A Conversation With

Q: The Edge of the Earth seems similar to Drowning Ruth, in that it’s set in the past and has a somewhat Gothic feel. What prompted this return? A: It didn’t happen on purpose. When I’m in the process of choosing the subject for a novel, my first consideration is that it be an idea that will sustain me for the two years or more that I know it’ll take me to write a book. I have to feel that the dream I’m entering is so fascinating and full of surprising possibilities that I won’t get tired of thinking about it. For me, the past easily provides that sort endless interest, because you can never know for sure what happened or why. Immediately after Drowning Ruth, I felt I’d exhausted my store of words and my supply of the type of scenes that would convey that atmosphere of the past. I had to write a comedy and then a contemporary relationship novel, in part simply to refresh myself. But over those years, the well that contains my excitement in the past and my attraction to people who harbor dark secrets there refilled. Q: Readers and reviewers have commented on the vivid sense of place in all of your novels, and the setting of The Edge of the Earth is clearly at the heart of this book. What attracted you to the lighthouse off Big Sur, California? A: The Edge the Earth was absolutely inspired by its setting. Anyone who’s driven on the Pacific Coast Highway south of Carmel knows how dramatic and isolated that area is. Mountains crowd the road to the east; the Pacific spreads to the west; and the lighthouse stands on its own morro, almost unconnected to the land, a scrap of human habitation surrounded by miles and miles of rock and water. For me, it was a perfect setting for a novel, a dramatic and difficult place where I could trap characters and where they’d have to confront each other and stumble over each other’s secrets. I think setting can be as strong an influence on character and story as any other factor. Also, I’ve discovered that I need to know a place well to set a convincing story there. Because my fiction is so removed from my real life, I need solid ground—a thousand concrete details—on which to build a substantial dream, and those specific details are what make the story feel real. Q: Certain aspects of the end of the 19th century seem particularly important in this novel—the approach to science, attitudes about women, the closing of the American frontier. How much did those influence your choice to set the novel at this time? A: Not as much as they should have! I wanted a time when the lighthouse at which most of the book is set would be particularly isolated, when the only contact with the outside world would have to come from the sea. When my characters would have to wait many months even for a letter. I also wanted the freedom of a time when a person without an extremely specialized education could be convinced that he might make a great scientific discovery just by observing and thinking about the world around him. I lucked out in that

this also turned out to be a time in which women were beginning to think that perhaps they need not be entirely dependent on men. In fact, that they might require something other than a husband and children to fulfill themselves. This is the period in which Kate Chopin wrote The Awakening and Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. Q: Some writers outline meticulously before they begin; others start with something as limited as a single image and see where it takes them. Where do you fall in that continuum? A: For me, an outline takes all the life out of it, but I’m afraid to start without some sense of the world I’m going into, because I know how much time I can waste. The Edge of the Earth, as I said, started with the place—I knew when I saw it that there was a story in it for me; I just had to look until I found it. I had the idea of the place in mind for a couple of months and was toying with some characters that I couldn’t quite grasp. It wasn’t until I went to Big Sur and explored the area around the lighthouse for a few weeks that the main character—Trudy—emerged for me, sort of like a bubble rising to the top of my swamp-like brain. Her situation arrived with her—the idea that she would have come to this place from Milwaukee, a city I know well, with a husband who would, like the place, turn out to be different from what she’d expected. At that point, I plunged in and started writing. I tend to write, very haltingly but steadily, pretty much in what I think will be the order of the book (although it doesn’t always stay that way). As I go along, fragments, which can be images or pleasing phrases, come spontaneously into my mind and usually I can use these fragments in some way—I think this is evidence of my unconscious mind at work and I’m grateful for it. Inevitably, this process carries me about two-thirds of the way through, and then I crash and realize I don’t really have a story and despair and have to rethink and unravel. Those are probably the most hideous months, but then I figure out what my story really is and the revisions, while probably the hardest work are also the most satisfying. Q: How many hours do you write a day? A: Not enough. My work habits are deplorable; I’m very undisciplined, especially during the initial creation stage. Every day I vow to begin as soon as my son goes to school, but then there are dogs to walk and cat litter to empty and a kitchen to clean up and email to answer and more coffee to make. However, I’ll always write before folding laundry. Then I’ll just be getting going when I’ll have to stop to go to an appointment or do a long overdue errand, which I then carry out in a very distracted way, because half my mind is still in the book. On the other hand, I’m always chipping away at it; I’ll take my computer along when I know I’ll have an hour to wait somewhere, for instance. It’s really the worst of all worlds—I’m never working really hard but I’m never not working. Also, when I’m feeling under a lot of pressure, I’ll keep this up until late at night, which is pretty unpleasant. On the other hand, once I’m revising I can concentrate for eight hours at a stretch, take a short break and dive right back in, day after day. It’s rare that I have access to a big chunk of consecutive hours like that, but when it happens, I barely even need to eat.

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