An interview with Graham Jones, award-winning screenwriter

July 2023

Interview by Zoe Palmer

Graham Jones is an award-winning screenwriter and proud Athenæum member who hails from Greenwich, Connecticut. After studying history at the University of Colorado, he moved to Los Angeles to work as a production assistant in the film industry. There, he began writing screenplays and attending workshops at the University of California, Los Angeles Extension.

Q: Can you please tell me about your journey in the film industry and your background as a writer?

GRAHAM JONES: I wasn’t really a writer and didn’t think I wanted to be a writer until I was going up the chairlift in Aspen with a friend of my parents and said, “I’d like to go to Hollywood, but I’m a history major, not a film major.” They didn’t have film majors in my day. Maybe at University of Southern California, or University of California Los Angeles. My friend said, “History’s a good preparation, you should go do that.”

I was never admitted to UCLA. When I first went to Los Angeles, I applied to all the big film schools, USC, UCLA, American Film Institute, right? After I’d been there for a year or two, I started working for a film director, Peter Markle. He made me what was called a director of development, to read all the scripts he wrote, that his friends wrote, that his agent (Creative Artists Agency) sent over. This was a big deal. You’re 27 and you’re the director of development for a working movie director who’s represented by CAA. It’s a pretty big deal. So after about a year our mailbox was filled with invitations begging me to come to the screening of the work of film students whose class I would’ve been in!

I worked for Peter after working in the mailroom at Walt Disney, and that was no fun, and also helping friends on their student projects, which was fun. Peter said to me, “If you want your dreams to come true in Hollywood, you have to write screenplays.” And I couldn’t. I just wasn’t any good at it. It didn’t happen. But I was around Peter, and I was around screenwriters, and this was, dare I say it, the early to mid 90s. Career instability in Los Angeles, that’s the name of the game there. It’s not Boston, it’s very different. Lots of career instability. I started taking film classes at UCLA.

Fast forward to the writing. I made a little film and it did OK, it won an award, and then the writing just started to come. And it started to come while I was working for Mark Burnett, the reality television guy, who didn’t care about scripts. They humored me and read a couple of them, and then I just started writing.

Q: What are some of your favorite screenplays you’ve written?

GJ: Back when I was a 20-something, I actually wrote this screenplay to make in Boston, but I lost it! So I’m seeing this therapist, saying, “I don’t know where the thing is!” After, I wrote a bunch of scripts and they won a bunch of awards, I found the script I’d lost. It was a hard copy, the digital was long gone. I read it and it’s one of my favorite scripts. I’ve rewritten it a couple times, but it’s never been as good as this version that I barely remember writing.

At this point it was the mid to late 2000s, and I wrote screenplays about George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt and Ulysses Grant, and I wrote a screenplay about equestrian polo. Back then in LA, I was pretty into polo for a couple of years. In a grass field polo team, there are four players. And guess what, there are three Musketeers and D’Artagnan. I read The Three Musketeers, wrote down all the plot points the way Syd Field tells you to. Dumas, he wrote like film. First act, second act, midpoint, climax, end of second act, third act, resolution. That’s the way he wrote. Boom, I turned it into a script about four polo players at a mystical college. It’s really UCLA, but I call it University of Los Angeles. I wrote it around 2005, I wrote it to take place after the First Gulf War. You read these things now and they read like period pieces, which makes me feel like I should have a little walker.

In some ways, I’m the most proud of those scripts, but they’re not my best. My best are the three president scripts I wrote, one each about Washington, Roosevelt, and Grant.

Q: What is your writing process like?

GJ: I used to say the writing process consisted of the right mix of junk food, naptime, and exercise, but I don’t eat junk food anymore. At my age, you can’t eat junk food. So it’s naptime and exercise. I can never write a script in class. I have to have it done first. I would write, and then take the class, and rewrite.

I wrote a novel in second person singular, which we don’t often use in English, but a friend of mine from Paris said it is more common in French. So I wrote that novel, but it’s not published—I couldn’t get anybody interested in it. The process behind that was lots of caffeine, especially in Los Angeles. Taking my laptop, writing around people. That was something I could do then. I’m not sure I could do that now.

So my process is to be alone. I don’t have any writing partners. I don’t want one. I have tons of writing friends. We don’t do this to have a partner. That’s the whole point. We have a production company for a movie. That’s fine. But when somebody wants to be a writing partner, you buy it. You go, “Hand me the check, see you later.”

Q: I noticed on your IMDB page that you’ve also directed and produced and edited some of your own work?

GJ: Yes, my short work, and some of Peter’s stuff I helped develop. I enjoyed that part of the process as sort of a social, exciting thing to do with friends.

Q: Are there any writers or screenwriters whose work you particularly admire?

GJ: A filmmaker named Curtis Hanson. I never met him personally. The guy who wrote LA Confidential, James Ellroy, was my favorite writer. When I was a boy, I read a lot of Tolstoy. I read War and Peace a few times, Anna Karenina. William Goldman was the ghostwriter on a lot of stuff. He’s probably the best screenwriter there is. And these writers in these workshops at UCLA, some really good writers there. And you learned as much from the other writers as you did from the instructor.

Q: How did you first get involved with the Athenæum?

GJ: Dad had some friends that were very involved and I think still are, and a friend of my mother’s and father’s bought my father a membership. Friends got Dad his first Athenæum membership, and a friend gave me mine.

Q: And to close us out, do you have any favorite spots in the library to work or read?

GJ: I like the quiet room on the fifth floor with the vaulted ceilings. Probably the statue of Washington. I also like the portrait of Mrs. Cabot that I think is from 1910 or 1912, the tall thing where she’s got the big hat and the long 1912 style. I think it’s pre-World War I. That’s probably my favorite right now. A lot of my writing has to do with portraits. The first script, the one I lost and then found, was about a guy in Boston being haunted by a ghost that lives in one of his family’s portraits at their house on Beacon Hill.


Barb Brouillette

Barb Brouillette, photo courtesy of Barb Brouillette.

October 2022

Interview by Kayla Smith

Born and raised on the Jersey Shore, Barb Brouillette graduated cum laude from Columbia International University, with a Bachelor of Science in Logic and Philosophy. For nearly 20 years now she has been a Boston area resident working in the insurance industry by day, pursuing various personal passions by night.

Brouillette has lovingly nurtured the tenet that it’s never too late to explore one’s curiosities, wasting no time in putting them into action. A lifelong learner, seasoned cellist, solo traveler, and designer of themed European experiences, she has recently welcomed feature screenwriting into her world.

Mainly self-educated through books, scripts, movies, and podcasts, Brouillette completed her first screenplay in 18 months, before submitting to various competitions for judge scores and critique notes. She is now in the feedback rewrite stage.

On a cloudy afternoon, tucked away in one of the many private spaces in the Boston Athenæum, we were lucky enough to be able to speak with a member who recently wrote her very first screenplay. As it is with a great number of those who now call the Athenæum a home away from home, Brouillette hadn’t heard of the library until walking by one day with a friend who pointed it out to her. Before the week was over, Barb had joined the ranks of a select group of Bostonians who are brought together not only by the awe-inspiring architecture and design of the building, but also by their deep love and appreciation for reading, learning, and sharing knowledge with others.

Brouillette spent countless hours writing, revising, and rewriting her screenplay within our institution, considering spots like the silent fifth floor and the Art Department to be sacred spaces. When asked to discuss her favorite locations in the library, Brouillette (like many members before her) gave away a few special locations, but kept the most important and well-loved to herself.

“It’s never too late to try something new…”

BARB BROUILLETTE: I started dreaming up some of these ideas long before COVID, but I figured I’d take the opportunity during the quarantine period, which provided a lot of good solitary time to put the project in motion.

