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Author Rachel Urquhart Brings Local History To Life In ‘The Visionist’

By Amy Krzanik

Photo by Sarah Shatz.

Rachel Urquhart, part-time Tyringham resident and frequent contributor to Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and many other well-respected publications, recently published her debut novel, The Visionist, which tells the story of a transformative friendship between two teenaged girls carrying two very different types of burdens. The novel, set in an early 1840s Massachusetts Shaker community, explores the roles that charity and devotion play in lightening the loads and lifting the spirits of ourselves and others. In anticipation of her local appearance on March 30 as part of the Stockbridge Library’s “Sunday Speaker Series,” we asked Urquhart about the inspiration behind her new book. 

Rural Intelligence: Since the novel takes place in this general area, did you do a lot of your research and writing here?
Rachel Urquhart: I did most of my research and writing here. I spent at least three summers at Hancock Shaker Village, where at first, I just walked through the buildings over and over, telling myself my story and trying to imagine what my characters would have seen and done and felt as they went about their lives in similar surroundings. When I saw a bedroom, I tried to hear how the beds would have sounded as the girls tossed and turned at night. When I saw medicine jars lined up on shelves in the healing room, I imagined how my characters might have troubled themselves forever putting things in order. When I saw the single remaining open fireplace in the kitchen, I thought about the danger of skirt fires. That sort of thing. I also spent time in the archives, which yielded up some amazing artifacts. My favorite was a handwritten journal of medicinal “receipts” (an old word for “recipes”) that dates back to the early 1800s. Between the gorgeous names of the herbs — coltsfoot, fleabane, meadow rue — and the way the receipts were worded, many of the entries read like poetry. Finally, when it came to actual writing, I spent day after day at Lenox Coffee and in the library at Simon’s Rock while my sons were in camp. And whenever the conversations taking place around me became too interesting, I’d just put on my headphones, listen to Thelonious Monk, and keep on typing. 
 
RI: Did the idea for the novel come to you fully formed, or were you inspired by a certain part of the story, whether it be the Shakers, the friendship between the girls, or of something else?
RU: Weirdly enough, the idea did come to me fully formed, though only after I’d read about the Visionists, whom I’d never heard of. Very quickly after that initial plot download, I began to hear the voices of the girls, and to think about the profound friendship they shared — what it meant to each of them, how it would change them. It took forever for me to figure out the voice of the detective — Simon Pryor — but when I finally got it, I had fun galloping through the action with him.

RI: Was there a reason you chose a friendship versus a romantic relationship, seeing as how both types of intense feeling were frowned upon by the Shaker community?
RU: I chose to focus on the intimacy of friendship rather than romance because I felt that a story of full-on forbidden love in a Shaker enclave would be a pretty cheesy cliché. It’s true that while the Shakers approved of a general sense of affection amongst the believers, they felt that anything more exclusive would throw “union” out of balance in the community. So the close friendship between the two girls in my novel is a form of forbidden love. It’s just not one that involves the passionate flinging of bonnets and ripping of petticoats. It is much more about intimacy, which, especially when expressed in a restrained manner, is infinitely subtler and more revealing than sex.

RI: Because Shakers were so strict, were you nervous about depicting them in a negative light? How do you feel about the religion now that you know more about it? Are you religious yourself?
RU: At a certain point, I simply had to write a story I felt was true, even if at times it might make people see the Shakers in a dark and possibly negative light. I trusted that the years of research I did would help me paint an accurate if more complicated and interesting portrait of the group than the bland and saintly one I was accustomed to. They were real people, after all—people who brought a lot of personal baggage on their journey “into the light.” As far as my own feelings about the sect go, I’ve always been pretty nervous around organized religion of any kind. So setting my first novel in the most rule-bound religious community imaginable must have been some kind of attempt on my part to understand that way of thinking. I’m not sure that I will ever be able to grasp what it means to completely give oneself over to one’s faith, but something that was clarified for me in a very satisfying way was the difference between the formal aspects of Shaker life and worship, and the wildly expressive spirituality that animates them. I would say that I am, in my own peculiar way, quite a spiritual person, and by immersing myself so deeply in imagining what it might have felt like to be a Shaker, I grew more so. The fact that such a practical people could embrace their inability to explain so much about the world appeals to me. They rejoiced in wonder, and I think that was sort contagious for me. 

RI: Was it difficult writing from more than one perspective, and writing from the point of view of people “from the past”?
RU: The idea of staying inside the head of a single narrator terrifies me, so in choosing three, I think I picked the simpler route. That said, having to puzzle together multiple separate but simultaneous plotlines nearly split my head open on more than one occasion. I felt like a plate-spinner with far too much twirling to attend to. As far as writing in the voices of people from the past goes, it was difficult, yes, but it was also something I never could have imagined doing differently. I think that the novel has a certain strangeness to it — I think of it as New England magic realism — and so I feel that the language needs to be old-fashioned, contemporary, expansive, blunt and other-worldly all at the same time.

RI: What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Shakers while researching the book? Perhaps something you found out that didn’t make it into the book?
RU: Well, of course, this is all over the book, but I never really knew about the Shaker attitude towards family before — the fact that they demanded the dissolution of all “blood ties” as a condition of signing their covenant. That was really fascinating to me. But on a smaller level, there was so much that didn’t make it into the novel — and I’m still coming across amazing tidbits. Last week, I was looking something up in a really great book called One Shaker Life (by the local Shaker scholar and writer, Glendyne Wergland), and I came across the mention of three Shaker girls being punished for watching flies mate. Granted, it was 1793 and the religion was in its wild and wooly early days, but you can’t make up stuff like that.

RI: Since Rural Intelligence focuses mainly on this region of the country, what are the things you enjoy doing when you’re here?
RU: I’ve lived in the Berkshires during summers and weekends for my entire life, so my favorite things are a hodge-podge of nostalgia and discovery. I have adored the Tyringham Steak Roast ever since I was a child, when it was known as “The Block Dance.” I love hiking the section of the Appalachian Trail from Fernside Road in Tyringham uphill into Beartown Mountain State Park. It took me until last summer to discover the walks on Mt. Greylock. I have celebrated my birthday every year for the past two decades at the Inn on the Green in New Marlborough and, more recently, have become addicted to the margaritas at the Southfield General Store. I enjoy listening to jazz at Mission in Pittsfield—especially when the incredible and gracious 13-year-old guitar phenom Nico Wohl is playing. It’s kind of obvious, but every time I go to MASS MoCA, I come away amazed by at least one thing I’ve seen — and there’s a great gift shop to boot! Finally, I find the events and lectures sponsored by the Bidwell House in Monterey to be fascinating and fun. My favorite event? The contest for best pie at the museum’s annual summer fair!

Rachel Urquhart will discuss and read from The Visionist at the Stockbridge Library on Sunday, March 30 at 4 p.m.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 03/25/14 at 10:24 AM • Permalink