Krista Bourne has always been surrounded by the strength, love and wealth of her family and their homes in New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. She has never had to think for herself. Living with boyfriend Michael and her elderly grandfather, she can also summon up the comforting ghosts of her beloved father and grandmother. In vivid dreams she flies with her pilot father, and when awake remembers idyllic childhood holidays spent with her bohemian grandmother.
When Krista impulsively walks out on her career as a professional dancer, it is the beginning of a new chapter in her life. She feels unsettled and excited by the sense of imminent change around her.
This feeling turns to panic, then fear when she realises that she is pregnant and is uncertain whether or not she wants to keep the baby, bringing her and Michael to a crossroads in their relationship. Adamant that she alone must deal with the situation, Krista rejects all offers of support from him, isolating her at a time when she most needs help.
Krista’s journey and emotional upheaval take her back to her summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, where she is surprised to find out that she does not know her family history quite as well as she imagined.
You set Off-Island in the vivid geography of NYC and Martha’s Vineyard. Where would you like to set another novel?
This is a great question because as a writer almost without exception it is geography or place that inspires me. In Off-Island it was NYC and lovely Martha’s Vineyard. What a framework! So solid and so comforting that when I struggled with plot, geography alone kept me on track.
I would like to set a story in Argentina, on a farm reminiscent to one I know. It has a startlingly beautiful entrance, with acres of sunflowers, a miles-long drive, an ancient stand of red eucalyptus and birches that shimmer silver in the bright morning light
At the end of the lavender-lined drive stands a sprawling casa principal, an inviting prospect with its terracotta roof tiles, white-washed walls, forest-green shutters, ornate grille-work and climbing red roses. Beyond the house unfurls a carefully landscaped, Europeanised vista, only hinting at the original scrub, elegant indigenous grasses and the vast expanse of Argentina beyond, with its romantic and tragic history, its rich soil capable of feeding the world.
I would include the fields where children once played polo and flew Chinese kites—long-tailed butterflies and wide-eyed dragons. Now waist-high in grass, fenced and used only for pregnant mares, it is the backdrop to a small chapel, where British men once sang a capella Christmas carols and La Virgen de Luján tumbled from her bier. Beyond this field is a Mexican-style stable rising up, fantastical and unexpected, like a rogue wave in the middle of the pampa.
Clothed in autumnal gold, the linden tree I barely noticed once is now indelible in my memory. It took more than a decade to extend its sturdy limbs over the crystal pool with its cascade of rock, surrounding cypresses and a hidden spring where swallows dip and dive. As with every other tree on the property, the incessant pampa winds have nudged the boughs southward towards the wild Atlantic—to the beach where fossilized sand carries the shallow imprints of saber-toothed tigers and other prehistoric creatures.
Audible on that unchanging wind are the mingled sounds of the men, women and children who have visited or lived on the farm—squeals of joy, playful splashing in water, a serenading guitar, voices singing, notes on a piano, the sizzle of an asado, chimangos calling from the skies, dogs barking, doors slamming, the threadlike cheeping of lost chicks, hooves thundering, cows lowing, arguments, fights, girlfriends, boyfriends, gossip, and wives quietly laughing. There is the scent of jasmine, roses, cana lilies, freshly mown grass and burning wood. There is the sound of guests arriving. The clink of wine-filled crystal, silver, porcelain and glass… Señora, Señor, más? All borne on the wind.
As I have arrived and departed the Argentine farm, there has always been one particularly insistent guest whom I would always unexpectedly see, here or there, catching a glimpse of him out of the corner of my eye. His arrival years ago was expected, but the subsequent returns were not. He arrived leaning heavily on door frames, the bird dog or his wife. He seemed ready at any moment to give in, topple over for good. He slept sitting up and his face looked shocked and pale. After moving gingerly from one spot to another, he finally claimed the high-backed rocker on the galleria facing towards the chapel, the river, and the first fingers of night in the western sky.
Little by little this guest’s face, like every other visitor’s, tanned to a healthy shade, and he dropped his walking stick; even ran the dogs. In the pool, amazed to find himself there, he floated on his back, and at supper asked for más—wine, chocolate, pillows. In Spanish, he asked for walnuts, tea, and what time again was lunch? Finding one raven-haired helper more attractive than the rest, he explained to her that his gift of bougainvillea, planted by the chapel and the stable, would last forever, the way that love does. Like every guest who visited, he didn’t want to go home. And in a way he never did. Sometimes love can even raise the dead…
Before they departed the farm, guests would usually linger for a while at the shallow end of the crystalline pool, by the cascading spring—not wanting to abandon this Shangri-La, but knowing it was time. The odd swallow would dip and dive past them on the surface of the water. After some quiet reflection they would cock their heads to the sound of distant hooves drumming in the field; draw in the inviting scent of wood burning under the grill. Then it would be time to eat, and time to leave.
I think there’s an Argentine story in there somewhere! 🙂 As in Off-Island, I start with the landscape. In that novel it was NYC and Martha’s Vineyard. Geography tends to be my inspiration and my stay, especially through the long-haul of writing a novel. I really need to love it.
Marlene Hauser is a professional writer based in Oxford, UK, where she lives with her husband and teenage son. She served as editor of the Writer’s New York City Source Book and originated the television film Under the Influence, going on to serve as Associate Producer and Technical Consultant. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and has received numerous awards, including a residency at the Millay Arts Colony in Upstate New York.