photo by Jerry Bauer
Dear friends and readers:
As you see from this updated home page, I have at last finished my thirteenth novel, whose working title for the last four years has been The Red Nun: A Tale of Unfinished Desires. Now it is simply Unfinished Desires and I’m hoping in this case that thirteen will prove a lucky number. Things are off to a good start. The beautiful reading galleys are already out and Random House will publish the hardcover on
January 5, 2010. I love the cover art. It leads you right into the story I wanted to tell, the story of a girls’ school, founded by English nuns in 1910 in the mountains of North Carolina. It involves two generations of particular girls, the mothers and aunts and daughters. Two daughters and a niece fulfill some serious mischief started in the mothers’ class. The novel is about girls’ friendships and rivalries and how thwarted desires and betrayals of one generation can be passed on to the next. The novel is also a tracing of the spiritual progress of a few souls from adolescence into old age. Interlaced with their stories is the school history being dictated into a tape recorder early in the twenty-first century by the former headmistress, an 85 year old nun, who is still haunted by the tragic fallout from the compounded mischief of two generations of girls.
For many years I had wanted to set a tale in the old Victorian building where I went to school in the nineteen forties and fifties. (For a picture of this edifice, swathed in mists, go to “Gail’s Artwork: The Red Nun drawings.” Though it was demolished in the early nineteen sixties, I and many other “old girls” continue to dream about it and haunt its rooms. First it was a resort hotel, then an orphanage, then a tuberculosis sanitorium, and, in its final incarnation, St. Genevieve-of-the Pines, the school I attended through ninth grade. I wish I could give you a virtual tour of the place, but I come close to it in Unfinished Desires. “Mount St. Gabriel’s,” as I’ve named it in the novel, is a setting that completely satisfies the requirements of my gothic imagination.
What finally prodded me to begin this novel came during an online interview in 2005 with Paul Mandelbaum for his Twelve Short Stories and their Making: An Anthology with Interviews. He had chosen my ghost story “Dream Children,” for the anthology and was asking me what ghost stories I most admired.
This led me to formulate my favorite “level of dread,” which is the psychological ghost story, in which a person is haunted from within. In my favorite ghost stories, the haunting, is wired into you and you are doomed to live it out if you aren’t aware of it. For example, Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” in which an American who has lived abroad confronts the person he might have become if he had stayed home, or Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” in which a student who has been working too hard and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown is repeatedly visited by a “friendly but crafty” mirage of a legendary black monk who lived a thousand years ago. “You’re just a mirage,” accuses the student. “Never mind,” says the black monk, “the legend, myself, the mirage, are all products of your overheated imagination. “That means you don’t exist,” the student counters. To which the apparition replies, “Think what you like. I exist in your imagination, and your imagination is part of nature and so I exist in nature too.”
As I worked out my thoughts during the Mandelbaum interview, I began to imagine the story that had been piecing itself together for years. I saw the setting (my old school, but populated by fictional characters and a different order of nuns, which I took pleasure in creating) and I saw the problem (a few girls haunted by the unfinished desires of an earlier generation. Perhaps influenced by “The Black Monk,” I was drawn to the title The Red Nun: A Tale of Unfinished Desires. But who was The Red Nun? I didn’t know yet. But I sure know now---on all her levels.
This is the most exciting part of constructing a long novel over several years: you discover what awaits you behind the things you thought you didn’t know. In “making up,” you find yourself remembering and understanding. And, conversely, in remembering and understanding you find yourself creating a wider story to fit all these new insights.
I continue to enjoy and profit from your letters and e-mails. Many of you have inspired me. We live in the most interesting of times and no one is an island. Keep writing, keep reading---and keep in touch. My Woodstock address is the same: PO Box 946, 12498, and my webmaster will forward your e-mails to my web site.
With warmest wishes,