11.23.2020

Jessica Kent

December 2020

By Carly Stevens

Are you looking for everything there is to know about the literary community in Boston? Then the Boston Book Book blog is the site for you. Jessica Kent started the Boston Book Blog in 2012 and has been managing the site ever since. In addition, Kent works as a scribe at Harvard Business School, enjoys creative writing, and runs her own book club. Kent’s work as a writer, website manager, and literary enthusiast is a reflection of what she loves: writing, history, and Boston.

Kent was born in Albany, New York, and her love for reading and fascination with all things Boston and history started young. “When you’re in Albany,” Jessica says, “you’re either the New York City people or the Boston people. We were always the Boston [and] Cape Cod people.” She continues, “I grew up as a reader, but didn’t really notice I was a reader. I grew up watching my dad sit in his lounge chair every evening after dinner and read.” Kent dabbled in fiction and knew in high school she wanted to be a writer. After graduating high school, she moved to Boston for the first time when she started college. She graduated from Emerson College with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing with a concentration in Creative Writing and worked as a bookseller for about ten years. However, her desire to be a writer always remained. Not fully satisfied with the literary community in Albany, she moved back to Boston in 2012.

That same year, she started the Boston Book Blog. “When I got out here I had an apartment in Somerville. My window overlooked the city in the distance. I remember sitting down and saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to find out everything that is going on in the local literary community.’” After searching the internet she came up empty. Kent was shocked to find that a city like Boston with a blossoming literary community did not have a single place to go to become immersed in all things literary. There were bits and pieces of information about local events, but no single place someone could go to view everything. So, she started it—the Boston Book Blog was born. “I collect all the local literary events into one master calendar. I have over 100 websites that I check.” In the early days the blog ebbed and flowed, but continuous support from the community encouraged her to keep at it. She’s focused on making connections and building rapport. The pandemic caused Kent to shift the focus of the website to conducting more author interviews, promoting local authors, and just trying to get the word out. During the COVID-19 shutdown in Boston, “it was depressing that first month, because there was nothing to post.” After a while, “it was really cool to see the local community starting to figure out virtual events.” For Kent, “it’s neat to see so many more people being able to log into virtual events than could fit into a bookstore.” The Boston Book Blog “is still a one woman operation, though I’ve fooled many people. It’s cool because I know a lot of people and a lot of people know me, but it’s tough because if I don’t do it then it doesn’t get done.” If you’re interested in keeping in touch with the Boston Book Blog, you can sign up for their newsletter here.

Along with the blog, Kent runs a book club affectionately called the Brew Pub Book Club. “It actually started as a Moby Dick book club when I was doing my Master’s, and I said to all my friends, ‘Guys, I gotta go through this for the next year, if you wanna read it, now is the time to do it.’” The initial thought was to read Moby Dick over the course of a summer, while Kent was working on her ALM in English from Harvard University, but that plan fell through rather quickly. At their first meeting, nobody read the assigned pages. “We ended up taking nine months to go through it,” Kent says. “We met every two or three weeks at a bar in Harvard Square. There were three others and I bought them little gifts at the end.” After finishing Moby Dick, the group continued to meet and decided it should be a “real” book club that read more than just Moby Dick. The club mostly reads fiction, although they don’t shy from non-fiction. Kent is serious about reading and makes sure the participants are, too.  “A lot of folks that I mention it to are like ‘oh yeah I’m in a book club, we drink wine, we don’t really read the book.’” For Kent’s club, “this is English class over dinner.” In her experience, “the folks I’ve had in my book club really like that. They really like digging in and pulling it apart.” The Brew Pub Book Club has moved to Zoom, which Kent welcomes. She enjoys opening up the opportunity to friends who don’t live locally. Kent notes the club is a bit “all over the place” with their book selections. Here is a sampling of just some of the titles they’ve read: Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere,  Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Madeline Miller’s Circe, and The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey. At the time of our conversation, the club was reading Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World. “He’s a local author I’ve heard great things about.” If you’re interested in starting a book club, I recommend Kent’s article, “How to Startand Sustaina Successful Book Club.

Kent is currently querying a novel called Reconstructing Lasky. For this novel Kent drew on inspirations from her trips to Cape Cod during her childhood. “We used to vacation on the Cape and there was this old World War II Liberty ship that they dragged to Cape Cod Bay and left for target practice back in the fifties and sixties and then just left it to rot.” On her family’s trips to Orleans in the eighties and nineties they would go to a beach on the bay side where you could view the ship in all its glory. “It became a piece of local legend and local folklore.” The premise for the book came to Kent while she imagined the people who might have served on the ship. The novel takes place around Josh, a Freedom Trail player, a Revolutionary War reenactor, and the grandson of one of the men who served on the ship. At the start of the novel, Josh’s grandfather passes away and Josh goes to the Cape to begin going through his grandfather’s possessions. He eventually discovers a narrative his grandfather left him about his time in World War II. The novel grapples with nostalgia, history, and how the past influences and shapes the present, themes that are apparent in Kent’s writing. Aside from locale there are certain themes Kent returns to. “I love history, nostalgia and how history impacts us.” Josh, the character in her novel, has a moment where he walks along the Freedom Trail and remarks on how the past and present continue on in parallel. “I feel that way about Boston. It’s probably why I love it. You can stand on a street corner and be like ‘who stood here?’ Our past affects our future and we are all kind of living the past and the present in parallel.”

Kent, an Athenæum member since 2017, “wants to give a special shout out to the New England Seminar Book Club,” one of the BA’s many discussion groups. “That has been my main plug into the Athenæum.” Kent wanted to get involved with the discussion groups and her interest in Boston literary history drew her to the New England Seminar. “The leader, her name is Peg, just welcomed me in. I had read the book and there are a lot of passionate people who are very vocal in that group whom I absolutely love. I remember at one point during the group Peg sensed I wanted to say something and she kind of put her hand up to the other people to give me space to contribute. I’ve gone pretty much every month since then.” Kent enjoys stopping by the Athenæum and seeing her peers from the group. If you’re interested in joining the New England Seminar or any one of our other discussion groups you can visit this link for more information.

You can find the Boston Book Blog at www.bostonbookblog.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @bostonbookblog. Her personal website is www.jessicaakent.com if you’re interested in reading some of her short stories and other freelance work. If you are in the Athenæum, you might find her on the ffth floor, first alcove to your right, surrounded by old Puritan books and a wonderful view of Park Street and the Granary Burial Ground.

11.09.2020

Allison K. Lange, PhD

November 2020

By Hannah Weisman

On the day Allison Lange and I spoke on the phone, she was working on a lecture about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president in the United States, as part of a series of lectures on 12 important women in American history for The Great Courses. She said, “It feels incredibly fitting to think about a past presidential race while we’re thinking about our current one. She’s fascinating! So radical early on in her life…She was also a spiritualist and the first woman to edit her own weekly newspaper. She did so many cool things!” 

And just as it felt fitting to Lange to be focused on Woodhull in this election season, so too did it feel fitting to me to be talking with Lange, who is a leading expert on the history of the women’s suffrage movement (and also does “so many cool things!”).

Like so many others, Lange had heard of the BA, but needed a little extra push to come through the door. That necessary push was a fellowship from the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium in 2012 to conduct research for her doctoral work at Brandeis University. She arrived at 10½ Beacon Street having previously earned her MA from Brandeis and her BA from the University of Georgia, both in history. 

Lange dove headlong into the Athenæum’s collections, examining a wide range of visual materials such as prints, photographs, and illustrated advertising cards to understand the images of gender that people were encountering on a regular basis. Over the course of her research, she studied a published account of Susan B. Anthony’s trial for voting, which became one of her favorite items in the collection. “The BA’s copy is…signed by Susan B. Anthony. It shows how proud of it she was—she wasn’t ashamed. She was proud of her arrest for voting and happy to share it with her friends and activists.”  

