How does a creator’s setting inform their creative work? How might a writer’s sense of place affect the world they build for their characters? I am interested in how setting affects forms of writing, whether they be romance novels, poetry, memoirs. So, I set out to ask writers outside Yale the question of how they bring their home state, Connecticut, into their work.
Jane Green, a transplanted resident of Westport, is the author of 19 novels, including 17 New York Times bestsellers, a cookbook and several short stories. Jane has lived in Connecticut for 17 years, to which she said she “moved straight from London after bypassing New York.” At the time, she had been married to an American whose mother worked to charm her across the Atlantic. Although her mother-in-law had driven Jane through Westchester, New York, the town “didn’t do it for [her],” so instead they drove through Westport. “We parked behind Main Street, and it was summertime, and we got out. There were tons of teenagers with sand on their ankles. It was just lovely, and I thought: ‘This feels right.’”
Several of Jane’s novels take place in or around Connecticut. “Dune Road,” a book about a single mother who works for a famous, reclusive novelist, takes place in a beach community of a Connecticut town. In “The Beach House,” a widow whose family has left her, must grapple with her drying bank savings and the threat of losing her home in Nantucket. And “Falling” tells the story of Emma Montague, a woman who leaves England and moved to New York to escape her parents’ sky-high expectations.
When Jane first started writing, all of her books then were based in London, where she had lived. After she relocated to New York, she did “half and half — they were still very English but they did have a bit more of American in them.”
“And for a long time, I didn’t want to base them in my town, so I invented a fictitious town of Highfield, CT, which was a little bit of Westport, a little bit of New Canaan, a little bit of Ridgefield,” she told me. “Over the years, I’ve started writing much more about Westport, and actually ‘Falling’ is very much a Westport book…” She explained that her husband, a native Westporter, has taught her much about “the roots of the town.” Westport has “so many layers,” which, through her years of residence, she constantly discovers.
Jane’s workspaces in Connecticut have also varied over the years. While she used to work from home, she noted that as she “started having more children, and life got busier,” she began working at the Westport library or at a local playhouse. “Now I have a little office in Saugatuck which I completely adore because I like to be away from my house, because it’s very important to me to feel like I have a routine,” she said. “I created in the building a creative co-working space. We rent out desks [for] creative people.” Jane even enticed her dear friend, Lauren Weisberger of “The Devil Wears Prada” fame, to work in her Saugatuck office building just next door to her. She and Lauren would “talk shop” together and are very invested in each other’s business.
When I asked Jane about how she builds environments around her characters, she told me that her writing has to be character-driven. In her own writing process, “it has to start with the characters” and if the characters are not right, the project falls through. While characters come first and foremost in her writing, Jane explained that in “The Beach House,” “a crumbling old house” in Nantucket served as a character in and of itself.
Sophie Cabot Black of Wilton brings the Connecticut wilderness into her poetry. Sophie has written a number of poetry collections, such as “The Misunderstanding of Nature,” “The Descent” and “The Exchange.” Her poems have been anthologized in “Best American Poetry” and “Never Before: Poems About First Experiences.” She has won honors like the Connecticut Book Award for “The Descent” and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award for “The Misunderstanding of Nature.” Her poems bring to light both the scarcity and abundance in the natural world.
Sophie moved to Wilton when she was five years old and has lived on the same picturesque farm ever since. “My mother came out here to get both feet and hands back in the dirt after spending years in New York with her husband,” Sophie told me.
Sophie broke down for me her Connecticut roots and the farm from which she draws inspiration. She told me her mother was a protester of the [Vietnam] war and a protester of nuclear armaments. “But she was also a farmer, and I followed in her steps. I was farming with her when I was in my teens… we cut trail all over Wilton. I got to know the terrain quite well. I had dirt under my nails my whole life. Connecticut dirt.”
When I asked Sophie about a place from which she draws inspiration, she painted for me a picture of a vista on her farm that looks out toward what her family calls “the ski hill,” looking over the hayfield. She explained to me that the view “gives [me] a sense of inspiration and a sense of belonging in time.”
Sophie draws inspiration from Emily Dickinson’s poetry because her work has taught her how a “line can be transporting.” She loves Dickinson’s poem “My Life had stood— a Loaded Gun” which she read when she was young because she found it to be “fascinating and different.” Sophie became interested in writing poetry when she was eleven, and a substitute teacher “put a bunch of magazine pictures on the walls and said ‘write about these.’” Sophie confessed that she loved it so much she has pursued it since.
