Sunday, April 25, 2021

Eleanor Morse

Eleanor Morse is the author of White Dog Fell from the Sky and An Unexpected Forest, which won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medalist Award for Best Regional Fiction in the Northeast United States, and was selected as the Winner of the Best Published Fiction by the Maine writers and Publishers Alliance. Morse has taught in adult education programs, in prisons, and in university systems, both in Maine and in southern Africa. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.

Morse's new novel is Margreete's Harbor.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

To give you a little background, Margreete's Harbor traces the life of a family of six people in three generations living under one roof during the 1950s and 1960s. They all end up together because the grandmother, Margreete, who suffers from dementia, burns down the kitchen and is unable to live alone safely. She refuses to leave her home and the rest of the family moves to Maine to be with her.

The structure of the novel is kaleidoscope, with six voices and six interconnected story lines. Because of this, I had a heck of a time coming up with a title that worked for all of those voices. I could have filled pages with titles I considered and rejected. Here are a few: Love, Even So. Keepers of This Place. Lifeboat. Rowing Toward the Light. Anthem for Six Voices. There were dozens more!

I owe the title, Margreete's Harbor, to my agent, who said, "Your book is like a five-pointed star, with Margreete at the center. Why not Margreete's Harbor?" So that was it.

Titles are the first words that a reader reads. Because of that, they feel really important. I wanted these first words to pull a reader into the book with a concrete image. In this case, I hope the word "harbor" does this through an image of water, boats, and a feeling of shelter.

What's in a name?

Out of the six main characters in the book, some of the names came to me and never changed, and others changed a couple of times. Bernie, the oldest kid in the family, first appeared in a short story, walking at a distance across a field with a kind of lumbering walk. He was always Bernie. I can't explain why, but I can't imagine him called anything else. The names of Harry (the father) and Gretchen (the youngest daughter) also came quickly. Margreete (the grandmother) also came to me easily, although she began as Margrete. I added the extra "e" so it would be clearer how to pronounce her name.

I struggled, though, with the mother--Liddie (short for Lydia)--and with the middle daughter, Eva. When I'm coming up with names, I try not to overthink. Sometimes the name comes first and sometimes the character. With Liddie and Eva, I tried out a bunch of ideas, but their names only became clear as I got to know them better.

Margreete's second husband, the love of her life and the father of her children, was named Irving Bright. He was originally from New York City, and was a kind man, a good dancer, with eyes of deep brown and breath that smelled of tobacco. Margreete's life with Irving was filled with color and brightness, so that surname seemed to make sense. His eventual death devastated Margreete (this is backstory, so I'm not giving anything away). Later, (still backstory) she made a mistake and married a banker name Everett Hocking. He was a boring man who cleared his throat importantly. I needed a name that sounded a stiff, like a man who pontificates.

With naming, I'm generally not looking for metaphors or associations as much as something that simply fits the character.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I enjoy beginning a book, opening a doorway into a new, still unknown world. I don't know how my books will end when I begin them. I find endings much harder to write than beginnings. By that time, I'm pulling together lots of threads and trying to make sense of it all. So I tend to write and re-write endings way more than beginnings.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I've never been drawn to write highly autobiographical fiction. Margreete's Harbor is probably as close as I've ever come, with a scene or two lifted from real experiences growing up in my family (a disastrous piano recital is one scene that comes to mind). All writing is a combination of memory and imagination, and I tend to draw more heavily from imagination than memory. Having said that, though, every character I've ever written has some connection to me, in the same way that every character in our dream lives is said to be connected to some aspect of ourselves. Finding that connection makes characters more real and more sympathetic, but sometimes it's also a booby trap when I realize, "Hey, that's something I do, too, and I wish I didn't."

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music has definitely influenced my writing. I played the piano from a young age, and classical music was my first art form until I realized I wasn't suited to performance (see the "disastrous piano recital" above). I now play for pleasure and often sit down at the keyboard when I'm stuck on a scene--it helps get things moving, and I appreciate that it's wordless. The natural world is another big influence. And in Margreete's Harbor, the political environment matters a good deal: how things changed between the 50s and the 60s, how these changes affected characters.
Visit Eleanor Morse's website.

The Page 69 Test: Margreete’s Harbor.

--Marshal Zeringue