• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

"There had been an idea for the book about doing an introduction with a photograph of my place and how I work, but I was very grudging of it because I didn't want it to be driven by the personality of me. I wanted to throw all the light onto the writers. How could I put my desk next to William Faulkner's or Herman Melville's? It would be arrogant and self-defeating."

"Or Louisa May Alcott."

"Or Louisa May Alcott. Indeed."

"Bronson Alcott was such a difficult father."

"But he encouraged her. She was the first to make fun of him and love him at the same time. She had a pair of very difficult parents, but to be encouraged as a young woman in the 19th Century, that was something. It was so rare, I think, that it might have been worth putting up with his other silliness."

I confessed, "I'm a great fan of Mrs. Hawthorne. I think she was a wonderful writer's wife."

"It was interesting to see the Hawthorne Concord house, where they lived back at the end of his life and also when they were first married, and really wonderfully in love in a way you don't often get glimpses of it. They were very exquisite in their physical passion for one another. And you think of him as such a cold fish, Hawthorne. She came from a remarkable family."

Sophia Hawthorne, a painter, had painted small illustrations on the Hawthorne marital bed, a bed long lost. "Heartbreaking," I said, "that that bed was lost."

"It's so interesting that when the famous writer dies, the household goods are disbursed. And you know that in 50 years people will be trying to buy back all these things. To find them all over again. It's just easier to probably put them in storage and keep them than it is to try to buy them back."

The book contains a photo of Frost's attic, empty except for a mattress on the floor. I said how sad that photo made its viewer feel.

"The whole house is a little sort of forlorn in a kind of Shaker way. But it doesn't come to life as much as the other houses do. Because the only thing they had there was a chair that they found in the attic. They say it's his. Whether it actually was or not, I don't know. His daughter, Leslie, spent some time up there, invoking her memories and then going around purchasing, I guess at flea markets and whatnot, things she remembered would have been there. Other houses, the Longfellow house for instance, give much more a sense of the life of the house than does the Frost house."

I mentioned that having read the recent Millay biography, that the photographs were evocative of scenes I recalled from her life. Quite a drinker in her last years, Millay is believed to have died after a fall down the steps from second to first floor. I said I had longed for a photo of that fatal staircase.

"I wish we had taken photographs. But Erica's style is so dark, and she only likes natural lighting. Down in the basement there, I think, there's still the maple syrup that she had jarred up in the old Mason jars. Every book, everything has been kept as it was, and they religiously have not touched anything. The curtains on the living room windows are shredded with age. It's truly ghostly. The Millay house is the other extreme from the Frost house where nothing was kept. Whereas in Millay's house, everything is there -- her clothes and lipsticks... Genuinely creepy to come across that. Her Pall Malls in her cigarette case. A little pencil and pad with nothing written on it. There were these beautiful art deco clasps on the purses and beautiful hats. Looking at the things, you could see how absolutely tiny she was. I think she was 5'1", and her shoes, her riding boots and so on, looked like doll shoes. Quite something.

"Again, I think that once we start to be serious readers we become fascinated by the personality of the authors and begin to read biographies of Hemingway and Mark Twain or Dickinson or whomever. We become fascinated by the personality. Who wrote this? You know? We become curious as to whether the circumstances of the life get transformed into chapters in a book. We know about their sorrows and their desires and their ambitions and their thwartings -- and we try to match things up.

"Still, you never can make the real connection between what happens to a person and what happens in a book. It's still a mystery. That's why the places where they wrote, however animated by the presence of the authors, still seem as if there's something really missing there. There's something ghostly about these places."

"I wonder why so many writers write in bed."

"I don't know. I do. I don't know. I'm sure Dr. Freud could say something about it. I also read in bed. I also think it's because I never have gotten a really comfortable chair, one that suits me. Maybe if I had a real, absolutely comfortable couch or chair -- but it would have to be very special. Bed is where I was read to first, I suppose, and it's the scene of dreaming. I find any number of connections that would hold a reader to bed."

"Cheever wrote up in his bedroom."

"Millay also wrote in bed."

I asked Mr. McClatchy if he knew how Wallace Stevens wrote. I understood, I said, that he composed his poems as he walked to work.

"He did. They have no manuscripts of his. He wrote entirely in his head on the walk to work. And then he would dictate his work to his secretary."

"Never put it down?"

"Never put it down. There are a few early poems, but that's all -- and then he would have his secretary correct her typescript and probably have her retype and throw the corrected one away."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!