In Sophie’s poem “One Turn That Makes the New World,” she begins “Maybe the light from a small window / Tucked at the utmost eave of the barn / Could be misunderstood; if only I had pulled / In by the other way or not looked up / Against such darkness.” When I asked her from where she draws this imagery and how she constructs it, she brought me once again to her farm. She sees the light on in her big hay barn. The poem was inspired by her “experienced experience” of the farm where she has spent 55 years of her life and where she has put down 20 horses and buried them on the property. She told me that in the poem, she seeks to channel or to recreate the memory of her dearest friend, a man whom she used to call Bird.
Sophie believes that private aspects of poetry do not all need to be known, that the intersections in her life should become intersections within her poetry.
Dani Shapiro, a bestselling memoirist and novelist, lives with her family in Litchfield County. Dani has written memoirs like “Still Writing,” “Devotion,” and “Slow Motion,” as well as novels such as “Black & White” and “Family History.” Her work has been published in The New Yorker and featured on the acclaimed podcast,“This American Life.” She writes movingly about family tragedy and religious faith.
In “Devotion,” Dani meditates on the course of her life through the lens of faith and spirituality in stories she weaves from the past. Now safe in her Connecticut home and loved by her husband and son, she explores the questions of how past traumas persist in her present life. Dani moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Litchfield 15 years ago with her husband and young son in a choice to “live a nonurban life.”
“It’s hard to say how where a writer lives influences her work,” Dani wrote to me over email. “Certainly, it does. The quiet, for one — the sense of more hours in the day was something I was very aware of, at first. But the speed and noise of life always catches up with us. And so, especially in recent years, I’ve had to be mindful of keeping space and silence in my interior life, which is, of course, where the place from which the work springs.”
Memory of place, Dani’s email read, affects her work deeply. “I grew up in New Jersey, and the landscape of my childhood has been a significant part of all my memoirs. The sensory details of place are a way in for me, a chute into the place where memory resides. If I can call to mind the streets of my childhood neighborhood, or the sound of lawn sprinklers from the neighbor’s backyard, or the scent of the first forsythia of spring, or the pews in the synagogue where I spent many Saturday mornings with my dad, I can build a whole world around those images and moments.”
Dani described the differences between writer communities in Brooklyn and Connecticut. While she has found her place in Connecticut, finding “her people” took time and was not easy at first. “Unlike Brooklyn, where taking the dog out for a walk meant running into half the writers in that year’s ‘Best American Stories’ — nothing like that exists in Connecticut. When I let the dog out, it’s just me and the deer in the meadow.” She explained that her writer friends are more scattered, that they see each other when they are on the road, and that when they do, “it’s a great reunion.”
Marilyn Nelson, an accomplished poet, translator and children’s book author, also writes from her home in the Nutmeg State, whose history has impacted her writing career. After accepting a position at the University of Connecticut in 1978, Marilyn moved from Minnesota and has lived in the state ever since. Marilyn, a professor emeritus of English at UConn, served as poet laureate of Connecticut from 2001 to 2006. She has won two Pushcart Prizes, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Guggenheim Foundation, two Yaddo residencies and the 2012 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America.
Marilyn has written extensively about Connecticut history. To celebrate the National Parks Service Centennial in 2016, the Academy of American Poets commissioned fifty poets hailing from fifty states to write a poem about the state park of their home. Marilyn was selected and wrote about Weir Farm in Wilton, a farm donated to the National Parks Service by its former owner and painter J. Alden Weir. Marilyn told me: “I went on a pilgrimage looking for his paintings.”
She writes in her final stanza of her poem, “Weir Farm,” “You can daub this earth, so lyric, so gentle, / from the limited palette of your own love right now. / Any place you care for can hold an easel. / Everything around you is beautiful plein air.”
Marilyn also confronts the racial history of Connecticut. She wrote a book of poems about a slave, Fortune, from Waterbury whose bones had been rendered by the man who owned him, and whose skeleton had been in the town for 200 years. “Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem” commemorates the history and livelihood of an enslaved husband and father of four. In another book, she writes from the perspective of Venture Smith, an African slave captured and brought to East Haddam in the 18th century, about Impressionist paintings at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. In 2007, along with the poet Elizabeth Alexander, Marilyn researched and wrote a book of poems called “Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color. ” Elizabeth and Marilyn each wrote sonnets about the school Crandall, opened for young black women in the 19th century. Together, they talked with the curator of the Prudence Crandall Museum and “spent time in the attic.” “Outside of the Crandall research, we just tried to imagine ourselves into the lives of those girls,” Marilyn told me.
Jane, Sophie, Dani and Marilyn all bring the place they share into their work. Connecticut writers draw from history of place, from memory of place, from experience of place and from love for place.
Annie Nields | firstname.lastname@example.org .