Being One with This Place: an interview with Fran Yardley 6/20/18 Bartlett Carry
Finding True North: A History of One Small Corner of the Adirondacks, (SUNY Press, Excelsior Edition), a small corner being a thousand acres, upon which Virgil and Caroline Bartlett built the V.C. Bartlett's Sportsmen's Home, later named the Saranac Club, later Bartlett Inn and Bungalows. The camp dates from 1850s, built in utter wilderness, located at the portage linking Round Lake and Upper Saranac Lake in what will eventually become the Adirondack Park.. Access to the camp and to the Upper Saranac and beyond was by boat and canoe. Its fortunes waxed and waned through the next 100 years, a history that Fran Yardley writes, the story of what came to be Barlett Carry Club. But the story is her story. In 1968, she and her husband Jay arrive to the then abandoned camp with the intention of ressurection and an eventual reopening, an abandonned camp having 37 buildings -- cabins, bungalows, the Main Lodge. They spend the first two and one-half years without electricity as they inventory, bulldoze and renovate, each with its own story. The inventories, for example, include furniture, linens, cookware, and the search for silverware, later identified as 351 tea spoons, 404 dinner forks, 229 dinner knives, oyster forks, and so on. There is the safe that holds documents and maps, including the Minutes of the Saranac Club, and with that, the foundation for the camp's story. The renovation leads to a re-opening. Families and playmates for their children. Swimming, hiking, and work and more work. Grandchildren and the death of Jay. And, for Fran -- the roots she had been seeking all along. Fran Yardly is an author, storyteller, and actor.
I visited with Fran at Bartlett Carry, with its view of Round Lake (now Middle Saranac), the mountains across the stilled waters, imaging Virgil and Caroline and Jay and Fran as they built their homes.
Rick: I'm interested in place. I'm interested in region. Do you feel like a regional writer?
Fran: I think so at this point. I'm in love with the Adirondacks. I've lived here 50 years. I poured blood, sweat, and tears into this place. Yet, if you would have asked me this question thirteen years ago I wouldn't have known what to say. The process of research and writing my book gave me an intimate awareness of the people who had lived and worked in this same place since 1854 and an awareness of how my 50 years here fit into the whole picture.
As I was writing, I began to question why my story was even important. At the beginning, it wasn't. When I first started writing, this was going to be a history of the Bartlett Carry Club and that was it. It took a while for me to figure out it needed to include my story as well. I went kicking and screaming into accepting that. It wasn't going to be about me. It had nothing to do with me.
I had a number of people who said "But Fran . . . ." Especially one wonderful woman in particular. Carol was a mentor to me all along. She lives in Massachusetts, but we talk regularly on the phone. She kept telling me this was about me and my story. I kept saying no, no, no it's not. No one is going to care about that. It took me years to really get it. For a while, I had a fictitious character because the day came when writing the history felt dry and I wanted my readers to have a firsthand experience of the past. So I created Priscilla Tucker. She lived in the mid-1800s down in the Glens Falls area and came up to Bartlett's for the summer. In those days, travelers came for at least a month if not more. Do you see that trunk out there? [Indicates to a wooden trunk sitting in the hallway.]
I write about three trunks that belonged to Pauline Agassiz Shaw. She traveled with them when she came here from the Boston area in 1893. I pictured my character, Priscilla, traveling in a similar way. I wrote of her experience of the full day trip up Lake Champlain on a steamboat, spending the night in Port Kent, and taking a stage coach the next day to Saranac Lake. On the third day, she traveled by row boat 15 miles to Bartlett's.
Meanwhile Carol kept saying, "Fran this is your story, this is your story." Months later, I thought well heck, everything I've written about Priscilla is what I believe and what I love. Priscilla is really me. So I tossed her out.
Rick: How horrible for her.
Fran: Poor Priscilla, but I'm very grateful to her. She was with me for quite a while. I went through this whole time of lavender. [shuffles through her desk, finds and opens a lavender-scented salve] The scent of lavender just was her. When I smelled that, it evoked who she was for me and what she experienced, Those were pretty cool times.
