David Tory

November 2021

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

Retired from his careers in the computer industry and philanthropy, David Tory has spent the last few years researching the arrival of English colonists in New England. Exploration: The Stanfield Chronicles is the result of those years of research, following the fictional Isaac Stanfield through a life of adventure in the early seventeenth century. Originally from England, for 30 years David Tory has called Essex County, Massachusetts, his home with his wife, Helen. For more information, visit his website at www.davidtoryauthor.com.

Tell me about yourself.

DAVID TORY: I was born in England, in Sheffield, Yorkshire. I was educated in England, and I entered the computer business in 1962, as a programmer. I started a software company in 1971 which I sold to a Swiss company, and we moved to Geneva in 1979. Then that Swiss company merged with an American company, which meant I moved the family to Long Island in 1980. In 1988, I was asked to run a software company in Boston, so I moved the family up to the North Shore. I ran that company for seven years before retiring in 1995.

Q: How did you get involved in philanthropy?

DT: When our two girls went off to college, my wife decided to go to college too as a mature student. She went to Bradford College in North Essex County and met two friends there who were just graduating and wanted to start a nonprofit to bring art to young kids in Lawrence. My wife joined them. I got involved a year or so later in 1995 when I retired. I was also persuaded to start helping other small nonprofits, helping them organize their boards, teaching them the business practices they didn’t understand (like business plan, projections, budgets, etc.). That resulted in me starting a community foundation, the Essex County Community Foundation, in 1998, which I left in 2011.

Q: How did your work develop into a research project?

DT: I started writing a thesis about philanthropy in New England. I had the impression from talking to lots of friends and colleagues from different parts of the country in the philanthropic industry that New England has something of a reputation for being a challenging place in which to raise money. I thought that the Puritans might have had something to do with this. “I give of myself, not of my wealth.” So I started doing research, and in the course of it, I found that there was a great deal more to the Puritan story and their arrival in New England than I had been taught or was aware of. It was actually a much more complicated and enthralling story. In fact, there were some things I found that didn’t even match the common understanding of what and how it all happened. Based on the events and people I uncovered I thought, “there’s a great story here,” but I was torn between writing a history and telling a story that incorporated the history. 

Q: And how did you make the choice between nonfiction and historical fiction?

DT: As a young boy I was introduced to the author G.A. Henty. Mr. Henty wrote at the latter part of the nineteenth century stories for boys about history, and each book of the fifty-odd he wrote was about a particular event or situation in history. In each case, the book was written from the perspective of a boy who was involved in that event. So for example, in a book about the American Civil War, he wrote about a 16 year old who joins the confederacy. I read all those books and they stuck with me. From that came my love of history. I first thought I would write a synopsis for a history course, but with Henty in mind and in talking to various people, family, obviously my wife Helen, and other friends, they said that it was really a story that needed to be told.

Q: So, given your research, what led you to The Stanfield Chronicles?

DT: Writing a work of historical fiction, in which the narrator can be an observer and participant, allowed me the freedom to imagine as well as to describe historical events and people from a particular perspective as it was happening. I also didn’t want truth to necessarily get in the way of a good story! So I had all the pieces, now how do I put them together? I created a character called Isaac Stanfield who has a friend in Dorchester, Will Whiteway, a real person born in 1597, who became an important man in Dorchester, England. More importantly, he also kept a diary. Isaac and Will were the same age, they went to school together and were lifelong friends. When Isaac Stanfield starts his adventures he writes a journal and sends the entries on a regular basis to Will for his safe-keeping and edification. The story starts in 1613, when Isaac is 16, with a fire that really happened in Dorchester. I have Isaac believing he is in some way responsible for starting it. The whole book starts at that moment. He leaves Dorchester hotfoot and goes down to Weymouth, where he gets put onto a boat, the Sweet Rose, as a cabin boy. The historical events and people reveal themselves. The political, commercial, and religious intrigue that led to the Mayflower leaving Plymouth England in 1620 is described by Isaac as it happens. Isaac has a love interest named Aby and finds himself being seduced by one or two other people along the way. It’s a coming of age story for Isaac as well.

Q: What was the most difficult part of that writing process? 

DT: Stopping the research! The research was a wonderful journey. I had never gone to university, so the idea of doing academic research was foreign to me. In the computer industry, you didn’t have time to do research because new things were happening constantly. You didn’t have time to go back, and there wasn’t much to go back to. In doing some initial research, I started at a Manchester-by-the-Sea bookstore, Manchester By the Book. It’s a secondhand bookstore, and they have a section full of books—some very old—written about the early period of exploration in New England. I started buying these books and reading them and then using the bibliography of those books to find other authors, and so on. And then going on the internet and doing some really deep research, finding all of it so fascinating. It was a major problem for me to stop the research, despite the innumerable exciting rabbit holes I went down.  The historical context was there, and I produced a calendar and filled in everything I knew happened based on the historical record. Now what I needed to do is find out how Isaac fit into all this. Writing the historical bit was pretty straightforward. But when Isaac came into it, very quickly it reached a point where I would sit down at my computer, and I would say, “Okay, Isaac, here’s the situation, tell me what happened.” And we would just spontaneously respond to the situation. However, the other problem was how to get the book published. I was a total unknown as a writer so I couldn’t get a literary agent. And you can’t get it published by a traditional publisher unless you have a literary agent. So I had to go an alternative route in order to get the book printed.

Q: What did you enjoy most about the process?

DT: The process was really trying to curtail the research, which I found absolutely fascinating. I’m 79 years old, and I thought, “this is not the time to start a career in writing.” I was doing this because I wanted to tell the story, not necessarily to become a successful author. So I wasn’t constrained in my writing by worrying about whether the subject matter and genre were commercially viable. I wanted to make sure the book had literary merit, and I had lots of people assuring me that it had. People would ask who my reader was, “who are you selling this to?” I’m not selling it to anyone. I’m writing a story that pleases me. And if it pleases other people as well, great! What I found most exciting was not knowing the human interest side of Isaac and where he was going. I had no idea at the beginning of the book how he would end up, other than he had to end up at the end somehow or other involved with the Mayflower leaving for New England in 1620. The joy was people I knew reading the book and saying “I love it.” When I do presentations, I read from the book, and I find I’m so involved in it. I love the book, and get emotional reading certain parts, even though I’ve read it I don’t know how many times. So the joy is also in the fact that it’s alive. It’s part of me, I’m a part of it. And I look forward to the next one.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum?

DT: I have a granddaughter, Rue, and she is a very interesting lady. She is very erudite, and she is a writer, an explorer of minds, and a philosopher. A quite extraordinary young lady. She became a member of the Athenæum several years ago. She’d come in on a regular basis and study and do her homework here or whatever else she was doing, and she loved it. So when I needed another source for information on specifics from the period in Boston, I asked her to introduce me to the Boston Athenæum. A few weeks ago, I came in with Rue. She introduced me and showed me around. I love it.

Q: What have you enjoyed the most during your time at the BA?

DT: I think it’s a wonderful area for contemplative research. There’s such a wealth of information here. But even if you’re not actually using the books, coming in and finding a corner somewhere and doing the research in this wonderful academic environment is absolutely a delight.

Q: In the future, what can we look forward to from you?

DT: Yes, Exploration is published, the first book in The Stanfield Chronicles trilogy, and the second book, Retribution, will not be published until next spring. Then I have the third book in the trilogy to write. The great thing now will be getting the audio version of Exploration out, which I will be narrating myself. 


Hayden Sousa

October 2021

By Hannah Weisman

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Hingham High School senior Hayden Sousa, the winner of the Athenæum’s 2021 National History Day in Massachusetts prize for excellent use of primary sources. Sousa’s paper, “Communications in History: The Impact of Ted Sorensen’s Speechwriting During JFK’s Presidency,” earned him the award during the spring of his junior year. 

Sousa found himself interested in the Kennedy family after reading Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye, which spurred him to learn more. In his reading, he encountered Ted Sorensen’s name. So, when Sousa learned the 2021 History Day theme was “Communication in History,” he decided to create a project about John Kennedy’s speeches, and specifically those that Sorensen wrote for him. 

At the encouragement of his history teacher, Ms. Petrie, Sousa sought out primary sources focused not only on Kennedy and Sorensen, but also on the people who worked with and around them. Sousa found transcripts of forums that had been held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. From them, he was able to ascertain that Robert McNamara and other members of the Kennedy administration recognized that the relationship between Sorensen and the president transcended that of a typical speechwriter and politician; together “they were creating something huge.” 

In addition to mining primary sources, Sousa consulted secondary sources. When I asked Sousa if he could recommend a title to people interested in learning about the Kennedys, he was hard pressed to pick just one, but did name Grace and Power by Sally Bedell Smith and Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek. 

Ultimately, Sousa’s research led him to his argument that, “the unique relationship between JFK and Sorensen allowed them to produce speeches that compelled a younger generation and the African American population to believe in the United States and to push for progressive change.”