A screenplay is meant to be a map…a blueprint. It’s not really meant to be overly flowering narrative, it’s meant to be very succinct in action descriptions, and as much as I love this format it’s not without strict industry guidelines. It has to be a certain number of pages, for each genre, a certain font, a specific format. Even when you can’t be too narrative in your action description, you can still be creative and selective in your word choice and order, so that you’re making suggestions to the camera. You can’t really make camera or lighting suggestions, editing ideas, or music choices in there—that’s for the professionals and they know what they’re doing. I’m just here to tell a story. You can be creative with how you suggest things so that the camera might have a certain focal point.

A screenwriter’s main goal is a tricky one: to give the audience the same vision that you have. The tricky thing is that a script is ultimately meant to be seen and not read, which causes you to approach it differently.

Q: Can you take us through your writing process for this project?

BB: I have never done anything formal before, never done any kind of writing project. This was my first ever. I haven’t taken any classes on it. I’m fully self-educated through books and scripts. It took about 18 months, but it took two things: learning how to write a screenplay, and then after that, actually writing the screenplay.

Maybe the next story I do will be different, but this one is a crime thriller that takes place in Oxford. The main character is a musician whose instrument is being hunted down. She isn’t sure why until the end of the story.

At first I wanted to do this project only for myself, known only to me. The more I got involved, and the more I got attached to my characters, the more interested I was to receive feedback on my script. So, I entered competitions in an attempt to see an unbiased opinion on my work. I just wanted to get judge scores and critique back, wanted to manage my expectations and see where I was.

[When we spoke to Brouillette, she had just gotten her manuscript back from a few different competitions, and with it, feedback.]

“…if we only do what is comfortable, what is life?”

A theme of the script is that living to meet others’ expectations is not living. We have to be our authentic selves, instead of what others want to pressure us into being.

The rewrite process was difficult—there are so many different ways to go about doing a rewrite, and for this project it was better for me to go back and focus on one thing at a time (characterization, storytelling, etc) rather than rushing to put it all together at once.

Q: Why start writing now?

BB: I started the cello at 29 years old…I knew I wasn’t going to be a concert soloist, but I wanted to see how far I could go with it. Doesn’t have to be a big, thriving career, but I’ve played with different orchestras and thoroughly enjoy my time.

This screenplay has been so much work, but I have been having the best time! It’s like putting a puzzle together. I love problem solving.

Q: What are some favorite scripts you’ve read?

BB: Alien, Sideways, and Chinatown are strong examples of what a screenplay should be. They’re well paced, everything has a purpose in the script, they have an even read (the page has a lot of white), succinct action sequences, and there are lovable/relatable characters for the audience to get to know and share some commonalities with.

Q: What are you reading now?

BB: I’m reading Directed By James Burrows—if you’re a fan of Cheers, Friends, Will & Grace, you’re gonna have seen that name hundreds of times. I’ve always had a creative crush on James Burrows…not only is he a genius with what he does and knows how to get the most out of his actors, he is also a very welcoming presence. He is an approachable person who wants to foster a collective effort, which seems an admirable quality for directors.

After writing the screenplay, I feel as though I am a much different viewer of movies and television. I feel as though I’m paying a lot more attention to the credits. I think I just take for granted so much that when we look at a final work, it looks like it just came together so naturally, when really there was so much involved! Big choices, little choices, everything that comes together just makes the end result look effortless. All those little details make a scene impactful (or not).


Eva L. Elasigue

Eva L. Elasigue, photo courtesy of Eva L. Elasigue.

Summer/September 2022

Interview by Carly Stevens

Eva L. Elasigue is a science fiction fantasy author living in the Pacific Northwest. Her debut work is the trilogy Bones of Starlight, a fantasy space opera. The third volume, Greater Beyond , is currently being serialized. You can keep up with her on her main Facebook page, “Eva L. Elasigue,” or her side group, “ELE:Mentation.” Her Instagram is @primal.spiral and her Twitter is @primalspiral.

Q: Can you tell me about your background, both personal and academic?

EVA L. ELASIGUE: I’ve always lived somewhere along the Pacific Northwest coast in the areas between San Francisco and Seattle, but I have traveled widely including Europe, Central America, Australia, and the Philippines. As a writer, I was recognized and accelerated early as a child. I tested well, won a youth state medal in California, got involved in local arts, and had a couple of small pieces published. My college career started in creative writing, shifted to arts and humanities, then biopsychology, and ended in biology, with some hired research done in genetics and native plants.

After finishing college, I landed a full time writing gig for the contract furniture industry, writing articles, editing, and researching. This was good, but ultimately not quite what I wanted to be doing. After that, I went on a soul searching journey that put me on small farming homesteads and in the backcountry where I gained familiarity with natural building, wildcrafting, and bush lore. I returned to civilization doing wholesome, grounded work in renovation and market retail. That is when I turned back to writing. This time, a really big idea was ready for me, and I decided I was ready for it. I began Bones of Starlight, the fantasy space opera trilogy that I’m now concluding. This has since taken me to worlds beyond in creativity, through conventions and festivals. I’ve run concurrent projects in mixed media visual arts and poetry, and I enjoy movement and music. I’ve personally bonded with a snake, a cat, and a dog, and lived with humans and farm menagerie. I’m spiritually and secularly curious, happily queer, and blended heritage Filipina-American.

Q: What books have you written and what are you currently working on?

ELE: The two novels I’ve released are part of the trilogy Bones of Starlight: Fire Within, and Abyss Surrounding. The third, Greater Beyond, is concluding now in online serialization. These three are a unified story about the turn of an age in an alternate universe intergalactic empire with fantasy aliens—sometimes concept heavy, other times campy and magical. The main character is a Scion Princess, and the ensemble is assembled from all kinds of folks from all over, who discover surprising and profound connections as they do their parts in the turn of the change.

Q: Can you talk about your writing process? Does it vary from book to book or topic to topic? Has the pandemic affected your process?

ELE: I operate differently for different projects, though I have been on this main trilogy for a while. The trilogy novels ironed out their progression eventually, where I write first, second, and third drafts in parts by turn, which have serialized steadily online at bonesofstarlight.com. If I get the chance to work on other projects in the trunk, I suspect I will approach them each in a unique fashion, because my assortment of ideas belong in differing subgenres. Poetry for me is more like the occasional strike of lightning, though I enjoy offering typed poetry concepts for events.

The pandemic was something I had to get through. I had by then become a social writer, thriving on continued relevance and awareness in receptive communities, so it was a matter of innovating and hanging in there.

Q: What do you hope readers will get from your books?

ELE: Deep reflections, inspiring notions, some smiles and laughs, and perspectives of a beautiful and bigger world filled with imagination. Maybe also newfound relation to others who are like yet unlike them, and some added understanding of self and life. I believe this is what fiction in general offers us, particularly in speculative fiction, and what the reader finds depends on what they really need.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum?

ELE: I was accompanying my family on a tour, and the Athenæum wasn’t actually a stop but while we were standing there I noticed the door. I stepped aside for a moment to peek in and take a brochure. I was fascinated.

Q: Did the Athenæum’s collections inform your research?

ELE: Sure, yes. I’ve enjoyed deep random browsing at the Athenæum, both in the catalogs and different departments. I’ve been into Special Collections, perused the vintage card catalogs, and chosen many different places to sit and inquire into the shelves.

Q: Do you have a favorite spot to do work?

ELE: I was directed to the Seminar Room on 1G for a good place to use my typewriter, which is a sometime companion for drafting my novels. I really appreciate that openness to make a little studious noise, and it’s an empowering space. I also enjoy the quiet and sunny fifth floor desks, making some tea and stepping out on the balconies.

Q: What are some of your favorite books? I know it’s a tough question. name as many as you like.

ELE: I connect to genre, literary, and graphic novels, and I am passionate about fiction but also interested in research. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was pivotal. I have also resonated with Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea and more, Shakespeare, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach , Hermann Hesse’s Demian , Little, Big by John Crowley, Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , the Sandman series, and so much more.

