A conversation with Mary Sanders Shartle, July 19, 2018, at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake.
Mary Sanders Shartle writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her most recent fiction is The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale, published by SUNY Press and winner of the Adirondack Center for Writing's awards for best fiction, and its people's choice award. The book also won awards from the American Library Association, and from the Independent Publishers Association (a complete list of awards can be found on her website, below). Much of her work as a poet has involved Marilyn McCabe and Elaine Handley, who together are referred to as the Three Poets. They have, in their work together, directly engaged the region inside and surrounding the Adirondack Park.
Visit her at: https://marysandersshartle.wordpress.com/about/
The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale, SUNY Press, 2014
Poetry (as one of the Three Poets with Marilyn McCabe and Elaine Handley)
Notes from the Firetower–Three Poets on the Adirondacks (2005) (chapbook) Adirondack Center for Writing award for best book of poetry
Glacial Erratica: Three Poets on the Adirondacks, Part 2 (2006) (chapbook) Adirondack Center for Writing award for best book of poetry
Winterberry, Pine: Three Poets on North Country Winter (2010) (chapbook) Adirondack Center for Writing award for best book of poetry
Tear of the Clouds (Ra Press in 2011)
We sat in the cafeteria at the Wild Center, on stools at the wrap-around counter, water-level with the pond outside. From time-to-time, painted turtles rose, nose above water, feet momentarily stilled below the surface, momentarily floating, before slipping back under. The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale follows a young woman from an early tragedy in the mountains, through life in New York City, and her ultimate abandonment of society and return to the Adirondacks as a reclusive caretaker of one of the great camps. Mary Sanders Shartle is currently at work on two other novels set in the Adirondacks.
Rick: Do you consider yourself a regional writer?
Mary: I do now (pointing to The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale). I never did before. I've been here for almost 40 years, in Saratoga mostly. I've written Lily Martindale and I'm now writing another book, which also takes place in the Adirondacks. I have another book in the hopper that takes place in Saratoga. I guess I'm now on this trend of writing Adirondack books, because I had success with this one.
Rick: How would you define the region?
Mary: The first thing that comes to my mind is just driving here to Tupper Lake and the Wild Center from Long Lake. I felt like I was floating. That long stretch of road that goes past the Whitney canoe access, Little Tupper—long, long stretches of nothing but cedar forest. I'm in a whole different place than I am living in the woods outside of Saratoga Springs. This is different, and it brings something up in me. From the minute that I cross those Adirondack-shaped signs that say Entering the Adirondack Park, I feel different. I've never been in a place like this before in my entire life, but every time I come up and I cross those signs, and go up the road to Raquette Lake, or over to Old Forge, miles and miles of nothing but forest and lakes, or the High Peaks regions . . . I've never experienced something like that. I've been to the Rockies. This is different. I've flown over the Alps. This is different. I've been to Africa. This is really different.
Rick: You've been here 40 years. Has that feeling changed? Has the 'floating' changed?
Mary: The floating seems to get more acute as I get older. Maybe 'acute' and 'floating' don't go together in the same sentence, but I'm very aware of the limited time I have left to find happiness so late in life in terms of my role, my place. I realize that I've really got to make the most of the time I have left, if I'm going to live here, if I'm going to be up here.
Rick: Has that affected how you write? Are you responding to the world with prose differently than you're responding to it with poetry?
Mary: Much so. Matter of fact I think I'm more focused in prose now. I was at Piseco Lake on a retreat with some friends two weekends ago, and I wrote the first poem I think I've written in a long time. About my sister's hat, which I was wearing at the time. It felt okay. It felt like, 'okay, I wrote a poem.' I read a poem recently at Caffé Lena when Elaine [Handley] was doing a feature there, and I said, 'okay, I read a poem.' It's a poem that I wrote when I was at Sagamore and I was really doing it as an advertisement for Great Camp Sagamore, because it was written about the spider webs going across the bridge across the outlet stream, and I wanted to mention the fact that the Adirondack Center for Writing had this Anne LaBastille Foundation weekend of women writers there. So I read the poem [at Lena’s], and talked a little bit about the weekend. There was no tissue connectivity to the act of writing the poem, or the act of reading one of my own poems. I still read poetry and I'm still actively engaged in talking to people about poetry, but I'm not as engaged in my own work there as I am in writing prose.
Rick: What poets do you read?