To present his argument, Sousa chose to write a paper. National History Day competitors create a project in one of five formats: documentary film, exhibition, paper, performance, or website. For Sousa, the choice was strategic. He had considered making a documentary film, thinking it would be helpful for the viewer to hear John Kennedy speaking. But the main focus of his project was not the way Kennedy delivered his speeches, but rather the words Sorensen wrote. He decided that writing a paper featuring quotations from speeches would help his reader focus on the text rather than the oration. 

With his project now a few months behind him, Sousa has had time to reflect on his approach to the topic and his treatment of the Kennedys in his paper: “What I’ve noticed is that I make the Kennedys, specifically JFK, seem perfect, and they really weren’t. Like everyone, they had their faults. If there was one thing I could change in the paper, I would go back and point out some of those flaws. It’s important to point out faults because history is about learning…we should be not only learners of history but also critics of history.”

Given the careful attention Sousa put into his project, from topic to research methodology to format, it is not surprising he imagines history and writing as part of his future career plans. Although he does not aspire to be a politician himself, Sousa can see himself writing for one: “Writing and reading are the best ways to get points across, get inside the human mind, communicate…To have the chance to write a speech for someone who can say something important would be really cool…I love history, politics are interesting, [and so are] government and civics…I might not want the spotlight, but [would like] to help someone else.”

As our conversation came to a close, Sousa offered a final recommendation: “Anyone who’s interested in JFK should definitely study RFK…He stuck up for what he believed in. He was willing to change his mind. Not everyone is open to that today.”

If this wise young historian is any indication, the future of our country is bright.


Julie Carrick Dalton

September 2021

Interview by Carly Stevens

Julie Carrick Dalton and I chatted on a Zoom call early last month. She is a journalist and more recently a farmer and a novelist. Her new novel, Waiting for the Night Song, was published earlier this year and she is already working on her second. Our lively discussion focused on life on her farm, her family, and, of course, her writing. You can visit her website here

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

JULIE CARRICK DALTON: I grew up in Maryland and partly on a military base in Germany. I’ve moved all over the country. I’ve lived in Washington, Texas, Virginia, Delaware. We landed here in Massachusetts about 20 years ago. Now, I divide my time between Massachusetts and New Hampshire where I own a small organic farm. 

I’m a journalist. I’m not working for any publications right now, but I do still write articles. I’ve written for the Boston GlobeBusiness Week, parenting magazines, and all sorts of different publications. Now I mostly write about writing. I write for the Chicago Review of Books and Orion Magazine doing book reviews or interviews with authors. I’m new to farming. I started about ten years ago which was about the same time I started writing my first book. I built my farm from the ground up in the same year I was writing the book. They’re kind of one story to me. There were a lot of days that I was writing at night after having been working on the farm all day. A lot of the imagery and the backdrop for my story comes from the farm where I work. 

Also, I am a mom of four kids and I have two dogs. Life is pretty busy.

Q: What are you working on right now?

JCD: I’m working on another book called The Last Beekeeper. It’s coming out in early 2023 by the same publisher. It also has environmental themes.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about it?

JCD: The story is set in the near future, not a distant future. It looks very much like our world, but there is an event that hastens the collapse of our pollinators at a more rapid pace than what we’re expecting right now. The story is about the relationship between a beekeeper and his daughter, how it declines, and how they find their way back to each other as the bees are dying. It is actually a hopeful story, though—it sounds really dark when I say “the bees are dying and their relationship is breaking down!” There is a lot of hope in it in the end. It’s really about a relationship and the environmental elements are in the background of the story.

Q: Can you elaborate on how your personal life impacts your writing?

JCD: It goes back to the farm. I bought the farm kind of by accident. One hundred acres of land near our family home in New Hampshire went to market for timber development so they started clear cutting the woods. It was near the home I live in and we have bears, moose, and deer that walk into our yard all the time and they were clear cutting the forest where they live! I had this panic attack moment where I said to myself, “they’re going to tear down this forest! The moose are going to be homeless! What should I do?” A lot of people go panic shopping for shoes. I panic shopped a forest. It was in the pit of the recession and real estate was reasonably priced at the time, so we bought the land. 

Then I needed a reason to own it because I’m a writer, I’m not a farmer. I partnered up with a friend who runs an equestrian business and built a farm on the land that had already been cleared. She keeps her horses there and runs a riding program and I grow vegetables. While I was doing that, I was also writing my book. The context of the farm—like the scenery, the agricultural research and environmental research I was doing—shows up in my book. Elements of climate change show up in my story. They were all influenced by things I witnessed on my own land that I didn’t know about. I wanted to put all these ideas I was learning about in my story. 

I’m also a mom. A lot of my mom life shows up in the book. Interactions with the kids in my book and the literature the kids read were all elements of my kids. They show up in sneaky little ways in the book. There is a whole lot of me and my family life that shows up in this book. 

Q: What are the joys and challenges of putting so much of yourself into your writing?

JCD: It is funny because talking about it now I see how much of myself is in the book. When I was writing I didn’t do it intentionally. I would always take my kids out picking blueberries, so this idea of the little kids out in a rowboat picking blueberries was like the central image that started the book. But other than that little central image, the story is fiction. It’s a murder mystery so it is not based on anything that happened in real life. I promise there’s no bodies buried in my woods! I was doing things and incorporating my own childhood very subconsciously. When my mother read the book, anytime Katie, the main character, was getting into trouble or something bad was about to happen, she said to herself “no, Julie, don’t do it.” She equated Katie with me because I was writing myself. I didn’t do it on purpose. I wasn’t trying to recreate my own childhood, but I kind of did. 

There’s a young teenage girl in the story named Sal. She is my main character’s best friend’s daughter. When I was writing her character, I was writing the teenager that I wish I’d been. She is brave and outspoken. She stands up for things. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, and she doesn’t care what other people think. She is all the things I wish I’d been when I was 13. There are parts of me that show up in all of the characters in different ways. I wasn’t doing it on purpose. That is probably common with the first novel in particular because the character traits most accessible to me are my own. 

Q: Are you continuing this process with your second book, are you trying to avoid it, or how are you bringing yourself into it? 

JCD: The Last Beekeeper has a lot of me, too. The main character in my second novel is not as closely me as Katie was in the first book. There are definitely some similarities. She has a fondness for growing food, which I do. She’s very attentive to the vegetables she’s growing and the land. She is very in tune with nature. That is very much a part of me. But then, Katie is also mechanically minded. She’s a tinkerer and fixer of things. I couldn’t build myself out of a box. So there’s a lot of her that’s very different from me. I don’t feel like this character is as closely linked to me. The relationships in the story aren’t based on real relationships. There’s much more imagination on my part in this book, rather than relying on my own life. There are definitely still little flickers of me.  

Q: Can you walk me through your writing process? Did the pandemic impact your writing in any way?

JCD: I did not know what I was doing with my first novel, Waiting for the Night Song. It was the first time I tried to write a novel. It was kind of a mess. I wrote by the seat of my pants. I just sat down and wrote whatever came into my head. I could only see one page ahead of me. I didn’t know where the story was going and the result was a really messy draft. There was a lot of revision and cutting tons of work that I just threw away because I hadn’t put a lot of planning into what was going to happen. The revision process was really tough. When I was actually writing the novel, I had four young kids. So I spent a lot of time writing in stolen moments in the car waiting to pick kids up for school, the ballet waiting room, or a doctor’s office waiting room. I did not have a schedule. A lot of writers are great about structure. I’ve never had a schedule. I pieced together moments. 

The second book, The Last Beekeeper, is a different story. My kids are much older now. They’re all self-sufficient. I also understand how to plot a novel now. I outlined this book in pretty good detail. I am allowing myself room to change as I need to. If I get to a point in the outline that isn’t working anymore I will change it. But, I still know where I’m going. I know how the book is ending. I know the arcs for my characters. It’s a much more controlled way to write. I think this is how I will write in the future. It feels better to me than when I was writing Waiting for the Night Song. I kind of know what I’m doing. 

As for the pandemic, I had a very hard time writing for the first half of it. I didn’t write much at all. I finished up copy edits and some last minute details for Waiting for the Night Song last summer. In the fall I had a very, very hard time writing. I just couldn’t focus at all. I had all the time in the world and I could not write. I know that happened to a lot of writers. I don’t think that’s rare. I’m back in a really great writing groove right now, so I hope that lasts for a while. This book is due soon, so I would like it to last.

Q: What differences do you see between writing fiction and nonfiction?

JCD: Nonfiction is a really different muscle for me. When I was a journalist, I really thrived on deadlines. I got a rush out of deadlines. I could always do it. I could just find it in me to do that thing really quickly. However much time you give me is how long it’s going to take. I will take up the entire amount of time. 

