Chatham’s community of literary greats produce an eclectic mix of work
Sara Young has been hearing voices again.
It’s a good thing. It’s a sign that the children’s book author has let her imagination run free and the personalities of her fictional characters have fully developed in her mind. The voice currently running through her head is that of a curly haired third grader named Clementine, who is the star of an outrageously popular series of children’s books by the same name.
“Clementine talks to me all the time. I go through life wondering what she might say about different situations,” says Young. The child character’s impulsive, distractive, and overly active behavior is typical of children with attention deficit disorder. Young wanted to be sensitive to this fact and made sure that for every time Clementine’s character was reminded to “pay attention” she was also thanked for being kind or complimented on her artistic skills.
Known to most of her fans by her maiden name, Sara Pennypacker, Young has published ten books in the past ten years including such titles as Pierre in Love and Stewart Goes to School. She admits that she has tapped the lives of her own children for inspiration, and even turned the family cat, Polka Dottie, into a character.
Unlike many writers that suffer from writer’s block, Young, who writes at her Chatham home, complains of the opposite problem. “I get into a zone when I’m writing,” she says. “Sometimes I have to force myself to do simple things like open up the mail or call the plumber.”
On some days Young relies on the outdoors to clear her head. She has been known to work out sections of dialogue during long walks on Hardings Beach, and it was during one such walk talking with a friend that she became inspired her to write her first work of adult fiction titled My Enemy’s Cradle (Harcourt, 2008).
Writing for a mature audience was a step in a new direction for Young. This time the voice telling the story was that of a 19-year-old girl living in Nazi-occupied Holland. The story, while fictional, is rooted in the factual existence of the Lebensborn program, which placed girls carrying German babies into special maternity homes as a way of repopulating. The story required Young to do substantial research. “In order to write truthfully you need to experience it,” says Young “Every time a character got dressed I had to know what they would wear and then what they would have eaten for lunch.”
Luckily for Young, the story ideas keep coming. She’s already signed on to a variety of projects including a new novel for children that will take place in Chatham and she’s taken over the reins of the popular Flat Stanley children’s series.
Whether Young is communicating the magical curiosity of a child or giving a voice to a helpless teenager living in a war-stripped land, she makes her characters believable by becoming totally engrossed in their lives. The level of intimacy she has with the fictional world is both rewarding and exhausting. After Young finished writing My Enemy’s Cradle, for example, she was stricken by feelings of what she refers to as survivor’s guilt. “When you write in the first person you feel a deep sense of loss when it’s over—like your heart has been removed or an anchor is gone,” she says. “The characters will stay living in that world, and I got to turn off the computer.”
“I’m a hack. It’s true. I’m very proud of it.”
Such is the wry humor of Chatham historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. The English-born author of more than forty books, many of them bestsellers and most translated into more than a dozen languages, maintains a comically workmanlike attitude about his writing. “I’ve never understood people who whine about how hard writing is. Nobody put a gun to your head. It’s work, but it’s work I wanted to do,” he says. “I’m not doing anything very difficult. I’m telling stories.”
Cornwell may be writing at such a pace to catch up on an inborn love of language— and enjoyment of life— that was forbidden to him in his early years. Born in London in 1944, the “war baby” of an unwed British mother and Canadian airman father, Cornwell was adopted into a family in Essex that belonged to a now-extinct religious sect called “The Peculiar People.”
“They were the most ghastly family that ever lived,” says Cornwell. “They didn’t believe in doctors or dancing, and they didn’t believe in fiction either. I was beaten once for reading Treasure Island.” But it was quite a good upbringing for a historical novelist, in a way. “I got very well grounded in the Bible.
About 6 or 7 years ago Cornwell met his real mother for the first time. “I went to see her at her flat in England, and it was absolutely stuffed with history books. So I think that gene came from her.”
Perhaps the only other positive contribution of his years among “The Peculiar People” was Bernard’s lifelong love of sailing. “I actually learned to sail right from the beginning,” he says. “At age nine, I was steering a fishing boat over the shoals.”
After leaving the Peculiar People behind to attend London University, Cornwell soon began working for BBC television and later Thames TV’s News division. He met his wife Judy, an American, in Belfast. The two moved to the States in 1980. He began writing novels when he was refused a green card. He has since become both a well-loved writer and an American citizen.
Perhaps Chatham is home to so many writers simply because writers are not bound by their profession to live in any one place.
“I hope the town never loses its character,” says Cornwell. “You mustn’t think I’m being a grouchy old sod. Well, I am a grouchy old sod, but there are times when Chatham is such a wonderfully, ridiculously Norman Rockwell town.” Last summer, Cornwell appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Monomoy Theatre. He was awaiting his entrance outside the stage when he heard the national anthem being sung from the ball field 200 yards away. “I thought, ‘We’ve got a full house to see Shakespeare, and a full house watching the Chatham A’s.’ That sort of thing is deeply terrific,” he says. “Long may it last.”
Cornwell’s best known and most widely read books of historical fiction are his Richard Sharpe series, which chronicle the adventures of a Napoleonic-era English soldier. Cornwell’s other works include the Warlord, Starbuck, Grail Quest, and Saxon series, the most recent of which, Sword Song, recently hit number one on the bestseller list in England. Cornwell is pleased, but doesn’t pause long to celebrate.