In 2017, Lange returned to the Athenæum as a Mudge Teacher Fellow to develop a bibliography of the BA’s collections related to women’s suffrage (and the case against it). Her bibliography has informed the subsequent work of BA fellows, interns, and staff.

But lest you think Lange is the BA’s in-house historian (we could dream!), she has extensive accomplishments beyond the walls of the Vershbow Special Collections Reading Room. She served as historian for the United States Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, helping to shape the national conversation about the centennial into a broad discussion on voting rights and making historical research accessible to general audiences. Locally, she curated exhibitions related to the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment at the Massachusetts Historical Society and Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, and has lectured at multiple venues, including at the Boston Athenæum. She teaches history at Wentworth Institute of Technology, helping her students understand how the past influences current events. 

Lange’s research at the Athenæum and work promoting and teaching women’s history, specifically the history of the women’s suffrage movement, has enabled multiple organizations to create exciting projects, including the BA’s 2020 Primary Sources in the Classroom workshop for educators and (Anti)SUFFRAGE exhibition. Lange embodies the legacy of the suffragists she studies, laying groundwork for others to succeed.

09.29.2020

Danielle Donovan

October 2020

Interview by Daniel Berk

Each year, the Boston Athenaeum sponsors a Massachusetts History Day prize for an exceptional use of primary sources in their research or project. This year’s winner is Danielle Donovan, a student at Mansfield High School. The theme of this year’s Massachusetts History Day contest was: “Breaking Barriers in History.” Danielle’s exhibition, titled “Revolution by Murder: The Shot that Shocked the World,” focused on the assassination of President William McKinley and how it broke the barrier that the Gilded Age imposed on the working class. Her impressive presentation included a ticket to the Pan-American Exhibition of 1901 as well as a postcard from 1906 which featured President Theodore Roosevelt. Her full exhibition is linked here.

This interview was conducted by email

Q: What was your inspiration for researching the assassination of William McKinley, one of the lesser-known presidential assassinations?

A: With the theme “Breaking Barriers”, it was initially difficult to find a topic. I always try to look for a topic that is not well-known so that my project can teach viewers something that they otherwise wouldn’t have known. I had initially chosen the Boston Police Strike of 1919 as my topic, but in researching that, I found that so much traced its origins back to the McKinley assassination. Looking more into the assassination, I found it much more compelling than the Boston Police Strike. Aside from the assassination, the era of 1890-1910 parallels today so much that it’s almost uncanny. When we think of the Gilded Age, we think of children working 12 hours a day in factories and rich men in mansions and we think that is far in the past and that we’re much better off now. That’s not true: the rich are richer today than they were during the Gilded Age, and the wealth inequality gap is even larger.

Q: What’s a fun tidbit you could tell me about President McKinley?

A: Actually, the focus of my project was less on McKinley and more on his assassin, Leon Czolgosz, the inspiration for the assassin, Emma Goldman, and his successor, Teddy Roosevelt. McKinley himself was more of a symbol and a means to an end, it didn’t really matter who he was. The most important thing to know about McKinley is that he was a typically Gilded Age president who was beholden to the rich and had no regard for regular working-class people. Regular people didn’t care about his childhood or his stance on bimetallism or his involvement in the Spanish-American War, he was just another rich guy who only cared about his own wealth and power. The real “tidbits” I have are about Leon Czolgosz, the assassin. It’s important to note that he was just a regular guy. He had worked at a steel factory outside Cleveland but was fired after a mass strike. His favorite book was “Looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy. He spent most days in his bedroom drinking milk and reading newspapers. He had never been to Russia or even New York. He grew up poor, the son of Polish immigrants. He and his nine siblings had worked in the factories since they were children. He left school at age 10 but was bright, curious, and loved to read. There was nothing insane or innately violent about Leon Czolgosz, he could have been anyone. He just wanted more democracy and equality for the working class. (I’m not supporting or agreeing with Leon’s actions, it’s just that I think history has unfairly demonized him and his intentions)

Q: How did you find such impressive primary sources?

A: I started off using secondary sources, most notably “Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America” by Eric Rauchway. From there, I tracked down the sources from the bibliography in libraries and online. My most interesting sources, however, I discovered at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. Specifically, the research of psychologist Walter Channing into the mental status of Leon Czolgosz, and a pamphlet published by the New York Anarchist Society about their views on the assassination. These were both primary sources that provided me with way more insight into the circumstances of the assassination than any secondary source or modern historian could have.

Q: What did your presentation entail?

A: My presentation was a six-foot tall, three-foot wide museum-type exhibit.

Q: What is the one book that you think young historians should read?

A: I can’t recommend just one book, but I think every young historian should try to read at least one non-fiction book on a topic they are interested in but don’t know a lot about.

Q: What is important about studying history? Why should young people do it?

A: History is important because it is intertwined in everything, in all the other academic subjects and in every sphere of life. It is especially important for young people because it helps them to understand the context of the world around them: how it came to be and why it is the way it is. When you’re young, you just accept the world the way that it is, but by studying history you learn that you can make an impact on the world and that things can and will change. This is especially important in such a politically charged time and during this historic Coronavirus pandemic.

Q: What appeals to you about the Athenaeum?

A: The Athenaeum seems like a great place to find primary sources for my next project, if I had known about it sooner, I would have taken advantage of its resources a long time ago.

Q: Are you considering history as a career path? Has winning this award spurred you on to pursue history further?

A: Yes, I am considering history as a career path. I am entering my senior year of high school and am applying to colleges as a history major, though I’m not sure what type of job that will lead me to. I was already intending to pursue history, but winning this award had definitely reinforced that because it’s always nice to be recognized for my hard work.

Q: What is your favorite history class you’ve taken at school?

A:My favorite history class would probably have to be Russian History. I liked it because Russia is typically not an area of focus in traditional European and American history classes, yet there’s so much to learn about.

08.13.2020

Alondra Bobadilla

September 2020

Interview by Daniel Berk

Alondra Bobadilla is Boston’s first ever Youth Poet Laureate. The selection process was a joint effort between the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, the current Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola, and the Boston Public Library, among other institutions. After holding preliminary applications in October 2019, Bobadilla was selected from a pool of ten semifinalists for her two-year term as Youth Poet Laureate. Bobadilla will work alongside Olayiwola in order to promote poetry and arts in Boston, particularly by connecting young people to each other through poetry. Hailing from Hyde Park, Bobadilla is currently a high school student and proud new member of the Boston Athenæum [And we are proud to have her on board! —ed.]. We are sure to hear much more from this talented poet in the future.

Q: How did you discover your passion for poetry?

ALONDRA BOBADILLA: I have always had a knack and an interest in writing, but I sort of “discovered” poetry randomly. I used to write a lot of songs and short stories, but I was looking for a style of writing I felt better suited me. I had that with music but I wanted to branch out. I believe I read a poem online somewhere and that’s how my interest came about, but I can’t quite point to a particular moment in time. I just know I was 12. From then on, I wrote poetry all the time. I didn’t write in particular styles, it was all free verse (before I knew what free verse really meant). 

Q: What appeals to you about poetry?

AB: How similar it is to music. I was always interested in writing, but poetry flowed in a way prose did not. I could rhyme and put the words together like a song but without a melody, which was usually where I got stumped with song writing—pairing the words with a melody or a melody with the words. The rhythm was up to me. There were no rules. If I wanted to change it I could. This was completely open range and I loved that liberty to express what I pleased as I pleased to do so. I saw it at first as lyrics without music.