Book projects are long and big projects. I have a harder time with deadlines. It’s not that I don’t meet them. It’s just that I have a harder time breaking a big project down into small tasks. With an article, I could do the research and get the notes. It’s a defined small piece of writing and it felt very controlled, whereas a novel is a really unwieldy beast. Some authors write very chronologically. They start at chapter one and they write through to the end. Both of my books have alternating timelines so I tend to be all over the place. I’ll write a chapter from the childhood timeline and then I’ll write a chapter in the middle of the book from the adult timeline based on what part of the story I need to tell. That makes for a really complicated mess in my head when I’m trying to think about it as a whole project. I’m working on getting better at that. I’m still developing the skills at managing my time as a novelist whereas I totally had it down as a journalist. I’m still working on the novelist part.

Q: Are you a big reader?

JCD: Yes, yes. 

Q: Have you always been a big reader?

JCD: Yes, I was that kid that would go to the library and check out 20 books and couldn’t see over the top of the stack. I’ve always been a reader. There’s a subplot in Waiting for the Night Song about these two young girls in a boat who see a boy appear on a pier. They make up the story about this mysterious boy in their head. They start delivering books to him in secret. It’s the only communication they have with this boy. The list of books I chose were my favorite books from when I was a kid. They’re all the books that formed me as a reader and made me love literature. It was actually really hard to narrow down which books to include. 

Q: What were the titles you included?

JCD: Swiss Family RobinsonRobinson CrusoeThe OutsidersAre You There God? It’s Me Margaret, and Pippi Longstocking. Oh, and The Dark is Rising was one of my favorite books as a kid. These were the books that got me really excited as a reader. It becomes like a form of communication between the kids. That all came out of my passion for reading as a child.

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

JCD: Primarily, I hope readers enjoy it as a story. That it’s a good story. That it’s compelling and it makes you want to keep reading. I hope they empathize with the characters and want to keep turning pages to see what happens. Beyond that, there are environmental themes in my story and I didn’t write them in there intentionally necessarily. They are things that matter to me. 

It’s not a book about climate change. It’s a book about the relationship between two friends whose relationship is torn apart because of a traumatic childhood incident. Waiting for the Night Song is about them finding their way back to each other. It’s really a story about a fierce friendship, secrets, and redemption. However, there are things in the book that might change somebody’s mind about some small things, if they open their mind to it. Primarily, I want people to enjoy it for being a really good story. 

Q: Can you tell me about some of your favorite books? I know it’s a tough question so you can list as many as you want. 

JCD: How much time do you have? Haha. I would say right now my current obsession is the author Charlotte McConaghy. She’s an Australian author. In 2020, her first novel, Migrations, came out. It was a huge international bestseller. Benedict Cumberbatch is making a movie out of it soon! It’s brilliant and so beautifully written. The language in the story is so tender and lovely. It’s also a story that deals with climate. She has another book that came out more recently called Once There Were Wolves. It’s about the rewilding of wolves in the Scottish Highlands after they’ve been eradicated and hunted out of existence. They’re both really about our relationship with this planet that we share with other creatures and what our responsibilities are. I love The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. That is a classic. I also loved Richard Powers’s The Overstory which came out a few years ago. The Kindest Lie which came out this year. It is a debut novel by Nancy Johnson who happens to be one of my best friends. I’m a little bit biased, but it’s a really fantastic story about race and class right at the dawn of the Obama administration. She was writing this book for years and it came out right as our country was having a racial reckoning. It’s the perfect book to read right now. My final recommendation is The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner. It’s set in eighteenth-century London and focuses on a female apothecary who brews up concoctions to kill off men who are harming women. It’s so good! Lots of good books!

Q: What are you reading right now?

JCD: I just started a book called Appleseed by Matt Bell. Another book I just finished a few days ago that I loved is What Strange Paradise by Omar El-Akkad. I loved it. It is a story about a boat of Syrian immigrants that capsized and a young boy who washes up on the shores of this island and he doesn’t speak the language. It is really a story about the moment we live in. Everyone should read it.

Waiting for the Night Song is currently on sale for $2.99 on all major platforms this week. It’s usually $13.99 for the ebook and $26.99 for hardcover. The sale ends Sept 5.


Joel Farrell

August 2021

Interview by Carly Stevens

Author Joel Farrell and I sat down to talk about some of his recent and upcoming projects. Mr. Farrell had a career in computer science before retiring and shifting his focus to historical research and writing. He’s published Venice’s Finest Hour and The Radical Greek Idea. His next project, still in the beginning stages, focuses on the antebellum migration of New Englanders to Kansas. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

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

JOEL FARRELL: I grew up in Kansas where I went to Kansas State University. I got my bachelors in computer science, but I started as a history major. I was torn between science and history. I decided to go the scientific route and have history be my avocation. Now that I’m retired I’ve switched it around. After graduating, I moved to upstate New York to work and then I transferred to Cambridge. In between there I got a masters in computer science. I’ve been living here in the Boston area since ‘96. This is a home base for us.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum?

JF: Some people told me about it. When I first looked into membership, the way to join was rather involved. You had to know somebody to write a recommendation. I thought about it for a while, then I went to the Boston Book Festival where the Athenæum had a table with materials. Then, I went to one of their exhibits and I just decided to join. I have not regretted it.

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

JF: My first book was called Venice’s Finest Hour. The book grew out of my interest in Venice. I wondered how you could have this small city that was a world power for hundreds of years. I was fascinated. My book is about a pivotal episode in its history in the fourteenth century when Venice almost lost its power and would have never been heard of again. From there, it became the great empire and cultural center we think of today. There were a lot of materials here in the Athenæum that I used. 

The second book I wrote came from a long time interest of mine: ancient Greece. The Radical Greek Idea is a story of the birth of democracy but with a focus on how it developed, how it worked, and how it worked under pressure. I looked at how the first experiment in direct democracy could actually succeed in a place that had to fight big wars and manage an empire. It’s hard to imagine. 

I’m currently working on a third book which is about a completely different topic. It turns out that before the Civil War the admission of the territory of Kansas as either a free or slave state was an enormous issue. It dominated the national press and congressional debates. A group here in Boston organized an immigration system to bring New Englanders to settle in Kansas so they could vote on a constitution and legislature to make Kansas a free state. Many people in Kansas can trace their roots to New England and Boston in particular. There is this great connection between that story and how Kansas was founded and the principals it was founded upon. It’s interesting that the Athenæum has books by principal characters in the story and some donated by those same people.

Q: How did you transition from writing a book about Venice in the Middle Ages to one on democracy in Ancient Athens? How do you transition to these new ideas? How do you come up with ideas? 

JF: When I first started thinking seriously about doing historical writing I was very interested in the research and writing aspect. I looked at a lot of different possibilities and for the first book I wanted a fairly narrow topic. I knew about this episode in Venetian history, the Chioggia War, from other reading that I’d done, which was a really good way for me to dive in. I knew that primary sources I could read would be a big problem. I did find things and I got some translations and I relied on some other people’s translations but it was very difficult. 

Like I said, I have a great interest in ancient Greece and ancient history in general, so I started to look around for what sources were out there. I found that there are so many resources that could really help me. The idea of democracy in Greece came to my mind because of a reading I’d done about the time there was a big problem. My idea was originally a little different for the book, but you have to keep an open mind when you’re doing research. I changed my course part way through. 

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

JF: I’ve always agreed with “history is philosophy teaching by example.” I wouldn’t call what I’m doing philosophical history, but I hope people gain a greater perspective. With Venice’s Finest Hour, I’d like people to discover what Venice really was and maybe ask some questions about how all of Venice could come to be. Most people see Venice as this tourist’s vacation playground. 

With The Radical Greek Idea, it’s easier to get a perspective on what is happening now and our political processes and our democracy if you can step away and look at it through a different lens. Everyone was involved. There were no representatives. There was no president. It was just “we all decide everything.” Being separated from all our current issues and ideologies I think could really help people to see things a little more clearly and see what is really important. 

Q: What aspects of our collection did you use in your research?

JF: The collection of historical works on Venice here is very deep. There is also a collection of state papers between the Republic of Venice and England and that throws a lot of light on what was going on at the time. It was a really excellent primary source. Other than that, the Athenæum doesn’t have a lot of primary sources on Venice but there are a few. 

For Greek history, I think the Athenæum’s collection reflects the interests and standards of an educated and cultured person at the time of the early days of the Athenæum. There is an enormous classics collection. I was able to find everything I wanted as far as primary sources in both English and Greek. That was an excellent resource and a big help to me. For all of my research, the access to JSTOR I get through the membership has been invaluable.

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

JF: My first book was before the pandemic, but I generally try to get an idea of what I want to work on and then I do a lot of general reading. Once I’ve gotten to a certain point then I start narrowing in. I do deep research and I keep a lot of notes. I go through and organize those notes a lot so when I’ve completed the main research phase, of course you always have to go back and do more later, I‘ve got it to where it almost writes itself. My writing doesn’t take long at all. Since I don’t work in computer science anymore I’ve got time. The pandemic came right as I published my second book last spring/summer. I started doing my early reading for my next project. I didn’t have much else to do. I had less distraction. It didn’t affect me as much as other people. 

