I am so delighted to host Harriet Scott Chessman on the occasion of the publication of her stunning new novel, The Beauty of Ordinary Things. Her previous novels, Ohio Angels, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (a #1 Booksense pick), and Someone Not Really Her Mother (a Good Morning America “Read This!” book), have a special place on my bookshelf. I was fortunate to read an early copy of The Beauty of Ordinary Things, and would urge you to do drop everything and read this little gem! – Meg
It is wonderful to have the chance to look back at a book you write, and to chart its course, from early, hesitant drafts to – yes! – miraculous publication.
My new novel, The Beauty of Ordinary Things, took over seven years to write. I thought it was complete at a few points during those seven years, and of course I felt enormous frustration and sorrow when I couldn’t find a publisher for it. Looking at this process from a calmer, happier vantage point, though, I realize something important: this book may have taken longer than my others to develop and bring into its fullest form because it is so profoundly personal. All of my writing has had personal elements, yet this one somehow really appeared to originate inside me, in a way that was often inchoate. I could feel the novel I had in me to write, and I knew, from the start, that this would be a book in some sense about the sacred. How to write it, though? How to find a form for what was more yearning than knowledge?
Benny Finn was the first character to come to me, and he stood, leaning against a kitchen counter in his mother’s kitchen – or in my heart – for a long, long time. I knew he was a young Vietnam veteran from a large Irish Catholic family in Boston; I knew he had suffered; I knew, or thought I knew, he would be drawn to the priesthood. Pretty soon, I also knew he would fall in love with Isabel, his brother Liam’s girlfriend.
I did my best, and by January of 2007 I (possibly with thoughtless courage) sent this novella – titled Benny Finn Writes to God – to my agent at the time, who said, “This is a gem, Harriet, but no one is buying gems.” She said it was much too short to be commercially viable, and suggested that I rewrite it, this time from a female character’s point of view. I thought she might be right, about the virtue of adding the voice of a female character, and at first I chose Isabel. Yet I loved and believed in Benny, and couldn’t abandon him. I stubbornly held on to his voice, and interwove his chapters with Isabel’s. I thought maybe he just hadn’t come through somehow, and I struggled to understand him more deeply, to bring him out more sharply.
That spring, at the urging of a new and immensely encouraging agent, I added yet more pages – about 10,000 words (a lot for this minimalist!), so that I could squeak past 55,000. This time I created the voice of a young nun, Sister Clare. I hoped that, with this addition, the book would become more resonant, in addition to coming closer to the accepted commercial length for a novel.
I confess, I approached the voice of Sister Clare with trepidation. I knew she was closer than Benny to the sense of the sacred, which I hoped could shine somehow at the quiet core of this novel, but how could I possibly know what it might be like to be a cloistered nun in a Benedictine Abbey? Yes, a beloved friend had become a nun – Sister Lucia Kuppens, O.S.B. (now Mother Lucia) – at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. I have always been astonished by Mother Lucia’s wisdom and her gifts of insight, her compassion, and her choice to enter this Community. Yet how little I really knew of her life! I wasn’t even Catholic. Raised Baptist, with touches of my mother’s Episcopalian heritage, and embracing the world of Reform Judaism through my husband and children, I remained Protestant and fairly secular, in the way Protestants can be.
To my great surprise, however, Sister Clare’s voice came to me in a rush. I felt she had been waiting for me all this time. As I wrote, I immersed myself in research, and in spite of my doubts about my capacity to write something authentic about a character who had chosen to become a nun, I trusted in Sister Clare’s presence and her approach to the world and to Benny Finn, Liam and Isabel.
During this process, and in the years to follow, several of my friends at the Abbey helped me, each in her own way. Mother Margaret Georgina Patton gardened with me – and to garden with this amazing woman (and poet!) is to have the chance to talk about all things under the sun. Mother Augusta Collins walked with me in the pastures, as we spoke about the cows, the barns, literature, children, and more. Mother Angele Arbib read the manuscript a couple of times with great insight, and we rolled up our sleeves and dug in together. Mother Noella Marcellino (the “Cheese Nun”!) laughed with me, and regaled me with stories. The presence of the entire Community inspired me in my crazy effort to offer at least a small window into a life devoted to work and prayer.
What I strove to gain, as I discovered Sister Clare’s voice and revised the manuscript in the fall of 2007, was a clearer sense of what the heck my story was about – I mean, what it was really about. A few generous writer friends, and my fiercely intelligent daughter, read the manuscript and gave me superb advice. And over the course of the following year, my agent sent it to over twenty-five publishers. She gave it her all. I received positive comments from a bunch of editors, yet no contract. Discouraged, one day I placed the manuscript on a shelf.
I realize now that I needed two things above all: (1) distance (temporal and emotional) and (2) some brilliant and amazing editor, who could help me pull this little boat out of the mud and patch it up, paint it, find the oars, nudge it in a good direction, so it could have a chance to get out of the marsh and onto open water.
Distance can come with the years passing, thank heavens, if one is lucky, so by the time Mark Cunningham – a writer colleague, author of the gorgeous, unusual novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow and Lost Son – invited me to send my Benny Finn manuscript to the new micro-press he had founded in Portland, Oregon, I was ready.
Mark did what the greatest editors can do: he listened to the still largely inchoate meaning inside this book, and figured out through insight, questions, wisdom and instinct how to help me develop the story so that it could find its truest form. In our conversations, I told him about the earliest version, Benny Finn Writes to God, and he asked to see that as well. Intrepid, he suggested going straight back to that early novella, in Benny’s voice, weaving Sister Clare’s sections through Benny’s – seeing what would happen. Instantly, I could envision a new architecture – an ark!! – and started to build. I cannot say enough about Mark’s responsiveness throughout this process – his care for the vision and his attentiveness to each word. He helped me bring each character’s voice into greater authenticity, passionate honesty, and clarity. I owe so much to him – more than I can possibly say.
For this young and wholly unjaded editor, it has never been about the word count or the vast commercial potential; it has been about finding the book’s soul and bringing it to the fore in as beautiful and true a way as possible. Through his welcome and inspiring suggestions, I came back to the manuscript, and rewrote it from start to finish, in about three months, surrendering to the material’s own grace and demands. Mark’s trust in me and in this book encouraged my own trust in this creation, in what it could become. And for seven more months after that, he helped me hone and sharpen each page until both of us were satisfied.
May all writers have the chance to develop their work with the aid of a publisher as brave and clear-sighted as this. And may all of us have the courage and stubbornness – in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, the “brute beauty and valor and act” – to hold to our visions and discover our course. May each of us honor the windhover, floating somehow, in spite of all, miraculously, above our little boats.
. . . the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
(from Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover”)