Q: What are you reading right now?

ELE: Poems for Other People’s Lovers, by Jeremy Brownlowe the Typewriter Troubadour; We Were Dreamers, an immigrant superhero autobiography by Simu Liu; and the Binti trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor.


Rollo G. Silver

Rollo G. Silver, from ismardavidarchive.org.

June 2022

By Rebecca Johnston

Rollo G. Silver worked in a variety of professions and had many interests, but he is known today for his contributions to the history of early American printing, publishing, and typography. Throughout his life from 1909 to 1989, he witnessed some of the most turbulent events of the twentieth century, including the Great Depression and two World Wars. However, Silver found his home in academia and scholarly research, publishing several books on early American history and receiving recognition for his contributions to the field.

Rollo G. Silver was born to Anna (Newman) and Stanley Gabriel Silver in New York on June 27, 1909. As an undergraduate, he attended Brown University and graduated in 1931, in the early days of the Great Depression. Returning to New York City, Silver worked at the luxury department store, the B. Altman Company, on Fifth Avenue. He moved to Boston in 1934 and managed the Better Service Garage in Brockton, Massachusetts. Balancing work with his scholarly interests, Silver studied at Boston University and received a Master’s degree in English in 1941.

As World War II began, Silver joined the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps in 1943. He was assigned to the Climatic Research Laboratory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he participated in tests designed to test the clothing and equipment worn and used by soldiers under varying climatic conditions. After the war ended, Silver continued working in the laboratory as assistant director until 1947. Building on his academic interests as well as his experience in scientific research, Silver then sought out opportunities in the field of library science.

In 1948, Silver graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Library Science from Simmons University. Silver continued researching and gained experience at other libraries before returning to Simmons in 1950 as a Professor of Library Science. He taught there for 15 years before retiring in 1965 to pursue his research interests full time.

One of Silver’s longest-standing research interests was the life of Walt Whitman. Silver began publishing essays on Whitman in 1930, well before beginning his formal career as a scholar. Silver also collected many of Whitman’s poems. In partnership with his wife, Alice Gindin, whom he married in 1933, Silver compiled a set of manuscripts and other works related to the famous author. Silver donated a 1930 edition of A Child’s Reminiscence by Whitman to the Athenæum, which is available for viewing by appointment.

A majority of Silver’s work focused on the early printers of the United States. In 1960, Silver published Mathew Carey 1760–1839, which described in detail the equipment used by this early American printer and the costs associated with it. Typefounding in America, 1787–1825 from 1965 explored the construction of metallic printer type in early America. According to C. William Miller of Temple University, works focusing on this topic in early America were relatively rare and Silver’s work “fills an obvious gap.” In response to 1967’s The American Printer, 1787–1825, Lester J. Cappon of the Institute of Early American History and Culture declared that Silver “has established himself in this distinguished company [of scholars focusing on early American printing], contributing notably to the bibliography of early American printing.” Rather than just a history of printing in America, this work “is an exposition of printing as a craft, the artisans involved and their relations with one another, the business and practice of printing, the printer’s dealings with authors, and problems of typography that relate ultimately to bookmaking and the art of printing.” Silver’s use of detail as well as his ability to communicate with his reader made his works notable.

During his lifetime, Silver was a part of many organizations that spoke to his interests. He joined the bibliophilic Grolier Club and the Society of Printers; he was also one of the founding members of the American Printing Historical Association. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts as well as an honorary member of the Bibliographical Society of America. Silver also served as a trustee of Boston University and received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Brown University, his alma mater, in 1986. The author, professor, and lifelong learner passed away on September 20, 1989. Today, the Boston Athenæum is honored to be the home of many of Silver’s published works as well as donations from his collection of Walt Whitman’s works.

Further Reading:

The American Printer, 1787–1825 by Rollo G. Silver
The Boston Book Trade, 1800-1825 by Rollo G. Silver
The Costs of Mathew Carey’s Printing Equipment by Rollo G. Silver
The Inventory of the Rollo G. Silver Collection at Boston University
The Rollo G. Silver Collection of Printing and Publishing History at Brown University
Typefounding in America, 1787–1825 by Rollo G. Silver


Helen McCloy

Helen McCloy, taken by Van Dyke Studios in Boston and appeared in the 1980 publication of Burn This.

May 2022

By Rebecca Johnston and Carly Stevens

Are you impressed by Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs? Or maybe you prefer Dr. Spencer Reid on the hit television show Criminal Minds? If either of these characters entices you, check out some Helen McCloy novels featuring one of the world’s first psychiatrist detectives: Dr. Basil Willing. McCloy’s series featuring Dr. Willing mixed psychology and the classic detective story to get inside the mind of a killer. McCloy published over 30 mystery novels from 1938 to 1980, 14 of which featured detective and doctor Basil Willing. When McCloy died in Boston in 1994, she was remembered as a prolific mystery novelist and as the first woman president of Mystery Writers of America in 1950.

Helen McCloy was born on June 6, 1904 in New York, NY. Her father was William Conrad McCloy, managing editor of The New York Sun and her mother, Helen Worrell McCloy, was also a writer, contributing to magazines such as Good Housekeeping. McCloy was raised a Quaker and attended the Brooklyn Friends School in Downtown Brooklyn. McCloy loved to read and was particularly fond of Sherlock Holmes stories. She started writing as early as 14 and continued throughout high school. At the age of 19, McCloy moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne. After graduating, she stayed in Paris and began working for Universal News Services, owned and operated by William Randolph Hearst. She continued her career in Paris working as an art critic until around 1927, when she returned to the United States and began writing fiction.

McCloy’s career and personal life revolved around writing mystery novels. In 1946, she married a fellow mystery writer Davis Dresser, who wrote under many pseudonyms but used Brett Halliday most often. They had one daughter together named Chloe McCloy. While married, McCloy and Dresser began the Torquil Publishing Company. The two separated in 1961, but remained on good terms. In a published collection of McCloy’s short stories, Dresser spoke highly of his then former wife, “I feel that Miss McCloy offers readers something more than the usual detective story… There is something more for the imaginative reader… In each there is an element of the uncanny. In each the reader is challenged to go below the surface of what seemingly-is to the submerged currents of what-may-very-possibly-be.” McCloy’s writing and storytelling capabilities were highly regarded by everyone in her life.

One of McCloy’s best known characters was Dr. Basil Willing, first introduced in 1938 in Dance of Death. According to McCloy, Willing was “the first American psychiatrist detective” and “the first psychiatrist detective to use psychiatry in detecting clues as well as in analyzing the criminal mind.” In this first novel, he acts as the forensic psychiatric assistant to the district attorney, searching for the killer of a young woman whose burning hot body was discovered in a snowbank. He claimed that “every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints” and focused on methods using logic and psychological analysis to catch the guilty party. Over time, the reader learns more about Willing’s background, including that he came from Baltimore, his Russian mother made him a fluent linguist, and he studied psychiatry in Paris and Vienna after beginning his education at Johns Hopkins. McCloy wrote more about Willing and his background in 12 of her novels.

Over time, McCloy noticed that her writing style was changing. As the years passed, her books strayed from classic detective story patterns in response to a post-World War II trend “demanding more suspense and less detection.” The year 1950 saw the publication of McCloy’s masterpiece, Through a Glass, Darkly. This novel is a more suspenseful adventure for Dr. Willing and brings in the paranormal, as he faces off against a doppelgänger. McCloy brought several paranormal entities in her later books, from flying saucers to poltergeists. McCloy used an unsettling, potentially un-scientific antagonist in these novels to emphasize the horror of the situation. While many praised her “psychological thriller” books, she preferred the classic detective story.