Q: What parts of the writing and research process do you like? And what parts do you dislike?

JF: The research phase, in some ways, is my favorite part. I get to do things I enjoy like learning. The initial writing is probably the thing I enjoy the second most. It tends to flow pretty fast because of the amount of preparation I’ve done. Then comes revisions and the editorial process, which is not as fun. I push to get it done. I mean it’s important. I want a high quality deliverable, but it’s not quite as stimulating. 

Q: Do you have a favorite study spot in the Athenæum?

JF: If there is nobody there, I like the third floor. If there is, I’m usually on the second floor. I find there is too much competition for the fifth floor and it is too far away from the places that I have to go, like the drum. When I come for relaxation or just to find books for my own pleasure I’ll often sit down in the art reading room. In some of the newsletters and such, people talk about how this is an undiscovered place, and I say “well, stop talking about it!” 

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

JF: My favorite set of novels is the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. The language is mesmerizing and the images are just amazing. Unfortunately, he didn’t do a lot more than that. One of my favorite history books is John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice. I find that his prose style for describing history, places, or any of the other things he has written about is remarkable. When I retired, a friend of mine and I took on a big reading project to read Proust. A lot of people abandon that about halfway through the first volume, but I actually liked it. I got to like it more and more. I now rank that as one of my favorites. 

Q: What are you reading right now?

JF: Of course, I’m still reading a bunch of books from the 1850s and 60s about territorial Kansas. I just finished Mary Beard’s The Parthenon. Amazingly, she was a presenter here at the Athenæum a few years ago. I’m now reading Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland, which is a science book. 


Jeanne Schinto

July 2021

Interview by Jackie Bateman

Jeanne Schinto has been an independent writer since 1973. She is the author of several books, including Huddle Fever: Living in the Immigrant City (Knopf, 1995), a memoir of the ten years she lived in the old textile-mill city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. She has also published articles on art, history, and the material culture in a variety of publications, including Maine Antique DigestFine Art ConnoisseurThe Atlantic MonthlyGastronomicaJohns Hopkins Magazine, and DoubleTake Magazine. Her essays and reviews have appeared in numerous other places: The Washington PostThe Boston GlobeThe New York TimesThe Christian Science MonitorBoston MagazineThe Women’s Review of BooksYankee Magazine, and The Nation. Her creative nonfiction has been in The Yale ReviewThe Virginia Quarterly ReviewShenandoahThe Antioch ReviewMichigan Quarterly Review, and many other literary periodicals. Ms. Schinto is currently working on a history of the nineteenth-century Christian missionary movement that originated in part with the theologians, Bible scholars, preachers, teachers, translators, printers, and ordinary townspeople of Andover, Massachusetts, where she lives today with her husband, horologist Bob Frishman. Its working title is The Missionary Factory.

Q. Were you always an avid reader? 

JEANNE SCHINTO: Yes, certainly. Growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut, I remember distinctly getting my library card and signing my name, which was a big deal, and I was very happy. I remember that, like kids sometimes do, I wanted to check out the same book over and over again. One was Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats. That was a phase that passed. I just read all the time.

Q: I figured from the breadth of your work you would be a big reader. 

JS: Well, as a freelancer I didn’t really have a beat until I started writing for Maine Antique Digest, which I did for 17 years. I am really happy I have been able to pursue and learn so much about so many different topics.

Q: Speaking of your writing, can you take us through your process and how you go about finding these new topics?

JS: I’m constantly realizing there are article and book ideas all around me—stories. Everything I’ve ever written has been a story—even the auction reporting I did for M.A.D. So, anyway, you get the idea and you’re all excited, and hopefully you find an editor who is excited about it, too. But then the honeymoon is over, because now you have to do the work. Often it’s a slog. But it helps to break it down into small tasks. And then there’s publication. That’s hard, because then it’s a little island out there and you can’t get to it and fiddle with it anymore. Then people read it, and they always find strange things in it that you never expected. Then the process starts over again.

Q: Can you tell me more about your current project, The Missionary Factory?

JS: Well, I wanted to write about my own town, Andover, finally. So I started to look into it. Initially, I thought I would write about the history of printing there, because it is fascinating. But then I discovered that the printers themselves were dull. Luckily, what they printed was interesting. What they printed was often religious, which sounds dull, but when I got into the missionary stuff, I found a great cast of characters. The project does seem like a giant mountain I have to climb, and sometimes I wonder if I will ever get over the top, but every day I learn new and interesting things, so I am distracted from the immensity of it, and I’m just enjoying it. 

Q: You’ve found information here?

JS: Oh, constantly. Today I came across some lists of contributors to the missionary cause. They were listed town by town. So I could see exactly what specific people in Andover had donated, and it just made it so real. I am very interested in how the missions affected life at home in Andover. It’s a global story, because of the foreign missions’ locations, but it’s a very local story, too.

Q: How long have you been an Athenæum member? 

JS: I think my first visit was in 2008. I was working on a piece about the Walpole Society, a very private and exclusive club for men devoted to collecting American furniture and decorative arts. A couple of the members once lived on Beacon Hill, and when they died, their widows gave their papers and some runs of the club’s privately published journal to the Athenæum. So, I researched part of that here, and when it came out, the Walpoleans read it and actually liked it! Much to my surprise, they liked it so much they reprinted it in that privately published journal of theirs, which traditionally only has articles by their own members in it. So, I thought maybe I’ll write a bit more about them, and came back to do more of that research here. But when did we actually join the library? My husband and I were staying in a little shack on Cape Cod and it poured rain for days and we were just lying around reading and looking things up on the Internet. It was at some point during that week when we thought, Why don’t we join the Athenæum? It’s crazy just to be guests. I think we did it right from there in our sleeping bags. That may have been in the fall of 2013. 

Q: Do you write here as well, or just do research?

JS: I can’t write here. There are just too many distractions on the shelves. I don’t think I’ve ever written one word anywhere but my own study. 

Q: That’s interesting. It seems to me that many members have “their” place they routinely use when they visit, but it sounds like you drift, based on your needs.

JS: Yes, I come in with my little list of books, and I’m getting better at finding them myself rather than asking Jimmy or Arnold to find them for me. One time I was with the wonderful reference librarian, Elizabeth, in the drum, and I dropped a couple of them down into the open slot in the floor. They went down, down, down, several stories, and I was, like, Oh my God! But we managed to find them.

Q: You are not the first and you will not be the last! Don’t worry. Any final thoughts? 

JS: Elizabeth, Carolle, Mary—they’re all wonderful. And that’s, of course, part of the Athenæum’s great appeal. The staff—and the collection. So often I think that you’re not going to have what I’m looking for—it’s too old, too obscure—and then you have it, over and over again.


Susan Barba

June 2021

Interview by Carolle Morini

Susan Barba is the author of two poetry books: Fair Sun (2017) and geode (2020). Her first book was awarded the Anahid Literary Prize and the Minas & Kohar Tölölyan Prize, and geode was a finalist for the New England Book Awards. She has received fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo, and her poems have been translated into Armenian, German, and Romanian. She works as a senior editor for the New York Review of Books. Barba’s literary guide to American wildflowers will be published by Abrams Books in the fall of 2022. We conducted this interview over email.
Q: How have you been doing this past year?  Has your writing shifted with the shutdowns? 

SUSAN BARBA: It’s been a challenge of course, but I’ve found new paths, new ways of doing things. I usually write when I’m away from home, somewhere, anywhere alone. This past year, out of necessity I’ve learned how to write in the midst of—work, family, remote schooling. I would have thought it impossible in the past, and at first it seemed that way to me—but because there was no alternative, I either had to figure out how to write in the midst of it or I wasn’t going to write at all—it wasn’t a conscious decision, I just found a way. It’s been a revelation for me.

Q: Good for you (and for us) for finding a way to continue writing. Do you remember when you first learned about poetry? 

SB: Yes, it was with me from the beginning—my mother read nursery rhymes to me and my grandfather would recite Armenian poetry by heart. The lullabies that were sung to me, the psalms and hymns I heard and sung in church, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson: these were some of my earliest encounters with poetry.

Q: Poetry really was with you from the beginning—it is a part of you. What is it about poetry that draws you to the form? 

SB: The silences, the music, the aptness of metaphor, the compression and the expansion of language, the urgency of the occasion, all of which allow poetry to communicate the essential, that which ordinary language can’t communicate.

Q: I agree with your thoughts. I can imagine that being an editor, a poet, and a writer has many benefits and maybe some inherent difficulties. Would you like to speak about each? 

SB: Yes, all the reading—it’s a strain on the eyes! I just saw the eye doctor and had to get stronger prescription reading glasses because my eyesight is deteriorating. But in all seriousness, being an editor and reading for work does help my own writing because of the depth and breadth of the reading, the engagement with language that editing requires, the attention to what will make the writing the most efficacious and most memorable. I heard a wonderful reading by the Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, who is also an editor-poet, and who said, “I am so tired from all my work, I am like an athlete who is constantly working out: I am in tip-top shape from all this reading I do!” He referred to us poet-editors, as “Atlases who create.” A terrific image.

