice was not inspired by any one person. Like the other characters in the book, she grew out of the time I spent on the real island and my observations of the lives of the islanders, which appeared quiet and uneventful, but of course contain as much drama as the lives of people anywhere. Alice was also a less complex character in the early drafts, as her mother was at first. I think the main thing I struggled with in revision was making Alice a stronger character and her story one in which she played a full part. In the first drafts, Alice did not rise above being a victim. I was not happy with this portrayal. It was too easy and simple, not true to life as I have experienced it. In both Alice and George, I chose main characters who are quiet and not always the first to take action. I was interested in showing the inner strength of such characters, which may not be readily apparent to outside eyes. I suppose both characters are like the island itself in this respect. Like most writers, I had a great deal of affection for my characters after spending so much time with them, especially Alice. It's a joy to discover that readers share this affection.
FS: This novel had a long journey to publication. Any words of advice to would-be novelists?
KT: Basically I spent twenty years writing with very little to show in the way of publication. I completed an MA in writing at Johns Hopkins and received a couple of fellowships. These moments of recognition were heartening, but there were long periods when I was getting nothing but rejections. At some point I realized that I wasn't spending all the time at my desk because I wanted to be a published writer (though I DID want to get published), but because I loved the writing itself. I loved being engaged in work that was challenging and difficult but completely absorbing and, in the end, rewarding. I knew that I couldn't give up this work, so I resolved to keep writing and to make what I wrote the best I possibly could, and to hope that someday I would see publication. I suppose if I have any advice to would-be novelists it is to trust your own process, however crazy it may seem; to work in some sort of consistent or disciplined way; to be willing to revise and revise and revise; and to read great authors and make them your models. Most of all I would say write the book that is yours, the book that you want to write, not the book that you think will sell or will make you look smart. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice appears in J. D. Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction, in a letter Seymour writes to his brother, Buddy, an aspiring writer: "If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself."
FS: You were an editor at Mars Hill Review-how has being an editor influenced your writing?
KT: I worked for Mars Hill for three years as the interviews editor, which gave me the opportunity to interview a number of wonderful writers, including Anne Lamott and Robert Pinsky. I was also involved in consulting on submissions of essays, poetry, and short stories. Doing this work gave me more sympathy for editors and the work they do of going through many submissions. In the past, I was mostly inclined to curse editors for their short-sightedness in not publishing me (and the length of time it took them to respond). Being on the other side, I realized that often a piece of writing, while admired by editors, simply isn't right for a given publication for one reason or another. This doesn't mean that it's not a good piece of writing or that it might not see publication elsewhere. So I came to understand better that getting published is a matter of getting your work into the hands of the right editor, the one who is a good reader of your work, and doing this requires that you be tireless in sending your work out. In terms of its effect on my own writing, being an editor of other people's work helped me to read my own with greater distance, to view it as I would a submission from another writer. As a result, I think I got better at cutting things that didn't work and sharpening things that did, and paying attention to the movement and tone of my writing, to the overall effect it created. The conversations with my fellow editors about what made a piece of writing work or not, about what we responded to, were fruitful conversations from which I learned a lot.
FS: What books can be found on your bookshelf? Nightstand?
KT: I am currently reading Alistair McLeod's Island, which is absolutely wonderful. His short stories rank among the best I have ever read. Next I plan to read his novel, No Great Mischief. On the bookshelf across from my desk where I work are my favorite authors, the ones from whom I have learned the most: Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Henry James, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Knut Hamsun, Carson McCullers, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Edna O'Brien, Marguerite Duras, Leslie Marmon Silko. I also read (and write) poetry. Recently I've been reading Li-Young Lee, whose work I love. Among reference books, a recent find is Novel Ideas by Margaret Love Denman and Barbara Shoup. It's a collection of interviews with novelists about the writing process. It's a very encouraging and helpful book because you realize, reading these interviews, that the process of writing a novel is unique and individual, that even celebrated writers throw away many pages and tear their hair out, and that those who succeed are the ones who stay at the desk and keep doing the work.
FS: Any closing comments?
KT: I do see writing as close to a spiritual discipline. You have to do it as a practice to achieve your best work, and keep faith through the times when it is not going well. You have to learn to tolerate isolation and silence, and develop the patience of staying with something that doesn't offer immediate rewards. Like any spiritual discipline, writing has a lot of lessons to teach if we let ourselves learn them. I am grateful to have work that I find so fulfilling. I couldn't live without writing. It's the way I respond to a world that is full of horror and often makes no sense, and is full of beauty at the same time.