I'm not sorry that I decided to get rid of her and put myself in instead. I'll tell you why. What really did it for me finally was that I wanted to write a book that my readers could trust. As you can tell from the bibliography and the index, I did a lot of research, put in a lot of facts. Then I had this imaginary character who was experiencing imaginary things, and it wasn't ringing true to me. By putting myself in, I could tell my story as I knew it, and I could tell the history as I researched it. Then if anything needed filling in, I was up front with the reader and said I am imagining this. This is something that could have happened. It fills out the story. I'm a storyteller so I have to do that. It filled out the story to make it more readable.
Rick: Then threading the two -- your personal narrative and the narrative of place. How did you decide when and what the transitions would be?
Fran: It was hard to figure out how to make that work. I wasn't sure even at the end if it would work. I guess it has. People seem to think it has worked. I used my gut feeling a lot for that. I'd think . . . we've heard enough history, it's time to go back to some of Fran and Jay's story. I tried to balance it out by never having too long a section of one or the other. That was purely practical. For instance, I wrote about electricity in the old days and then transitioned to electricity issues Jay and I had. Actually we didn't have electricity for our first 2 ½ years.
Then there were passages I wrote that were neither the past nor present history, but instead, for instance, an observation of nature. You might have noticed those sprinkled throughout the book.
Rick: You take a long walk at one point . . .
Fran: Yes, exactly. It turns out those passages were very important additions in terms of sealing the sense of place. Sealing isn't quite the right word . . . enhancing, highlighting for the reader what place meant to me in terms of nature, what I experienced, what I observed. That was really important to me.
Rick: It's obviously beautiful, and obvious how much research you were doing. But it didn't seem to be research into the natural world in 1887. It was more of a social story at that point; these men coming up and building; what was going on. And then your story when you first to arrive at Bartlett is not social because you were isolated. I don't know if that's a good observation. But then when you start having people coming up during the summer, things change dramatically.
Fran: I'll go back to what you said. I think as far as the history goes, it was social during the development of this area. Virgil Bartlett and Caroline – I like to add her because she was so much an important part of the success of the business just as Lydia Smith was at Paul Smiths. Women did not get the kind of coverage that they should – When Virgil and Caroline came, they were the beginning of a new vanguard. A new pushing of the edge of the envelope into the wilderness. So I conjecture in my book – What was life in the Adirondacks like in the 1850s? What was it like in the 1880s? What was it like when the Adirondack Park was formed? What was it like in the early 1900s when it got so depressing and dastardly here because of everything that happened?
Then what was it like in the 1950s, here specifically? It was a whole dead place then.
Then we came up in 1968. We were just on the cusp of people beginning to come here. I think everybody, even Dr. Frank Trudeau, who was my doctor, thought we were insane. Our little cabin was right up there beyond that apple tree. [Motions through the glass up the hill.] We lived there without electricity. Frank didn't think we'd last the whole winter because it was dead here. The movie theater in town held reruns of Kung Fu X. That was the movie of the month. It was not what you'd call a thriving place to come to.
That's a long way of saying that it was social, yes, but there was so much else besides just who came to Bartlett's back then or who came to our Bartlett Carry Club. Did that get us way off on a tangent?
Rick: No, it's all tangents, we're just walking around the book.
Fran: I love that. Right. Walking around the book.
Rick: When do you know when to stop researching?
Fran: Such a great question. It's a great segue for me to tell you about my original inspiration. Do you remember what I wrote about the safe? What was discovered in it? [Hands over a red leather-bound ledger.] Beautiful, yes. That is the Minutes of the Saranac Club. Look at this. January 17th, 1889. When I first opened it, I thought, crap. I can't understand the handwriting and I don't have time, and so I closed it up. It took many years, but I did finally get to it. You see his handwriting change? There are two books of this.
Anyway, in terms of what you do and when do you stop, I began to look at it as if I were in a forest on a path and I'd see a really cool plant over there. I'd go over and I'd look at that plant and say "God that's really . . . look at that flower, oh my God." I got so far down one path, I started doing research on typewriters when the Minutes changed from handwritten to typed.