Q: Oh, that is a wonderful image! All your reading must be immensely fruitful. Keep the stronger reading glasses on order. What is the best and/or worse writing advice you received?

SB: It was probably one and the same—the professor who warned us creative writing kids in college that we should only set out to be poets if we truly could not imagine living otherwise. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant, and I thought of it as discouragement, but now I understand. It means that you will write if you have to, if that kind of excavation of the self and of sense is necessary to you, and if it is, then you should heed it and do what’s hard. 

Barba's Fair Sun from 2017

Barba’s Fair Sun from 2017.

Q: That truly does make sense—it is a fair warning and unveils the hard truth of the work one must do. Are there particular writers you admire or return to? 

SB: Yes, many poets and many prose writers too. I especially love essays by poets, artists, science writers. To name more than a few of those writers: Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Hannah Arendt, Osip Mandelstam, WH Auden, Eghishe Charents, Anna Akhmatova, George Oppen, Joseph Brodsky, Svetlana Boym, Natalia Ginzburg, Elizabeth Hardwick, Agnes Martin (her writings on art), Tove Jansson, Robin Wall-Kimmerer, Annie Dillard, Arthur Sze—I could go on and on! 

Q: What a fun list of writers and artists. Is there a line of poetry that you wish you wrote, or rather, repeats in your mind? 

SB: This past year whenever I’d go out walking, these lines by the mystic Julian of Norwich kept running in my head: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It’s a mantra whose repetition was healing for me, especially last spring, as I’m sure it has been for many since the fifteenth century when she wrote what was the first book (in English) by a female author.

Q: Those lines are fantastic and so relevant for any time, but especially for us this past year. I am sure Julian of Norwich had good reason to write them in the fifteenth century. Any particular journals or periodicals you enjoy reading—besides the New York Review of Books?

SB: Yes, the Review certainly! And also, The Paris ReviewThe Hudson ReviewRaritanLana Turner Journal, the New Yorker intermittently (I just can’t keep up with every issue), and Appalachia Journal.

Barba's geode from 2020.

Barba’s geode from 2020.

Q: The reading piles grow and grow—books, journals, online journals and articles…it never ends, for better or worse. What are you currently reading?  

SB: I just finished Anne Truitt’s Daybook, which is a journal of her life as an artist. It’s a brilliant book about making art and making a life concurrently.

Q: That sounds good to me. As we head into spring and then summer, do you have a summer reading list? 

SB: I have readings lists—lists for work and lists for pleasure. On the latter are The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste whom I just heard give a beautiful reading, David Copperfield (to read with my son), Inger Christensen’s essays in The Condition of Secrecy, the graphic novel This Woman’s Work by Julie Delporte, and In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova.

Q: What a great list! Mengiste’s book is on my list too, but now I have more to add. Any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?

SB: I’ve been compiling a literary guide to American wildflowers, which Leanne Shapton is illustrating and which will be published by Abrams Books in the fall of 2022. It’s been a great joy, learning about wildflowers and selecting texts about them that represent a long-held appreciation of these at-once threatened and resilient flowers and their representation in our culture. I’m also excited about a book I acquired for NYRB that will be out in the spring of 2022, Letters to Gwen John by the British painter Celia Paul (whose beautiful Self-Portrait we published last fall). 

Q: I look forward to the American wildflowers book and the Celia Paul book sounds wonderful. Self-Portrait is indeed a beautiful book! How did you learn about the Athenæum

SB: Through David Godine, a brilliant friend, bibliophile, and member of the Athenæum.

Q: Godine publishes great books. Any last thoughts? 

SB: Thank you Carolle, it’s been a pleasure! Long live the Athenæum.


Dr. Robert T. Osteen

May 2021

Interview by Carly Stevens

Dr. Robert T. Osteen wrote textbooks and academic articles during his career in surgical oncology. Since his retirement, he has shifted gears and published a collection of poems, Zero to Five Knots and a Book, and a history book, Festina Lente: Charting the Mediterranean 1814–1824. On an April afternoon, Dr. Osteen and I chatted on Zoom about his projects since retirement and his future research including his next book, tentatively titled Surgery Under Fire. Our conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Can you tell us about your academic background?

DR. ROBERT T. OSTEEN: I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth where I majored in philosophy, knowing that I was going to medical school. I went to medical school at Duke where I had two years as a surgical resident. Then, I was in the Air Force for two years during the Vietnam War doing research there. After that, I went to the then Peter Bent Brigham in Boston for completion of the residency training and also to do more of the research I had been doing while I was in the Air Force. I finished the residency at the Brigham where I joined the faculty and spent the rest of my career doing surgical oncology. As part of being an academic surgeon, you write a lot of books, papers, that kind of thing. When I retired, I didn’t need to do professional writing anymore and I was free to do whatever I wanted to do.

Q: What have you written since you retired? 

RTO: I collected antique maps for years. It’s too bright behind me, but I’m surrounded by antique maps. I also sail and as a sailor, I like to know where I am. It’s one of the requirements to avoid running into things. That combined with a book that came out by Dava Sobel about John Harrison’s invention of the chronometer inspired me to ask if people were interested in the invention of an accurate watch, maybe they would be interested in what you did with one once you had it. One of the first things that was done with it was to chart the Mediterranean by this naval officer,William Henry Smyth. This was something I knew virtually nothing about when I started. I had to learn all sorts of things along the way in order to write the book. It took several years to do it. 

The Athenæum played a significant role. It had some books that were useful for learning one of the techniques for measuring longitude that was developed about the same time as the chronometer. The technique used the angles between the moon and a fixed star. Two separate clocks, if you will. So, the tables for how to calculate longitude from those observations were made about the same time as the chronometer. I decided I needed to learn how to do that. Since no one had done it since 1850 or so, there were no contemporary works on how to measure longitude from the angle between the moon and a fixed star. But the Athenæum had a book that had been written in 1784 about how to do it, so I spent several months in the rare book room trying to understand the peculiar printing and the fairly complicated mathematics involved in doing this. The Athenæum was very helpful with this project. 

Q: And did you figure out how to do it? 

RTO: I’ve learned how to do it and it’s utterly worthless, but at least I could write about it from a position of understanding how difficult it is to do. 

Q: Can you talk about the book you’re working on right now?

RTO: I just finished a book about surgery in the Second World War. My father was an anesthesiologist who volunteered in November of 1942 and went overseas. While he was away he wrote about 300 letters home, which I used as a basis for exploring the surgical issues that they encountered, how they dealt with them, what was known at the time, what was not known, what was learned, and so on. 

Q: Can you talk about some of the struggles and some of the joys of writing such a personal story?

RTO: Let’s start with saying that most of my life I’ve written not only nonfiction but textbooks. They are a different entity in that you are not trying to tell a story. You are describing a set of facts and you are describing it to people who are pretty familiar with what they are looking for. In writing history like this, you are trying to tell a story. The problem is making it interesting. In the case of my father’s letters, there’s medical information that’s not familiar to everyone, so not using jargon and thinking deeply about how far into the weeds I need to go is important. There is also the issue of confusing family myths with what actually has happened. I do not want to embellish things unnecessarily or relay family myths that I can’t verify. The other part of it is I had to look at some relationships, for instance, what my mother’s role in all of this was and how she viewed it. None of this was something we ever talked about, but I had to do some introspection while being careful not to over interpret things or statements that were hard or impossible to verify or that were not adequately documented as speculation.

Q: What do you hope readers will take from this book?

RTO: There’s not been a lot written for the lay public about the surgical treatments and surgical issues of the Second World War. There are some that are well known, for instance, the problems with procuring blood. There was a Blue Ribbon Commission before the war started to decide how to treat patients who have a significant amount of blood loss. They concluded that plasma, that is blood free of red blood cells, is just as good as whole blood. That is absolutely wrong. 

This was also when they first started to question whether white soldiers could accept blood from Black donors. The Red Cross actually hemmed and hawed about whether they would even use Black donors at all. The first policy was to mark the units to indicate whether they had come from a white or Black donor. This was despite the fact that all of science said it did not matter. The only thing that matters is blood type. Skin color doesn’t make a bit of difference. As far as I can read from my father’s letters, it didn’t make any difference to him. Somebody who was bleeding to death needed blood from whatever sort of donor there was. I remember him talking about it and saying that this was utter foolishness, but it was prevalent at the time. I do believe that it was a debate that went on and on and actually hindered the war effort. 

Q: How has the pandemic affected your writing process or your research process? Has it helped or hindered it in any way? 