Beyond her writing, McCloy was an active and well-respected member of the mystery and crime writer community in America. She was involved in the Mystery Writers of America, which was established in 1945 with the “purpose of promoting and protecting the interest and welfare of mystery writers and to increase the esteem and literary recognition given to the genre.” The MWA is also responsible for presenting the Edgar Awards, which honors the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television, film, and theater. McCloy became the first woman to head the organization as president in 1950, and she went on to win an Edgar Award for Mystery Criticism in 1954 for articles she published in the Westport Town Crier. McCloy’s career as a prolific mystery writer continued alongside her involvement in the MWA. In 1971, McCloy started the first local chapter of the MWA in New England which inspired the formation of ten other chapters to form across America from Florida to the Rocky Mountains. In 1990, McCloy was named a Grand Master by the MWA, the highest honor a mystery writer can receive. Famed mystery writers like Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, John le Carré, and Stephen King also had this honor bestowed upon them. Today, the Mystery Writers of America continues to honor McCloy’s memory through The Helen McCloy Scholarship. The scholarship is given to two individuals annually with the goal of nurturing talent in mystery writing—in fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, and screenwriting.

But perhaps McCloy’s greatest contribution was her unwavering faith in the power of storytelling. She believed that the “true detective story is fun to write and fun to read,” and argued against the impulse to look down on stories that were simply about enjoyment. The detective story was one of the few surviving forms of storytelling, according to McCloy, and “love of the story is older than any folk-lore we know, as old as human language itself.” Despite positive reviews and acclaim, McCloy was modest about her work and her impact on the genre. When looking back on her career, she decided, “I cannot say what I have done. I can only say what I have tried to do.” Whatever her intentions, her devotion to storytelling was—and is still—celebrated.


Sara Freeman

Sara Freeman, photo courtesy of Jeff Landman.

April 2022

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

A recent resident of Boston, Sara Freeman grew up moving between her home in Montreal and several countries in Europe for her father’s job as a foreign correspondent. After an early career in law, Freeman decided to pursue her passion for writing and received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in 2013, where she won the Henfield Prize. Her debut novel, Tides, was called one of The Globe and Mail’s “most exciting of 2022” and Lithub’s “most anticipated books of 2022.” Visit her website to learn more.

Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Where did you grow up? Where do you call home now?

SARA FREEMAN: I was born in Montreal, and I grew up between Canada and Europe. My dad was a foreign correspondent for a Canadian newspaper, and we were posted to Berlin when I was ten. I lived there and then in London as a teenager, and then subsequently came back to North America for university. I have been living in Boston for the past five years now. And yet, in many ways, after all this moving around, I still consider Montreal my home.

Q: Where did you study in the United States? 

SF: I first went to McGill for undergrad, where I studied history and Hispanic studies. The Hispanic studies program was mostly literature-focused, so that’s where I got most of my literary education. A few years after that, I went to do an MFA in fiction at Columbia. I was in New York for seven years before moving here.

Q: Did you have a particular class that was really interesting or impactful?

SF: For me, the first and most important moment was finding a creative writing workshop in my undergrad. I took a poetry workshop my final semester with an American poet called Thomas Heise. And it was the first time that I was in a group of other writers. Up until then, I had mostly written privately and probably not very well. It was really nice to be with other people who seemed to be as excited about each small word choice as I was. I started to think, “Oh, maybe I can do this, I could have a life as a writer.” But it also felt like there had to be a community around it. I didn’t know how to do it by myself. So those classes, those first workshops, were really meaningful to me. 

Q: Was that the moment you decided on your career, or were there other stops along the way? 

SF: Definitely other stops along the way. After I graduated from university, I worked in a human rights and housing rights law firm in London. I read a lot of affidavits and case reports, and found I was much more interested in people’s stories than in litigating. I went through a bit of a crisis about this and enrolled in continuing education classes in creative writing and English literature. I realized that I did want to pursue writing as my job. I had to confess to my family, “I’m not going to be a lawyer. I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” And then I started thinking about the possibility of an MFA. I really wanted that formal training. 

Q: And maybe the community aspect as well?

SF: Definitely. Having graduated from Columbia’s MFA program over ten years ago, I still rely on a lot of the people I met there as readers. Even if I don’t see them very often, the network is still there.

Q: Have the writers in your network been published as well? 

SF: Interestingly enough, I’m one of the late bloomers in the class. It took me nearly a decade after I graduated to get a book published. A lot of my classmates were published almost immediately after the program ended or within a couple of years. I had a few false starts, which is part of the story of Tides.

Q: What a great segue. Please tell me about Tides.

SF: As I was finishing my MFA, I started working on a novel, which was set in Montreal in the 70s. It was an ambitious, multi-generational social novel. Which is very different from what Tides ended up being. I worked on this first novel for at least three years. In the end, it didn’t coalesce. I felt a real sense that it had, at least artistically speaking, failed. I had to put it aside and mourn this project I had invested so much time in. 

When I got the courage to start up again, I knew that I wanted to write a much smaller and more intimate novel, a novel with a single character that I was following closely for a short period of time in a very heightened psychological circumstance. I had a sense that those constraints would allow me to finally write a novel that worked. But as these things go, the first draft also had many of the same issues I had encountered in my previous novel. There were moments that were really compelling, but the cohesion still wasn’t there, the form I’d chosen didn’t quite hold the narrative together. 

I decided to put the draft aside for a couple months, and then I reread it and found a few sentences—truly, just a dozen or so sentences—where there was an atmosphere that I found moving and intriguing. I remember going to the fifth floor of the Athenæum and opening a new document, trying to follow the line of those particular sentences, their atmosphere. That is how the final form of Tides emerged, with its condensed passages with a lot of white space around them. The final draft is very different from the first draft, almost unrecognizably different. That initial moment of surprise, of finding this new way to tell this story, and the unfamiliar rhythm of the language, was so wonderful. Before this moment, I hadn’t ever felt that the process was pulling me rather than me pushing up against the process. So that was a moment of real elation, and also terror, because I’d never done anything like it before.

Q: How long did it take to go from leaving behind that first project to finding your way through this new project?

SF: The first draft took me six or seven months. I pause a lot while I’m writing because I like to de-familiarize myself with the material in order to see what’s alive in it. With Tides, I took a few months off of writing before re-reading my first draft, and then came this energetic burst of rewriting, which was pretty quick, only a few months long. I had packed in so much energy around it and built up so much anticipation in the waiting, that it felt like the project had its own engine.

Q: Are you thinking about any projects in the future? 

SF: Yes, I am beginning to think about a new novel. It’s funny, I do wonder if this experience of such radical revision, which I experienced with Tides, will happen every time. I started playing around with something new recently, and it’s very different, in scope and style. It’s more of a developed social world, with more characters in it, and it’s far less internal. But I don’t yet know what its shape will be. I don’t yet hear it very well either. I’m still really feeling around for what it is. So, who knows, maybe I’ll have another moment on the fifth floor.

Q: What originally brought you to the Athenæum?

SF: My husband and I have a very close friend whose father has been a member for years and years. When we moved to Boston for my husband’s graduate school, it was one of the first places that we came to visit. I wanted to know if there was a place where I could write. When I lived in New York, I was part of a writers’ room, which I had come to rely on for my writing practice. I remember coming here and thinking, “This is certainly somewhere where I can write.” My husband’s an architect so he was blown away by the stacks and particularly thrilled by the glass floors. We were immediately won over by the atmosphere of the place. And the beauty.

Q: I always like to ask about hidden gems in the Athenæum. Have you found any you’d be willing to share?

SF: Well, the thing is, I feel very, very protective of my hidden gem. There is a particular table somewhere in the Athenæum that I love, but I’m not going to tell where it is. The incredible thing about this particular spot was that at important moments when I was writing or rewriting and really needed full solitude, that table, every time I arrived, was empty. It was waiting for me. And I haven’t really visited it too much since then because I’m a bit superstitious about it, because it is just so perfect. It’s like the Muses wait for you there.


