A Conversation with Rebecca Chace, Author of Leaving Rock Harbor
Your first novel, Capture the Flag, was set in the 1970s. Why did you decide to set your next novel in the earlier part of the 20th century? What is it about this time period that most interests you?
One thing I find interesting about the first part of the 20th century is looking at it from the first part of the 21st century. I see several parallels: the rapid pace of technological change and changes in the workplace, the financial crash that the textile industry experienced and the job loss and financial crisis that we have been struggling with all over America and most of the world in recent times—and the lack of planning for the future, or ignoring signs of trouble that contributed to the collapse of the American economy then and now. There have always been cycles of economic boom and bust, and this does resonate for me today.
Besides your two novels, you’ve also written a memoir, Chautauqua Summer. How do the experiences of writing fiction and memoir differ? Is your process for creating these works similar?
The processes are extremely different. In writing a memoir, I knew how the plot was going to go—in my case it was essentially the story of one special summer. So it was more a matter of deciding what parts would be best to include or not, in order to make the book as strong as possible. Of course, as memory is unreliable and subjective, all memoir has an element of fiction—but in writing my memoir I knew where I was headed from when I began, in terms of a narrative arc. In writing my novels, I have not always known as clearly where it was going. I changed endings, moved episodes around or cut them completely. I actually look for those times when I surprise myself with where an idea goes while I am in the process of writing, though I do have a central character, group of characters or series of ideas that I want to make into a strong narrative. In the end, I am just trying for good storytelling in any form that I am writing.
Leaving Rock Harbor was inspired by events in your own family. How did you use these true events as a jumping off place for the novel?
On the Chace side of the family, one of my great-grandfathers was president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and the other great-grandfather was an engraver who came over from Manchester, England to work in the mills in New England. I always thought that was fascinating, considering the class differences between the old Yankee mill owners and the new, skilled craftspeople arriving in America looking for a fresh start. Also, the wealthier side of the Chace family did lose their fortune (such as it was) with the fall of the textile industry and the crash before the Great Depression, so the world of the “fallen gentry” has always been fascinating to me. I grew up spending summers and vacations in this beautiful region of Southeastern Massachusetts, so the setting of the book felt very familiar. I have always been fascinated by the great, boarded up mills that were part of that landscape.
Did a great deal of research go into writing Leaving Rock Harbor? What did you find to be your most useful resource?
Yes, I did research a great deal—though much of the research ended up outside of the book, in the end. There were two series of books that were very useful: The Spinner series, locally published about Southeastern Massachusetts history, and Our Times by Mark Sullivan. These series both gave me details about daily life during the period—as well as the book Amoskeag, by Tamara Hareven and Randolph Langenbach about the Amoskeag mill in Manchester, NH. That is a fascinating account of the rise and fall of a great textile mill. The American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts was also an invaluable resource for seeing the actual machinery used at the time, as well as archives of oral histories of the workers.
As an author and a teacher, which do you find is easier: writing, or teaching writing? Which do you enjoy more?
They can both be easy or hard, depending on what is happening. They inform each other, which sounds corny but is true. The great thing about teaching is that it makes you have to really articulate what your process is, as much as possible, and as your craft evolves, your teaching evolves as well—or that is how it has been for me. I have been asked great questions and been shown real insights by my students into a piece of writing—not my own writing of course, but writing that I am teaching by another author whom I admire. In this way I am also learning as a writer.
The novel spans a time period of sixteen years, from 1916 to 1934. How did you determine the pacing of the book? Or, how did you decide how much needed to be written about each period in Frankie’s life?
I wanted the book to begin when she was a young teenager, and end in her mid-thirties, when she was at a turning point in her life as a mature woman, that’s really what defined the time span, not necessarily the political events. I made a conscious choice not to bring the narrative up to 1938, when there was a devastating hurricane on that part of the coast, an event I decided not to include in the book. I also wanted to begin the book when the textile industry was still booming in New England, and follow it into its demise. How much time to devote to each period was really defined by the events in Frankie’s life, as in our own lives, there are times when a lot is happening, and changes come about either by choice or by chance that are irrevocable, and other times when things stay relatively the same.
In the first chapter, an older Frankie interjects at times to offer perspective on the events of her past. What led you to make this decision, when the book does not continue to explore her life in Peru with Joe?
This was a hard choice, whether to include the voice of an older Frankie looking back or not. In the end I decided that those passages, though brief, helped to frame the book from the perspective of someone who was unraveling her life for herself as best she could. Joe and Frankie in Peru could be another whole book!
When you began writing this novel, did you know how it was going to end? Was Frankie always going to leave with Joe for South America?
I didn’t know when I began the book for sure, but as I was working it became clear that she would inevitably make that choice for herself in the end. There were times when I thought she would stay with Winslow and not go with Joe, but after all, the title is about leaving Rock Harbor, though the novel is also about arriving there.
How would you describe Frankie’s character to someone who has not read this book?
Impetuous, passionate, loyal, sensual, conflicted, loving, frustrated, fulfilled, insecure at times and also filled with longing. I hope also smart and funny—someone that I hope readers can come to love and want to spend time with, despite her faults.
If Frankie and Alice were suddenly transported through time to the present day, what do you think they would be doing?
I think that Alice would be a smart, wealthy girl who ran around a lot and was incredibly charismatic, but also a bit lost, perhaps because she never really had to work and was born very beautiful and with enormous privilege—but would she really settle down and work hard at something that was meaningful to her? Only in spurts, I think, and I doubt that marriage and/or family could ever be completely fulfilling for her—but she would also be as she is in the novel, a fun-loving, life of the party, passionate girl who might have turned out quite differently if she hadn’t been born with all of those advantages, which can be a curse as well as a blessing.
Frankie would be very career driven, and perhaps not a particularly “good” wife or mother—though she would love her family, even today she might feel a sense of failure at not being able to be perfect at that part of her life. There is still a lot of pressure on women today to excel equally well in the home and the workplace, and most of us can’t live up to that very high standard. Certainly today, she would not have to choose between her child and the man she loved. There would no doubt be a difficult divorce, but she wouldn’t have to leave her child behind to follow her heart, and she would have had many more options than a woman did at that time.
Is there an overall message you would like your readers to take away from Leaving Rock Harbor?
There is no one message. Life is complicated, becoming an adult is complicated, and there is no choice that we can make without consequences—but in the end, caring passionately about each other and also about the world we find ourselves inhabiting does make a difference.