Friday, February 20, 2015

An Island of Her Own

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Some of you will recall from earlier blog comments that I've been away on a one-woman writer's retreat. I'm leaving Nantucket today, after spending almost two weeks in my agent's otherwise empty house. It's been the best vacation I ever had, and that includes lounging on the beach in Cancun and hiking around the Highlands of Scotland. Honestly? If I wasn't getting phone calls from my husband reminding me that he misses me - a lot, so please come home soon - I'd just hunker down here until spring.

Well, I do also miss my dogs.

What have I done while here? Not much. Walked into or out of town on errands or visits a few times. Had drinks twice with a brand-new friend who feels like an old friend. Shoveled out the drive after the second blizzard. Went to church on Sunday and Ash Wednesday. Mostly, I've written. And what a pleasure and gift it is, to get up in the morning and realize, after making the bed and getting dressed, that I have nothing at all to do except write. In a quiet, clean house, where there's no dinner to fix or laundry to fold.

I have also fallen in love with Nantucket. Specifically, Nantucket in winter. I'm sure it's quite lovely and all in the summer with the beaches and roses and beautiful young things with tan legs biking around town. But I love the beauty of wind-scoured headstones and empty streets heavy with snow, and the gray-on-on-gray compositions of shingle houses, bare trees, and looming storm clouds.




This one's not mine - I clipped it from CBS News.
I also love the small town that's left behind after the tourists go. I went to St. Paul's Episcopal twice, and by the second visit several people smiled and welcomed me back. I've kept company with Nantucket historian Frances Ruley Karttunen (my agent's Aunt Fran) who came with Uncle Al husband to stay at "my" house during the blizzard. She introduced me to a few people and when I went to see her speaking at the Whaling Museum, I felt like I was sitting with a bunch of neighbors.

Picking up groceries at the Stop and Shop was like an after-church coffee hour, one person after the next hailing a friend and catching up. I'm not sure if it would be possible to do a quick dash in and out if you were a native.  When I went walking, drivers would wave as they passed me. Not many drivers - as near as I can tell, half if not more of the houses in town are shuttered for the winter. I have the feeling if I stayed one more week I'd probably wind up on a committee for historical preservation, or as a volunteer at the Atheneum, the town library.

I confess there's also a glamorous side to the winter here, albeit a different kind of glamor than the New York media celebrities and Masters of Wall Street of summer. The new friend I mentioned above is New York Times bestselling author Nancy Thayer (who loves mysteries!) While eating lunch at the Fog Island cafe, she said, "Oh, here's another writer friend I want you to meet! Nat! Come over here!"



It was Nathaniel Philbrick, Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the National Book Award. (He was very nice.) Uncle Al turned out to be Professor Emeritus Alfred W. Crosby, who pretty much single-handedly invented the discipline of ecological history. Nancy's husband Charley Walters, who gave me a fabulous tour of their 1840 house, is a former music critic for Rolling Stone.

Can you imagine who I might have met if I got to stay another week?

Coming off this amazing opportunity for daily writing and connecting with so many fascinating people, I have come to the conclusion that we need some sort of foundation - a large, well-funded foundation - whose sole purpose is to give crazy-busy women the chance to be alone and quiet and work at ---you fill in the blank. Their paintings, their books, their sun salutations, their souffles. In the meantime, I hope you all get a chance to run away from home - for a little while - to a place as marvelous as Nantucket.

Many, many thanks to Meg Ruley, David Lovett and the many members of the Ruley family who made my writing retreat possible!

Me and Aunt Fran after her talk at the Whaling Museum.


27 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

How wonderful that you've had this amazing opportunity to enjoy Nantucket, connect with such wonderful people, and write . . . we're all anxiously waiting to read that newest book!

Anonymous said...

What a lovely retreat! And I'm hoping it brought you closer to finishing the book because it is one that I am waiting for most eagerly. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. --Marjorie of Connecticut

Edith Maxwell said...

Sounds perfect. But awfully social for a retreat! On mine I prefer not to talk with anyone, but then I've never had the luxury of two weeks.

Do tell us how much writing you got done. And what you did for meals!

Margaret Turkevich said...

In the future, will Clare and Russ find themselves investigating a crime on Nantucket in the depths of winter?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

We are on the way! Fabulous. ANd Meg is such a darling.

Karen in Ohio said...

Julia, you sound recharged! Glad you had such a wonderful two weeks, and safe travels back to your loving family.

Triss said...

Such an interesting description of both the retreat and being in the place. Oddly, I have been thinking about a few days in Nantucket, alone, just because. Definitely prefer off-season but was not thinking about winter. Would you recommend I rethink that? You made it sound so lovely, cold or not.

Mary Sutton said...

Sounds like a great getaway, Julia. Nice mix of social and solitary. I wouldn't mind a trip like that for myself - you know, some day when the kids are out of the house and I don't have to worry about the day-job any longer.

Kaye Barley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Elia MacNeal said...

What a wonderful experience, Julia! Sounds absolutely amazing.....

Hallie Ephron said...

Loved reading this, Julia - I love Nantucket. I spoke last year at the Atheneum (gorgeous building, amazing history) and was smitten.

Lois Fleming said...

Julia, your dad and I vacationed there one summer and loved it then, I am not a fan of winter. The picture you posted of the big house looks exactly like your grandmother's!

