Writing in Wharton's rooms
LENOX — In the evening, they share a house in Lenox. They sit up late, talking and making pizza. They read each other's work or watch Martin Scorsese's adaptation of "The Age of Innocence." And each day they write at the Mount, in Edith Wharton's inner rooms.
Vanessa Manko said whatever she was working on, the movement of water, a crowd scene, she would open a book and find Wharton showing her how to write it.
The second year of the writers' residency at The Mount has brought together three wide-ranging minds.
Christene Barberich, global editor-in-chief and co-founder of the international lifestyle media company Refinery29, covers a broad swathe of stories that matter to women, from the 2016 election to her first steps as a young freelance writer in the city. Manko's first novel, "The Invention of Exile," follows a young engineer from Russia to America in 1913. And historian Donna M. Lucey has traced stories from glass-plate photographs in Montana to the women who taught people set free by the Emancipation Proclamation in Virginia after the Civil War.
The three finalists were selected from a pool of more than 150 applications and have been "in-residence" at The Mount for several weeks. The writers have the use of the house as a retreat each day during their stay.
We recently sat down with the three writers, during a break from their routine, to talk about the program, what they're working on and how Wharton's work has shaped their own.
Q: What drew you here, not just to a writing residency, but to this one?
Donna: Edith Wharton has played a cameo in almost all the books I've written. I was here in the 1970s and '80s, when Shakespeare & Company was here and she has always been a shadowy presence. I read her correspondence at the Beinecke (Library) for my last book.
Christene: For me, she addresses women living unconventional lives, living to their potential. I love being in this historical space and in an environment that was so important to her and so critical in her life. As an editor, I don't have many opportunities to write, to immerse myself in the ideas I have been dwelling on here.
Vanessa: Claiming the space to do that is difficult, and this is where Edith did that for herself.
Q: What did she achieve here?
Christene: It has such a sense of independence. She really did mastermind so much of this estate. And I feel a responsibility to draw from her principles and theories and share them. Spending time in the library, among her books, you see what a complex person she was, how deep and emotional and curious. You don't encounter a lot of women like that who really endure and leave a legacy.
Donna: Room after room the innermost room she wrote about was here, and it was her design for this place. And the area is so beautiful.
Vanessa: She loved it so much. I'm re-reading 'Ethan Frome,' and looking out the window to see the light of the trees on the snow She wrote that "each description has to show the character's soul." We can learn from her in every corner.
Q: What are you working on in your time here?
Christene: Three personal essays, one Donna was kind enough to talk through with me yesterday, about female experiences in mid-life.
Donna: I have a book coming out in August on four women painted by John Singer Sargent, and I am writing a treatment for a potential television series, so I am trying to shrink and distill.
Vanessa: I'm working on my second novel, inspired by Loie Fuller. She was a modern dance pioneer in Edith Wharton's time, in the 1890s and she started American Modern Dance even before Isadora Duncan. For the novel, I want to bring her back. She inspired people with her work and the experience of seeing her is gone. I want to bring back what it was like to see this for the first time. She created her own costumes of silks and fabrics that would swirl as she danced, and the silk would form shapes, like a lily, an orchid. The lights would shine on the fabric, and the colors would change. Electricity was new then.
Donna: And you are a dancer yourself. You understand the motion and how the body works and bring that knowledge — you understand the artistry behind it.
Vanessa: There's so much overlap between dance and writing, in the pacing, in repeating and revising. You get a movement down, and you create a shape.
Donna: Like jazz — you get into the rhythm of it. Like Edith Wharton, marking her pages with notes — musical notes.
Q: What do you enjoy in each other's work?
Christene: Donna's writing has such energy — it's mellifluous and beautiful, musical, and it has an intense energy. It thrusts you forward. Hearing you read yesterday was powerful.
Donna: Vanessa's reading was poetic, about light and fire, and Christene's about architecture, an iconic space in New York City that is vanishing. She interweaves her own experience and makes it alive.
Vanessa: It's an entr e into New York — a young woman on the brink. You could take that scene and put it into "The House of Mirth" or "The Age of Innocence."
Christene: It's such a great creative awakening to spend time with (you both). I work in digital media, and we put up 180 stories a day. (You both) write in long-form. It's a creative pivot just to be here with you.
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