RTO: My opportunities for leaving the house were limited, so I put together a book of poetry. I’d written poems over several decades, and I had them on the computer. I put them together and published them in lieu of getting out and doing any of the footwork that I needed to do for the next project I’m working on. It was a wonderful opportunity to edit and reread a bunch of stuff written over the years. That was great fun.

Then, I started a new project which is to look at King Philip’s War in Southeastern Massachusetts. We have a summer house down in South Dartmouth, and there are loads of King Philip’s War sites around there. I’m trying to put together a collage of snapshots that would allow people to come up with a picture of what life was like and what the country looked like at the time. I need to be out and able to travel around and talk to people to do that, so I spent the pandemic just reading books and taking notes. I have a stack of index cards over there, which is the start, at least. Getting the data together for this project probably takes a couple of years. 

Q: You write textbooks, poems, and history. How does your writing process differ for each one?

RTO: The textbooks are a little easier for me because I’ve done more of that. It’s just a matter of knowing everything there is to know about the subject. It usually amounts to several hundred references. Once you have got it in order as to what you want to say, which is very straightforward, there’s a formula that essentially every textbook uses and you just plug it in. 

For the two histories that I’ve finished, I’ve done a similar sort of thing and I just take notes. I read, I try to learn as much as I can about it, and I take notes on index cards in the oldest fashion way you can possibly do it because I couldn’t figure out a way to do it on the computer that was either time saving or useful. I just end up with a stack of several hundred index cards that I then put in order according to roughly where I think chapters are going to be, take each one of those and sort them out by paragraph, and then try to get something on paper. 

Regardless of what I’m doing, whether it’s poetry, a textbook, or history, just getting something on paper is the first maneuver, without worrying about sentence structure or much of anything else. Then, I rearrange it in the order that I wanted and, as I said, textbooks tend to be pretty formal, whereas the order of how you do history is much more important and also not as prescribed. Chronologically turns out to be the easiest way to do it. I’ve fought that at times, but usually given up and just ended up with chronological order. Once it’s on paper, you start reorganizing things and then there are multiple efforts at editing. 

One of the things I learned early on about textbooks is that it’s really hard to write a sentence that means exactly what you want it to mean. Writing something really clearly and easy to understand is hard, and so I would write something I thought was pretty close to finished, put it away for a week, come back and read it again, and think ‘God, that’s not what I meant. It could mean several things. That’s not how I want it.’ With non-fiction, textbook kind of writing, it’s really key to get the sentence to mean exactly what you want. The additional problem is to make clear when you’re filling in something that you can’t document, or when you are making an assumption, because you don’t have a letter or a fact somewhere that you can use to document it.  

Q: What are you reading right now?

RTO: I’m reading almost exclusively stuff on King Philip’s War. One of the last lighter books I read was Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, which is this story written by Bill Buford, editor at the New Yorker, who decided he wanted to learn how to be a French chef. He got a part time internship at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. where this innovative chef has a salad he made to look like a flower pot. Apparently the hardest thing about the salad was the creation of the dirt. That was the source of the name, and then he goes off to Lyon to learn the origins of French cooking. It’s a wonderful story and very well written.

If you’re interested in getting a copy of Dr. Osteen’s books, please contact him at Robert_Osteen@dfci.harvard.edu.


Maisie Houghton

March 2021

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

On a chilly day in January, I joined Maisie Houghton over Zoom for a warm and illuminating conversation about her book Pitch Uncertain, finding one’s voice in writing, and life in quarantine. A graduate of Radcliffe College, Houghton published her memoir in 2011 and currently has begun working on poetry, with several poems published in a variety of journals. Because of her fond memories of visiting the Athenæum as a child, Houghton renewed her membership when she moved back to Boston with her husband, served on the Board of Trustees, and has since become a trustee emerita.

Please tell us a little about Pitch Uncertain.

MAISIE HOUGHTON: People say to me, “Oh, I read your autobiography!” Which is so silly. It’s not an autobiography. It’s the story of growing up. Fifteen years out of my early life and my childhood, growing up in Cambridge right after World War Two had ended. There’s a chapter where I describe meeting and marrying my husband fresh out of Radcliffe—you know, I swore I’d never be a June bride, and there I was married—and that’s where the story ends. It’s always fascinating to me to think that’s 15 years—yes that’s a chunk of time, but it’s not amazingly long. But when you think of a child growing from age five to age 20, that is a big span of growing up and learning and discovering the world around you.

Q: How did you go about writing this story about your own life?

MH: I told this story because I had been working on another book, a biography of the American actress Ruth Draper who was the premier monologist on the American stage; she had great success and she was knighted in England. I knew Draper when she was in her early 70s and I was about ten or 12, as we went to the same summer community on an island in Maine. Much, much later in life I became fascinated with her and wanted to write a biography of her—and I did. Start to finish. Had an agent, showed it to publishers. Of course, no one wanted to publish it. They said, “You’re unknown, she’s unknown.” Which I disagreed with, because people in the theater world highly respect Ruth Draper. But one editor did say to me, “What does interest me in the manuscript is the story of Maine and your sisters and you, three little girls growing up together in the summers in Maine, and that’s where we meet Ruth Draper. You should write something about that—but of course you probably don’t want to do that because you’re so set on this biography of Ruth Draper.”

So I came home, and I was irritated, and I thought, “Damn it, I’m going to just write this story.” I had been taking a memoir class in New York City, which was built for people over 50 who don’t consider themselves writers. Which was me, really. And so I wrote! I put together some sketches, and then I began to piece them together as [the teacher] said, “Put them together like pieces of a fan.” The book isn’t, “I was born and then I went to kindergarten and then first grade,” I don’t do it that way. It’s just what stood out to me, 50 years later, about my childhood.

This took a long time to find the right publisher. Everybody said “You should just self-publish it,” but I was determined not to do that. Then I met Jock Herron, who has this esteemed and wonderful small publishing firm in Cambridge called TidePool Press. I love the name, which they said is because, “you never know what comes up in the wash.” They’re interested in doing, what is the word, “small”—not War and Peace length books—but also and particularly about people’s lives. I met Jock because my son was a friend of his. He said, “My mother has this manuscript,” and Jock tells the story that his heart sank because he thought everybody has a story but not everybody has a book. Thankfully for me, he did publish it, and now it’s been ten years that it’s been out. Everybody can remember different parts of their childhood—and even though mine was extremely sheltered and certainly white privileged, it would seem to exclude whole other stories of lives—I think anyone can identify with stories and anxieties, the learning experiences of growing up.

Q: What are you going to write next? Do you have any upcoming projects?

MH: The book came out, and everybody said, “Well, now what are you going to write?” And I thought, well, now I’m going to do the Great American Novel. And…that’s too much, too hard, I decided.

So, I had a friend who was taking a poetry class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and she showed me some of her poems. I liked the idea that I could write in—as Robert Frost said, “Free verse is playing tennis with the net down.” And so I began! I joined the group in Cambridge. A group leader encouraged the class to send in poems and said it’s important that you show your work, that you send it for publication, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t care about that, I’ve published a book, I’m just doing this for myself.” But some poems were submitted, and they began to be published. It’s not that I sit down everyday and work on poems, it’s much more of when the mood hits me. My poems are really just about my life and circumstances, and not even really so much lockdown poems. It’s more about family life. And now in the pandemic, my husband and I live in an apartment in Boston, and it’s a very quiet life. Totally different. We moved back here about ten years ago. For me, growing up in the 40s and 50s in Cambridge was a very different experience than Boston. Boston was not the lively, vibrant city that it is now. It was much more the last, sad gasp of the WASP and the literary WASP community. And my parents hadn’t grown up here, they were all from New York, and we never—I think we came to the dentist in Boston and that was about it. Now it’s been fun to discover a much livelier Boston.

Q: Speaking of the pandemic—what have you found inspirational in this time? Have you written more? What have you been spending your time doing?

MH: When the lockdown in Boston first began, the New York Times to which I subscribe said, “Everybody must write in how you’re spending your time, and what’s changed in your life.” There was one little letter that I cut out, because I like to make collage and I was making a pandemic collage, and it said in tiny print, “My wife and I are in our 80s, and we never go out anyway, so not much has changed.” That’s kind of the way my life is. But I’m extremely spoiled in that I have two kids, and my son lives in Beacon Hill, he and his wife and his daughters. So that gives me much more of a feeling of not being cut off from regular life.

Q: How else are you occupying your time in quarantine?

MH: The thing is I’m a tremendous reader. And you know it’s wonderful to have lots of time to read. When the pandemic started, I read the third or the fourth volume of the Hilary Mantel series. And now I’m also in a reading group, and the sort of subgroup of the reading group, we just have started, we’re attempting Joyce’s Ulysses. We have a very gifted teacher who is a scholar of Joyce. In addition to the published version, he has recommended the annotated Ulysses, which was done by a very brilliant professor many years ago at Williams, and so I have the two books side by side when I’m reading so that I can look up.

Q: Speaking of books, how did you discover the Athenæum? And what do you enjoy about it? 

