By Betty J. Cotter
Connecticut has a rich tradition as an inspiration to authors. Think of the fog swirling offstage in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," or the tobacco fields of Mildred Savage's novel, "Parrish." Mark Twain, Wallace Stevens, Harriet Beecher Stowe and the poets William Meredith and James Merrill are among the many luminaries who have called the Nutmeg State home.
Today that tradition continues, particularly in southern Connecticut, where rural retreats and miles of coastline prove an irresistible draw for writers. Some are natives to the state; some are lured here by spouses or friends; others come to teach in the English or writing departments of the state's many fine colleges and universities. But regardless of what brings them here, once they arrive many don't want to leave, even when opportunities beckon elsewhere. So, like the Impressionist artists who came before them, they maintain seasonal homes and studios in places like Stonington and Old Lyme.
Among them is New York Times best-selling author Luanne Rice, who has returned to the inspiration of Old Lyme again and again in her 30 novels. The shoreline community, where she still maintains a seasonal home, morphs into Hubbard's Point and Black Hall in her books, towns on Long Island Sound where the landscape of love and loss are explored with insightful precision.
"The sea inspires me," Rice said. "I fall asleep to the sound of breakers. The beauty and constancy soothes me. The power is also wild and daunting."
Although these days Rice divides her time among New York, southern California and Old Lyme, the Connecticut shore is never far from her mind. "Writing about home from far away sharpens my senses and memories," she said. "In mid-winter I take a summer walk along the beach roads of Hubbard's Point, and I can close my eyes and feel the hot tar under my bare feet, smell honeysuckle and salt air, and hear waves breaking and shorebirds crying on Gull Island — yet you'll never find Gull Island on the chart. It's North Brother — the place names change, but the longing I feel to be there is real and fills me with emotion that translates onto the page."
The sea also inspires J.D. McClatchy, an award-winning poet and summer resident of Stonington. In his 2009 collection, "Mercury Dressing," images of the sea are intertwined with mythic, heroic references in a chronicle of middle-aged angst: "The sea is not calm though the evening sky is relieved/Of its bright ideas and already dreaming/Of the dark," he writes in "The Young Fate."
McClatchy, who also serves as editor of the Yale Review, notes that each of his three homes, in Stonington, Palm Beach and Manhattan, is within a short distance of the water. "So I must be drawn to it — in ways that are unconscious and powerful," he said. "I've sailed on it, written about it, even edited an anthology called 'Poems of the Sea.' I can't think of a more exact yet mysterious symbol than its vast, undulant, eternal presence."
In Stonington, McClatchy writes in a small studio, a converted two-car garage, at the rear of his property. Comparing himself to the bower bird, which decorates its nest elaborately to attract a mate, he said he has collected "obelisks and shells, a bronze cast of Walt Whitman's hand, photographs and totems, a porcelain statuette of Pushkin at his desk, examples of Arabic calligraphy, two locks of Emily Dickinson's hair, that sort of thing."
Out of the solitude of the writer's studio McClatchy finds support from the artists and intellectuals at Yale. "Connecticut is a remarkably rich state in the arts, and I feel lucky to have spent so much of my life here," he said.
Connecticut's history provides a different sort of inspiration for Dan Waters of Griswold, a horror writer whose book "Generation Dead" and its sequels have been a big smash in the young adult genre. His zombie series is set in Oakvale, a thinly disguised reference to the Oakdale village of Montville, and features a lake called Oxoboxo, an actual water body in that village.
"It's where the zombies go to hide when Oakvale decides they aren't wanted anymore, although the Gardner Lake is probably closer to what I envision it in the books," Waters explained. "But Oxoboxo is probably my favorite place name and palindrome." (Though the name has a cachet of mystery, it simply means "a small pond" in the Algonquin language.)
Aside from vivid place names, there is something about Connecticut that stirs a horror writer's soul. Think of Thomas Tryon, the author of the '70s thrillers "The Other" and "Harvest Home," who grew up in Wethersfield.
"I can't speak of the whole state, but southeastern Connecticut definitely has a vibe all its own," said Waters. "Any place where multiple layers of the past exist concurrently with the present is a place ripe for fiction."
It's a vibe common to many New England small towns, where cemeteries are full of consumption victims suspected to be vampires, 200-year-old houses still have marks from cannon fire, and place names like Bride Lake, Lantern Hill and Quakertown set a fiction writer's mind to spinning.
The poet Marilyn Nelson, professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and the state's poet laureate from 2001 to 2006, writes from her home in East Haddam, a town with plenty of quirky New England history. (The Indians called it "Machimoodus," or "place of noises," because it was prone to earthquakes.)
"I have a little room about 8 feet square, in the attic upstairs from my bedroom," she said. "There's a skylight, a lamp, and an oil-filled radiator. A white table that used to be on the porch. Lots of stuff on the walls. Posters. Pictures." And, of course, bookcases.
Like Nelson, who came to Connecticut to teach, novelist Kathy Leonard Czepiel of Hamden is not a native of the state, but she has been teaching at Quinnipiac University's First-Year Writing Program for nine years. Her first novel, "A Violet Season," is set in the Hudson Valley area of New York in 1898, where a farmer's wife works as a wet nurse to support her family. But more recently Czepiel has taken inspiration from her adopted state.
"One of my works-in-progress is a collection of linked stories, some of them already published, some not, but all of them set in a Connecticut neighborhood a little bit like my own," Czepiel said. "The stories draw on a number of important New England figures, including Anne Bradstreet, Henry David Thoreau, and Connecticut's own Roger Sherman."
Connecticut authors extol the virtues of community, whether it's the hospitality of bookstores like Niantic's Book Barn, of which Nelson is "a big fan," or colleges and universities that host author talks and employ writers as teachers. In a small state like Connecticut, it's no surprise that writers know each other and offer support.
But to be a Connecticut writer is a varied thing. One writer's ocean might be the backdrop for a romance; for another, it might be the setting of a murder mystery. "Connecticut has been home to so many sorts of writers — Wallace Stevens and Charles Olson, Mark Twain and Robert Stone," McClatchy noted. "So it's not what they write that makes them 'Connecticut writers.' Rather, it's the kind of environment in which they write."
And that, McClatchy continues, is the key to what inspires so many people to write here. "Connecticut is a really small, intelligent, well-educated, and sometimes pastoral community," he said.
"A place of peace and quiet, where the work of the imagination has the time to percolate. And it offers an audience who understands and encourages. In other words, I couldn't have done what I have, if I hadn't lived where I do."