Rachel Slade

February 2022

Interview by Mary Warnement, edited by Carly Stevens

Rachel Slade is an accomplished journalist and author. She started her career as an architect in Boston before becoming an editor and writer. After working as an editor at Boston magazine for ten years, she published her first book, Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and an NPR Best Book, and won the Mountbatten Award for Best Book. Slade and I spoke over Zoom in early February about her career as a journalist and about her upcoming book, American Hoodie. To learn more about Slade and explore some of her work, please visit her website

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Can you tell me about your background, both personal and academic?

RACHEL SLADE: I’m from Philadelphia and after college, I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my Master in Architecture. That was an incredibly intense experience, trying to learn fluency in a new language, the visual language. I worked at a Boston architecture firm doing institutional work. When the firm downsized, which happens in that industry, I decided to try writing about design.

To get writing gigs, I began reaching out to the architecture firms I thought were doing terrific work, asking them if I could trot their best projects in front of editors. In a short time, my byline was popping up in a lot of different places. One day, I got a cold call from Boston magazine. They said, “Would you like to run our home design magazine?” And I thought, ‘I’m an architect. I can do anything.’ Well, it was not easy.

I ended up writing and editing all kinds of stories—politics, crime, real estate—which was a great education. I left Boston in 2016 and immediately felt the panic everybody gets when you leave a full time job, so I started pitching like crazy. One of the first stories I pitched was to Yankee magazine about El Faro, the American container ship that sunk in October 2015. While I was reporting that story, I had a feeling it would become a book. I put together a proposal, published a book, and the book did well. Now I’m working on my second book.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum?

RS:  I can’t tell you when I first heard about the Athenæum but I was under the impression that it was a highly exclusive club. During the pandemic, we all found we needed to find our so-called third space. We have our homes, many of us are fortunate to have a work space or an office somewhere, but the idea of a third space has become increasingly important. 

I wanted to be in a place where I could focus all day, and that drove me to the Athenæum. Then I started looking at the bookshelves and could not believe how blessed we are. What a strange collection of stuff!

I love that it’s a community of scholars. Everybody understands that if you sit down with a book or flip open your computer, you’re working. If you stay all day, nobody’s going to give you the side-eye or wonder what you’re up to. It’s a legitimate place to get work done. 

Q: Can you tell me how you found the story of El Faro?

RS: When I left Boston, I knew I wanted to write about Maine, so the first thing I did was set up a Maine list on Twitter and begin eavesdropping on all the newspapers and media sources in the state. My feed filled up with car accidents, school board meetings, that sort of thing. One day, I saw a tweet about some Maine families settling with a shipping company for the loss of their loved ones. I clicked on the article and went down the El Faro rabbit hole. I couldn’t believe an enormous American commercial ship had gone down three months before and I hadn’t heard about it.

I was further embarrassed by the fact that I didn’t know anything about maritime culture in the United States. We have ships, but who’s on those ships? How do you learn how to sail a ship? What kinds of people go into this industry? Turns out, there’s a huge maritime community in Maine. 

A lot of people in this region have gone to Maine Maritime Academy or Massachusetts Maritime Academy and are making a fine living on ships sailing around the world, just as so many others have done over the centuries. Of course, the ships have changed. The things on the ships have changed. The way we pack ships has changed. Where we go has changed. But the idea that you can lose somebody at sea has not changed. 

I was obsessed with finding out what happened to El Faro. Why did it sail into a hurricane when they had all the modern weather prediction and communication tools aboard? I also wanted to learn our maritime history, and how we’d lost our connection to the sea. 

When the book came out in 2018, I did a lot of speaking around New England, Philadelphia, and New York. I would talk about how we think we’re connected by the internet but that’s only partially true. Ships connect us globally. If the internet went down, we would feel it less acutely than if global shipping broke down.

Now, in 2022, I don’t have to preach anymore because shipping and the supply chain are top of mind. We see empty spaces on store shelves, we’re having trouble manufacturing cars and all kinds of things due to supply chain issues. The huge backups in Long Beach, California, are now on the front page of the New York Times

Q: What were the challenges and joys of conducting and using interviews for Into the Raging Sea

RS:  That was the most difficult reporting I had ever done. Not only had people lost family members, but some of the family members were very young. When you lose somebody at sea, there is no closure. There is no body. You cannot say goodbye fully and wholly the way we humans need to. It was very painful.

It’s always a gift when somebody is willing to talk to you and entrust their story to you. I learned that people were willing to do that with me. That was one of the joys. That also meant I had a tremendous responsibility to tell the story right, which is why the hardest moment was sending out copies of the book to those same family members. If they didn’t feel that I had been honest or fair, it would have been devastating. The stakes were so very high. Fortunately I got some lovely messages back from folks and I continue to get messages from mariners around the world saying they felt the story was well told.

In fact, I wrote about a third of the book on a ship. I took a cargo ship from Italy to Baltimore, Maryland—a 12 day voyage. I wrote from the bridge looking out at the Atlantic, observing the captain, the mates, and the helmsmen going about their days. I cannot think of a better way to write a book about a cargo ship than on a cargo ship.

Q: Can you tell me more about the book you are currently working on?

RS: The book is called American Hoodie. It explores the political, economic, and social history of textile manufacturing in America. The book asks, ‘Can we make things in America in the twenty-first century? Is it even possible anymore?’

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from American Hoodie?

RS: I want people to understand the value of things. We have a tendency to go to the store and quickly flip through racks and piles of things. This object right here [Slade holds up a small gray bag with a zippered top]—think about the technology required to make this fabric and the ingenuity it took to create a zipper. Think about the craftsmanship it takes to design a sewing machine that will do all of that in a fraction of a second. There are millennia of information and human intelligence packed into this object. It is an incredible thing. And that’s true with all the objects we interact with every day. We’ve forgotten that. We’ve lost touch with that meaning because stuff is so cheap. The price we currently pay for things does not reflect their value. I hope that through this book, readers will share the marvel that I have of what it takes to create the things we often take for granted.

Q: Did the Athenæum’s collections assist your research?

RS:  There is an incredible wealth of information in the Athenæum about the textile industry and I asked Curator Ginny Badgett to help me. She found this crazy little pamphlet published in Boston in 1765, written to address the growing number of homeless women and orphans living on Boston’s streets. In ornate prose, the pamphlet proposed that these women and orphans start manufacturing linen, because there was a need for it. There was little textile industry in America during the colonial period—nearly everything came from England. England was rapidly industrializing and the textiles coming to America were cheap and of high quality. Just before the American Revolution, people were starting to think, ‘Maybe we should have a textile industry here.’ It was not until after the revolution that it became a necessity.

While working on this book, I’ve stumbled onto some really wonderful stuff that I’ve been able to work into the book. In the Portsmouth, New Hampshire section on the fifth floor, I found the log of a cargo ship that came from England in 1635. So, what did England think the settlers in Portsmouth needed? Well, here’s the entire tally of everything that was on that ship—just sitting there on a shelf! 

The Athenæum is a cabinet of wonders. It’s a unique, wacky, and wild collection of things that people over the past 200 years thought might be valuable to keep around. That makes it quirky and fun to explore.

Q: Do you have a favorite spot to do work at the Athenæum?

RS: Like a Maine lobsterman, I’m not telling you! 

Q: Fair. 

RS: I do like to say that working for an hour on the fifth floor is like working five hours anywhere else. American Hoodie would not be what it is without the time I have spent at the Athenæum writing it. The Athenæum has a deep respect for objects. There is such faith in the printed word. Being in this space gives me the courage to believe that what I am doing has value.


John G.S. Hanson

February 2022

Interview by Mary Warnement, edited by Carly Stevens

John G.S. Hanson was born and raised in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He studied English at Harvard College and went on to earn his MBA from Georgetown Business School. He worked for 25 years in management consulting and has spent the last six years as an executive at Akamai Technologies, an internet services company in Kendall Square. 