Mary: Lately, at the women writers’ retreat at Sagamore, we were very invested in Mary Oliver, and a little bit of Annie Dillard. I was much more engaged with Annie Dillard. Probably because it's prose, and probably because I'm so used to Mary Oliver after all these years of reading her stuff. I think she's a wonderful poet, and I think people respond very effectively to Mary Oliver, but I like more complicated poets. I think the one I love the most in my life has been John Ashbery. He's very complicated. He's not an easy guy to read. I also like when I'm writing poetry to play with language and play with images and rhythms, and you can do that in poetry in a way that I think it's more difficult with fiction. With fiction, you really have to concentrate on how you're associating images and metaphors and things like that. I was pretty happy with the result of Lily Martindale. When I write poetry, I like to play with words. And when poetry loses that sense of play, I lose interest.
Rick: Lily Martindale. Images and metaphors?
Mary: I think from get-go to the end, from waking up one morning and thinking, oh my god there are wind chimes ringing and they're playing a tune for me, and thinking, oh wait a minute, nobody is out there playing a tune.
That was the catalyst. That and one other episode which I've just been writing about which took place at Lake Mohegan, Great Camp Uncas, which is the JP Morgan Great Camp. I was there waiting for a friend of mine who was living at the camp. It was September. She was coming back from Ohio, and her mother had died, so I was waiting to be there for her. I got there before her, and I took a beer out of the fridge and went down the five minutes it takes to go the beach. JP Morgan trucked in tons and tons of pure, white sand so that there was a beach for his lodge. The tradition when you go up there, I'm sure it's tradition everywhere in the Adirondacks, as it is in the Florida Keys, you go out and do a sunset ceremony. Sit in the Adirondack chair with your beer or your glass of wine and watch the sun set. So I go down and I'm sitting, waiting for my friend, in the Adirondack chair and the sun is starting to set, and I suddenly realize that I'm the only one in that camp. The caretakers are not there. The owners are not there.
My friend isn't there. There is nobody around. There's 11,000 some acres of state park land surrounding me and this lake, and I got really nervous. I got really uncomfortable. I'm a person who really appreciates solitude, because I have never been alone in my life. I grew up the youngest of five, and had constant caretakers, constant interaction with people, school, to a women's college; there were all these other women around. I always lived in women's housing wherever I was. Always people around. Then I got married, and I had a kid, and I had cats. I'm never alone. Here I was absolutely alone and it was freaking me the fuck out.
I began to look around, because I had been there probably a year or two before that. And my friend and I had been on the beach and there were moose tracks there. It was a cow moose and a calf. So, I began to look around and say, well let's be logical here. I can go back to the house. I can get in my car and go to the tap room in Raquette Lake. I could call somebody. I'm not going to get crazy here. But I realized, here was the first time in my life that I was really, truly, seriously alone, and if something had happened, there was nobody who would hear me call for help. If a bear came out of the woods....
Rick: It must have been attractive in some ways. You've put Lily here.
Mary: There you go. What kind of woman can do that? I'm obviously not that kind of woman. It fascinated me. So that really fed into . . . that whole story fed into this. Also, interviewing people like the caretaker at Great Camp Uncas. He'd been there for 20 some years. So he'd aged in the camp and he was a brilliant guy. He was a great person to talk to. I interviewed him when I was working on this book. He would say, "I'd go to the tap room in Raquette Lake, and I've been going there for years, I'd have dinner there with locals . . . they knew that I was caretaker." No one in all those years ever invited him for dinner. Never said "come on I'll buy you a drink." Nobody. They met in the tap room, they walked off. He would go over to another caretaker's house to borrow something, and it was winter. He said the caretaker opened the door . . . “and I'd say what I needed. He said hold on a second, left me out on the porch, got what I needed, handed it to me, and closed the door.” All those years, they were probably two miles apart. Never invited him to come in for a drink. I kept thinking, what if that caretaker had been a woman. How would the reactions have varied? What would create a sense of community for a hermit? Which is a contradiction in terms.
Rick: But Lily doesn't want the community.
Mary: No, she goes to get away from everything. I spent fifteen years in New York City, and I thought coming to the woods was going to be heaven on earth. It certainly has been, but I'm not alone. I think in the town of Winslow Station, there was always this sense of intrusion, “infernal intrusion” of people. That's true for all hermits. There's a great scene in Karamazov, where Dostoevsky talks about “our town” and “our hermit,” and “our monastery.” You can tell how tired that poor old hermit is before he dies, because he's a healer. And everybody comes from Moscow or Saint Petersburg to get healed by this famous hermit. In the Adirondacks ADK guide books, there's [a hermit] on Spruce Mountain, which is down close to where I live. It says: by the way, there's Jim the Hermit who lives at the bottom of Spruce Mountain. Leave him alone. If you do get lost, he'll probably be the one to find you and get you back on the trail. I went on that hike and sure enough, I don't remember if there was chain link fence, or what, but there were signs all over. No trespassing. Do not disturb. I was so pleased to see that somebody was actually living the life.