Brenda Buchanan said...

That sounds divine, Julia-two whole weeks! And in such a cool place,among such lovely people!

I took three days off work last week and went up the coast to a friend's empty house to write. I did not see anyone (though I know a lot of people in the area) just kept my head down and wrote. It is an amazing feeling, to have no distractions, something that doesn't happen often enough.

Your foundation idea is fabulous. I think you should call it the Running Away From Home Foundation.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Lovely Julia! I love Nantucket too, though have never visited in the dead of winter. One of my dear friend's brothers lives there with his family. He's an amazing watercolor artist. If you stayed longer, you would definitely want to meet him!

Your family will be soooo happy to see you!

Karen in Ohio said...

The other side of the nonseasonal coin: Aspen is glorious in the summer.

Julia said...

Edith; some of the "more social" part came unexpectedly - when the second blizzard hit, Fran and Al came to stay with me for a couple nights, since my agent's house has a working fireplace in case the power went out. It turned out to be one of those lovely fortuitous events!

I got quite a bit of writing done and also progressed dramatically on the structure of the book; seeing how the different pieces of three parallel stories set in three different eras interweave together.

Margaret, if not Russ and Clare, I'd love to set a book on an island! I also urged Nancy Thayer, who is THE Nantucket novelist, to get cracking on a mystery.

Julia said...

Triss - I suspect your enjoyment of Nantucket in winter will depend on where you're coming from and how much you enjoy being out and about in cold weather. Heading down from Maine, I found the island temperatures to be quite agreeable - upper twenties and low thirties (thought the wind chill can really get you.) I like walking in cold weather, so I found it the perfect time. Also, without the press of 40,000 tourists, the folks living here have time to be very friendly and talkative!

Mom, I took the picture of the Greek Revival house because it reminded me of Grandma's! From what I saw of the town, there are not a lot of exceptions to the prevalent shingle style - definitely not since the Historic District Commission came into being.

Kaye Barley said...

HEAVEN! you have had the most perfect two weeks imaginable. I recently read an Egally of Nancy Thayer's next book, The Guest Cottage, had me dreaming of a life on Nantucket. You've just added to the envy. (ooooh, I messed up the name of Ms. Thayer's book in my last post - it's The Guest Cottage NOT The Guest House), and it was delightful and lovely.

Pat D said...

I am soooo envious!

Deborah Crombie said...

Julia, your two weeks sound heavenly. I think it's very hard to be a writer and deal with constant household and family chores and obligations. Most women don't have the luxury of shutting themselves in a writing "studio" all day while someone else keeps the household running.

I'm in on the Running Away for Creativity Foundation!!!

Kathy Reel said...

Julia, your retreat sounds like a dream come true. It also appears that you and Nantucket are a perfect fit, you easily gliding into the setting. Nantucket must attract creative people, as your friendship with Nancy Thayer and other meetings confirm. I'm thinking that the social part of your retreat actually fueled your energy to write and create. And, I agree with Marjorie that I'm hoping that you will have a much anticipated book out soon.

Grandma Cootie said...

How lovely for you that you got this time away and the bonus of meeting such wonderful people. And how lovely for us that you got to do so much writing so we get a new book soon!

FChurch said...

Julia, thank you for the photos and sharing your retreat with us! I, too, am hoping that this means the next Clare and Russ will soon be headed our way!

And I'd like to know how you dealt with your three-strand story problem. Did you pull the strands out--literally--as in separate files--and put them back together? Or did you outline each trajectory?

Deborah, wait--aren't you running away soon??

Deb Romano said...

My only vacation at Nantucket was in late May/early June of 1976. It was still on the cold side for us southern CT people. We (one of my sisters and a friend of ours) stayed in a central location at a guest house run by a couple who treated us like we were their kids! We rented bikes and rode everywhere around the island. It was rather quiet - school was not out yet for most places, and a wonderfully peaceful vacation. We did a lot of reading, in addition to riding around everywhere, took a lot of walks, went to the movies. I honestly don't think I could visit there during the winter, though. Although I loved our vacation there, I was too cold and had to buy a sweat jacket in order to not freeze!

I do love the idea of getting away to some place where someone else takes care of all the details of daily living!

I recognized some of the buildings in your photo, and relived my vacation there a little bit through them!

Oh, and I almost forgot: on the ferry on the way over we struck up a conversation with an elderly woman who was very stern in the beginning, and suddenly when we were pulling into the dock, she took out a pen and paper, wrote down her name and phone number and said that if we had any extra time, she'd be happy to have us over for tea! I still feel bad that we didn't take her up on it.

vkaz said...

Nantucket is wonderful! I went there in the spring once, no tourists around, and enjoyed the small town atmosphere, too. Friendly people, which I wasn't expecting. As a Californian, I loved the sense of history. I hope you got lots of writing done!

Pat Marinelli said...

I've been to Nantucket in the off-season. Loved it. I enjoyed your photos. Looks lovely in winter, but not sure I could handle the cold. LOL

Glad you had a great time and got your writing done. I love to pet and house sit for my adult children because they leave me food and I don't have to do anything except write and take care of the pets.

Thanks for the tour and the memories.

Lisa said...

If you haven't already (and you can find a copy), you should read Henry Beston's _The Outermost House_, about a year spent alone on Cape Cod in the 1920s.