A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers interview with Rachel Urquhart, Author of The Visionist
The wintery New England landscape plays a huge role in the book. It's almost a like a character. Why was that so important to you?
I feel—have always felt—incredibly connected to the New England landscape. Not so much the perfect fields and white clapboard houses of Eastern New England, but more the rocky, wind-swept, tight little valleys to the west. My uncle gave up his job in Manhattan to run full-time the dairy farm that my grandfather had established in Massachusetts, and so, as a child, I saw first-hand how impossibly difficult farming life can be. I remember winters so cold that he had to melt the ice in the cows' drinking troughs using giant electric coils. I remember him up at four every morning, milking, and then back at it again every evening. In between, I remember his fretting about the weather throughout the summer so that the hay wouldn't rot, and endlessly mucking out the barn, and looking for calves that had been born in the fields, and turning the ones that were breach, and on and on. He was an amazing person. It's really his New England that inspired me.
Mothers abound in your book. Can you talk about that?
Funnily enough, the whole mother thing was pointed out to me by a friend who read the novel in galleys. I was too close to the book to see many of the themes that were obvious to others. But my friend was right—the book is jam-packed. Mothers who abandon their children, mothers who are abandoned by their children, mothers who are unfit, mothers who seem weak but aren't, mothers who must function as surrogates because they are barren. And then, of course, the ultimate mother: the founder of Shaker religion, Mother Ann Lee. Despite her passionate disapproval of sex, when she was a young blacksmith's daughter living in Manchester, England, Mother Ann was married and gave birth to four children, all of whom died in infancy. Later, once she'd hit her stride here in America, she preached that all Shakers were the sons and daughters of Jesus Christ and a divine version of...Mother Ann Lee. So I guess motherhood was on my mind from the get-go.
The novel takes place at a time when America is shifting from an agrarian to an industrial economy. How does that change play into the story?
I'm not really sure how that came about. I just know that as I drove around the area of Massachusetts where I wrote most of the book, I was always passing these paper mills. And they made me think about how the landscape was really in flux around the time period I was writing about. I began to think about what this might have meant to poor farmers, and to unscrupulous land speculators, and to the Shakers themselves, who must have had to take in people who'd lost much of their family to jobs working in the big cities and in the mills and could no longer work their land. I suppose that in a novel where the characters are all challenged by their pasts to change profoundly, it felt right that the landscape and the society around them in would change, too.
For a religion that engineered its own oblivion by forbidding procreation amongst its adherents, Shakerism has had a remarkable influence on modern society. What are those influences and why do you think the Shakers have remained topical when most other fringe religions in America have fallen by the wayside?
There's a lot of emphasis placed on how "dark" my book is, but my admiration for the Shakers is huge. They have, most obviously, influenced design in contemporary times. After all, they were all about form following function long before the Modernists were. They were also extraordinarily innovative (their invention of the washing machine is but a single example) and forward thinking. They were ahead of their times in their ideas about medicine and diet. Whether or not they themselves had come up with it, they embraced any new program or machine that would help them in their work. They were very generous in their commitment to helping the poor. They were positively revolutionary in their ideas about women and equality. They were pacifists and abolitionists. And, however crazy some of their beliefs may seem, they were steadfast in their pursuit of perfection and, as a result, we are left with superbly crafted examples of their discipline and genius.
Polly and Sister Charity experience an intense friendship. Can you talk about that? What were you exploring when you were writing about their attachment?
A few people have asked me whether there are romantic attachments between any of the women in the book. The answer is complicated only in that there is real love and intimacy between Polly and Charity, but I never considered them to have sexual feelings for one another. What interested me is that, in this harsh, rigid, cold environment, they find each other and the discovery is almost electric. I think that many of us remember our first best friends, and how miraculous it felt to be so perfectly understood by another person, a person you never wanted to part with, a person you could laugh and share secrets with, a person you loved as you'd never loved before. There's certainly passion in all that, but for me, it exists in the girls' hearts and minds, not so much in their bodies.
Do you believe in Visionists? Is it possible that Polly and the other girls were capable of communicating on another level with a world most of us deny exists?
I struggle with this question even now, more than a decade after starting to write this book, which must mean that some part of me believes in the inexplicable. Of course, I have a very rational side. I've read all about contagious hysteria and could well imagine the Shaker Visionists fitting neatly into that theory. I've researched PTSD and can view Polly's hallucinations through that lens. And finally, as a mother, I am quite aware of a teenager's talent for manipulation. But most religions are full of myth and magic, and the reason for that, in part, is that there is simply so much we cannot know about our world. One of the things that most intrigued me about this particular time in Shaker history was that, in spite of their rigid practicality, through worship, they found a way to embrace what they couldn't explain. And I found much of that behavior magical. Very strange, yes, but magical. So I guess the simplest answer is that I both believe and don't believe, depending on the situation.
Who have you discovered lately?
I just started reading Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation and am finding myself in awe of the speed and precision of the storytelling. She's incredibly deft at pinpointing the details of a very specific time in life. It's exhilarating and more than a little uncomfortable when it hits close to home. And, because I read multiple books at one time, I'm also in the middle of Ann Patchett'sThis Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I am a huge fan of hers. After I finished State of Wonder, I could not stop talking about it. She's the real thing. A friend recently leant me a fantastic book called The Shark Net, by an Australian writer named Robert Drewe. Maybe I'm the only person in the world who's never heard of him, but I thought it was a terrific novel, told in a way that was funny and touching and terrifying all at the same time. And finally, though I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, when I was still working on my own book, it is a novel I've never been able to get out of my head. Obviously, I found the story riveting and magical, but there is something about the writing that is just so inspiring. I never read anything twice—I have too much catching up to do!—but that one's back on my night-table for a second look.