Q: What does your writing process look like?

AB: This question is always a funny one to me. I have no process! Prior to the outbreak, I got inspiration at random. I was always writing and my mind was consistently producing ideas. Even if I didn’t immediately write something down, I’d practice remembering to get back to it later. Whatever motivated me to write a poem, I simply went with that impulse. If I had to leave class to write, I would before I would forget (I took many “bathroom” trips) and I would stand or sit somewhere and let God guide the words. I have no idea how I never missed train stops or tripped or anything because when the words are flowing, I need to stay glued to the screen or paper or else I’ll lose it! I can only retain the words for a certain amount of time unfortunately since there is always something new pushing at whatever is currently at the forefront of my thoughts. Now, my “process” so to speak is a little more organized since I am not out as often. I take more inspiration from reading the plenty of books I have been sent since the beginning of the outbreak and I use them as tools to develop inspiration. I can write just as easily in noise as in silence. I don’t need to be comfortable. I don’t usually experience writer’s block. 

Q: As a high school student yourself, how do you feel about the way poetry is being taught at the middle school and high school levels?

AB:  I like how my school incorporated poetry as a method for projects. They didn’t necessarily teach us how to write styles of poetry, or the history, but they allowed that freedom of creativity, which was nice. But I wish that we had lessons on contemporary as well as historical poets and poetry styles. In middle school we had a lesson on poetry and prose but it was about Shakespeare and it felt so outdated and the students felt so disconnected from his work. Learning about these famous poets is important by all means but we need to tie the past to the present and show the students the evolution of poetry throughout time. What was once maybe an exclusive male-dominated art form is now accessible to wider varieties of individuals and poetry is widely returning to a more spoken platform, which really changes the way broader audiences respond to the style. Schools need to make poetry as accessible as the streets and other institutions do. We spend most of our time in school, at the very least resources to these programs can and should be provided. No excuses. 

Q: What do you feel are some of your responsibilities as Boston Youth Poet Laureate?

AB: This question is intriguing. I have highlighted responsibilities (per the job role) but because I am the first, I am creating my own shoes instead of filling someone else’s. I feel a sense of responsibility on a personal level since before this position (and now more than ever while in the position) to make poetry accessible to everybody, but especially young people. I want them to find a safe space in poetry, and if not as an outlet, as a relatable space in which to listen if they don’t want to write themselves. I want this to become an art form that is embraced by the youth in Boston like they have embraced music. Poetry and music are relatives in my eyes and I want the youth to see that and have an appreciation for poetry in that manner. I want to cultivate opportunities and spaces to practice the art form and develop skills. And most of all I want my voice to be a mouthpiece for other people’s narratives that are largely ignored in civic conversations. Art has a place at the table and I want to encourage other artists to use their voices to engage civically and politically as well as to encourage and sustain the community through their creativity. Art is for the artist but also for the audience—and a variety of audiences at that. 

Q: Do you feel that people’s perception of you changed after you were named the Poet Laureate?

AB: Yes, in a way. And no in other ways. People seeing me differently is inevitable. I believe strongly that through our actions we can influence the lens through which others see us. At school, I was known as “the poet” before I was ever the Youth Poet Laureate. The way my peers saw me never changed. They congratulated me yes, but I never changed my attitude. I remained the girl who walked the halls at odd hours, sat on the staircases, laughed too loudly and gave good advice. I was still just Alondra and I worked hard to stress that to those around me to avoid them seeing me any other way than who I was. People have tried, but I always redirected the conversation. After my time as the Youth Poet Laureate, I am still Alondra. Whatever your role, the work you did while under that name has nothing to do with the name itself but with the person who holds it. I am not a title. So I live my life in a way that is of course mindful of my position but even more mindful of myself. The Youth Poet Laureate is not an alter ego. Sometimes people have a tendency to make an identity out of a title. If I don’t do that, people most likely won’t treat me any differently. The way you show up is important. You can’t completely control how others respond to you, but by your choices you can succeed in influencing the responses.

Q: As you know, the BA is Boston’s oldest private library. What role, if any, have libraries played in your life as a student of literature?

AB: Libraries were my favorite places to be. Especially in elementary school. I loved just passing my hands over the bindings and reading all the titles, authors, and backgrounds. I remember I would ask my librarians all the questions in the world. A library was a place made for reading so I would take full advantage of that as a kid. I’d sit in a corner and let the time pass as I read and read and read. My librarians loved me so much that I could take more than two books at a time. So getting this membership at the BA was a blessing. I have not had that sort of luxury access to a library ever before and to have that now? It feels so special. The BA truly is such a special place.

Q: What is your favorite poem you’ve written?

AB: I have a lot of favorites! My spotlight poems usually change with the seasons I’m in. But as of now one of my favorites is a poem I wrote while on a mini vacation to Plymouth Beach. I was sitting on the sand as I wrote this, looking out at the ocean.

7/26/2020 10:11 a.m.

the mouth of your plyth

ocean draws back sand
appearing to be the veins of the sea
tracks like seal slither 
leading back to earth’s greatest wonder
and slickest deception
domestic surface becomes roaring waves in one blink
an explosion of water atom to water atom
iridescent blues to green to clear in cupped hands
the sun kissed ocean becomes the enemy
swallowing you whole with no trace of you left
but clothing articles
and jewelry passed from generations
that one day a blessed swimmer will come to find in the treasure burrows of the floor

rocks leading to waters edge
are everywhere 
like warning signs
or maybe monuments of the ages
homes to creatures only known to sand depths 

its so inviting 
where sky blue meets it’s mirror image
but just a step in and icy cold crawls up your legs to your spine to the the edge of your neck 
paralyzing beauty

this is not Boca Chica
this is not palm tree coco delights
or tropic drizzle
and dry heat

this is 
the mouth of Americas plight
pilgrims refuge
and natives doom
this costal graveyard 
decorated by cloud
still God blessed
for sun rises upon these waters
and it rose upon every evil and every love held on this land

creation still loves us enough to rise on God’s command. 

ocean draws back sand
the veins of the sea

the arteries that pump back life into us
caresses these tired eyes with a breeze.

07.30.2020

Christopher Bing

August 2020

By Samantha Gill

Considering himself a “political illustrator,” Christopher Bing’s career spans four picture books and countless political cartoons and illustrations showcased in such publications as The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Bing’s first published picture book, Ernest L. Thayer’s Casey At the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888,  earned him the coveted Caldecott Honor in 2001. Imbued in his illustrations of every one of his four picture books is a staggering amount of research—research often done at the Boston Athenæum. Even the casual reader will notice how this research translates into rich, intentional detail that deepens the reading experience. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Bing about his life and art. 

Born in New Mexico, Bing spent his childhood as a “corporate brat,” moving from New Mexico to Florida to Alabama following his parents’ job opportunities. He finally landed in Lexington, Massachusetts, where he graduated high school. Of his regional association and upbringing, Bing remarks, “I have definitely been, yes, a child of America as opposed to of the South or of the North. Lived in Alabama, really lived in the middle of nowhere. And on a river. And basically grew up at that point, you know, had the life of Huck Finn…we were one of the last houses down a mile long dirt road, which was off another dirt road which connected up to a highway that was only a two lane highway, which then led into town, which was another ten miles out. As soon as I got off the school bus, I’d be running towards the Tennessee River and all my clothes off and jumping in and really having the life of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in the woods. It was great.”

