Monday, July 24, 2017

Jane Goodrich talks about George Nixon Black , his house and his secrets, writing longhand, and her novel, THE HOUSE AT LOBSTER COVE

Jane Goodrich, co-founder of Saturn Press, has written a novel featuring George Nixon Black, whose real-life house, Kragsyde, a shingle-style architectural masterpiece built on the North Shore of Massachusetts, was recreated in loving detail by Jane and her husband, doing all the work themselves, on an island in Maine.

George Nixon Black, a complex and romantic man, spent a lifetime hiding in plain sight, harboring a secret of violence and a secret of love. Using characters, letters and events from history, and spanning the period between the Civil War and the Jazz Age, The House at Lobster Cove is part family saga, part love story, and an engaging personal journey set against the magnificence and mercilessness of the 19th century.
The book is a loving testament to George Nixon Black, his house, and the secrets he held. It is an artisanal work combining all the aspects of Ms. Goodrich's distinguished career — building, designing, telling stories, writing, and printing.
Thank you so much for being here, Jane!

Q: What prompted your interest in the life of GEORGE NIXON BLACK? How has learning about him changed your own life?

A: I must admit that George Nixon Black’s house caught my eye long before he did. I was aware of Kragsyde, his house at Lobster Cove in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts for at least a decade before I ever knew of Nixon, as he was known by his peers. In fact, most people only know his name in association with his famous shingle-style house. Nixon’s personality was naturally modest, but as a wealthy gay man he practiced a habit of secrecy for his own safety. He left very little evidence of his life, and it is only through Kragsyde that his name remains in history.

Nixon’s Kragsyde was torn down after his death, but has lived in the light of architectural fame ever since. Once my husband and I had decided to build a replica of the house, Nixon became a ghost on our building site. Because we were doing all the work entirely ourselves, the rebuilding progressed slowly. Questions about how the original rooms looked or were used naturally led to questions about Nixon himself, and the members of his family who lived with him. As I began to research him, a fascinating individual emerged. Our replica was built in Maine, but Nixon lived in Boston so the first surprise I discovered was that he was born and spent his childhood in a Maine town less than 30 miles from where we had chosen to rebuild our Kragsyde.

Q: I understand you wrote THE HOUSE AT LOBSTER COVE by long hand. How did that help the writing and plotting process? How did you manage and keep track of the voluminous files and historical data?

A: The quick answer is that I have never been able to think and type, whether on a computer or typewriter, but the longer answer is I would be unable to write without the ability of long hand. I simply cannot imagine writing without actually writing. I have used the same fountain pen for 35 years and we are old friends.  I work in a craft printing business, I hand built Kragsyde. It is natural for me to progress slowly and carefully with simple tools.  I have often heard of writing described as a craft, and indeed it is. Building a house from the ground up by hand and writing a novel are very similar activities.

When I began to research George Nixon Black I started with primary source materials, particularly his will. I built out lists of his neighbors, people who he worked with in business, his family members, friends, employees, and descendants of people to whom he left money. I made index cards at first, but quickly memorized all this information, and kept my eye out for these people in other historical contexts. My best tool was a simple notebook in which I set out a page for each year of his life divided into months. Whenever I found the smallest detail about him I wrote it in this timeline notebook. When the time to write and plot the novel came I filled in this timeline with events occurring in the larger world.

Q: You did extensive genealogical and period research for THE HOUSE AT LOBSTER COVE ( Black lived in the late 19th century). What was the most challenging but rewarding find? What was the path that led you there?

A: This is a funny story, at least for anyone who has ever done hours of research in a library.
      In following through with my list of Nixon’s friends I found that he had applied for a passport after the Civil War to travel to Europe with a friend named Frank Crowninshield. It turned out this Civil War era Frank was the uncle of the Frank Crowninshield who was the famous editor of Vanity Fair magazine in the 1920’s.  In attempting to sort out the many Crowninshields and make sense of them I found myself in a huge quiet room in the Philips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. Here I had called up a box of letters written by the Civil War soldier Frank Crowninshield. When I opened this box, dozens of letters mentioning Frank and George Nixon Black fell out. It was the single largest resource I ever found mentioning Nixon. I gasped audibly, and the heads of a half-dozen other researchers snapped up. Realizing my faux pas I apologized. “Sorry,” I said. “but I just found something.”
“Lucky you.” one of them grumbled and went back to his research.

