Thursday, June 5, 2014

Faith, The Shakers, Identity: Rachel Urquhart talks about The Visionist, one of the most extraordinary books of the year

It's totally amazing that The Visionist is Rachel Urquhart's debut. Set in the world of The Shakers, it's about identity, faith, betrayal, and so much more. It's a book that's so richly imagined, so compelling, and so gorgeously written, that you feel as if you are living every page. And I'm not the only person raving.  The New York Times, The London Times, O Magazine, NPR, and more, all were as dazzled as I was. I'm honored to have Rachel here on the blog. Thank you so much, Rachel.

The Visionist is so much about identity, who we think we are, and who we can become. At one point one of the characters asks, “Is anyone who we think they are?" Do you think the search for that question is as important as the answer to it?

I think that you are getting at something very important, which is the fact that there are some questions we ask not because we expect a concrete answer, but because the inquiry itself is its own answer, one that helps us feel our way through the darkness as we try to figure out who we are, where we are, and what we are made of. Realizing that no one can be fully known is one of many human truths that allows us to understand and, one hopes, prepare ourselves accordingly for fact that nothing in life is certain. I believe that everyone is an imposter of sorts—even if it’s just because of the difference between the person we are perceived to be and the person we really are. That’s a generalization that applies to each of the characters in my book.

All the details about the Shaker community were so vivid and unsettling. What was your research process like?  Did anything about your research surprise you and veer the story in another way?

In the beginning, I researched this book as if I were a journalist doing background reporting. I started big—Who were the Shakers?  I ended small—How noisy is a room full of sisters working on looms? What’s it like to knead bread? Or gather up the brethren’s soiled bed sheets when you are not allowed to even speak to them? Or submit to the weird and frightening inspections carried out during the Midnight Cry?  The big stuff helped me shape the narrative in a crude but essential way. I needed to understand why the Shakers believed that all ties to one’s “blood relations” had to be broken; I needed to get a sense of what it might have been like to engage in ecstatic worship; I needed to try and see the world through a Shaker’s eyes, all the more so when the view seemed unsympathetic. All of that fed the body of my book. But it was the little stuff that thrilled and amazed me in its power to shape my characters. I never planned for Charity to have paisley-shaped lesions all over her body until I came across a photo from the late 1800s depicting the beautiful torso of a young woman suffering from figurate Erythema, a dermatological condition that is often brought on by stress.  [Here’s the photo, just FYI.]

I had no idea that the old herbal recipes I came across in Shaker medicinal journals would sound like poetry, and so I couldn’t read something like, “Take of Capsules of White Poppy, and dried and freed from the Seeds, two pounds…” and not have it affect the language I used in certain sections of the book. Images of Shaker sisters plucking the fur from raccoon pelts by candlelight so that they could make mittens for the brethren were at once so homespun, so weird and so primal. I did my research hoping to find that kind of detail precisely because I knew it would be the making of the soul of the book.

So much of the novel is about faith, what we need to believe in and why and how we do it, but it's also a book about politics and property and how those two things have as much hold on people as faith does. Can you talk about this please?

Going in, it was clear to me that, in general, the characters living inside the Shaker community would concern themselves with faith and purity, while the characters living outside, “in The World,” would concern themselves with money and power. What I didn’t see coming was the porousness of the divide between those seemingly opposite communities and pursuits. Simon Pryor, the inspector, pretends to have no faith at all, and yet without it, he knows is lost. His nemesis, James Hurlbut, is by far the greediest character in the book and yet there is a specific moment when he could have chosen the less craven path. Both men are haunted by an absence of faith and morality in their lives. Likewise, inside the Shaker community, money and power play more of a role than one would ever expect. Her dedication to her flock leaves Elder Sister Agnes just as determined to put her hands on the Kimball farm as is James Hurlbut. She is no stranger to manipulation and understands all too well the power wielded by Polly and the Visionists. And finally, she is not above using Polly’s little brother, Ben, as a pawn to get what she believes will be best for the community. After all, like many people who joined the Shakers, she lived a hard life before arriving in the City of Hope, and—like Simon Pryor, and James Hurlbut, and Polly Kimball, and eventually, even Sister Charity—she knows that good and evil, truth and lies, faith and politics, are never separate.

I deeply admired the structure of your novel, the way all the myriad voices came together in a way that was both exactly right, surprising, and deeply satisfying. What was it like to build that structure? Was it always in you mind or did it evolve organically? 

I began with the idea that the voices would braid together very evenly—which is a highly impractical way to tell a story with multiple narrators and, ultimately, kind of pretentious to boot! That error taught me to think hard about form, and when it’s appropriate to employ a very specific pattern to one’s narrative, and when a pre-conceived structure simply gets in the way of the story. I also made the mistake of beginning each chapter with an archival snippet. Sometimes, it was a Shaker prayer or recipe or saying; sometimes it was a paragraph from a newspaper, or and advertisement, or a sentence from a travel journal; sometimes, it was even a quote from one of the great thinkers and writers of the time—Emerson, Hawthorne, Greeley—who happened to have spent time with the Shakers. The point was to begin each chapter with something factual that would kind of enhance the fiction to come. (And, I suppose that if I’m to be honest, the point was to prove that I’d amassed a ton of information and I kind of wanted to show it off.) But no one really cares about “real” facts when they are wrapped up in a story. The “snippets” got in the way of the narrative, so out they went.

Once I’d freed myself from those two missteps, all I had to do was balance timing, tension and mood, and trying to figure out the sequencing nearly killed me. Time moves so slowly in the girls’ stories because they live inside this emotionally charged place where very little happens. Meanwhile, I had to invent all kinds of ways to slow the action down in Simon Pryor’s sections, so that his story would keep pace with theirs, and everyone would end up in the right place at the right time by the end. I ripped this novel apart and put it back together again so often and in so many different ways. Of course, I still wish I’d paced certain things differently, but I ran out of time and perspective. That’s just what happens, right?

What's your writing life like these days? 

I am not going to lie: it’s kind of depressing! I know I should list a thousand projects I have going, but the truth is, I am a glum ruminator before I sit down to write. I go into a kind of hibernation, and my mind runs thick as molasses, and I imagine that I will never write again. Eventually, I come out of it—and I’m relieved to say that I can feel my imagination waking up. Finally.

I need to clear my plate of all family responsibilities (ha!), and place myself in the secluded wilds of Massachusetts—where I wrote The Visionist over ten summers—and just…begin. The new book is all in my head. I’ve written a few chapters, and an endless shaggy dog story of a synopsis. I’ve even made an Xcel graph of characters and storylines and sub-storylines. (That’s a first, believe me. It took me a week just to figure out how to actually use the program!) Very little of that will end up in the book, but it’s the make-work I felt I had to do to get the ball rolling.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I am obsessed by two things. The first is what I’m going to be writing about: the gifts and burdens of legacy, and how the past shapes who we are but also, if we let it, who we can become. The second is, how I’m going to write it, which is to say, the reclusiveness. I am trying to prepare myself for the way I’ll have to live in order to produce another book. Sorry—that’s an extraordinarily self-absorbed answer, but it’s the truth! I may be over dramatizing things—oh, what I would give to be more British about writing!—but I think that immersing myself so deeply in my characters comes at a bit of a cost to my real life. Because if I’m working hard to see things from their perspective, I kind of lose my own, and it can be hard to find it again at the of the day.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Hmmm. Maybe, Are you finally done talking?

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