The Simon & Schuster Interview: A Conversation with Editor Jessica Leeke

What inspired you to write The Visionist? 

Though I have spent much of my life living in a converted Shaker meeting house (bought by my grandfather in the 1930s), I knew only the most obvious facts about the sect before I began researching my book. I thought of the Shakers as holier-than-thou do-gooders and wrote The Visionist almost in spite of the pegs lining my bedroom walls and the huge Shaker sideboard in my family’s kitchen, not because of them. What really got me interested in the group—after 40 years of indifference—was reading about the “Era of Manifestations,” a 10-year-long Shaker revival period that took place in the mid-1800s and was characterized almost entirely by the hallucinatory behavior of a select but widespread group of teenage girls. The Shakers called them “Visionists,” hence the title of my book. Equally interesting to me were the prayers and songs written during the revival. They are dark and obsessive, especially on such subjects as carnality; the brutal severing of family ties; and, of course, the devil. All together, the cult-like package made the Shakers a lot more interesting than I’d given them credit for; indeed, it made them irresistible. 

What makes the Shakers and their community such fertile territory for fiction? 

The exploration of any group living in near-total isolation from the rest of the world can make for a potentially interesting story. The Shakers are particularly intriguing because they asked so much of their believers. The Shakers made it impossible for their young members to leave until they had come of age at eighteen. Thencouraged busy bodies and snitches—privacy was non-existent. They demanded that their adherents work unimaginably hard to lead pure, disciplined, and productive lives. They erased individualism wherever possible. And finally, they did not tolerate contact (never mind intimacy) between the sexes. But it isn’t just the interior life of Shaker communities that lends itself to fiction. It is also the motivations and predicaments of the people who elected to join them. What in their lives—poverty, abuse, loss of faith, criminality, shame, loneliness—could drive someone to sacrifice so much?

The Shakers were notoriously private and elusive. How did this impact your research into the way they lived?

The Shakers are a study in contradictions. They wrote down everything of a practical nature (recipes, cures, daily farming and husbandry logs, house journals, births—rare as they were—and deaths, commercial dealings, etc..) They even compiled written records of most of the “Visions” that took place in their midst. And yet, no believer was allowed to keep a personal diary. (Fortunately, a few of them broke this rule, thereby offering some less official accounts of daily Shaker life.) They prided themselves on being cut off from “The World,” and yet they invited outsiders to come every Sunday to watch them worship. Many such observers described their contact with Shakers in travel journals that were eventually published. And, though the Shakers condemned conspicuousness, some of the most prominent writers and journalists of the day (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Greeley and, most disdainful of all, Charles Dickens) spent time with them and wrote about it. The sect came under public scrutiny fairly regularly in the press in other ways as well. Their strange worship rituals and rigid moral code led to colorful if not entirely trustworthy published accounts written by apostates. And there were several high-profile court battles with mothers who were trying to get their children back after having left them with the Shakers in hard times. Finally, in spite of their spiritual isolation, the Shakers were savvy in their business dealings with the outside world. From packaged seeds and medicinal herbs to wool capes, palm-leaf bonnets and utilitarian furniture, the quality and ingenuity of their commercial goods made them famous not only in America but in Europe as well. These official interactions with “The World” were documented from both sides, thereby adding to the fairly substantial body of historical information about the sect.   

The Visionist is firmly rooted in American history, but what is it about this story and its characters that will chime with readers from elsewhere? 

I think that no matter where a novel is set, it should contain universal themes and characters that everyone can relate to. In the case of The Visionist, there are mothers, gossips, scoundrels, unlikely heroes, villains driven by greed, and good souls tormented by guilt. Its themes are harder for me to identify because I concerned myself with writing a good story and not with worrying about what it all meant. But I suppose that some of the larger issues touched upon might be: the strength of the individual when faced with the prejudices and pressures of a community; the power of unquestioning faith to both heal and destroy; the consequences of living a lie; the dangerous outcome when extremism masquerades as moral and religious purity; the chaos that ensues when a group of teenage girls engage in contagious hysteria, heaven-sent or not; and the complexities and heartbreak of abandonment. On a more historical note, the founder of the Shakers was Ann Lee, a blacksmith’s daughter born in Manchester, England in 1736. Mother Ann, as she was later renamed, came to America to preach the gospel of The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—otherwise known as Shakerism—in 1774. She left England, as so many soon-to-be-Americans did at the time, to escape religious persecution and she brought with her a handful of followers whose mastery of such traditional British trades as carpentry, blacksmithing and masonry had a huge influence on Shaker values. Ironically, she was plagued by another kind of persecution once she reached American soil: because she was British and because the Shakers were pacifists, she and her followers were assumed to be Loyalists when they refused to take up arms during the American Revolution.