Rick: Do you ever feel lonely?
Mary: Oh, all the time. The loneliest I've ever felt was in New York City. Talk about a place where you're so alone and might call for help. It's kind of iffy whether or not you'd get help in time or that people would take you seriously.
Rick: About the hymns [each chapter in Lily Martindale opens with excerpts from hymns]. You say one of your inspirations, or catalysts, was wind chimes, with their special sounds going on. The hymns are very, very different. Hymns are social.
Mary: It's a group thing. Yeah. Churches are often very, very proud of their individual hymn books and hymn knowledge. I remember in the Presbyterian Church where I grew up, there was tremendous pride in our congregation’s ability to sing. You're from Minnesota?
Rick: I spent twelve years there.
Mary: There are a lot of churches in Minnesota that pride themselves in singing. It's a Swedish thing, or a Norwegian thing. Barbara Glaser, [the woman who rescued Great Camps Sagamore and Uncas from the State wrecking ball] who is Norwegian, is incredibly fond of singing. Whenever we get together at Uncas, there's a lot of singing. So singing has always been a huge part of my life and hymns, because I was taken to church regularly for years. Singing with my dad. So that's very, very focal. Then the summer camp that I went to, all the cabins and buildings had names. There was one that was called Doxology. I don't think anybody does the doxology anymore. I don't hear it. It was done every Sunday in our church in Troy, Ohio. Our Episcopal church in Saratoga doesn't do it. It is represented in other ways in the hymn book. I associated hymns with maybe names of cabins and then having that as a theme through the book to just anchor the camp in mind with the various buildings or places where things happen, like Rockingham Hall. If you go through the hymns in Lily you'll see writers like John Greenleaf Whittier and Abelard, and certainly the major composers, too.
So there's a richness to it that connects to my childhood certainly, and I've had more response from people to the hymns, almost more than to the text in the book.
When I was writing Lily, I would go to church, and I'd be bored. I'd be flipping through the hymnal, and I'd see what's listed on the board—what we're going to sing. I'd go through and I'd actually start reading the lyrics. Sometimes that itself is quite extraordinary, sometimes gorgeous poetry that's set to sometimes really lovely music. Hymns were meant to be a community effort to bring people together in words and music. Word and image—it’s an uplifting thing. It should be. I'd tune out the priest and everything else that was going on around me and I'd sit there and go through the hymns. I would hear something and say, boy that reminds me of a scene in the book. I wonder if that would fit? So the hymns are a little bit of connective tissue to the camp and to the people who took their religion seriously enough to bring it to the woods.
Rick: You have a dominant theme involving one's personal freedoms and how they are violated. One stands out, toward the end of the novel where Lily is institutionalized and a psychiatrist has pretty much complete control over-
Mary: Whether she stays at the camp . . .
Rick: Whether she stays or leaves, or is physically restrained, and variations on a mental conformity. Why a hospital? Why not some other means of control?
Mary: I think because I've experienced being in a hospital like that.
It was actually very interesting. It was a real short stay. It was like 10 days. They just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to hurt anybody or hurt myself. I was 14 or 15 and very, very depressed. My mother would tell people I probably had a nervous breakdown, but I was seriously depressed. It was a very interesting experience to me and I was sort of aware of how interesting it was. Interacting with the other patients there. A lot of whom were university students. This was UNC in Chapel Hill. It was a lot of interacting with local North Carolina farm people, with women who were so severely depressed that they had tried suicide or something, and students who got freaked out doing exams, probably doing little drugs on the side. So I was interacting with people and also interacting with the doctors. Mike [the psychiatrist in Lily] is a good example.
I ran this by a friend of mine who's a psychiatrist. I said 'does this fly with you?' And he said, well, the doctor is absolutely spot on. He said I wish I had a patient like Lily Martindale every time. One who's going to be that accessible and able to break down at some point. Many of them never do. I had a good friend who was hospitalized in Newtown, [the state mental hospital] in Connecticut. I said how did you get out? Because that's pretty much a death sentence. She said she just learned to cooperate with everything they told her to do because that was the only way she was going to get out.