MH: Though I said earlier we never went to Boston, we did go to the Athenæum. My mother was a friend of Walter Muir Whitehill. The Athenæum was always very welcoming, it seemed to me, to children. In the summer, because we would have these long summer vacations, we would be in Maine, and we were given summer reading lists from our school. These wonderful packages would arrive from the Athenæum, I can still see them wrapped up in brown paper.

When I moved back here to be near our son and his band of young daughters, I was getting settled and I thought, what will I do this afternoon? And I realized I could walk up to the Athenæum because I live in Back Bay, and it’s a lovely walk up the hill. And so I became a member.

Then I was on the board for a brief time. As interesting as that was, I realized I am not really suited to board life. So I am not on the board any longer, but I’ve always had a strong interest in the Athenæum, and your new director is someone my husband and I met through Harvard connections. We were very happy to hear that she had been chosen as the new director. Obviously the Athenæum is such a beautiful building and it has wonderful collections of books, but I know they’re looking to get away from the old-guard Boston.

The Athenæum is my lending library. There are many, many outlets for scholars here. It’s a great resource for the general reading public. I used to take my grandchildren to the reading on Saturday mornings.

Right now, they’re doing a children’s story time on Facebook Live. 

MH: Yes, they realize how important it is for kids. I remember there was a small branch of the Cambridge Public Library quite near where I lived. And the fun of being able to walk by one’s self, have your own library card, it was always a big part of my reading life.

Q: What books were you reading as a child? 

MH: Well, certainly, Little Women. My oldest sister and I were utterly fascinated by that. It was a great treat, we would be driven to Concord to visit the actual house. It meant a great deal. And, of course, which character do you model yourself on or do you most identify with? One of the characters is named Amy, and now in reading biographies of Louisa May Alcott, I realized that she changed her mother’s maiden name. In actual life, Mrs. Alcott was from the May family, and that “Amy” was changing that name slightly.

There were a lot of family stories too, you know. There was a series about a family called the Moffats, and there was another wonderful series about the Melendy family, “The Four Story Mistake.” And I was reading, you know, as an adult, children’s literature and how often—in fact, practically always—that the parents are absent, maybe one parent or sometimes both—preferably both—are dead, and they’re raised by some great uncle. There was an English series about theater called “Theater Shoes” or “Ballet Shoes” about a family of English children, brought up by a great uncle, but they had a devoted governess. And then there was E. Nesbitt, who had another family with either two children or four children, but it always seemed to be a prerequisite that the parents were nonexistent, or they’d gone on a long trek.

Q: Let’s go back to your book, because I was struck by how it’s such a personal story. Was it challenging to write? 

MH: When the book was part of TidePool and either just published or about to be published, Jock Herron said, “It’s a book about your parents.” I was taken aback by that because I thought that it was me, me, me, I, I, I. Then I realized he was right. When the book was published, both my parents were dead. And so unconsciously, I was able to publish it. Because, as my older sister said to me when I was telling her this story, and I asked, “Do you think our parents would be upset by this book?”, she said, “Are you kidding? They’d be horrified.” They were of that very discreet, private generation. But I’m very frank about the fact that it wasn’t a happy marriage but they stuck together.

But as far as writing the book, I mean I don’t really talk about my sisters much, it’s much more me. And then the experience with Ruth Draper. I think there was only one family that I changed the name of, just to very thinly disguise. But it’s my world. The people that appear in the story, mostly my family relations, were all dead by the time the book came out, so that did make it much easier. I have two sisters, one sadly died, but my oldest sister said right from the start, “I see things differently, but I support you,” and she was extremely helpful in lending family photographs and correcting technical mistakes. She never said, “You can’t tell this story.”

That’s such good support. And that was a really cool part of the book too, the pictures from throughout your childhood. 

MH: I never thought about having pictures because I didn’t even know the book would ever see the light of day. But when it was picked up by TidePool, Jock had a very sympathetic and able colleague who helped put together the actual presentation of the book and she asked right away, did I have any photographs? Fortunately, I come from a family that took lots of the box brownie type photographs. So there were pages she could sift through, and my sister lent me at least five or six photograph albums. Then Ingrid Mach went through them all. It was interesting because she chose with an eye to the story—not like, this is a nice picture of Uncle Edwin, or this shows my mother looking pretty or something. It was much more to identify parts of, or to relate parts of, the story.

It brings to mind what you said earlier about it being a very relatable story. That’s certainly what I felt in reading it, and the fact that the pictures are just of everyday life fits that.

MH: Right, right. That was Ingrid, the credit goes to her.

Q: One final question, because we like to ask about education too: do you have any favorite takeaways or favorite lessons from those classes you mentioned earlier?

MH: Before I started thinking about writing a biography of Ruth Draper, my husband was in a terrible automobile accident. It was never a question of life and death, but it was a long recovery. He spent a lot of time in hospitals for special surgery and lots of rehab. Anyway, that was a chunk of our lives, and when he began to be fine and go back to work, I suddenly thought, “I don’t want to go back to the life that I had before, this is a clean slate now.” And then I found out about this class at the West Side Y, which was in my neighborhood in New York. The teacher was very adept. She would give the assignment: write about a radio you remember from your childhood, or write about whether your family had a car…you know, specific things—and that would prompt all these memories that began to flood out of me! The first assignment was to write about a car that had associations with your childhood, and I wrote, “my father was the car.” And now that line is in the memoir today. That class was a wonderful bedrock. The teacher was very gifted and she gave us all—certainly gave me—confidence, by saying,  “Yes, you can write.” And she didn’t say, “This is how you do it,” she respected each person’s voice.


Dr. Winston Langley

February 2021

Interview by Hannah Weisman

On the morning of the inauguration, as the country buzzed with anxiety and excitement, I had the privilege of spending a calm and contemplative hour with Dr. Winston Langley, a scholar of human rights and international organization, as well as a Trustee of the Boston Athenæum.

Dr. Langley is professor emeritus of political science and international relations at University of Massachusetts Boston and senior fellow at the McCormack Graduate School for Policy and Global Studies. We spent our time together discussing his work as an author and editor. Our conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What is your academic background?

DR. WINSTON LANGLEY: I was born in the Caribbean and so I began with British tutelage in the Anglican schools there, as well as Cambridge, England. But all of my degrees were completed in the United States. I came here for the last years of my undergraduate degree in biology, thinking I was going to medical school. But I had been exposed to German language and history, so I went to graduate school and pursued a master’s degree in diplomatic history. Then I went into international relations. And then later on when I was teaching, I picked up a law degree.

Q: What is your favorite thing about the Athenæum?

WL: I’d say three or four things, actually. The name itself suggests something—it’s not just a library in the general sense. It speaks to something deeper. I think human beings, like non-human nature, hold within them great wisdom—wisdom that becomes evident through meditation and interaction with others. And I think that’s a sense in which I see the Athenæum as symbolically important. Its architecture is also part of that symbolism. I like how it provides for meditative inquiry. I like the possibility of fellowship there. I like its respect for the past which brought it into being. I know many parts of it have been shifted and shared with other institutions. That a group of private persons came together and recognized this importance is something which I enjoy, as well.

Q: What are the primary topics and themes you address in your writing and editing?

WL: Intellectually and otherwise, I am committed to the idea of human species identity. Some of the specific areas to which I direct my attention are: human rights; models of world order—we live, for example, in what I would call the Westphalian model, based in the nation-state system, but there are others and I try to make inquiry about them; I’m interested in international political economy; and international organization.

There’s one other, but it falls into the human rights agenda. I happen to like poetry. One of the persons on whom I reflect is the National Poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam. I have a book on him and have been moving deeper and deeper into his thinking. I think of him as the greatest human rights poet of the twentieth century. He never finished high school, but beyond doubt he was a genius. There are some wonderful translations and they’re very accessible.

Q: You have published books as both author and editor. What are the unique challenges and benefits of working as an editor and how does that process differ from being an author?

WL: In a sense an author, of course, is responsible for the conception, development, the processes of work, its conclusion, the responsibility to see that what’s being said is defensible—factually and otherwise, that others can rely on it for purposes of use, that it hopefully compensates the reader for the time used to consume it, and that it serves a purpose for the larger society.

I think one who seeks to edit a work that comes from others would seek to establish whether some of those features are present in the work of the contributors. It’s not always easy to determine that and it creates a problem in many ways because people have different values and those must be dealt with.

There is also the notion of dealing with multiple purposes. There’s an edited work that was just published by a colleague and me. He is from Turkey. He brings a body of experiences to the work that would be missing for myself. I [co-edited] a book on women’s rights in the United States and part of the purpose of that work was to link developments in the US to the broader human rights movement in the world. And my co-editor was Vivian Fox. The dialogue between us was quite enriching and found its way into the book. If I had gone about it by myself, quite a bit would have been missing. Her skill was in history, I’m more of an international relations person and the legal background helped. So, all of those features are part of a broad contribution that a single author may not be able to make.

