Alice Elliott Dark: Lasting Female Friendships

(photo: James Leng)

Alice Elliott Dark is the author of three books of fiction: the novel Think of England and two collections of short stories, In the Gloaming and Naked to the Waist. She's an associate professor in the MFA program and English department at Rutgers University. Her novel Fellowship Point (Scribner, July 5, 2022) features an intriguing cast of female characters, led by a pair of East Coast octogenarians and their relationship to a rare jewel of coastal property in Maine.

The lifelong friendship between the two main characters in Fellowship Point, Agnes and Polly, represents a depth of companionship and intimacy most people can only dream about. Are there women in your life who inspired the enduring friendship between these octogenarians?

I went to a girls' school for 13 years where I learned how to have deep friendships. There were a lot of venerable teachers at school who were friends, some of whom lived together, and their relationships seemed to me ideal. My mother had close friends who became my friends, too. Competition or animosity between women was a trope I never heard about until college, and I steered clear. Friendship with women is intrinsic to me, and it naturally found its way into Fellowship Point.

Did Agnes and Polly arrive on the page as fully formed characters? As the story progressed, did they surprise you with any of their actions?

Both Polly and Agnes arrived fully formed. I never do any preliminary character charts or exercises. The characters come in, and I have no idea before I am in a scene and my pen is on the paper what they are going to do. They surprise me at every move. That said, I don't exactly think of characters as real people. They are beings who inhabit a realm of their own where a coherent imagination replaces nature and nurture. I believe the great characters of literature are akin to advanced math problems where nothing is superfluous.

Fellowship Point is a gorgeously rendered contemporary novel steeped in history, social conventions and enticing subplots. Which authors are you most inspired by in your work?

Thank you so much. I do have books and authors I return to over and over, among whom are Edith Wharton, Doris Lessing, Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Bowles, Mavis Gallant, Yukio Mishima, E.M. Forster, and Graham Greene. A few living authors I rush to the store for are--there are many--Louise Erdrich, Elizabeth Strout, Vivian Gornick, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Chang Rae Lee, Mona Simpson, Susan Minot and Eliza Minot, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Keene, Susanna Moore, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Jeff Eugenides and Jo Ann Beard.

A direct inspiration for Fellowship Point was He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope, which made me want to write a 19th-century-style novel with lots of plot and subplot. That breadth had always seemed out of reach, but I realized how much I loved Madame Bovary and Middlemarch and wanted to be inside of such a story. Another influence was The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xuexin, a multi-volume 18th-century Chinese novel depicting the fortunes of two aristocratic families and their lives inside their beautiful compounds. I read this years ago, but it thoroughly penetrated my imagination. This summer I also realized upon rereading that I owe a debt to The Catherine Wheel by Jean Stafford. The depiction of life in small-town Maine is hilarious, and the details and sentences are sublime.

The theme of female stewardship of property in Fellowship Point brings to mind E.M. Forster's Howards End. In both novels it is women who walk lightly on the land with a view to long-term preservation. Where did the idea originate, of donating the land known as Fellowship Point to a land trust?

It's funny you mention Howards End, as I am presently writing about a book group that is reading it. I developed the idea of women walking lightly on the land when a friend told me about all the women who'd donated their old ranches in California to land trusts. During the composition of Fellowship Point I closely followed Roxanne Quimby's effort to donate 87,000 acres of land she'd bought to the National Park System. I have since gathered many examples of women giving away their land--they played a big part in the creation of many National Parks. Agnes ends up having a vision even deeper than donation of what should happen with Fellowship Point.

Agnes and Polly's Quaker upbringing inspires them to adhere to ethical codes and social rules that are sorely lacking in society today. Which values of the Quaker faith resonate most with you?

Quaker principles include integrity, equality, simplicity, peace, community and stewardship. Living by these values led to the practices of pacifism, abolitionism, animal rights and gentle treatment of the mentally ill, among others. The Quakers believe that religious life occurs within, and that it is important to develop and listen to your conscience. I was exposed to these ideas as a child both at school and at home, and they deeply affected me, especially the principle of equality. It is profound, and when considered while making decisions is a powerful guide. Agnes and Polly both live by Quaker principles and by stalwart codes of behavior. I admire this approach to life very much.

The generation of women following Agnes and Polly are as fascinating as the main characters themselves. Readers haunted by Heidi's story in particular will want to know if they will meet her again. Is there more to Heidi's story that may present itself in a sequel?

I wrote a lot about Heidi and what happened to her when she left Fellowship Point. She had a difficult experience of living with a bipolar aunt and within the constraints of a rigid church community. She survived by creating elaborate versions of advent calendars to mark time until she might arrive in a better life. Her past was left out of the book, but if there is a mini-series, I hope it can be told.

You mentioned that writing was a refuge for you during childhood, a place that served as an escape from the chaos of everyday life. Is that still the case?

I have the same problems with writing as many other writers do, the doubts and frustrations and deletions, but none of that confounds me; I expect it. Creating a world and making a plot work is difficult and takes patience and time. Yet when I work on those problems and listen to my characters, I am able to focus on truths and possibilities that sometimes fly by too quickly to divulge their deepest meanings in daily life. Writing is not as much an escape as it once was, but more of a very intentional visit to a parallel realm.

What is your advice for readers interested in launching their own writing careers?

Recently I listened to an interview with Louise Erdrich, one of my writing idols, where she described how she writes all the time on any scrap of paper she has at hand. This is the ideal. After that I'd say write in the genre that most enchants you and notice craft while you're reading. Above all, make your writing a place of joy. --Shahina Piyarali

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