Then came this great training from storytelling. When I'm working on a story, the question I love and hate to be asked is "What is for you the most important thing about this story?" Then I have to really think about that. When I come up with an answer, then everything in that story has to relate to that MIT (most important thing). If it doesn't, it doesn't belong in that story. It doesn't mean it's bad, it just belongs in a different story. I did research on the typewriter and then said okay, does that really relate to my most important thing? There were many times when that happened. Sometimes it really did relate like the research on the water, on the steamboat. That was so cool. But I couldn't go off on too much of a tangent and start talking about the steamboat my cousin had up in Canada when I grew up.
I'm sure there are items in my bibliography that were more than was needed for me to write the story. I don't even remember, but it was okay. Because then my acting background comes in which is all the work you do as an actor on your character. You get this whole back story going that the playwright has not told you. You get clues from the script and then you go back and you create this character, and none of that will ever get said or shown except from in here. That is it. There's this whole subtext that I think really enriches the story. That's where all the books in my bibliography come in.
In my book, I let my reader know I'm tall, that I have wrinkles, that I have long hair. It's a matter of how you state those things. How do you get all this exposition in there, so it's not looking like exposition, so it's organic? That was fun to try to figure that out.
An example was the hair because, up in that little cabin, we didn't have electricity and I had hair almost down to my waist. When I washed it in the winter, it was nice for it to get dry a little faster than the 50 or 60 degrees in the cabin allowed. We had this kerosene heater in the basement – we called it our “central heating” which was hot air blowing up through a hole in the floor. So I wrote about flipping my hair over the hole with the hot air and drying it. They could get to know me a little bit that way.
This all has to do with voice. I heard a quote recently on the radio by Raymond Chandler. Loosely remembered it said, "Style is the most important thing in finding one's voice. If the writer puts his individual mark on what he writes, it will always pay off." Individual mark, voice. So the question is, how do I find that voice? Other authors sometimes so deliciously create a character with distinctive traits and a very specific voice. I am jealous, I want to do that, I suspect it might be easier if I weren't trying to create my own voice. On second thought I don't have to create anything. My voice is my voice. I do have to get rid of all the voices I think I should sound like.The scholarly voice, the clever voice, the entertaining voice, the 'I know it all' voice. It means being vulnerable and honest, perhaps beyond what I want to admit to the reader. The more I'm willing to do that, the better the writing will be. I know I'm capable of that but how, how, how? Now that I'm in my 70s, and quite liking it, a couple of things have come up. I have more permission to do, think, and be exactly what I want and am. I wonder if this will translate into my writing. We shall see. I have a definite sense of if not now, when? It better be now. Climb the mountain now, write the book now. Paddle, walk, tell the truth, dress anyway I want, get my hair cut short and write. Voice, yes. I want to concentrate on that or maybe let go of so much else so she can shine through.
Rick: What are your influences?
Fran: On the writing of the book? Carol was a big one. It was just such a joy to talk about it with her. It's a different kind of talking too. This is interesting. My observation is that writers go about their craft in different ways . . . My husband, for instance, worked on a book for a long time. Then he got so caught up in everything else that he does so marvelously like photography and everything to do with the theater, so the book took second place. But while working on in, he would be ensconced writing for four hours or five hours a day, and then not talk about it ever. I would be ensconced for four or five hours and then want talk about it. I've always wanted to share or talk. I had built up during my storytelling over many many years, decades, a cadre of friends who were like coaches. I still have three of them whom I meet with on the phone at least once a month. We each take time and it's understood that when we talk everything is confidential. And that, if you are my coach, I don't want you to tell me how to fix anything, I just want you to listen. If you have something you love that I just told you or anything I'm doing, I'll love to hear that. Then I might ask you for some suggestions, and I might take them or not. So, this is great, honest back and forth. Over the course of all thirteen years and before, that was a huge influence in my process - having that kind of interaction, that kind of building.
Rick: Other influences? You've done so much reading, other stories, novels.
Fran: Great books on writing here. I'll tell you about some I adore. My hero, John McPhee. This is so much fun, that you are asking this. Do you know Philip Lopate? His book, To Show and To Tell?
This whole shelf is books on writing. Strunk and White, Natalie Goldberg, of course. Here was a book that early on had a big influence on me, West With the Night by Beryl Markham. Do you know her?