Bing’s career as a political and picture book illustrator might have been predicted by his early interests. “I cannot remember a time I haven’t drawn or been drawing. Aside from reading, I really enjoyed drawing.” He remembers the works that sparked his imagination including classics like Twenty Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and comics like Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. These passions were supported by his parents, who’re “both academics and my father was the head of the math department at Newton South. My mother was a social studies teacher at Brookline High. They were both very much into books and academics.” 

After graduating high school, Bing took time to focus on what his future might hold. “I had a year off and then went to the Rhode Island School of Design. I didn’t actually intend to apply in my year off! I guess the best way of putting it is that I’m a very high-functioning Asperger and classrooms just were not structured for me and I’m definitely on the visual end of the spectrum more than the calculating or mathematical end. One day this application came in the mail. I don’t know where it came from. And it was, ‘do a set of drawings’ and I did…so OK. Here’s a challenge. We sat down and did it, and that was in the fall. Then in the springtime my mother called up crying, ‘When did you apply to RISD?’ And I said that I didn’t know I had applied! ‘Well, we got your acceptance.’ Wow. Wonderful. OK. Because I’d never gone down to do an interview. I’d never filled out forms. And I know that my parents didn’t apply for me. So there’s this wonderful individual out there somewhere who actually did all of the applications and everything. I feel kind of bad because there was a fifty dollar application fee. Very generous person. But it wasn’t my parents. And nobody ever came forward.”

This anonymous, benevolent act set Bing on the path to his distinguished career as an illustrator. After a brief attempt to join the Marines to fly planes, specifically a Harrier Jet, Bing built a career of drawing cartoons and other images for numerous publications. He also concentrated on nurturing his growing family of three children, two daughters and a son.

A devoted father, Bing loved reading to his children as often as possible, especially a family favorite, the Harry Potter series. While reading the books to his kids, Bing took particular joy in bringing the characters to life through distinct voices. After seeing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with his eldest two children, they exclaimed how the screen’s Hagrid was not up to Bing’s rendition of the character. “I couldn’t believe that my voice had had that much of an impact. I mean, I’m a visualist, so to me, it’s visuals that really make the marking. Just a great moment for me.”

Bing brings his visualist lens to his picture book illustrations infusing each image with a depth of meaning and detail that comes from dedicated research. This research brought him to the Boston Athenæum, where various resources helped bring realism and nuance to his second published book, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “Doing the research for The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, I was looking at very old books and seeing how they were designed, how they were laid out. And there is a difference. I get so focused on designing the book that actually having a historic reference for them…I love sinking into research. When I contract out a book it’s for a year. The work itself really doesn’t take that long. The work is really about five to six months of just sitting down and taking the photo reference, canceling out everything, thinking through everything, and then making sure the design and the color are placed properly.”

As Bing discovers new information, he weaves important historical context into his art. “When I did the research for The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, there was a freed slave who fought the Battle of Lexington named Prince Estabrook. There is a daytime image in my book, which is a key battle scene. On the left hand side of the page, you’ll see Prince Estabrook, a Black Minuteman, fighting back. It’s those details. The funny thing is, the vast majority of people will skim over it. They won’t see it. There were stories I read to my kids over and over again because they would say that I’m onto something. And I always wanted my books to be so entertaining that a kid could glom onto it. 

Bing’s imagination and love of research work together beautifully to help produce layered, meaningful images that compliment and deepen the words on the page. Bing subscribes to the theory of another beloved illustrator. “I definitely live by Maurice Sendak’s philosophy of doing picture books. He says the text tells one story, the pictures should tell another. There should be things in the pictures that are not in the text and things in the text that are not in the pictures. And when you put those two together, you have a complete third.”

Attention to historical accuracy translates into subtle creative details. “When you’re looking at Casey at the Bat, it looks like a scrapbook, 1888, all the memorabilia.” The realism of these illustrations have led to some amusing confusion. In his first published work, Ernest L. Thayer’s Casey At the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888, an ersatz library card included in each copy prompted “a couple of calls from librarians laughing, saying that ‘when we opened up the book, we were trying to pull the line because we thought it’d actually gotten stuck in there.’ And I was like, yes, I did my job.” 

Furthermore, Bing’s research helps him add positive representations of marginalized communities. “With Casey at the Bat, I found out that 1888 was the last year that Black baseball players were allowed to play with white ballplayers. Because in 1889, what we would consider the professional baseball leagues stopped signing up Black ballplayers and wouldn’t renew their contracts. In 1888, there was what is called a pitcher/catcher battery. This team pitcher and catcher were Black and they were really amazing. So, my pitcher and catcher in Casey at the Bat are both Black.”

Bing’s commitment to inclusion extends to the projects he hopes to publish in the future. One such idea is a visual and allegorical representation of the Bill of Rights featuring figures drawn from real-life dancers of varying backgrounds. The goal of this project is to present this founding document “in such a way that it would make it accessible to everybody.” This is just one of many projects Bing hopes to take on in the future. Other ideas include a meticulously researched imagining of Charles Dickens’s beloved novella, A Christmas Carol, as well as breathing new life into the folklore of Darby O’Gill, and secular illustrations for the beloved poem “The Night Before Christmas.”

Christopher Bing aims to layer his illustrations so that readers discover something new each time the book is read. Every reading will uncover a different dimension and deepen your understanding of the images, text, and overall story. Next time you open up a picture book consider how the illustrator conveys meaning. Bing spends the time and thought to “put several layers into it so that it’s not just a picture book. I’ve always wanted depth in my books that would have people coming back, and back, and back. I want my books to come off the shelves.”

05.12.2020

Danna Lorch

June 2020

Interview by Arnold Serapilio

Danna Lorch was immersed in a literary world from an early age. When she was nine, her father and mother Jim and Randy Weiss started a storytelling company that created and sold audio cassettes of classical literature and Greek mythology in northern California’s Bay Area where Lorch grew up. Many of her earliest childhood memories involved following her father to his storytelling performances or visiting bookstores and libraries.

As a teenager, Lorch’s parents enrolled her in the University of Virginia’s Young Writers’ Workshop, a summer program she attended during her high school summers. “For the first time I was around other kids like myself who thought it was a great idea to sit around quoting Sylvia Plath and other angsty things.”

Lorch has a master in peace studies from the University of Notre Dame, Massachusetts and a master in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard. A prolific interviewer and writer, she has chronicled arts and culture for over a decade, first in Jordan and Dubai (more on that below), and more recently here in Boston, where she currently is a freelance writer focusing mainly on New England art, design and architecture in addition to Middle Eastern art.

Anyone looking to connect with Lorch to ask questions, write together, or commission potential stories, can do so through her website, or on Instagram, @dannawrites. 

Q: How did you find the BA?

DANNA LORCH: I was looking for interesting things to write about in Boston when I moved here. I connected with Maria and began to hear about the Hayden albums, then wrote that story for Smithsonian about the acquisition of the Hayden albums. Whenever I visited the Athenæum I found it to be charming and magical but also really grounding. That so many people who’ve done incredible things have walked through those doors and had great thoughts inside. And just being among so many older books and publications is really exciting for a writer! Especially after having been in the Middle East. There aren’t many older institutions in Dubai, the excitement of Dubai is that everything is new and developing.

To be in a historic part of Boston, in a historic library, with collections dating back hundreds of years is really very thrilling. I feel like I know everyone there, even though I’ve never spoken to them, do you know what I mean? I appreciate the industriousness with which people are dedicating themselves to their research or their writing here, and it propels me not to waste my time. I arrive and see that everyone is so focused and it forces me to be focused and take risks and be daring and go places I’ve previously been perhaps too fearful to go creatively.

Not to mention how much the Athenæum has come to mean to me in such short time. I also want to give a shout out to the librarians! One of the reasons I joined was because of the research opportunities. I find it tremendously helpful to be able to book an appointment with a librarian and have someone help you with your research tasks and offer ideas. As a writer, I can’t even say how much time that saves, how reassuring it is to know there is someone who can help you find obscure texts or resources.