“Right now I’m working on the story of the campaign and battle at Agincourt, probably the most famous battle in English history. It’s basically the story of how 30,000 French took on 6,000 English and lost, badly. The French seem very slow to appreciate my work for some reason.”
Obviously, many others are not.
“I know all the good soup places,” jokes novelist Anne LeClaire about her hometown of Chatham. “I really do need to know where to run for a cup of soup, because I barely cook when I’m writing.” Seriously, through, LeClaire is nourished here on so many levels. The beaches. The waters. They really give her a center.
But LeClaire, whose work often takes her readers into the shadowy regions of the human heart, for the first time set her latest novel, The Lavender Hour, here. People have since approached her and said they really enjoyed reading about the place that they know. When they read about the Chatham Light or the Old Grist Mill, they said they could really visualize it all. “It makes reading almost like a movie,” she explains.
One of the central characters in The Lavender Hour is Luke, a Chatham fisherman. LeClaire didn’t have to venture far from home for research. “I’ve known fishermen in my life. My son is both an artist and a fisherman, my husband is a fisherman, and their friends are fishermen. My husband used to go offshore and fish for cod, but both he and my son are now shellfishermen,” she says.
LeClaire believes all writers are on some level always researching and always paying attention. “Even if we don’t realize that we’re paying attention, I think we are,” she says. “It’s part of the craft. We’re just always observing. It’s just a witnessing, without judgment. Witnessing how things behave.”
LeClaire began her professional writing career as a journalist, writing human-interest stories, op-ed columns, and covering the arts for the Cape Cod Times, Boston Globe, and the New York Times. A mother of young children, she somehow found time to write fiction as well, and had short stories published in magazines like Redbook and Yankee. On the advice of a magazine short story editor, LeClaire decided to make the leap from part-time journalist to novelist.
When an editor who bought one of her short stories asked if LeClaire had any more short stories, LeClaire said she had an idea for a novel. “She told me to quit my job and write my novel,” she says. “So I came home, quit my job, and sent a letter to an agent in New York outlining the idea for my story.” They wrote her back immediately, requesting a chapter. They actually took her on and sold the novel without LeClaire having written it. “I had to learn how to write a novel in a hurry,” she says.
LeClaire’s early years served as excellent training for her later work as a novelist. Journalism taught her to pay attention, to write to a deadline, and establish a writing discipline. She even feels that the acting she did in early years helped prepare her for her future as a novelist. “Acting taught me to peel back levels of character,” says LeClaire.
Her life has become more and more demanding, with book tours and teaching engagements taking her away from home many times throughout the year. “I teach in France. I taught at the Maui Writers Conference. I’m going off and teaching writing workshops around the world. And I’m under deadlines.”
But she always returns to Chatham. “I have friends who live in cities, and I think to myself— it’s so abrasive in a city. It’s so noisy. When we’re really pulling deeply as writers, I don’t know how I would do it in a place like that. It goes beyond stimulating,” she says. “I’m stimulated fully by the natural beauty here.”
Rose Connors had no illusions. She knew that breaking into the publishing world wouldn’t be an easy task. So when she arrived at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference one summer day with the first draft of a crime novel in her hands she was hoping that a review session would elicit some helpful feedback. Much to her surprise, instead of receiving a critical critique she was handed a slip of paper with the name and phone number of a literary agent.
Connors took her first stab at fiction writing after working 20 years as a trial attorney in Seattle and then later on Cape Cod. Staying true to the old adage “write what you know,” she devised a cast of fictional characters rooted in the Barnstable County court system and set in her hometown of Chatham.
Absolute Certainty was published in 2002 and starred a female attorney named Marty Nickerson struggling to make a difference in a small town legal system. Using her own life experiences in the courtroom as inspiration, Connors was able to captivate her readers with realistic characters and a fictional narrative that was thrilling. (She maintains that none of her past characters were based on actual Chatham residents, but many of her local fans can’t help looking for similarities to people they know as well as mentions of favorite town hangouts.)
The book was so well-received that Connors found herself signed on for three additional titles and followed a core cast of characters through Temporary Certainty in 2003, Maximum Security in 2004 and False Testimony in 2005.
At the heart of each of her stories is a legal principle that Connors feels falls into a “gray area” of the law. “What I find the most interesting are the areas of the law that are ambiguous; the cases that make a person stop and think, ‘Wait a minute, is this the right way to govern this situation?’”
For Connors, writing is a leap of faith. She never plans her stories out ahead of time, and chooses instead to wake up early in the morning to write whatever comes into her head.
Because she doesn’t like writing in small spaces, her desk is situated right in the middle of her living room where there is plenty of light. “Writing can be a leap of faith. On really ambitious days I’ll write a scene and on other days I’ll write a paragraph. If I forced myself, I think I’d get paralyzed,” she says.
Luckily for Connors, her day job as an associate editor for the Cape Cod Voice keeps her creative juices flowing when her novel writing comes to a standstill. The job gives her the freedom to work on smaller projects with much shorter deadlines,. Therefore, the satisfaction that comes from getting something published is more frequent.
Connors is currently at work on a new novel with an entirely fresh set of characters. Despite her ability to write about many different topics, her passion for the legal system is undeniable. “As good as the legal system is, it’s full of holes,” says Connors. “I can’t think of a more dramatic stage to set a story on than a courtroom.”