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Hugh Nissenson: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Hugh Nissenson is the author of nine books, including The Tree of Life and The Song of the Earth. His new novel, The Pilgrim was published in November 2011 by Sourcebooks Landmark.

Your books are set in an impressive variety of time periods. What drew you to seventeenth-century England/New England?

Aside from a life-long passion for the language of Shakespeare and the King James translation of the Bible, I had no serious prior interest in the period. But some seven years ago, in that state of suspension which precedes the birth of a new novel, I took down from my bookshelf a dog-eared copy of Myths and Legends of New England, by Diana Ross McCain. I re-read a brief essay about the hanging of an Englishman by his fellow settlers at Wessagusset, which was an abortive early settlement near Plymouth in New England. The story stayed with me. I began reading about the Puritans in England and their creation in 1620 of the Plymouth colony. I discovered that the incident at Wessagusset really happened. The starving Englishman who was hanged had stolen some seed corn from local Indians who forced the settlers to execute him for his crime. I became fascinated by historic figures like Miles Standish and Governor Bradford, and fictional characters began accreting in my imagination as well. The novel was taking shape.

More specifically, how did you decide to make the Wessagusset settlement the centerpiece of your narrator's experience in Massachusetts?

I saw the Wessagusset hanging as a commentary on one of our nation's foundation myths. Moreover, it was emblematic of the conflict between the Puritans' passion to create the Kingdom of Heaven on earth in the wilderness of the New World and their inevitable complicity with evil. I soon realized that the novel had to be narrated by its protagonist who struggles throughout the book with the ramifications of this conflict.

Religion and religious conflict (both external and internal) play a major role in The Pilgrim, as they have in some of your other books. How have your own religious experiences shaped your writing?

Cynthia Ozick once said of me that I was a religious person for whom atheism is a major metaphor. My mother was an atheist. My father was a deeply religious Jew, though eclectic in his observance. He taught me to believe that the history of the Jewish people was a manifestation of God’s will. When I was a child, he filled my head with stories from the Bible. His vivid description of King Saul's suicide on Mount Gilboa was as evocative to me as the extinction of the dinosaurs in Disney's animated film, "Fantasia".

I was never an observant Jew. But in the summer of 1958, when I was twenty-five, I was enraptured by a mystical experience while pruning a sapling in the apple orchard of Kibbutz Mayaan Baruch in the northern Galilee. For four or five minutes I was joined in ecstacy to the pruned sapling and the red soil. Then I pruned another sapling as a service to God. I used elements of my experience to describe my narrator's revelation while weeding corn in the Plymouth colony.

My intimation of a reciprocal relationship with God lasted three years. In 1961, I covered the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for Commentary magazine. The testimony of the victims of the victims of the Holocaust destroyed my lingering belief in a personal deity who manifested his will in history.

I now believe that all religious experiences are subjective phenomena. But I retain my fascination with the religious personality. In one form or another, I have dramatized the tension between belief and unbelief in all my works.

Can you describe your research methods for us? How did you go about creating the atmosphere and voices we read in your novel?

When I write historical novels, I like to surround myself with artifacts from the relevant period. For The Tree of Life, I learned how to throw a tomahawk and made my way through a forest in upstate New York, armed with a replica of a flintlock rifle, and wearing Indian moccasins, buckskin leggings and a buckskin shirt. For The Pilgrim, I bought a replica of a match-lock musket, which I took to Ohio where Don Hutsler, a friend who is an historian and a gunsmith, taught me how to fire it. I also bought replicas of the rapier carried by Miles Standish and his pikeman's helmet.

I traveled to Dorchester, England, which had a flourishing Puritan community in the 16th and 17th centuries. I had the good luck to meet Terry Hearing, a retired professor and distinguished local historian. Terry enabled me to use Dorchester as the model for Winterbourne, the fictional town in which my protagonist-narrator, Charles Wentworth was born and raised. I also visited Emmanuel College at Cambridge, which was a Puritan stronghold where Charles spent his university years.

I became friends with John Kemp, the Director of Interpretation at the Plimouth Plantation. I spent hours on the phone with John benefitting from his extensive knowledge of the Plymouth Colony and the doomed settlement at Wessagusset.

The key to writing any novel is finding the right narrative voice. I immersed myself in 17th century English literature. I made lists of vernacular words and phrases which I memorized. I bought a copy of the Geneva Bible, which was the version that Charles would have known. Very soon Charles began speaking to me. His language was a melodic fusion of 17th century and contemporary rhythms. I used the Oxford English Dictionary to make sure that no word he used was an anachronism, although I fear a few may have slipped through.

Any particular suggestions for further reading, for those who came away from The Pilgrim wanting to know more about the historical background or context?

Among the best primary sources are William Bradford's Of Plimouth Plantation; The Journal of John Winthrop, Vol. 1, (although it is about the Massachusetts Bay Colony, it is the work of a great stylist); and Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth from 1602 to 1625, compiled in 1841 by Alexander Young.

Other books I found particularly useful were A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony, by John Demos; Mayflower, a Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick; The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony, by James Deetz and Patricia Scott-Deetz; Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England, by David D. Hall; and John Foxe's Book of Martyrs - Or A History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Triumphant Deaths of the Primitive Protestant Martyrs, which is indispensable for an understanding of the Protestant sensibility in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Is there a particular line or scene from the book of which are you particularly fond?

Charles is something of a poet. I relished writing his poems. My favorite is "The Turning of the Leaves in New England": In the cold, the leaves turn purple, yellow, and gold. The trees then shed them, like dragons' scales. Praise the Lord, ye dragons of the earth, That shed thy scales before the snow. Their brightness above will like my flesh below Change to the brown and grey of soil and clay.

What's on your bookshelves? What are you reading now, and what have you enjoyed recently?

I've just begun reading Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, by Robert Bellah. It's brilliant. I recently re-read, maybe for the fourth time, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam. I'm convinced that they are the greatest literary memoirs ever written.

Tell us about your writing process: when, where, and how often do you write? Do you compose your books in longhand, or use a computer? Any useful writing tips to share?

I write for about three hours in the morning in my office at home. I spend the rest of the day reading, watching television and thinking about the morning's work. I keep a notebook with me at all times. Some of my best ideas come when I’m not consciously concentrating on my work.

I've written on a computer for over twenty years. I saw a friend's TRS-80 and had to have one. I barely use the resources a computer puts at my disposal, but I love seeing my words illuminated on the screen.

The only writing tip I have to offer is re-write, re-write, and re-write.

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

Now that I'm pushing 80, I feel the need to write a memoir about my early life.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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