Q: Everyone’s writing process is different. What does yours look like?

DL: It’s changed since I became a parent. Parenthood has forced me to be a lot less precious with my words. I have these boundaries of time and I can’t cross them: I can’t be late to the preschool pick-up, and once I get home I’m usually exhausted and can’t necessarily think very creatively at night. It’s changed the way I structure my time.

I try to have one to two major deadlines a week and then set aside one afternoon (this is pre-pandemic) to go to the Athenæum and write something I’m working on for myself. I’m really protective of that time.

In general, most of my work involves interviews. I write a lot for arts publications, so most of my work involves either going to see a space, or going to see an exhibition, or visiting an artist’s studio. I get a lot of energy and structure from that. I like to record an interview, transcribe it, and write immediately after the interview. I find that if I wait any amount of time, I lose the energy of that connection and then have to retrace that feeling. And, so much of writing is also what’s not said, so if you visit an artist’s studio, it is about looking, seeing what she has on her desk, or how her books are arranged, or listening to the music she’s been playing while she works on her most recent series, or noticing that there’s silence.

Post pandemic—whatever that means—is going to be really different, because so much of my writing comes from visiting other people and spaces [laughs].

Q: What are the great struggles of your writing projects? The great joys?

DL: The biggest struggle is always hitting “send” and submitting something to an editor. I almost always have this horrible feeling of loss. Second to that is this feeling that I’ve missed something, that the piece isn’t done.

Some of the best moments come with really great editors. There’s so much to be said for editors who ask insightful questions. I really appreciate editors who edit. Editing is a craft. The author’s job is to write the piece they’re commissioned to write—not to question it or to look back at it and think it’s not ready. That’s the editor’s job.

One lovely thing about being a writer who covers visual arts is the marriage of visuals with your text. When we’re children we get to read picture books that have these beautiful images. Then, as we become adults, somehow our books aren’t supposed to have visuals, like it demeans them or makes them seem less intellectual or academic. I feel privileged to get to write in response to and in dialogue with powerful visuals so often.

Q: How did you wind up living in the Middle East?

DL: It was the post-9/11 Bush era. The CIA was recruiting and wanted people from our class who spoke Arabic to just go and sit in State Department offices and dictate how the Middle East should be run. I considered diplomacy, but I didn’t think I should do that unless I actually spent some time in the Middle East, really seeing how people lived, listening to people and learning from their stories.

Q: Your instinct to want to live the experience before passing judgment on it—did it seem like you were alone in this approach?

DL: So many of the people I graduated with went straight into counter-terrorism having never once set foot in a mosque. They would go to these very elite language immersion programs during the summers and would socialize with a very distinct class of individuals in those countries, but maybe would miss the feeling of walking down the street and talking to the average person and really listening and learning.

While at Harvard I spent a lot of time doing research in mosques. Right out of grad school I got a job as a nonprofit manager in Amman, Jordan with the Canadian outfit Right to Play. My job was, basically, to help several thousand Palestinian refugee children play [laughs]. I hired a local staff and worked with UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) and spent a crazy year and a half working in refugee camps trying to get this program off the ground.

During that time I met a friend who edited the magazine Viva. When I wasn’t in a refugee camp she would send me for these crazy spa appointments where I would have to review the spa facilities at, say, the Four Seasons Amman, or whatever. The cognitive dissonance between being in a refugee camp where people sometimes couldn’t even afford shoes, to going to the Four Seasons and having a gratis $300 seaweed wrap was really confusing.

That seems like a very jarring head space to constantly occupy. Being yanked between two extremes like that.

DL: It was jarring. It was exhausting. And it was confusing! There were many powerful lessons about that time. One of the most powerful was, I lived by myself and many of my colleagues were refugees themselves and lived in what we here would consider very impoverished circumstances. And yet, they felt like I was the impoverished one because I was alone, I was without my family, I was not married—

Different priorities.

DL: Totally different priorities—that was another thing that was quite jarring and fascinating about that time. I journaled a lot about this era, and I always thought I would write something larger about it.

When that ended, I worked for Operation Smile, another nonprofit and they sent me to Cape Town. I eventually got really burned out. Seeing that amount of suffering and poverty gets to you. I wrote full time for three months and started to get published. Then I fell in love with the man who’s now my husband. He was in Dubai so I moved there, thinking I’d get another nonprofit job, but none were very transparent. Plus most of the work involved heavy duty fundraising and development, which I had done previously, but it wasn’t what drew me to the nonprofit world. I loved sitting on a floor of a refugee camp listening to women tell their stories, helping to make those women feel heard. The idea of raising money in a non transparent way was depressing.

One day I was in an industrial area of Dubai called Al Quoz, where the art galleries are. I was at this compound called Alserkal Avenue, which now is really well-known, but at the time was still developing. It was a former marble factory that a generous patron of the arts had given over to creatives and gallerists at subsidized rental rates so they could have a community.

So I was there and had booked an interview with Syrian artist Tammam Azzam for my Jordanian friend’s magazine Family Flavours. Just before we did the interview, one of his photographs, “Freedom Graffiti,” went viral—it was all over CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times. He had superimposed Klimt’s The Kiss on a bombed out wall in Damascus which was where he was from. It had caught on as this message of hope and beauty during a really bleak time in the Syrian conflict. And I had the first interview with him since we’d already set up this time to speak! We were sitting in this little alley on this little bench and he’s chain smoking his cigarettes and the Ayyam Gallery phone inside is ringing off the hook. I realized then that this was the same thing I had done at the nonprofits: listening to people’s stories and bringing them to a wider audience.

The art scene happened to be rising in Dubai when I was there, and I became one of the first English writers to cover the art scene there and the Middle East at large. I started with blogging, then started writing for local publications, then regional publications and the newspaper, and then eventually international arts publications over the seven years I was there.

Q: I imagine living through all of this must change your worldview. Do you feel your brain is more wrinkled these days?

DL [laughs]:Right now, to me, the world actually feels larger than it has felt in a long time because borders have been clamped down due to the pandemic.

Previously though, I felt like the world was a village. Living in Dubai especially, where it’s so international and so cosmopolitan, and wherever you go you see people from so many different cultures all working together, in peace—that really is happening there. It just changed the way my brain works. But while it’s strange to now be in a place that isn’t terribly diverse, it’s also beautiful to come back to your own culture after being away for so long.

Now that I’m back here, so many times I mention having lived in the Middle East for many years, and the first thing people ask is, “Weren’t you scared?” I’m trying to get brave enough to write something about that, because I actually felt safer there than I do here, in many ways. The amount of welcome and graciousness that people gave me, as a foreign guest, was so overwhelming. The number of times people invited me into their homes, whether that was a grand home or a simple home. Also, in Dubai, we did not need to lock our doors at night. You would walk at night by yourself. If you left something at a restaurant it would not disappear.

Right now I am working on something about being a religious minority in a Muslim majority country. That’s what I’ve been doing on the fifth floor when I get brave enough to write.

Q: You’ve mentioned or alluded to creative bravery a few times. What does that mean to you specifically? Is it about forcing yourself to think really deeply about certain ideas and get lost in them? Is it simply the act of sharing your work with other people?

DL: I think there are two kinds of bravery. The first is commercial bravery. If you earn a living based off your writing you have to have so much courage to pitch things, and you have to be best friends with rejection. You can’t be too precious about sending your ideas out into the world and seeing someone ignore them or twist them or reject them. Knowing that may happen most of the time, the time your idea is accepted is exhilarating.

