Earlier this week, Julia Dahl wrote about her early exposure to the American justice system. With the release of her new crime novel, Conviction, Julia is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
In early 2011, I applied for a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center, but didn’t get in.
I’d been working on a novel for more than three years, while I worked five days a week at the New York Post, then The Crime Report, cobbling together a living with occasional fellowships and a couple big magazine features I’m really proud of. I’d written and shopped another novel about seven years earlier and gotten lots of polite declines. One agent took the time to chat with me on the phone. She told me the writing was “very strong” but that she didn’t “know how to sell it.”
This new novel, though — I had a feeling I could sell it. But first I had to finish, and I simply wasn’t getting it done with a few hours here and there. I needed a chunk of time. I needed, I decided, a residency.
So, I wasn’t going to Vermont. Maybe I could go somewhere else. One night, sitting on my couch, probably watching Bravo, I Googled “writers residency east coast.” A few results down I saw a link to the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency. I filled out the application that night, cut and pasted 10 pages from my novel-in-progress, and paid the $10 fee.
A California native, I knew nothing about Martha’s Vineyard (did the Kennedy’s live there?) and I think I initially confused it with Cape Cod. But it didn’t matter. It was $200 a week (you bought your own food) — far less than what Vermont charged. I could afford it, I had a flexible job situation, and I was childfree.
A week or so later I got an email: I was in.
Getting there was a bit of a crucible. I boarded a bus in the bowels of Port Authority and four hours later transferred to another bus in Providence. An hour after that I transferred to another bus in a city called Byrne, Massachusetts, then finally pulled my rollerboard suitcase up the ramp of the ferry to the island, trading a cramped bus for the wild Atlantic salt wind whipping my hair into tangles I’d have to shower and condition out.
I showed up to the Point Way Inn late at night, so the other writers were already in bed. I crept up a staircase to Room 6, and turned on the light. Imagine the best B&B you’ve ever been to: cheery, spare, immaculate. I had a four-poster bed, a bathtub, and a little wicker desk that sat at a window overlooking the courtyard. For two weeks, this place was home.
I went with a clear goal: 60 pages. It was, at the time, ambitious — I’d worked almost three years to get 100 pages — but if all I had was time and I was losing money, essentially, by being there, I had to make it worthwhile. And guess what? I did it. Easily. I woke when I wanted (usually late). I ate when I wanted (usually alone, although sometimes with the other residents). I walked the streets and imagined the lives of the people who owned the stunning, but somehow not entirely ostentatious clapboard houses. I biked to the beach and sat with a notebook, scribbling dialogue and scene ideas and character notes, then sat at the bar by the Edgartown docks, slurping oysters from the same beach I’d just left.
I didn’t finish the book there, but I got close. That December, I bailed on Christmas with my in-laws and finished it alone over the New Year. I got an agent in July and sold it in a two-book deal the next February.
Over the next three years, I went back three more times. I started my second and third novels there. I encountered all kinds of people on the island: I humored a white-haired part-time resident who complained over martinis that “those people” at Occupy Wall Street shouldn’t be protesting the banks, they should be protesting Obama; I embarrassed a bartender by recognizing her from a painfully lowbrow reality show; I drank with Twyla Tharp’s sister, and I was constantly asked if I was related to Arlene Dahl, a beloved resident of the island. (I’m not.)
Over the years, the residency morphed into the Noepe Center for the Arts, and hosted artists of all kinds, including Junot Diaz, Charles Blow, and Billy Collins. It was a community center. A culinary center. An incubator and a sanctuary.
What was so wonderful about the Martha’s Vineyard residency was that it was utterly unscheduled. Justen Ahren, the local poet who created the program, held fast to the motto of the residency: Time. Space. Create. There were no command performances. He and his charming, generous wife and children came to the inn for occasional dinners and informal readings, but if you were on a roll in your room, no one felt slighted if you stayed holed up. A father and landscape architect, Justen knows intimately how precious writing time is. All he wanted was for you to be productive in whatever way you measured productivity.
For me, the goal was always pages, but some people explored the island, using the time to clear their heads. Some people got drunk every night. Some people dove into the community, creating connections that led to jobs and even permanent homes. One woman stayed in her room so entirely I didn’t even meet her until more than a week into my stay. (I imagined a whole narrative about her being murdered and no one knowing until she started to smell. What do you want from me, I’m a mystery novelist!)
I started my latest novel, Conviction, in Room 6 less than a month after finding out I was pregnant. It was a strange few weeks. I knew my life was going to change, but I didn’t know how. I also knew that it would likely be a very long time before I could come back to the Point Way Inn. Mothers of babies don’t just take two weeks off. I didn’t produce quite as many pages this time, and each walk I took, each time I sat on the dock and watched the little ferry scoot to Chappaqua, was tinged with sadness.
In November 2015, I gave birth to a beautiful, rambunctious little boy. Those first six months were so all-consuming I couldn’t imagine ever being able to extricate myself for another residency, but this February, when my boy turned 15 months, my husband and I decided we could each handle single parenthood for a week: I got a week on the Vineyard and he got a 7‑day motorcycle trip.
I emailed Justen and set it up. It felt like a weight lifted. I’d written significant portions of all three of my books in Edgartown and I felt like I needed Room 6. Knowing that I’d have it, even six months away, steadied me.
And then, about two weeks later, I got an email from Justen telling me that the woman who owned the inn where the residency was housed had sold the property, and the whole decade-long experiment was over.
I’m not going to lie: I’m still in denial. I can’t imagine never biking to Katama again. I can’t imagine not sitting around the inn’s big dining table with my fellow authors (too many to name, and many you’ve heard of), drinking wine and eating local mussels and chatting about the writing life and its thrills and miseries.
But mostly, I can’t imagine never sitting at that wicker desk again, with a mug of coffee, a half-eaten plate of fruit and cheese, maybe a beer, my mind entirely on my work for as long as I want. Justen has said he will try to find another space for the residency, but for now, I’m grieving, and searching for another way to find that time and space to create.
- Evan Fallenberg: A Palace of the Arts Arising from the Ruins
- Leah Lax: Gloria Steinem Named My Book
- Jeffrey Yoskowitz: Bringing a Taste of Two Old Worlds to Sunny California