In Polly, Charity and Simon you have created three very distinct voices. Did you find any one character came to you more naturally than the others? 

Polly was the first character to settle in my consciousness. It’s not that she came easily to me—although the voice of close third person seemed the only choice for a girl living at some remove from the traumatic circumstances of her life. It’s that the details of her existence, her entry into Shaker life, and her predicament once she began to be perceived as something she was not, came into my imagination as a complete package. Her story was a very neatly wrapped gift that dropped—unexpectedly—into my lap. Charity appeared next because I knew that Polly needed a friend and counterpart once she arrived to live with the Shakers. Charity’s direct, first person voice seemed like the only way a Shaker girl would express herself, but it was a challenge because I needed her to sound completely truthful even though she is the least reliable narrator in the novel—unreliable not because she misleads the reader, but because she misleads herself. By far the most difficult character for me was Simon Pryor. I enjoyed his breezy skepticism and I found it a relief to write from the point of view of a man who is so openly self-aware, but I was exhausted by the narrative work he had to do! In contrast to Polly and Charity’s quiet but emotionally charged storyline, Simon is all action and reaction, a style of writing that took me a while to get comfortable with.   

The world you have created is authentic and richly described in a manner that does not impede the pace and drama of your story. Was this delicate balance a challenge? 

I suppose it was a challenge to balance detail and story, but the benefits of writing about such rich subjects as the Shakers and the hardscrabble New England communities that surrounded their settlements far out-weighed the complications. After all, what writer could complain about coming across the historically documented fact of local auctions where paupers were awarded to  often unscrupulous townspeople, essentially as white slaves? Or the description—in the house journal of a Shaker elder—of a group of women plucking the fur from a pile of raccoon skins by candlelight? 

Which authors do you most admire? 

As someone who worked, on and off, for ten years to get her novel out, I admire anyone—published or not—who crosses the finish line of that particularly grueling race. Things start to get trickier when I attempt to be specific about known authors, hence my discomfort when asked this question. When I was a young girl, I spent hours poring over the screenplay of Gone with the Wind, of which we owned multiple copies because my grandfather, Sidney Howard, wrote it and won an Academy Award for doing so. I mention this because I believe that immersing myself in a form of storytelling that is both visual and dialog-based had a huge influence on my writing. I had no idea at the time, but seeing the story—thanks to the descriptive shorthand that precedes each scene in that script—as well as following the jumps to different times and places that characterize most movies, are habits that have stayed with me. Less personally, I remember reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as a teenager and being left breathless by the way he weaves strands of such strange poetic prose into an otherwise parched and spare narrative. Never having studied literature as an undergraduate, I was fortunate to read George Eliot at a time when I was old enough to relate to her incredibly human celebration of life’s smaller miracles. As a young mother reading aloud to my sons, I rediscovered the mastery of children’s books like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, which is as beautifully written and plotted as it is truthful in its exploration of a protagonist who is very unlikable for much of the story. More currently—though I might list an entirely different group of remarkable books and authors an hour from now—I am awed by David Mitchell’s virtuosity in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by Hilary Mantel’s personal and compelling vision of history in the Wolf Hall series, by the word-perfect bleakness of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, and by the hilariously distilled dialog of any Elmore Leonard novel. 

How do you feel on the brink of publication? 

Elated, terrified and above all, gob-smacked that it’s happening at all.

What’s next? 

I’m working on a more or less contemporary novel about legacy, and the power of the past to shape who we are and who we can become.