Rick: That is Lily. She just decides she's going to cooperate.
Mary: Smile and take the pills and talk to the guy. Talk to the doc. You look at the Rorschach test and you tell them what they want to hear. That's, oh yeah. Now I see. That's my mother in that ink blot.
Rick: Eight years from beginning to end. How much of that was research?
Mary: One of the good kicks in the pants was that I got NYSCA decentralization grant to finish it. That meant that I got to come up and spend some time with Jerry Pepper [archivist) at the Adirondack Museum. So he had all kinds of stuff and that was fun as hell. I said, "you don't happen to have any facsimiles of Noah John Rondeau’s papers or anything like that?" "Facsimiles? I have the originals! I've got cartons of them. How many do you want?"
I said, my birth year is 1949, so bring out 1949. So he brought out the carton from 1949, and I actually am holding what what Noah John Rondeau held. Some of the pages are stuck together because he used the old squeeze glue thing with the rubber cap. There's a lot of archival work that can be done on just Noah John Rondeau’s stuff. That kind of research was fun. The rest of it was easy ‘cause the hymns were easy. Bernd Heinrich wrote this wonderful book on ravens called Mind of the Raven. Anthony Storrs, he's a psychiatrist, who wrote a book about solitude. Sue Halpern wrote a book about various kinds of solitude. And Thomas Merton, getting into some of the religious aspects of it. I've done a powerpoint presentation on hermits. I travel to senior citizen's centers and historical societies—the history and legends of the desert fathers and mothers. The Christian element. Environmentalists like Julia Butterfly Hill and Anne LaBastille, not really a hermit, but she valued her solitude. An amalgam of people who preferred solitude. There's some pretty weird ones. Edith Sitwell has an interesting book on English eccentrics. It has a section on hermits. Some of them were nobility. Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” involves an “ornamental hermit” living in a rustic hut on this vast 18th estate.
Rick: How much do you have to get right? How many fact checkers have you encountered?
Mary: The copy editor for SUNY Press was terrific. Man, they nailed me on so many things.
For World War II, I wasn't born yet. I knew there were American soldiers in Britain, and there were fly boys in the Air Corps. I didn't go overboard on anything like that. I would fudge things, and then this guy, I think it was a guy, the copy editor at SUNY, I don't know for sure, he would come back and say, you know, you're talking about this place in Britain. Oh, okay. I would get out my encyclopedia. I still have an encyclopedia or two at home. I'd get out that, or I'd look it up on line. Sometimes you get lost in the internet, so I like to have books. Those were valuable but it was really the copy editor at SUNY Press that really nailed me on a few things. I was so happy. That was great. That was really great.
Rick: Lily's friend, Ellie. She is a caretaker.
Mary: Yeah. She is the caretaker of Lily. I haven't thought about Ellie in a long time. There's a point at which Lily has dinner and she's trying to figure out how she could stay at the camp and not go back to New York City. She could work with Mack and Mabel and make the camp an ongoing concern and Ellie says no. Ellie and the lawyer don't want that camp to be turned into a money-making thing. That's been very much the experience I've had. Sagamore is a not-for-profit and it's hard as hell to make a go of it. Uncas is a privately owned estate, but one of the owners, Barbara Glaser makes sure that there are opportunities for people to come and see part of it on occasion. Sagamore and Uncas make a point to visitors that you have the experience both of what the robber barons were all about but also the experience of what the workers gave to build and maintain these wonderful places. The key, architecturally and culturally, the Zeitgeist of the Great Camp and still honor the laborer, the network of people that the wealthy had to depend on to keep those camps. So there are all kinds of historical examples of the violation of people's rights in the Adirondacks by the wealthy, especially by the wealthy. So I was very interested in that. Adirondack history is so diverse and wonderfully weird.
Rick: Is any of this creeping into your new work?
Mary: Sort of. I have another woman character that lives alone. The title of the book is Elephant. It's an Adirondack novel, so I'll let you ponder the possibilities. It brings in the local Adirondackers and their fight to preserve this elephant that has come to them. It's a dead, stuffed elephant, but it's creating a lot of energy in the town. There's also the idea that there's ivory poaching going on in Africa that's a thirty- billion-dollar-a-year business. So how do you balance? Is this a mystery; is this a romantic novel? So I’m 130 pages into it and I think this book, I think it'll happen, but I've got a lot of research to do on things like money laundering, ivory trade. I've been really pounding the computer on that. That's pretty interesting. It's actually been kind of fun.