A Q&A with Eleanor Lincoln Morse
In a novel that is endowed with humor, replete with exceptionally strong portrayals of interpersonal relationships, and rich with affectionate moments,
In our first "Down East Authors Take Five," Lincoln Morse answers five questions about her book. Along the way, she reveals some secrets about her inspiration, writing process, life experience, and the joys of writing about the Maine landscape.
1) The surprise delivery of a thousand spruce seedlings launches the action in your book. What made you think of dumping this load of spruce trees on your character, Horace?
A friend offered me the use of a small A-frame cabin in Pubnico, Nova Scotia for a month. The cabin was quite isolated and surrounded by tall spruce trees. When the wind blew, which it does constantly in Pubnico, the trees swayed, and the house swayed with them. I'd just finished another book and was feeling my way into what was to become An Unexpected Forest. I'd already met Horace through a scene I'd written a few weeks earlier, so he was in my head, along with Oz, the ex-con. I'd been thinking about the way my generation has become increasingly distant from the natural world. How does that distance affect our ability to find our way toward some larger wisdom? The question interested me.
Being inside an uninsulated cabin in March put a much thinner skin between me and the world of rain and wind and birds and bobcats. And then it just popped into my head. Horace and Beverly's house would be flooded with tree seedlings. I didn't know what would happen, but I knew the event would require a response that would take them out of their comfortable suburban environment.
2) In "An Unexpected Forest", a chance encounter leads to the intertwinement of four characters' lives. How important a role does chance or serendipity play in your life as a writer?
I appreciate unpredictable events, in both writing and life. John Wetterau and I lived in India part of last year and met a sixteen-year-old Tibetan girl who's become important to both of us. How could we ever have predicted that our lives would interweave with Kalsang's, across generations and cultures? And yet, it's impossible to think of life now without her.
What first intrigued me in the writing of "An Unexpected Forest"was how the natural world would work its magic on each character. As it turned out, I became even more interested in how the collision of two couples, older and younger, would change everyone involved. In a Bach fugue, voices weave in and out of each other-two parts, three parts, four parts-as the music gathers energy and complexity and richness. I had this in mind as I was writing the book. I hoped that in part, the book would speak to the ways we need each other and are enriched by each other's lives.
The poet Stanley Kunitz, at the age of 100, said, "When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life." When I write, part of what I mean to express is this gratitude.
3) One of your characters is an ex-con from a Maine prison. What experience of your own do you draw on to create this character?
I worked in both Massachusetts and Maine prisons, as a workshop leader in the Alternatives to Violence program. More recently, through a grant from the Maine Humanities Council, I taught writing to both male and female inmates in three different prison facilities in Maine. Certain scenes from "An Unexpected Forest" were written alongside prisoners in these writing programs. I've experienced the quickening of my pulse as steel doors clanged shut behind me. Returning to the world is disorienting, even after a few hours inside. I can't imagine what it would be like to piece together a life again after years inside. In the book, I wrote, "When they first brought him in here, he remembered how bad it smelled. Now he was close to leaving, he could smell it again. Sweat, caged men. It wasn't so much the sweat as something sad. People think sad doesn't smell." This smell was an exact rendering of what I experienced inside. Prisons, of course, contain the full gamut of human emotions, but what I experienced most vividly was this sadness, an almost palpable sense of waste and blighted lives.
4) Your book shows characters at loose ends in their lives. What do you enjoy most about writing about characters whose lives are messy?
When a character is uncertain about the future, windows open wide to possibility. If Horace and Beverly had been completely content, if Oz and Lucy had known where they were going and how to get there, there'd have been no story. I don't think you need to look for mess. Human beings are messy by nature. It's how we learn. Lars Gustaffson, in the wonderful novel, "The Death of a Beekeeper", writes, "Deep within, every human being hoards a pitch-black riddle. The darkness of the iris is nothing other than the starless night, the darkness deep in the eye is nothing other than the darkness of the universe." Mess is part of the way we illumine the darkness; in these four characters, it's a kind of upsurging of desire.
5) Your writing reveals a real flair for description, particularly of the Maine landscape. Why is Maine such rich territory for this talent?
Maine is so wild and varied. For the most part, it hasn't been bulldozed into crisp lawns and overly pruned gardens. Since writing An Unexpected Forest, I've moved to Peaks Island in Casco Bay. Every season brings its particular pleasures, and around the edges is this amazing ferocity. You never know what the ocean will do. Recently, I saw an exhibit of paintings, about forty of them, twelve by twelve inches, along a wall of a museum. Each was a piece of sky painted on a different day. I'd like to start each day, describing the sky in words. The sky feels so visible in Maine. You don't have to drive a hundred miles to find sky and rocks and trees and earth.
Praise for An Unexpected Forest:
"An Unexpected Forest glows with life. Its four characters are true to themselves, each lost in a particular way, yet giving and receiving love generously. Eleanor Morse has written an honest and moving story suffused with humor, a celebration of the wide dimensions of the human world - its darkness and sorrows, its joys and new beginnings."
- Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette and Ahab's Wife
"… a lovely novel about the unforeseen second and third chances that life can offer. An Unexpected Forest is a celebration of resilience and reinforces one's faith in the risky business of life."
- Anne Le Claire, author of "Leaving Eden, Entering Normal, and The Law of Bound Hearts"
"… a beautiful book that's both mischievous and wise. The language evokes Maine's wild, endangered gifts of woods, bogs and islands. And its improbable band of characters - their lives full of disarray as well as promise - remind us that second chances are possible, at any age, if we dare take risks on behalf of who and what we love. "
- Kate Kennedy, author of "End Over End"
Eleanor Lincoln Morse has taught in adult education programs, in prisons, and in university systems in Maine and in southern Africa. She holds Master's degrees from Yale University and from Vermont College. She resides on Peak's Island, Maine. This is her first novel.
- By: Rosemary Herbert