There’s also courage required to face down the blank page. Just the act of sitting down and forcing out that first draft is really the hardest part. When I start something I generally expect the first draft will be truly dreadful. Once I have something, even if it doesn’t feel right, I can start over, but that initial push is really frightening.

Q: Were there any particular rejections that were more formative or edifying?

DL: I don’t have a formal art history background; I do have a Middle Eastern studies background, though. When I first started writing, I didn’t really know how to approach arts publications and I didn’t really feel qualified, and I would get ghosted. So I started a blog. It was the days of the blog and I amassed quite a social media following. People were obsessed with social media in the Gulf. I don’t know if this is still the case, but while I was there the largest stats in the world for social media engagement came from the Gulf.

I think the way I initially got around rejection was by just publishing my own thoughts. I was really lucky that the gallerists and artists in the region took my work seriously and gave me space to interview really inspiring artists and creatives.

Q: Is it fair to say your experiences have made you more optimistic?

DL: I think so. Especially when I lived in Jordan, one of my projects was in Zarqa, where Zarqawi was from. I have really vivid memories of doing a teacher training with my staff and some really passionate UNRWA educators. Several of the women were fully covered, just their eyes showing. The men were mostly in traditional Islamic dress. I played children’s games with them—we were trying to figure out how we would teach their elementary school students some physical education concepts for the first time—and we laughed so hard trying to pretend to be little cars turning on our signals in a traffic jam. And how to help them, through play, learn about peace and human rights. I realized that everyone is the same, you know? I interacted quite a lot with members of various royal families in the Middle East and I don’t really see any difference in the way that people behave, or the way that people are, fundamentally. Everyone is the same.

04.16.2020

Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg

May 2020

Interview by Carolle Morini

The author Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg was born in 1965 in Philadelphia, PA, raised until high school in Westchester County, NY and then in Newport Beach, California. After graduating from Newport Harbor High School, she came back east to Smith College where she graduated in 1987 before working in finance for many years. Her first novel, Eden, came out in 2017 and her second novel, The Nine, was published in 2019.

Q: How are you doing during this quarantine?

JEANNE MCWILLIAMS BLASBERG: I am one of the lucky ones for sure. Even so, the need to quarantine hit me with shock, then frustration and anger, then sadness and now finally acceptance (as well as a good portion of worry). My family is making donations to those most in need through the Boston Resiliency Fund and I am trying to see the positive every day, making the most of the time and the fact that I am able to be home with my loved ones.

Q: What is your writing process? Are you finding it has changed now? If so, how are you adjusting?

JMB: I am a morning writer and the crazy thing is the quarantine allows, schedule-wise, for an ideal writing life. The worry and preoccupation with the future do not help with the writing life. To combat those distractions, I am grateful for a well-established meditation and journaling practice. I use both these tools for clearing my mind before sitting down to work on my fiction. Having no appointments outside the home means I can sit at my desk for long stretches. I have decided my work-in-progress must incorporate the present moment, so every day of the pandemic and the emotions that go along with it are being channelled into two of my characters’ development.

Q: What are you reading right now? Do you find your reading list or tastes have changed, being inside longer?

JMB: My reading over the past month has included: Devotion by Dani Shapiro, Fairyland by Alysia Abbott, Writers & Lovers by Lily King, and Severance by Ling Ma…I love memoir and contemporary fiction—and no, my taste hasn’t changed. I do have a couple of non fiction books about the brain and the body I am dipping in and out of, but basically I am using this time to tackle a very high TBR pile.

Q: What is your work experience?

JMB: After graduating from Smith College, I embarked on a career in finance, working as an investment banking analyst at The First Boston Corporation. While I worked primarily with numbers, I always had an interest in writing. After a stint on Wall Street, in the treasury and strategic planning departments at Federated Department Stores (later Macy’s), I wrote case studies at Harvard Business School before turning seriously to fiction. I’ve kept a journal throughout my life and was inspired by a pervasive theme in those journals around what it means to be a daughter and a mother as I wrote my first novel, Eden. I am a founder of the Westerly Memoir Project, which offers classes in memoir and community readings in Westerly, Rhode Island. I am also a board member of the Boston Book Festival. I am a student and board member of GrubStreet, one of the country’s preeminent creative writing centers, where I wrote and revised The Nine and am currently developing my next novel.

Q: Can you elaborate on the importance of being part of a writing group?

JMB: I have been fortunate to find a community of writers at GrubStreet as well as a writing group. Writing is a solitary pursuit, so having peers to offer feedback makes the work more efficient. I have found that accepting and using feedback is also a very important skill to cultivate.

The Nine by Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg, image courtesy of https://jeanneblasberg.com/

The Nine, She Writes Press, 2019, from website.

Q: What were the great struggles of working on Eden? The great joys?

JMB: Being my first novel, the great joys of Eden were that I would write and write with abandon and get lost in the characters and scenery. I loved the writing life and the important themes I was able to express in my fiction. The great struggle came when I first showed the behemoth of a manuscript to an editor and realized it would need to be rewritten—several times! You can say I learned the craft of novel writing on the job. I started taking classes at GrubStreet and went through multiple revisions. Eden took me ten years to complete. In the midst, I was even so discouraged that I started writing another book. That would later become The Nine, my second novel, which came out last August.

Q: Would you like to add anything about The Nine and the writing of it?

JMB: Whereas Eden is a multi-generational family saga, The Nine is a contemporary literary thriller with three main characters set over a period of five years. It is a suspenseful book with a scandal on a New England boarding school campus keeping the reader turning the pages, but the core theme is, again, about motherhood. Instead of mother and daughter, The Nine focuses on the mother/son relationship.

Q: How did you find the Athenæum?

JMB: I have lived on Beacon Hill for 25 years with my husband who has lived on the hill most of his life. We raised our three children on Hancock Street and then Chestnut Street. I first discovered the Athenæum through the children’s story time and children’s library. It was a weekly treat for all of us. The librarians even assisted my children with research papers over the years! When I stopped working outside the home, I used the Athenæum as a refuge—a place to sit and write as well as to borrow many books. I am an avid reader and I absolutely love the collection.

Q: What appeals to you about the Athenæum?

JMB: The environment is like no other. There is a sense of history and tradition and something about the seriousness of study, reading, and research that is contagious.

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

JMB: Besides keeping up my blog, and writing book reviews, I am happily working on my third novel, which is set in contemporary New York City. Like my first two novels rich with biblical metaphor, this will be a modern retelling of the David and Bathsheba story. I had intended for this timeless story to be set against a #metoo backdrop and now, of course, it is set in the midst of a pandemic as well.

03.26.2020

Scramtown

April 2020

By Arnold Serapilio

Act I Scene 1

The stage is divided 50/50 into two sets: stage left is a condensed approximation of the fifth floor. We see study alcoves, windows, and bookshelves. Stage right is a condensed approximation of the Trustees’ Room. We see the oblong table with chairs around it, a notepad and pen sitting on the table in front of one of the chairs, the hutch that houses Washington’s private library, and paintings on the wall surrounding the table. One painting in particular stands out; an oversize rendition of a fluffy cat, perhaps a Maine Coon, wearing a suit, wisps of smoke from the lit cigarette that protrudes from the cigarette holder in the cat’s paws.

Lights up on stage left. DETECTIVE SCRAMTOWN, standing mostly in shadows, nibbles at a peanut and butter and jelly sandwich.

SCRAMTOWN (chewing): Peanut butter and jelly. Why do I eat peanut butter and jelly? I don’t like peanut butter and jelly, never have. I do like whiskey, see, what private dick doesn’t? Whiskey and shadows are what I like, not this goopy childish nonsense. For Pete’s sake, this jelly doesn’t even have any seeds in it! Imagine that! And I call myself hard boiled? I’m about as hard boiled as an egg. No, this will not do. I like my jelly like I like my underbellies…seedy.