There are many such moments of serendipity that happen during research which make you feel you are hunting someone who wants to be found.  I met a descendant I had been hoping to find, by bumping into them on a train platform in Providence. I went into a cellar of musty deed registers in Boston and the book I was seeking was open to the page I was looking for.  A stray dog in a graveyard led me to, and sat down on, a grave I was seeking. That particular event made the hair on the back of my neck stick up!

Q: Would you have liked living in the same time as GEORGE NIXON BLACK? What mis(conceptions?) do we have about that period?

A: Would I like to be a member of the Gilded Age one percent? Yes and no. One could live unapologetically with great wealth which is a state unknown today, but the robber barons of the 19th century were puny compared with the tech robber barons of our time. Henry Ford would love the mark-up on an I-Phone compared to his Model T.

Medicine was crude and death and disease were part of daily life. Few families were not touched by the untimely death of one of their own.  Teeth were a constant problem. Without antibiotics the smallest injury or sickness could be fatal. Crowd scenes in period movies never show enough missing teeth or pregnant women to be accurate to any earlier time.

A woman’s life choices were more narrow than today, which can also be viewed as both a good and bad thing. One might, as a woman be expected to stay home and have children, but one would not be expected to get up the day after a birth and answer an email and be back in a full time job in a month.  People were allowed more time to be ill and more time to grieve. Today we are impatient with that.

One big misconception people seem to have is about Victorian prudery. People of the 19th century were just as racy as in any other time. It was just not so often on public display, and considering the sort of things acceptable for public display these days, perhaps they were wiser.

Both centuries have much to recommend them and much that is less desirable. I go back to THE HOUSE AT LOBSTER COVE and what I have Nixon conclude in the year 1902: The world does not get better, it merely changes.

Q: THE HOUSE AT LOBSTER COVE is your first book. It is exceeding expectations and succeeding in the marketplace. What was the most exhilarating  and frustrating part of the experience for you?

A:   The frustrating part? During the submission process of the novel, my literary agent and my dog died unexpectedly, and within days of one another. That was a bad week.

The most exhilarating part has been successfully introducing George Nixon Black to the world. In reading fiction about gay men I found over and over stories was written as cautionary tales. Their lives seemed always to end in sickness, misery, imprisonment or death. It certainly was not always this way, and I wanted to tell the story of this little-known man. A quiet, happy life, which was led on his own terms without hurting anyone else, and without being unfaithful to himself. He overcame problems but lived for 34 years in a relationship of great love and fidelity, promoted artists of every sort, and left his money to charities which still benefit people and animals today. I often say his story would be that of Oscar Wilde if Oscar had a happy ending.

Q: What is obsessing you now and why?

A: The slipping away of the summer. I have always had a deep feeling for the summer. Perhaps this is one reason Kragsyde, as the apogee of the American summer house, appeals. I have always considered June, July and August as summer, and the shoulder months as cheap impostors. Therefore, once July 15th is behind me, I begin to fret, and am never completely cured until the following June 1st.

Q: What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

A: I’m going to answer two questions I am often asked. The first is how I feel about revealing a man to be gay after he has spent a lifetime hiding it?
The world may not be better, but it has changed. In 1918, Nixon wrote about his long-term partner in his will. In his own words he wrote “ I desire to recognize the steadfast and faithful friendship that existed between us for many years...” In 1918 this statement was opaque, but today we know exactly what this statement about two men who had lived together for 34 years means.  I think Nixon would be pleased to have his lifestyle recognized. He will be even more pleased when the world does not give it a second thought.

Q: Since my novel is about real people and real events why was it written as a fiction?
 George Nixon Black was a romantic and secretive man with a love of the arts. I think he would prefer that posterity saw him as a painting rather than a photograph. It is only through fiction that the reader can see with his heart.

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