“Books Want Things for Themselves”: A Conversation with Alice Elliott Dark
By Mark LabowskieAugust 22, 2022
Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark
With its lavish cast, textured world-building, and intricate skein of subplots, Fellowship Point consciously deploys the modes and tactics of a Victorian novel, but in pursuit of acutely contemporary themes: chiefly, environmental conservation and female self-determination. Like much of Dark’s fiction, the novel explores how women — particularly women from wealthy backgrounds, raised to be gracious and self-effacing — struggle to make lives for themselves as artists and individuals. Dark is a writer deeply consumed with questions of goodness, fairness, ethics, and honesty. She has also been, not coincidentally, a wise and insightful teacher to many writers, myself included. That same generosity of vision courses through Fellowship Point.
MARK LABOWSKIE: How does a book this expansive and complex begin? Did you always know it was going to be a large-scale project, or did it slowly start to complicate and proliferate over time?
ALICE ELLIOTT DARK: Three separate encounters set me on a course to write a big novel. The first was serving on a National Book Award jury a while ago and seeing a wide array of books in a short time period. One factor that made a book stand out was description powerful enough to rival the alluring pictures we see in movies and on TV, and, related to that, world-building. The most persuasive and memorable books created worlds the reader could enter and remember. The second influence was watching the miniseries of He Knew He Was Right, and then reading the book by Anthony Trollope. I was in awe of the twists and turns of the juicy plot and wanted to learn how to do it. The third push came when I read a critic claim that no one is interested anymore in the tropes of the 19th-century novel, and he made a list including, according to my memory, broken wills, inheritances, and so on. I instantly rebelled: those conflicts are evergreen as far as I’m concerned. I began to develop an ambition of writing a 19th-century-style novel, but with 20th- and 21st-century social concerns.
I love the idea of rebellion against critical fiat as an incentive to write. A lot of impulses in contemporary novels — I’m thinking of the interest in autofiction, for instance — seem intended to scrub away artifice and get at something ostensibly more “authentic.” But a busy, populous, expansive novel is, on some level, an exercise in artifice — the coincidences, the secrets and revelations that have to be carefully orchestrated. Can you talk more about the appeal of that kind of writing for you? Why do you think this literary form is still able to contain and process contemporary material?
To call a form of fiction “realism” makes it sound as though the authors are trying to mimic reality, when they are really fashioning a trick mirror. Those novels are, as you say, purposeful exercises in artifice toward an end of making an argument about what people are like or how the world works, an argument that is convincing because it is constructed to portray a recognizable facsimile of events and persons we know. Careful orchestration can end up feeling lifelike, as we all similarly organize our own memories and life stories. Plots and subplots, repeating images and themes, characters who aren’t wildly inconsistent, significant settings — all these elements can create a convincing and memorable world that feels real but is far from it.
Writing a 19th-century-style book appealed to me as a way to learn and understand more about writing, which I always want to do. I wanted to try a big reveal and subplots that resolved plots because it excites me to see these techniques at work in novels. I see the form as being very flexible and thought it would be fun to write about women landowners in a 19th-century-style novel as a way of engaging with the history of land plots. Also, my older characters, Agnes and Polly, both come into their power over the course of the book, and they change — a lot. It’s no small task to show characters change in a way that’s believable. The techniques of the 19th-century novel offer so many opportunities to put characters through their paces.
Stewardship and legacy seem to me the central concerns of this novel — legacies of literature and of land. Legacies are about mortality — you write a book or create a land trust so you can communicate across generations and potentially centuries. Agnes’s feelings about both her literary legacy and the Fellowship Point Association evolve drastically over the course of the novel. Did your own feelings about land ownership and preservation evolve during the writing of this book?
I have never understood the idea of land ownership; it seems like an oxymoron. But I love land plots. After my friend Tina Batt told me about the many large tracts of land and old ranches donated by women inheritors to the University of California and to land trusts, I researched the subject and discovered a vast but little-known story about women’s roles in creating national parks and other preserved lands. Women did not fully have the right to control the land they inherited in all states until 1900. That’s a blink in time before now, and a very short time for women to have a deep attachment to owning land. The phrase I thought of over and over as I was composing was “women walk lightly on the land.” I knew Agnes wanted to let go of Fellowship Point to preserve it, but I didn’t see the ultimate decision until I went through her vision with her. What she sees is radical but very right. Letting go can be more powerful than holding on.
As for literary legacy, it’s interesting to read about how works are brought back or dropped. How reputations are made and sustained. Updike has disappeared, but I daresay he’ll be back.
I’m also curious how — literally — a novel on this scale gets written. Did you work in a certain computer program? Did you write by hand? Did you progress in a somewhat linear fashion through the narrative, or did you find yourself writing pieces of different storylines and time periods and gradually assembling them like a jigsaw?
I wonder this, too, as I cannot type. I go back and forth between handwriting and the computer, but handwriting is always a good idea, especially if I don’t wear my glasses and can’t read and judge too soon. I would say progress on this book was made by a combination of writing hundreds of pages about characters and storylines to get at their essence, and the pursuit of a personal desire to answer a question I couldn’t even express. Writing is a great way to pull yourself together. Every morning when I begin my writing session, I write the question what is this about? and then I answer that from my vantage point in the moment. The question is both about the book and about why I am drawn to write this book at this time. Being patient with both the book and myself kept me going through many months of having no idea what would come of all the work. I was curious!
I did step away from it during my teaching semesters. I tried to take notes at the end of the summers to help me remember where I was, but I could never make sense of them later and always had to painstakingly remember what I had been up to. My metaphor for how it works for me is the test optometrists give to determine which image looks sharper. Piecing it together was a matter of bringing the different plot lines into focus in relation to each other.