Enter BAXTER stage left. He walks over to Scramtown and slaps the sandwich out of his hand.

BAXTER: You can’t eat that in here, this is a library!

SCRAMTOWN: Baxter, you twit! Confound it, man.

As Baxter exits stage left Scramtown lights a cigarette, takes a healthy drag.

SCRAMTOWN: Yes, this is better anyway. Now where were we. The name’s Detective Scramtown, private eye. Folks call me when things get hairy and they just can’t cope with the po-lice. I have seen some strange things in my day boy, let me tell you. But this one here, this one takes the cake. It all started when I got a visit from my close personal friend Baxter, see. He’s the number two down at the Boston Athenæum. Comes down to my office, tells me he’s got a case for me and that I’m not going to believe it. ‘Try me,’ I tells him. I tells him, ‘You don’t know the things I’ve seen.’ So he sits down and as he’s fumbling with the back of the chair I can tell he’s shaken—something’s got him spooked. He looks haunted. I pour him some scotch and the bugger’s downed it all before I’ve even finished handing it to him. Tells me the library’s beloved cat has gone missing. I say, ‘What do you mean cat, isn’t a library supposed to be all about books?’ because I’m sharp see, and naturally suspicious besides. So Baxter goes on to tell me that this cat—Madame Squeakerton they call her—she just up and disappears one day. One minute she’s there and then the next minute…gone. Just like that. I tell him I have my doubts she’s missing. ‘That’s a big building you work in,” I says to him. ‘How do you know she’s not just hiding out somewhere?’ He tells me he has access to every space in the building, if she was around he would know. Feeds me some line about how there’s this toy, this ball of yarn with a little bell knotted off at one end, and when you ring the bell she comes running, emerging from wherever she’s hiding at the time. And he was ringing the bell in vain until it went missing. Her food bowl, meanwhile, remains untouched.

Scramtown pauses for another drag of the cigarette.

But here’s where it gets…weird. Shortly after Squeakerton vanishes, what should appear on the wall of the Trustees’ Room but—

Spotlight on the painting of cat on stage right.

—this. And wouldn’t you know it, the cat in that painting is, so I’m told, a dead ringer for our precious Madame Squeakerton. What’s more, nobody seems to know where the painting came from…

Lights down on stage left, lights up on stage right. Scramtown is now seated at the table in front of his notepad. CIRCULATIO is seated in one of the other chairs.

CIRCULATIO: I don’t know why you’ve got me in the hot seat here, I certainly haven’t done anything wrong.

SCRAMTOWN: Calm down, son, easy does it now.

CIRCULATIO: Don’t you tell me to calm down! Don’t you dare tell me! I will not be condescended to by some penny ante would-be detective.

Circulatio had better watch his mouth.

SCRAMTOWN: Son. I need you to answer some questions, and I need you to be truthful, ok? You do that and we will not have a problem, see.

CIRCULATIO: I’m not on trial here.

SCRAMTOWN: Exactly right. We are just two people talking.

CIRCULATIO (coming around): Just talking.

SCRAMTOWN: Right. So. Lay it all out for me, real nice like.

CIRCULATIO: The Athenæum has a cat. Madame Squeakerton. Everybody loves her. Well, except Baxter, but he doesn’t love anything.

SCRAMTOWN: He is a bit of a pill, isn’t he?

CIRCULATIO: Madame Squeakerton, though. She’s such a pwecious wittle cute cute. And everybody, the staff, the membership, we all love her. In fact there is competition among the staff as to who gets to feed her. We had to come up with a system whereby we rotate feeding duties on account of everybody loves her and all.

SCRAMTOWN: When did Madame Squeakerton go missing?

CIRCULATIO: Last week, I think. Everything’s been a blur since she left though. I was the one who went to feed her, and she never came. I rang the bell any everything. I thought maybe she was fooling around in the stacks because she likes to knock books off the shelf and just leave them laying around in random places…drives me nuts. This is how books go missing, you know? You take a book off the shelf, you set it down somewhere else, and that’s it. We’ll never see that book again. I mean, it’s just common courtesy: if you’re going to remove a book from the shelf then return it to its rightful place! And if you don’t know what its rightful place is, then ask! Or better yet, just hand it over to a staff member! Don’t guess, and don’t leave it laying in some obscure spot where it will go unnoticed for months.

SCRAMTOWN: Are you still talking about the cat?

CIRCULATIO: Missing books. Day in and day out, that’s all I do. I live and breathe missing books. You know, sometimes I have nightmares about the missing books. I dream I’ve been tasked with finding a book—sometimes it’s several books, on a bad night—but of course it isn’t on the shelf where it should be. So I check other spots, you know, I try and guess how the call number could have been misread and shelved correctly according to that mistake, I try to anticipate the mistakes, but nothing. Finally in a moment of desperation I return to the spot on the shelf where the book lives and surprise! It’s there. Even though that was the first spot I checked. But no matter, the book is here in my hands now, wonderful! I open it up just to make one hundred percent sure it is the book I am looking for, wanting to cross reference the title, author, publication date, et cetera. But now, the inside cover is blank! With worry setting in I start thumbing through the pages, they’re all blank, each and every one of them! The words themselves are missing now!

SCRAMTOWN: OK. But Madame Squeakerton—

CIRCULATIO: Now I am really freaking out. ‘The words! The words!’ I shout, although you know how in dreams when you experience terror and you try to cry out for help but your words are all slurred and incoherent, or else no sound comes out at all? Ever experience that one, Jack?

SCRAMTOWN: Name’s not Jack—

CIRCULATIO: And then I wake with a start. Ever wake with a start, Jack? That’s when you shoot up into a sitting position and as you’re doing that you regain consciousness of the waking world. And you usually think, ‘Why am I sitting up right now, wasn’t I just sleeping?’ And then you realize you are drenched in a cold sweat. And then—

SCRAMTOWN: Let’s get back on track with Squeakerton—

CIRCULATIO: It’s MADAME Squeakerton! Show some respect!

SCRAMTOWN: What did you do when you came to understand that Madame Squeakerton was missing?

CIRCULATIO: I notified Baxter. He waved me off, per usual. I don’t think he likes cats very much.

SCRAMTOWN: Interesting. And it was you who discovered the painting too, yes?

CIRCULATIO: Yes.

SCRAMTOWN: Can you walk me through that one, please.

CIRCULATIO: Well, I was on the hunt for a missing book—what else is new?—and I was doing a sweep of this very room.

SCRAMTOWN: The ‘Trustees’ Room?’

CIRCULATIO: The very same. Sometimes people leave things in here after meetings, pencils, notebooks, the like. And the occasional book from our collection.

SCRAMTOWN: You were doing your due diligence.

CIRCULATIO: Exactly. So I’m in the room and I’m scanning for the book—

SCRAMTOWN: Which book?

CIRCULATIO: Mind Your Matter by Mortimer Waverly.

SCRAMTOWN: Any idea what it is about?

CIRCULATIO: That’s the weird part. I think the catalog referred to it as a book of the occult. A member had been asking about it, said it’d come recommended.

SCRAMTOWN: Do you know this member’s name?

CIRCULATIO: Mathilde. She is tasty.

SCRAMTOWN: Longtime member?

CIRCULATIO: Can’t be sure. I’ve only seen her around recently, come to think of it. Figure if she’d been around long though I would’ve noticed her. She doesn’t exactly blend in. Anyway as I’m looking for this book I am thinking about Madame Squeakerton, wondering where the heck she is and hoping she is not hurt. When all of a sudden BAM! I’m staring at her, in painting form, right in front of me on this huge display that I had never seen before in my life.