Hanson recently published his first book, Reading the Gravestones of Old New England after spending time in New England graveyards documenting epitaphs found on gravestones. Read more about his work collecting and cataloging gravestones on his website

Q: How did you find your way to the Athenæum?

JH: I gained my proprietor’s share the old-fashioned way: I inherited it! My family has been a shareholder since, I think, 1826. Share 212 dates back to my great-great-great grandfather Doctor Edward Reynolds. 

It’s interesting, a fair number of the family members who have held that share number in the past are not particularly scholarly. They’re certainly not writers. They were always serious readers. They were the classic profile of a nineteenth-century Bostonian family. Nonetheless, I consider myself very fortunate to have received the share. It brought me in here, and I haven’t left. 

Q: Have you ever looked at any of the records from the Athenæum? To circulate books we had a big ledger for the year and each person had a page with the books they checked out.

JH: I had not heard of that but I should absolutely cross reference a few of my ancestors. Alfred Greenough held the share from 1838 to 1863, and he was a serious book collector. In fact, a few years ago I donated his copy of The Works of Lord Byron to the Athenæum.

Q: It is interesting to see what people read. We have digitized them as well. That can be handy when you want to goof around at home. It is also a lot of fun to come in and look at the page.

JH: That resonates with one of the stories I stumbled across in my research about a colonial woman who was a subscriber to a lending library. I was reading this in a secondary source and the record of what she had checked out was a sort of ‘who’s who’ of devotional writers who show up in epitaphs.

The project, at its best, brings to life the reading habits of these early New Englanders. I learned that you just can’t overstate the importance of Isaac Watts in their devotional reading. I have these images of farm wives who may have just 20 minutes to spare during their busy day. They sit down to read their Isaac Watts, or their James Hervey, or their Edward Young and put their favorite quotations in their commonplace books. There is a world of individuals incorporating their reading into their religious thinking, into their attitudes towards life and death. It makes the epitaphs much more than sentimental doggerel.

Q: That’s true. It had meaning. It was internalized. 

JH: It was internalized and intentional. Someone made this point to me after I gave a talk. I hadn’t realized it, but it’s true. The early stones, they weren’t bought off a rack. They weren’t bought off a shelf. Someone chose the verse. In many cases, we won’t know who did the choosing. Someone paid to have this carved in stone so that there would be a permanent expression. You have to respect that. 

Q: What first attracted you to this topic?

JH: It’s a great question. I’m not sure I can answer it. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who can’t quite explain where it all started. I say in the book it started with trips. I’m sure my mom was just trying to get us out of the house. My father would put a few of us kids in the car and go for a drive to these old cemeteries. I think he liked the historical angle—the names, what you could learn about the professions or the pecking order based on how richly carved the stone was. I was a reader, so I became fascinated by these texts.

My interest went into abeyance for a while but it started to come back when I found an old notebook. What kicked in then was “where did these texts come from?” If you find John Milton quoted out in the middle of what was then a small frontier town, you have to start asking yourself: how did that text get from New York or New Haven or Boston, out there? It just became this thing. You find a new writer, that’s exciting. You find a new expression. It’s a search for “how did this fellow or this woman get here?” 

Q: You mentioned you found an old notebook. What is this old notebook? When does it date to? And do you still have it?

JH: I still have it. When I was ten years old, I was a very good, straight-A student, except for penmanship. I would squat down in front of graves in Lanesborough, Massachusetts and Vermont, on field trips with my dad. 

I found it when clearing out my parent’s house, after my father’s death but before my mother’s. That time of life when thinking about the great exchange of worlds was a little bit more relevant than it was when I was ten or 11. 

I will tell you, because you’re probably going to ask, that the Athenæum as a resource came into play several times in this. The first was because of the superb collection of town histories. Many of them have short sections on the inscriptions of the founder’s gravestones. Other books are anthologies of all a town’s inscriptions, like Samuel Green’s wonderful Groton Transcriptions, which I first found at the Athenæum. I now own one hardback and one paperback version of it. 

I also tried to learn and pass on to the reader a bit about the religious scene of the times. Many people will read Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God once or twice and then move on with their lives. In the collection at the Athenæum, you have a wonderful selection of old sermons, every one of which will tell you the exact same thing. There is this notion that you and I are only sitting here talking because it pleased God not to drop us into a furnace an hour ago. Therefore, what have you done today to prepare yourself? 

I mention in the book, one pleasant summer afternoon, I was at the Athenæum reading these blood-curdling sermons, and I thought, “Imagine you’re sitting in a drafty farmhouse in 1780, and that’s to improve your soul…” Back then, it was very important to hold those documents in one’s head. These same pamphlets would have been sitting in ministers’ libraries, and in these small farmhouses.  

Q: I notice on your website, you mention ‘my collection.’ Obviously, you have not hefted up these tombstones and taken them home! What is the collection?

JH: I collect contemporary editions containing the works from which these epitaphs were sourced. I don’t claim by any means that these particular copies were extant in the towns of New England at the time, but I try to get editions that could at least have plausibly been in circulation. I have my copy of Addison’s Rosamond! Not many people do. I have a beautiful edition of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. It’s a great big block of a book. 

Q: At what point did your interest in epitaphs become something that you write and talk about? 

JH: Great question. When it was still just a hobby, it dawned on me that I can’t just go through life with index cards of epitaphs. I started creating a Word document, and I began thinking of how to organize it. It is arbitrary and a bit personal, but there was a taxonomy. 

At the simplest level there are epitaphs that recur all the time. Things like “friends and physicians could not save this mortal body from the grave,” or “afflictions sore, long time I bore, but physicians in vain.” Which appear everywhere! Those were obviously composed by someone, anonymously composed and distributed. Then there are ones you can identify with a little research, such as Pope, Milton, and Young. Scripture, you can always tell. 

The Word document is what got me interested in book collecting, which historical associations got wind of. The Association for Gravestone Studies have been wonderful mentors to me. Same with the American Antiquarian Society. They said “Oh! You should give a talk on this!” Next thing you know you’re giving a talk and then someone says “you should write that up!” So you do an article, and then someone says “Okay! Where’s the book?” 

Q: What were the great struggles of writing articles, and eventually a book, about gravestones? The great joys? 

JH: One challenge is the condition of the old gravestones. Two and a half centuries of neglect, weather, acid rain, and sometimes vandalism have rendered many of them illegible. The other challenge is that for too long these epitaphs were dismissed as mere sentimental doggerel; well-intentioned professional and amateur genealogists have published many volumes of gravestone transcriptions, though they all too often (for my purposes) content themselves with just the name-and-date information, ignoring any verse further down the stone. 

These are trivial compared to the joys of identifying an obscure source text for a verse, whether in an Isaac Watts hymn or the work of a long-forgotten eighteenth-century poet. Time and again, my work has brought to life for me how the books and reading habits of these early rural Congregationalists informed their faith and helped them express their deepest feelings about life, death, and eternity on the occasion of the passing of a loved one.

Q: When you travel are you constantly taking side trips through graveyards?

JH: Yes, absolutely. My wife has grown accustomed to the squeal of breaks. Many graveyards are still right in the middle of town where they always have been. In some cases, like Monterey, Massachusetts, what used to be the center of town is now a second growth forest. The graveyard just sits there a good 25–30 yards off from what is now the road. There is no structure around it for ¾ of a mile. You can find these things on old maps. For example, in 1976, Berkshire County did a wonderful edition of all known burial grounds in the county, but it is 45–50 years old. To find some of those off the beaten path is tricky.

Q: Any projects on the horizon you’re able to talk about here? 

JH: This project is just getting started! My collection of epitaphs keeps growing and I keep discovering new sources. I am trying to understand more of the role of the carver in sourcing and suggesting appropriate verses. There is so much work to be done looking at the probate records of carvers, ministers, and individuals to see how often the books quoted in a graveyard appeared in the libraries of the townspeople.