Robert and Virgil were my main characters for a long time. I wrote a draft that was a short novel about Robert in prison and him coming back to live with Polly afterward. Agnes wanted more room, though, and then Maud popped in. I didn’t see the answer to the land problem until very late in the game.
Much of your fiction has been concerned (a bit like the Franklin Square series) with the world of moneyed Philadelphians — the mysteries and manners of people who live on the Main Line and summer in Maine, marry one another, pass down fortunes, etc. I’m curious how, in your development as a writer, you came to understand this world as your primary material, and what this world has meant to you over the years. Bonus question: Have you ever, as Agnes fears, suffered any blowback from this world because of your writing?
I grew up among people like Agnes and Polly, though I wasn’t by rights one of them. My early friends at school — still my friends — had highly valued pedigrees and backgrounds and, in some cases, land and houses passed down through generations. I envied this! I thought how secure it must make them feel. That sense of security and legacy fascinates me, as I inherited a poverty mentality that has held me back. My assumption that the socially secure have more sublime options is a great canvas for me, as so many impediments to integrity and contribution to the good of the world don’t exist. Struggles to figure out what is right take on a heightened urgency when there are no dire extenuating circumstances. I suppose I loved Jane Austen’s formulations, the character flaws that stood in the way of integrity and happiness. Even the best people can take a long time to figure out what to do.
I haven’t received blowback that I know of. I have been assumed to be rich, which is a laugh! I’d write full-time if I could afford it — and have more children. And live by the water.
This novel deals with many issues — from environmental conservation to gender politics to animal rights — that I know are close to your heart. Did you find it challenging to explore these topics in a novelistic context, where you have to resist didacticism and entertain perspectives (e.g., characters like Dick, Archie Lee, and Hamm Loose, or even Polly, with her traditional femininity) that you personally disagree with? Near the end of the book, Agnes thinks about “accept[ing] ways of life and practices I didn’t understand in my own logic.” Is this an easy task for you as a writer?
It’s necessary. Writing fiction offers the possibility of coming in touch with the deeper truths about people and life. For all the disparate parts to click into place, your own opinions must be less important than building the thing. So much is about balance and proportion; it’s mathematical and musical, and those aspects of a piece don’t think in the way of politics and opinions, if that makes sense. Books want things for themselves. It’s better to listen to what they are asking for than for an author to insist on using such a magical entity to merely have their own say. It’s not an easy task. This book cut me down to size a thousand times — but it eventually gave me an ending that seems in retrospect inevitable. I couldn’t have thought of it without having built a good relationship with the book.
I love that idea of “mathematical and musical” attention to what the emerging book wants. It feels like a way of seeing beyond your own ego, which is in some ways odd since the book is an extension of the writer’s own mind, obsessions, inner life. But in Fellowship Point, I felt the multifariousness of your sympathies. For instance, I came away from the book genuinely ambivalent about whether Polly’s lifelong devotion to Dick had been — well, worth it. From her perspective it certainly seemed to be, but not when I was looking at Polly through Agnes’s eyes. What were some aspects of this book — a character, a turn of the plot — that required the most from you in terms of seeing past your own initial preconceptions?
When I turned the book in, it had a very different ending than it does now. I had not yet surrendered to the truth of the book. I had set up the conditions for discovering the truth, but I hadn’t let go and gone through it — through the looking glass. I did have preconceptions and opinions on all the topics in the book, but to get the ending right I had to step aside completely and let Agnes and Polly and Maud step into their own wisdom and destinies. I didn’t know what the solution to the problem of the land’s future was going to be. It came from putting Agnes in a situation to have a real vision. She had her own mind that was connected to mine but also independent. She schooled me!
Yes to setting the ego aside. I do think that our books can be the clues to what we need to learn, if we let them mess with us as they want to. I knew my opinions about all the subjects and themes that appear in the book, but when I channel the characters, they push me into new territory. I hope that doesn’t sound abstract. It’s an odd thing to interact with characters. They do have their own minds and their own needs for self-actualization. They can come out ahead of me. I couldn’t have thought of Agnes’s vision at the campsite. I had to let it happen, if that makes any sense.
Other than Trollope, I wonder if there were other writers — from the 19th century or otherwise — that influenced the writing of Fellowship Point? Did you ever reach a point where you felt as if the aesthetics of an earlier era had to be amended somehow — rethought, reconceived — for a present-day story?
It’s hard to write about manners these days when there are no agreed-upon practices. Manners and mores are such a huge pleasure in older novels, but they have lapsed into the past, operative only in small cultural units. There have been major shifts in how authors write narration and description, for better or worse. I love Proust and Hardy and Henry James going on and on about things so beautifully, but I wouldn’t write that way, much less have the skill.
When I first read deeply into Edith Wharton a few decades ago, I paid attention to the scenes she chose to show and those she skipped. She has very important weddings in her novels but doesn’t make them big scenes. She was an influence, as were Elizabeth Bowen and Jean Stafford and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They were all deep in my brain during the writing, but I wasn’t thinking actively about anything but the day-to-day work. I see their influences now, as well as all the mystical literature I’ve read. I also see Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, which I read in college. That novel draws you into a world of families living in a compound and children having beautiful experiences, like climbing a mountain to gather dew off of special leaves to boil for their tea. You can’t beat that! The older I get, the more I want to retreat into such dreams on the page.
Mark Labowskie teaches in the creative writing program at Stanford University. His short stories have been published in ZYZZYVA, American Short Fiction, Subtropics, and elsewhere.
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.