SCRAMTOWN: Have you established provenance on this painting? Are you sure it wasn’t an old painting that had been in storage and the resemblance to Madame Squeakerton was entirely coincidental?

CIRCULATIO: No I have not and yes I am sure. But don’t take my word for it, ask the Lieutenant.

SCRAMTOWN: The Lieutenant…he’s the curator of paintings, yes?

CIRCULATIO: He is. Anyway I see this painting and I just start screaming. ‘Aaaah! AAAAAAHHHHHH!’, real unhinged like. And then I feel faint and I collapse to the floor in a quivering heap. I think I black out because the next thing I know it’s hours later and I’m being kicked out of the room for an admin meeting.

SCRAMTOWN: The Lieutenant, you say?

CIRCULATIO: The Lieutenant.

Lights down stage right.

Act I Scene 2

Lights up stage left. Scramtown takes a drag of his cigarette, regards it lovingly.

SCRAMTOWN: Nicotine. My one true friend in a rotten world. Everywhere you turn, somebody is getting into something they should not be getting into. Everywhere you look, someone is losing his grasp. Take this Circulatio fellow, for example. This guy looks at painting and is instantly reduced to a blubbering mess? I got a bad feeling about that guy. He is on edge. I’ll be keeping an eye on him. For now though, let’s talk to this ‘Lieutenant,’ see what he knows.

Lights down stage left. Lights up stage right. Scramtown is back in his spot at the table. THE LIEUTENANT is standing in front of the cat painting, studying it closely.

LIEUTENANT: The composition really is quite striking. Note the way the cat’s eyes seem to follow you wherever you go, suggesting work that breathes, that is alive. Note the smart suit the cat wears—I think she pulls it off quite nicely. Sure, she’s wearing white which is risky especially if it is after Labor Day—

SCRAMTOWN: Lieutenant, when I said, ‘Tell me everything you know about this painting,’ I meant who painted it? When did the Athenæum purchase it? Who hung it? I am trying to establish provenance so as to rule out the rather silly idea—an idea that nonetheless has some folks sufficiently freaked—that this painting ‘magically’ appeared here. So. If you will kindly indulge me.

LIEUTENANT: O.

The Lieutenant sits down.

SCRAMTOWN: Great.

LIEUTENANT: Let me tell you, friend. I run a tight ship around here.

SCRAMTOWN: Is that a fact?

LIEUTENANT: I am responsible for the acquisition, cataloging, and preservation and conservation of each and every painting in this joint.

SCRAMTOWN: That sounds like a lot of work for one man.

LIEUTENANT: Delegation my good man, delegation.

SCRAMTOWN: Still. Seems like an awful lot for one person to keep everything straight. I tell you it’s enough to make a body snap. How many paintings are in the collection?

LIEUTENANT: Seven thousand, four hundred, twenty-six.

SCRAMTOWN: That accounts for ol’ Madame Squeakerton here?

LIEUTENANT: Seven thousand, four hundred, twenty-seven.

SCRAMTOWN: Tight ship indeed.

LIEUTENANT: I beg your pardon, friend? If you are implying I am not competent, well…I’ll give you ‘what for!’

SCRAMTOWN: I apologize, Lieutenant. I don’t know what came over me. I only meant to suggest that anybody is fallible.

LIEUTENANT: I keep a close eye on inventory. Nothing goes in or out without my knowing.

SCRAMTOWN: Absolutely, I’m sure your skills are unmatched. Say, how about this painting of Madame Squeakerton? How did that one find its way into the collection?

LIEUTENANT: Yes, how did that one find its way into the collection, how indeed?

SCRAMTOWN: Are you asking me?

LIEUTENANT: I am merely reposing the question. It is a good question.

SCRAMTOWN: Well then yes. That is what I am asking you.

LIEUTENANT: And it is a valid question. How indeed does any painting come into our possession? Some we purchase—some are donations. It is invariably one of those two options.

SCRAMTOWN (losing patience): And which option might this one be?

LIEUTENANT: Another valid question. Indeed, which one? For it could only be one of these two options.

SCRAMTOWN: Let me put it to you differently. Did you initiate or otherwise authorize a payment for this painting?

LIEUTENANT: No, friend.

SCRAMTOWN: And have you, in reviewing your budget, your expenditures, come across any line item referencing this painting?

LIEUTENANT: No, friend.

SCRAMTOWN: To your knowledge, has the Boston Athenæum paid for this painting?

LIEUTENANT: No, friend.

SCRAMTOWN: Right. So it was donated then, is that your contention?

LIEUTENANT: No, friend.

SCRAMTOWN: You have no idea where this painting came from, do you?

LIEUTENANT: Not as such, no.

SCRAMTOWN: Is there anything you can tell me about this painting that you think might be helpful?

LIEUTENANT: You might speak with Baxter. He is an art enthusiast and, from what I am given to understand, an avid painter.

SCRAMTOWN: Let’s switch gears. Tell me about this cat, this Madame Squeakerton.

LIEUTENANT: She is such a wittle cutie. Such a wittle fwuffy-fwuff.

SCRAMTOWN: So they say. And tell me, this cutie, this ‘fwuffy-fwuff,’ did she have any enemies?

LIEUTENANT: Well there is the business of this hawk that often perches in a tree right next to the window that overlooks the Granary. You can see this tree from each floor, and sometimes when the hawk catches her eye she’ll run from floor to floor—

SCRAMTOWN: I meant human enemies.

LIEUTENANT: O. Well…

SCRAMTOWN: Go on.

LIEUTENANT: I am loath to even mention this for fear it will sound like I am making an accusation, and by gum, I am decidedly not! Innocent until proven guilty, that’s what I always say…

SCRAMTOWN: …and?

LIEUTENANT: Well…one time I ran into Circulatio in the break room. He was washing out Madame Squeakerton’s food bowl.

SCRAMTOWN: I’m with you so far.

LIEUTENANT: And, well…quite frankly he was grousing about how he’d just caught her knocking books off the shelf. How she’d look him right in the eye as she did it, too. Taunting him. Suffice it to say he was not exactly mental stability personified.

SCRAMTOWN: Interesting.

LIEUTENANT: I’m telling you this so you get as full a picture as possible. But I do not think he had anything to do with her disappearance. Are you going to find her, detective?

SCRAMTOWN: I am certainly trying.

LIEUTENANT: Because people are talking about it at the library. There are rumors going around. Our membership is distressed. As a runner of a tight ship I do my level best to squash any silliness, but. There is one member who springs to mind, I believe her name is Mathilde—

SCRAMTOWN: The alluring one? Circulatio mentioned her too.

LIEUTENANT: She is quite beguiling, yes. She came to me recently asking about that painting, just as you have asked me today. Turns out she and this cat had a ‘special connection’ as I believe she worded it.

SCRAMTOWN: Would you characterize her interest in the cat as…unusual?

LIEUTENANT: Not as such, no. Everybody loved that cat. I mean, loves that cat. Except maybe Baxter but he doesn’t like much of anything.

SCRAMTOWN: Old nay-saying Baxter.

LIEUTENANT: Old nay-saying Baxter indeed.

SCRAMTOWN: Circulatio mentioned a missing book he seemed to attach significance to. Mind Your Matter by Mortimer Waverly.

LIEUTENANT: Mortimer Waverly, now there is one odd duck.

SCRAMTOWN: You know this man?

LIEUTENANT: He is one of our longtime members.

Lights down stage right.

Act I Scene 3

Lights up stage left. