Novel Approach

English's Graver indulges her lifelong love of storytelling by penning an acclaimed work of fiction

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Curiosity and a lively imagination have inspired a love of story-telling in Asst. Prof. Elizabeth Graver (English) since her childhood, and now mark her work as a writer.

Graver, whose flights of fancy and feeling have won her critical acclaim for her short stories, has finished her first novel, Unravelling , which is set in 19th century New England and narrated by a headstrong young woman whose independent spirit and unconventional choices take her from the Lowell textile mills to isolation in a New Hampshire bog.

Graver said she draws bursts of inspiration for her writing from everyday things - the sight of children's faces on the sides of milk cartons, for example. Disparate images that stick in her mind are then woven together into a story, she said, as an actor in an improvisational troupe fashions a drama out of random elements.

"I grew up surrounded by books," Graver said, "in a world where narrative and imagination were valued. As a child, I spent a lot of time playing imaginary games.

Asst. Prof. Elizabeth Graver (English)-"Writing is a communicative act. There's a pleasure in having it go out in the world, and hearing an echo back." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

"When I write stories, I tend not to know where I'm going at all," she said. "I go from one sentence to the next."

Graver already has made an impact in the literary world, winning the 1991 Drue Heinz Literature Prize for her debut story collection, Have You Seen Me? At 26, she was the youngest person ever to win the prestigious prize.

The positive response to her work has pleased Graver, a self-described shy person who said she finds short stories "a way to communicate on a fairly profound level without having to open your mouth.

"I would write even if what I wrote weren't read," she said. "But writing is a communicative act. There's a pleasure in having it go out in the world, and hearing an echo back."

Unravelling originated as a short "surreal" piece about a woman living at the edge of a bog, Graver said, and grew from there. The novel tells the story of Aimee Slater, who as a teenager leaves her New Hampshire farm against her mother's wishes to work in the Lowell textile mills, opening up a rift between herself and her parent that feels, in her own words, like "an impossible distance."

"When I look back, I picture the journey marked by a long trail of white thread," Aimee recalls. "It is not fancy thread, but the thinnest, cheapest factory kind, the sort that breaks if you pull on it too hard. It begins in my mother's hand, and then it rails down the road and through the town and out by the field and into the next town, and on and on until the city, and still it does not stop ...

"I picture it following me for days, going everywhere I go - unwinding longer and longer, its other end still tight in my mother's fist. This is how I picture it now. I could not, at the time, have imagined so much thread ... My mother's hand was empty when I left."

The story continues tracing Aimee's efforts to build a life for herself until, by her late 30s, she has left the City of Spindles and returned to New Hampshire. The book, said Graver, addresses the question posed in the original short story, "How did she end up living at the bog?"

Graver's novel has received considerable advance praise. Gish Jen, author of Mona in the Promised Land , described Unravelling as "brilliant in its characteristics and voice, deep in its feeling and understanding of life." Stewart O'Nan, author of The Speed Queen , said Graver's "attention to detail and talent for metaphor are prodigious."

Graver's writing may differ from academic prose, but she believes she is well-suited to teaching at Boston College, and in a department which has placed a new emphasis on creative writing .

"We're a department sympathetic to writers and to literature," she said. "I don't feel so alone here."

A Guggenheim Fellowship will allow Graver to take off the 1997-98 academic year and devote herself writing a new novel set in the world of beekeeping, tentatively titled The Honey Thief . She is already at work researching the field: "I love all the materials - the veils, the boxes, the way the whole social structure of the bees is set up," she said.

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