Open book with Rachel Urquhart

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In Rachel Urquhart's debut novel, "The Visionist," a teenage girl burns down her family's home, killing her father and ultimately landing her in a Shaker community called the City of Hope in Western Massachusetts. There, 15-year-old Polly Kimball finds herself surrounded by people desperate for their own visionist during the Era of Manifestations. They anoint Polly, who must carry the weight of their expectations and her own secrets.

"Like Marilynne Robinson's `Gilead' and Edward P. Jones' `The Known World,' `The Visionist' aspires to illuminate our understanding of faith, resilience, shame and forgiveness," writes Amber Dermont in The New York Times.

While composing the book, Urquhart found a few of those qualities tested. A day before she was supposed to submit her first draft to her agent, her laptop was stolen. She thought her draft had been backed up; it hadn't. She had to start over, but she persevered, ultimately publishing her novel in 2014.

Urquhart was born and raised in New York City but now lives on an old family farm in Tyringham, where she spent summers both as a child and as she was working on the book. She also visited Hancock Shaker Village repeatedly over the course of several years to do research.

Urquhart answered some questions by phone before her appearance at the living history museum's Food for Thought speaker series on Saturday night. (For more information, and for tickets to the event, visit hancockshakervillage.org.)

Q: You obviously read a lot about the Shakers in order to write this novel. What was the most helpful book you read about the group in [your] preparation?

A: There were several, and they each gave me something different. The first book that I read that actually made me feel as though I should actually write this book was ..."The Gift to Be Simple," and it's by a guy named Edward Deming Andrews. ... It's about the songs, dances and rituals of the American Shakers, and he concentrates a lot of the book on this time period called the Era of Manifestations, which is the period in which my book takes place. And it was a very strange sort of 10-plus year spiritual revival that spanned all the Shaker settlements and was just completely wild, and I had no idea about it ... [After reading it], I pretty much had my whole novel more or less outlined, and that's not something that had happened to me ever before. [Note: Urquhart also cited Stephen J. Stein's "The Shaker Experience in America" ("that was really helpful for starting large"); Richard Francis' "Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers, the Woman Clothed with the Sun" ("she was a truly strange person and a fascinating person"); and Glendyne R. Wergland's "One Shaker Life: Isaac Newton Youngs, 1793-1865" and "Sisters in the Faith: Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes" ("She writes in such a beautiful way") as major influences.]

Q: What's your favorite novel that explores faith in any form?

A: There was a novel that I read when I was just thinking about [my] book, when it still was kind of — I was too scared to start writing. And it's a very short novel by Mark Salzman, and it's called "Lying Awake," and it is, as everything that he writes is, exquisitely written. And it's about a nun in a Carmelite monastery in modern day times, and it's just got a lot about visions. And she has these amazing visions, but then she discovers that she also has a condition in her brain that, if she doesn't take care of it, she'll die, so she has to choose between having these visions that totally enforce her faith or actually getting rid of the visions and living. It's an extraordinary book. That was a really interesting book about faith for me. I'm not somebody that's thought a lot about faith before. I didn't grow up under any organized religion, and so it's also surprising to me that I ended up writing so much about it. I guess it was maybe more on my mind [than] I knew. That's what happens when you write a novel. You find out all kinds of things about yourself.



Q: Which author or book has influenced your writing the most?


A: Again, it's more than one, but I guess I would say in terms of making me want to be a writer, which seemed like an impossible dream because I just couldn't imagine that I could make it work out, but when I was in my teens, I remember reading "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy. And I just remember passages of that book making me just stop in my tracks and go back and read them again and then go back and read them again and just — I had no idea that a book could make me feel that way, so amazed by the language, so — I think that book, for all its incredible violence and for how difficult it is to read, I can't say that I write like Cormac McCarthy, but I think it made me, more than anything else, made me want to be a writer. ... Oddly enough, since I have two kids seven years apart, I've spent a lot of time with "Harry Potter." And, I've got to tell you, I learned a lot from "Harry Potter," especially [since] I came to fiction writing very late in my career, and I had never published [any fiction] before I published this novel (She has also written three "lifestyle" books for Knopf's ChicSimple series.) ... and I just learned a lot about description, about just analyzing how [J.K. Rowling] kind of keeps [the plot suspenseful] ... Talk about an opposite from Cormac.

Q: What books are currently on your nightstand?

A:
I just finished "Transit" by Rachel Cusk, which is sort of the follow up — it's not really a sequel — but it's the follow up to "Outline." Although it's a quite difficult book to read ... I love that book. Well, it's hard to really love it because it's kind of painful, but anyway, and then because I love "Revolutionary Road" so much, I picked up a couple of novels by Richard Yates that I've never heard of, and one's called "Young Hearts Crying," and the other one is called "A Special Providence," so I've got two of those on there. I've been meaning to read "Citizen" by Claudia Rankine for like a year and I just — that's a book I keep there because I want to read it so badly, but I just, I haven't read it yet. [Note: Urquhart also mentioned "Anything Is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout as well as "The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness" by Sy Montgomery.]


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