Bob Frishman

January 2022

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

Bob Frishman is known for his expertise on the subject of clock and watch repair and history. He has professionally repaired nearly 8,000 timepieces and is author of numerous articles on the subject of horology. He is currently working on two books, one focused on Edward Duffield and one on the Mulliken family of Massachusetts. Bob and his wife, Jeanne Schinto (a previous Athenæum Author whom you can read about here), live in Andover, MA. For more information about Bob, click here.

Q: Where are you from, and where do you call home now?

BOB FRISHMAN: I grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, where I’m speaking to you from. The house I grew up in is about a quarter mile away, and my elementary school is about a tenth of a mile up the street. I haven’t lived here the whole time since I was a child, but Jeanne and I came back in the 1980s and moved into Andover in the early 1990s. I made the great circle route, because I was actually born in DC, which is where I went to college at George Washington, and then worked on Capitol Hill for about a decade for different members of Congress. Then I came back up here to work for my dad’s business. 

Q: How did your interest in clocks and watches develop?

BF: I already had clock and watch repair and collecting as a hobby since 1980 when I met somebody who was into it, and then I got into it as a real serious hobby. I joke that since I worked in politics during those years, it was such a joy and relief to come home and work on a clock or a watch where you actually got something done. At the end of the day, you actually had something to show for it, unlike politics where either nothing happens or if something happens, it’s usually bad. Maybe it helped me keep my sanity.  

Q: How did you pivot your interest into a business? 

BF: When my dad’s company closed, I picked up where I left off when I left DC, where I was about to start my own antique clock repair and antique clock selling business. In the early 1990s, I segued into full time clock repair and selling, and it instantly became both gratifying and successful because there are so few people anywhere anymore who can fix antique clocks. There are tens of thousands of antique clocks still around today, many of them in New England. Within an hour’s drive of my house, there are more broken antique clocks than I could ever fix! In New England, lots of families pass them down and no one wants to get rid of them, so there’s a lot of old tickers around that people want to get fixed. It was a very successful venture. 

Q: How does your interest in horology tie into your interest in history?

BF: All along, I always loved history. That was one reason my degree was in political science and why I liked that part of politics, the historical context of it all. Right from the start, I wasn’t just the Maytag repair man. I really was deeply interested in a scholarly way in clocks and watches, or horology. So for each clock I fixed, I told the people about its history. I started building a library, which now has over 800 books about clocks and watches. And I started to write about it too, now more than 100 articles about the various aspects of horology. I have a book coming and another waiting to be written after that one. That’s why I love this: the history is so deep and there are so many important things relating to its history I can sink my teeth into. Some people picture me like the guy who fixes your dishwasher, just bent over a machine. I just lived and breathed this; if I wasn’t fixing a clock, I was reading a book about it, preparing a lecture, or something related. The subject is so broad, it really suits my temperament and personality.

Q: What would you say to someone who’s interested in learning about the craft of repairing clocks or watches? 

BF: It requires patience. Because these are 200-year-old machines. If the clockmaker from 1790 thought somebody would still be using his clock, he’d die laughing. This was an appliance. Nobody thought they were making things for posterity. They were making useful machines for the time. Nursing them back into health after 200 years is difficult and challenging and not many people can do it. The cost of impatience is really high—if I make a mistake, it’s pretty clear when I deliver a clock to someone and it stops a week later. Nothing subtle about that! That pressure can be challenging. 

Q: How did you build your knowledge of horology? 

BF: It was fate. Thanksgiving 1980, we were invited to some guy’s house, and almost didn’t go. But we went, and then almost didn’t go to his basement. But we went to his basement, and it was full of all this clock and watch stuff. Now I already liked mechanical things. I had worked on sports cars at the time, but I was ready for something mechanical that was indoor work and not so dirty and noisy and dangerous and expensive. So I met Jack, who got me started, but you have to learn, or at least practice, by yourself. There are plenty of examples of guys who never sought real training or even study, and I see their work a lot. They figure “I can fix anything,” and they basically ruin the clock because they never learned the correct way. I had Jack’s help at the beginning, and I also took a few short courses at the American Watch-Making Institute in Cincinnati that showed me the right way to do it. Then you do it, as I have, 8,000 times, and you start to actually learn the right way of doing it and pretty soon you learn the wrong way when it doesn’t work when you’re done. It’s the same kind of template I use when people ask me about learning clock repair: You have to do it yourself, but I’m happy to help you. It wasn’t a big investment in equipment but it was a huge investment in time as I slowly gained expertise. I made enough mistakes to learn how to avoid repeating them.

Q: How did you get into dealing in clocks and watches?

BF: I loved antique clocks, and after a while, like almost every collector, I had too many so I had to become a dealer, too. I couldn’t keep them all and I had to support the acquisition I kept doing. It turned out to be an excellent business model too, because I would bring my restored clocks to an antique show to sell, which was also the perfect marketing tool for my repair business. Roughly every tenth person at an antique show has a broken clock at home, so it was great targeted marketing. I couldn’t have lived just by selling, but I wasn’t relying on the selling. The selling fed my repairing and the repairing kept me going. That’s how I got well-known, and how I even got a lot of lecture gigs at places like historical societies, libraries, and museums.

Q: Do you have a favorite in your collection?

BF: It’s a tough question to answer. Having a favorite means that all 10,000 others are not my favorites. I like so many of them! On the flip side, there are certain clocks I don’t like and won’t fix. Those include cuckoo clocks. Many people were disappointed when they called me for a repair and I said I don’t fix them. They are the worst combination of cheap and complicated. Some are hundreds of years old and are wonderful, but the millions that came here with tourists who brought them back from Germany in the last fifty years stop working after a while and are either impossible or very expensive to fix. So I turn those away. I think they’re fun when you look at them, but they’re nightmares mechanically. I stay away from cuckoo clocks. 

Q: Do you still repair watches and clocks? 

BF: I’ve reduced my repairing to almost zero, because it’s challenging and I don’t need to make the money I used to need to make. Plus I have other horology projects to work on. Instead of banging my head against the workbench trying to make a two-hundred-year-old machine work, it’s much easier shooting my mouth off. The consequences are far less serious. I do occasionally take work, but I spend only about three or four hours a week at my clock-making bench. What I mostly like to work on are English tall clocks, or Grandfather clocks (even though they weren’t called that back then), from the late 1700s and early 1800s. There are a lot of those around, and I like working on those. They’re lovely to work on, and each has a history I enjoy. There are American ones that dovetail with my research on American clockmakers from the eighteenth century. I have five in my workshop right now, and one or two of them are from museums. I will offer to repair their clock for free, as well as give a lecture about the clock, its importance, and time-keeping in general. I got to take a look at their clock, and at the end, I brought them back a clock that hadn’t worked in a long, long time. And now it’s ticking away in the museum like it should be. You know that if people go into a museum and the clock’s standing there not working, they’ll think, “What else is wrong about this place?” That’s why I love the fact that the clocks at the ​Athenæum are running. 

Q: What else have you enjoyed about the ​Athenæum ? How did you join?

BF: I have a two-direction approach with these types of institutions. I want to support the Boston ​Athenæum, now as a proprietor, because it’s important to me to support institutions that are historic and local and meaningful to the history of the community. I also want to get the people at the ​Athenæum interested in horology. If the ​Athenæum even moves one percent in the direction of buying more horology books or hosting more speakers like me, that works with my mission. I don’t make any money at this, it’s missionary work for me. I just want people to get as excited about clocks and watches as I am. So, a friend had suggested we visit and attend some events. Initially it was Jeanne who began doing research there. And as often happens, I tagged along to see what was there that was clock and watch related. Specifically I worked with Catharina Slautterback on finding clocks in her print and photograph collection, and she got the bug as well. That synergy was wonderful. I was able to connect with the staff there. I love walking in the Athenæum, I love the whole aura there. Just going in and feeling like I can breathe more easily for a few hours, just browsing. It’s such a goldmine of information, undiscovered. 