Q: You touched on it a little bit, but are there specific benefits to working with collaborators. And are there specific challenges or drawbacks to having a collaborator over working independently?

WL: Yes. The drawbacks can be rather difficult. Sometimes a co-editor or co-author comes with a certain world outlook that she or he seeks to maintain despite what might be the emerging evidence. That creates problems. But they can be overcome by deep dialogue which can elicit mutual trust. Works have to be put in context. That takes quite a bit of meditation itself. So, the dialogue allows for that. I earlier mentioned the work on the book on human rights in Turkey. In this case the colleague is not just from Turkey, but is from a minority in Turkey, the Kurds, and he had a particular point of view. We had no problems because we have broad agreement on the normative structure that was being used to measure human rights compliance. We also had a series of court decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, so we had authors of decisions outside of ourselves with which to deal and to measure ourselves.

Q: You mentioned in the acknowledgments for While America Sleeps that some research had been done at the Athenæum. What kind of materials did you consult, or was it a matter of meditating in the space, as you mentioned before?

WL: At the Athenæum, the area that I used were the newspapers. I was seeking to update myself on reactions from different areas of the world to [Greta Thunberg]. Some of that was found in the Athenæum. I’ve yet to delve into some areas of the deep archives, but I’m moving in that direction.

Q: Since publishing While America Sleeps, have you seen evidence of the United States making any gains in the areas you cite in the book as problems?

WL: No. And I’ll say why. No, the first area, for example, deals with disarmament. Matters became worse under the outgoing president, Trump. The second area deals with international political economy and none of the changes that would be helpful to the US has come into being. The third focus is on ways in which race became the basis of identity in our country, in part to prevent the coming into being of social class, and some of the likely consequences that result from that historical cleavage. It has been made worse in many senses. The fourth deals with popular culture and education. As to the intellectual and moral development of individuals, certainly nothing has been done. The fifth is the environment. There seems to be some promise that the incoming administration may do some things. We’ll see. The sixth deals with world power and the seventh focuses on collective security. And nothing has been done, in either of these areas, to improve matters for the US or the world. Hopefully [the book will be] republished in February with the title While the US Sleeps, largely to correct some embarrassing spelling and other non-factual errors.

Q: Do you think the proposed solutions are still feasible?

WL: Yes. I’ll take, as an example, the environment. It is insufficient to address the global environment without seeking to elicit the collective response of the world. Secondly, the difficulty is a long term one. Because we are so far advanced in the destruction of the environment, any slip up in the efforts to correct the problem is only going to aggravate it. A massive curricular reordering in which non-human nature is seen differently by the public [is necessary], anything less is going to be damaging.

Nature is our first university, it is that which instructs us in every area. It is also our primary library, our Athenæum. It is our first hospital. It is our first wheat basket. If nature were suggested in this way, we’d see how indispensable it is to everything we do and the seriousness with which we ought to [treat it]. And that all living beings are communicating with us, as we are with them, in ways and languages that we don’t immediately know.

Q: Do you have any forthcoming projects that you can tell us about?

WL: I just finished a manuscript on The War Between the US and China. It may not be seen as hopeful, but it’s a rebuttable of Professor Graham Allison’s work, Destined for War. I’m suggesting that it’s not inevitable and that the reasons for his predictions of this suggested war are miscast. And there’s a [project] on moral courage that I’m working on with Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poetry in mind. He has a play entitled Truthfulness, on which I’m basing this work.


Jane G. Austin

January 2021

By Carly Stevens

Was the author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice a member of the Boston Athenæum? Unfortunately, no—although we would have welcomed her happily into our plush red chairs. Austen, an English novelist, and Austin, an American novelist, are two very different women. Jane Austen, with an E, is widely remembered, whereas Jane Austin, with an I, is known by few. Here we share some information on the life and career of Jane G. Austin, with an I.

Jane G. Austin was a prolific nineteenth-century author. Over the course of her life Austin published 23 novels and numerous short stories. Austin, a Boston Athenæum member, was well known in New England’s literary community. She was described as sociable and generous, often opening her home to gatherings and giving advice to novice writers. She forged friendships with other prominent authors, such as Louisa May Alcott, Julia Ward Howe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Jane Goodwin took the Austin name when she married her husband, Henry Austin, in 1850. Nothing is written on Austin’s thoughts about the striking similarities between her name and Jane Austen’s, but one can imagine it must have been rather annoying. The inclusion of her maiden initial in her publications shows an attempt to distinguish herself. 

Mary Jane Goodwin was born to Isaac Goodwin and Elizabeth Hammatt on February 25, 1831, in Worcester, Massachusetts. The themes present in Austin’s writing came from her entire family’s interest in writing, genealogy, and history. Her brother, Hon. John A. Goodwin, authored The Pilgrim Republic. Her father, Issac Goodwin, was a well known lawyer, dedicated genealogist, and antiquarian. Her mother, Elizabeth Hammatt Goodwin, was a poet and song-writer. Unfortunately, Mr. Goodwin died when Austin was only two years old. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Goodwin moved the family to Boston and sent Austin to private schools to receive an education. From a young age, Austin was a dedicated and meticulous student. She showed an interest in history and writing. When Austin was a child, she was enraptured by stories of her ancestors told to her by her mother. Her long career began in her teenage years. Short stories started as a hobby for Austin, but eventually she began publishing her stories in magazines under pen names. Austin put her career on hold at the age of 17 when she married Henry Austin and raised her three children, Rose Standish Austin, Le Baron Loring Austin, and Lilian Ivers De Silva. 

After a 13-year hiatus, Austin began writing and publishing again. Her serialized novels and short stories appeared in magazines such as Harper’s MonthlyThe Atlantic, and Putnam’s MagazineCipher was first published in Galaxy and was met with glowing reviews. It’s rumored Austin’s dear friend, Louisa May Alcott, collaborated with her on this novel. Later publications of Cipher are dedicated to “My Dear L,” which is believed to be Alcott. Austin’s works have repeating themes stemming from her family’s history and her personal life. They revolve around New England history and often featured her ancestors. Austin’s mother first told her of Dr. Francis LeBaron, who eventually became the focus of one of her best known novels, Dr. Le Baron and His Daughters. Austin’s deep connections to New England were rooted in Boston and Plymouth. Austin lived most of her life in Boston in Beacon Hill, but spent time in Concord after she first married, where her friendship with Alcott began. Austin’s reputation solidified with historical romances based on her relatives in the Plymouth Colony. Austin also dabbled in novels for children including her first published novel, Fairy Dreams; or, Wanderings in Elf-Land. She published other historical novels, but she found her greatest success in the stories she wrote about pilgrims. Betty Alden, the First Born Daughter of the Pilgrims had a large sale and Austin’s obituary in The New York Times notes, “[Betty Alden’s] first edition sold before it was off the press.” 

Historic shot of the second floor.

A historic shot of the second floor, where Austin once worked.

Austin wrote with great dedication. Her routine was strict. Constantly enriching her knowledge, she woke up early and devoted her mornings to writing or studying pilgrim history. A member and later a proprietor, Austin was a fixture at the Boston Athenæum. She even had a desk set aside for her in the building. Her regular spot in the Athenæum is noted in a 1902 article by the Sunday Herald. She spent her time on the second floor at the far end of the Long Room by a window. The window has since been replaced with a door to the drum and the space she once occupied is marked by a statue of Nathaniel Bowditch. Her time working was spent meticulously researching her family’s genealogy and adding to the notes left behind by her father. In the little time she was not writing, Austin spent her time with her family and friends. She spent her summers in Plymouth and returned to Boston in the winter. Austin’s social life was full. She and her husband often entertained writers at their home in Boston. 

Austin is remembered as “instinctively gracious, ” and a “woman of great tact.” In her final years, Austin continued researching and writing with the same veracity as always. A biography published the year before she died reads, “those who know her give her a warm place in their affections. Her home is with a married daughter in Roxbury, although she passes a part of the Winter in Boston, and every summer she finds herself ready to return to Plymouth, where she constantly studies not only written records, but crumbling gravestones and oral traditions.” Austin died on March 30, 1894 at the age of 63.

Selected Works:

Betty Alden
Dr. Le Baron and His Daughters
Nameless Nobleman
The Shadow of Moloch Mountain
Standish of Standish


“Jane G. Austin” Current Literature: A Magazine of Record and Review. vol I, (July–December 1888)”
Jane Goodwin Austin.” Dictionary of American Biography. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936.
“Jane G. Austin” The New York Times, March 31, 1894.
“Jane G. Austin” A Woman of the Century. Buffalo, New York: Moulton. 1893.
National Cyclopædia of American Biography., s.v. “Jane Goodwin Austin.” New York: James T. White & Company. 1896.
 Willard, Francis E., and Mary A. Livermore. American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies, revised edition, s.v. “Jane G. Austin.”  New York, Chicago, Springfield, Ohio: Mast, Crowell, & Kirkpatrick, 1897.