Assoc. Prof. Elizabeth Graver (English), who will speak on March 30 as part of the "Writers Among Us" series: "I write out of my deepest concerns and interests, but the actual worlds I set them in are often not ones I know firsthand. I find that doing the research triggers something within me, gives me a scaffolding on which I can then build the story...It moves me into foreign worlds, where I, like my characters, am learning as I go."
Awake to a World of Possibilities
Novelist Graver finds unusual settings suit her, and her characters
By Sean Smith
As a novelist, Assoc. Prof. Elizabeth Graver (English) has always found limits in following that time-worn axiom, "Write what you know."
Instead, Graver adheres to poet-author Grace Paley's take on the aforementioned adage: "Write what you don't know about what you know." And if you need to, Graver might add, find out more.
Graver certainly never knew much about 19th-century Lowell mill workers' lives, a central feature of her first novel Unravelling, nor beekeeping, one of the key elements in her second, The Honey Thief. Nor was she familiar with rare genetic skin disorders before she began writing her just-released third novel, Awake (Henry Holt and Co.), which revolves around a family whose youngest child is hypersensitive to ultraviolet light.
But whatever the additional work involved in researching such subjects, Graver says it is a task that seems to enhance her creativity, and her penchant for exploring complex emotions between, and within, her characters.
"I write out of my deepest concerns and interests, but the actual worlds I set them in are often not ones I know firsthand," said Graver in a recent interview. "I find that doing the research triggers something within me, gives me a scaffolding on which I can then build the story. It frees me, somehow, even as it provides a kind of structure. It moves me into foreign worlds, where I, like my characters, am learning as I go."
Graver will read from her new novel and discuss her writing on Tuesday, March 30, at 7:30 p.m. in Gasson 305 as part of the "Writers Among Us" series sponsored by Boston College Magazine and the Boston College Bookstore.
Even while drawing acclaim for her novels, Graver has been highly successful as an author of short stories. Among her other honors, she achieved a literary "hat trick" in 2001 when her story "The Mourning Door" was published in three major anthologies.
However established and experienced as a novelist, Graver laughs somewhat sheepishly at the question as to what characterizes "an Elizabeth Graver novel." But she does see some commonalities in her books, notably her attention to inner life and the unusual settings and circumstances in which she locates her characters: In Unravelling, the book's female narrator has forsaken the Lowell mills for isolation in a New Hampshire bog; in The Honey Thief, a widowed mother and her troubled daughter seeking new lives in rural New York befriend a reclusive middle-aged beekeeper.
"I'm interested in people who are trying to make communities for themselves, in ways that are both conventional and unconventional - often communities that are set apart somehow," she said. "In their experiences, I often end up exploring questions of autonomy versus connection, the life of the imagination and - particularly in this new book - the life of the body as well."
Awake is narrated by Anna Simon, a married artist in her early 40s whose life has changed dramatically since the birth nine years ago of her son, Max, who has xeroderma pigmentosum, or XP, which renders him extremely vulnerable to sunlight. A traveler and "lover of light," Anna now stays largely confined to her house so she can home-school and look after Max; since ultraviolet light is so dangerous to her son, Anna and Max stay awake through the night and sleep during the day.
"I was nervous about doing a book on a kid with a disease, because I wanted to do justice to both the realities of the disease and the complexities of my characters and not write some simple tale of either soap opera tragedy or easy triumph," said Graver, who first read about XP in People magazine some years ago ("I saved the article in a pile of things, and somehow it eventually rose to the top").
Yet while Anna has formed a unique and powerful bond with Max, tensions are evident. Her husband, Ian, wants Max to attend school with their older son, Adam, and experience more of the world; Anna herself realizes that she won't be able to fully meet Max's educational and social needs as he grows older.
These strains are exacerbated when the family attends a special summer camp for children with XP and similar diseases. Freed from their usual roles and routines, each of the four begins to see their lives and relationships in new ways, some of which challenge the family hegemony. Anna finds commiseration and understanding as never before with the other parents - and a growing attraction to the camp's charismatic founder-director, Hal.
"I'm interested in people's flaws and also in their stumbling efforts to live good lives," said Graver, whose research for Awake included attending a summer camp similar to that in the book and corresponding with parents of XP children through an e-mail discussion list.
"Anna is selfish in a way - thorny, perhaps. But she's had to change so much of who she is, or was, to be not only parent but protector for Max. Now, she is in a place that offers safety and freedom, but what do those things really mean, and at what price do they come?"
The title of the book also suggests multiple interpretations: Aside from its most obvious definition, "awake" connotes vigilance and watchfulness, an almost constant state of affairs for Anna during Max's life, or the act of becoming aware and cognizant; it also can refer to the stirring of one's memories, or of a latent interest.
"When I've said the title aloud, some people have heard it as 'a wake,' mourning someone or something that's passed on," said Graver. "Although Awake wasn't the original title - I thought about Night Light, but my publisher felt it sounded more like a young-adult novel - I think it ends up working on a number of levels."
Graver says her next novel is a ways off. It takes time not only to write them, she says, but "to let go of them." She also wants to turn her attention back to short stories; she has amassed a considerable amount since her last collection and is working on more.
"With my creative writing students," she said, "I try to help them both tunnel in toward their most urgent concerns and look outward toward the wider world - in short, to 'write what they don't know about what they know.'"