She was a pilot, around the time of Amelia Earhart. Just listen to the beginning of this book. This blew me away. [Reads] "How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start, there can be no other.' But there are 100 places to start for there are 100 names – Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru. There are easily 100 names, and I can begin best by choosing one of them - not because it is first nor of any importance in a wildly adventurous sense, but because here it happens to be, turned uppermost in my logbook. After all, I am no weaver. Weavers create. This is remembrance – revisitation; and names are keys that open corridors no longer fresh in the mind, but nonetheless familiar in the heart."
Rick: That's beautiful.
Fran: Well, here's Ed Kanze, Mary Hotaling, Clarence Petty, and Phil Terrie. And the Adirondack Center for Writing. They used to hold something called "The Publisher's Conference." I think it was three or four years ago I went to it with my first ten pages. They had an agent and you could, for a small amount of money, meet with her for fifteen minutes. I did that, and she had read it ahead of time. She liked what I'd written. She said, "Have you ever read Wild by Cheryl Strait? Well, read it, read the beginning of it." The beginning doesn't start at the beginning of the story, it starts smack in the middle. She said, if you have a scene or a story that would strike people. . . .
I knew immediately what it would be and that is the beginning of my book with the booming ice and not knowing what that sound is. Cheryl is in the middle of the Pacific Northwest trail on a cliff, and she has stopped because her feet hurt so badly. She's taken her hiking boots off, she's got her backpack, and she's hiking this trail for weeks at a time all by herself. Her backpack slips, it falls and hits one of the hiking boots and she watches the boot, in a slow motion it seems, go up in the air, arc and go over the cliff. That's her scene. That one was really cool.
Other books on my shelf . . . Alfred Donaldson's History of the Adirondacks. Martha Reben, all of her books. Adirondack Murray. Little Rivers by Henry Van Dyke. He's so amazing; he's such a great writer. I could go on. Eudora Welty. My epigraph is a quote by her: "A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out."
Rick: To come back to issues of region, do you sense a difference in readers from the Adirondacks as opposed to elsewhere?
Fran: Clearly. Don't you think? People who have experienced this place. Even if they just came up once. I know you only need to come up once and take your shoes off to fall in love with the place. It's that hook; there's got to be a hook. I've never thought of myself as a historian before I wrote this book. I think I had crappy history teachers growing up, so history was never of interest to me. But now, because I know this little tiny bit, when I hear about something that takes place in the 1850s, I think, "I know something about that; I know somebody who lived then." Hook, hook.
Whatever that little hook might be, it might be enough for them to say, "I know enough that I might want to learn a little more." I think what makes somebody regional is you get a little tiny bit of a taste of something, and then you can latch on to that, then it can grow and then it gets bigger and bigger. That's what happened for me. I don't know if that would happen for others, but I'm guessing it would.
Rick: Do you write for that audience? Do you give the Adirondack hook as opposed to something else?
Fran: That was important to me. This is definitely a regional book, but I tried to make it universal in whatever ways I could. It's a regional story, but it's a universal story about a woman who is struggling with isolation and loneliness and feeling totally overwhelmed, can't get a grip on what 1,000 acres means or 37 buildings mean.
Rick: My big question is about water.
Fran: It's so powerful. I write in my book about looking at Middle Saranac. It's a visceral thing. I think about the Philosopher's Camp. Are you familiar with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his crew? James Russell Lowell, William James Stillman, others in 1858? They traveled to Saranac Lake, then by water all the way up through here and on to the Raquette and to Follensby Pond where they stayed for the summer. They were quite well-known. One of that crew was Louis Agassiz. He was the father of Pauline Shaw, the one who, over 30 years later, owned these trunks, owned this property, all 732 acres of it, before it was bought by Jay's great-grandfather. If it weren't for the water; if it weren't for this water, none of this would have happened.
There was a day I'll never forget . . . Jay and I, our first spring, the ice had just gone out. We got in a canoe and went around a point right around here and there was a raccoon on the edge of the water washing his paws. I have this sense that every time I get in a boat, I don't have to go far. I just need to be in the boat and be, maybe, only as far I am from you away from the shore, and there is a sense of ... being more at one with this place.