Q: Touching on your writing projects, what were some of the great joys and challenges throughout your process?

BF: It always stuns me that it flows out of me in an almost-finished form. My wife used to joke about that, because I was a speech-writer on Capitol Hill. I wrote 84 speeches for Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm during her final years in Congress. Before that, I’d done some writing. But somehow, when I get the subject and it spins around in my head for a while it comes out in a way that always amazes me. Sure I have to edit, but the creative process continues to astound me and gives me great pleasure. I think the research is just as exciting, especially coming to a place like the ​Athenæum. The joy is in the discovery, and then the joy of creating something out of the research is equally satisfying. God forbid, I’ve never experienced writer’s block—my problem is stopping. 

Q: What projects are on the horizon?

BF: This book that is nearing completion now, that’s been a few years in the making. It’s about the Colonial clockmaker Edward Duffield. It’s been a different process for me because it is so long compared to my previous work. This is going to be a big picture-book with pictures of as many of his clocks as I can find. Part of the book is just going to be a catalogue with all of the clocks we know of and their descriptions, but the other half is his biography. Sad part is, he left no ledgers or letters behind. He was an active citizen though. So not only do I have his clocks, which are the legacy of his clock-making work, I also have the things he was involved in as a fairly affluent, civic-minded person. What I find so interesting is that he could have done something else. He probably didn’t need to work as a clockmaker. He was born into money, and that’s part of the story. The nightmare is the book being published and a descendant landing on my doorstep with a trunk full of letters. But for every year of his life, I have something, even if it’s just how much he paid in taxes, which can tell you a lot. In my book, I’m equally interested in the man, not just the clocks. Especially because I do have a unique perspective as someone who’s also spent time bent over the workbench. 

Q: What is the next project you’re looking forward to?

BF: The next book is about the Mulliken family of clockmakers from Massachusetts. There were a number of members of that family who made clocks, and many of them are in the area. I’ve already found 200, which is a greater number than the number I found by Edward Duffield. My collaborator, Damon DiMauro at Gordon College, has uncovered primary materials about the Mullikens, which will be helpful because there’s a lot more than about Edward Duffield. The book will be published by the Concord Museum, which owns six Mulliken clocks, and it will have greater local context. There are so many great clockmakers from this area whom have not been written about to the extent they deserve, the Mullikens certainly among them.


Natalie Dykstra

December 2021

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

Natalie Dykstra is a highly acclaimed biographer, author of Clover Adams and an upcoming biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner, both of which have been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Until recently retiring, she taught writing and literature at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She now lives in Waltham with her husband while she continues to write. She was kind enough to tell me about her writing journey, beginning with inspiring professors and incorporating the BA along the way. For more information, visit her website, www.nataliedykstra.com

Q: When and where did you grow up? Where do you call home now?

NATALIE DYKSTRA: I grew up in Michigan and Illinois and now live with my husband in Waltham, where he owns a business. I always thought I’d live west of the Mississippi, after getting my Master’s degree in American Studies at the University of Wyoming and a PhD in American Studies at the University of Kansas. I still pine for those big western skies, especially in the winter. But the stories I wanted to tell, and the archives and libraries connected to those stories, drew me eastward. 

Q: Did any classes or teachers have a particularly strong impact on you?  

ND: Two professors come immediately to mind. Ken Bratt, my classics professor at Calvin College (now Calvin University), wove together lectures about myth and art and poetry, so that we were utterly immersed in an ancient world. Sometimes, after his lectures, I couldn’t sleep at night, with that old world shimmering in my imagination. Barry Shank, at Kansas (now at Ohio State University), taught a course on cultural theory, in a way that was completely unexpected, original. One time, when I was talking with him, I was overcome with emotion because of one of our course readings and couldn’t stop my tears, though I desperately wanted to, making all sorts of sounds to that effect. He said to me quietly: “Always pay attention to what moves your heart.” That line shifted how I saw my work and writing.

Q: What is your profession? How did you get your start?  

ND: Until last May, I was Professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where I taught for 20 years. For many of those years, my college accommodated my living eight months a year here in the Boston area. So, my writing life grew out of my teaching life.
Q: Please tell us a little about your book, Clover Adams. What were some of the struggles you had researching and writing your book? The great joys?

ND: A great pleasure of writing biography for me is who and what I get to think about. There were so many fascinating characters and themes in Clover’s story. Henry Adams, of course, was a complicated man, especially flawed as he got older, but also a genius and prolific writer, who penned some of the best letters of the nineteenth century. And there are innumerable others—Clover’s mother, Ellen Sturgis Hooper, a wonderful Transcendental poet; Henry James; the architect H.H. Richardson; and the Washington, D.C. socialite Elizabeth Cameron. But it was always Clover who drew me the most to my desk. It struck me as unfair that she’d been known for her marriage to a famous man and because she had died by suicide at the age of 42. She was so much more than her worst day—funny, a quick study, acerbic, creative, and often vulnerable in disguised ways that posed a challenge for anyone trying to understand her both in her own time, and now. Her death was a tragedy for Henry, and his overwhelming grief and guilt shrouded her in obscurity. But she was a gifted photographer in the years before Kodak and in her last years she recorded aspects of her life in gorgeous, sometimes heart-stopping images, which often speak to what she could not, or did not, say. Her photographs and letters are archived at the Massachusetts History Society and viewable on their website.

I missed her terribly after my book was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012. I still do. 

Q: Are there any projects on the horizon you are able to share? How are things going with Isabella Stewart Gardner? 

ND: I’ve been grateful to have an all-absorbing project to work on during the pandemic and grateful, too, to be working with my same editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which has changed names and is now Mariner, an imprint of HarperCollins.

The challenges of writing a biography of Gardner are many. She had an enormously big life, lived to 84, knew a lot of people, and was extraordinarily smart and capable. Sometimes I find myself intimidated by her, but I think she would have liked that. One had to earn her trust. She was also great fun, full of stories, self-aware (most of the time), by turns generous, demanding, mercurial. And her life became larger and larger as she got older. Her eponymous art museum was her “letter to the world,” to borrow Dickinson’s line. When it first opened to the public in 1903, she was about to turn 63 years old. That timing is part of what drew me to the story. I find the shape of her life—an early promise, terrible losses, a long quiet, and then a coming to fruition, a blooming, much past the time otherwise expected—to be immensely moving. And she lived long enough to fully realize and enjoy what she’d accomplished. That’s rare.  

There’s a line I love from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: “How I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half-sheets of notepaper. I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate works, like the shuffling of feet on pavement.” It feels important, somehow, to keep Woolf’s lines close in my imagination when writing this complex life from a past that is both eerily familiar yet also remote.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum? Do you have any particular memories from when you first visited?  

ND: I knew about the Athenæum because the people I wrote about were library members. Then, I had the thrill to give a Clover book talk in its wonderful auditorium in 2012. How much I enjoyed that day! From the start, I loved the hush of its rooms, the way the light pours in on the fifth floor.

Q: What appeals to you about the Athenæum? Have you found any hidden gems you would like to share?  

ND: First of all, I appreciate how the library handled changes during the pandemic and how it ensured access to its collections, even when the doors needed to be temporarily closed. Impressive. I love the history of the library, its location at the top of Beacon Hill so near the State House. I like to imagine all the readers over the years entering its rooms and all the writers at its tables. I did a lot of reading on nineteenth-century fashion at the Athenæum and tracked down first edition copies of some of Gardner’s favorite novels that she read as a young woman. The library has a large collection of titles about Boston published in the 1920s and 30s, and those are filled with vivid, sensory details about growing up in the city. I love to scan the shelves for the books I know I need, and in doing so, discover books I didn’t know I needed. That’s the best.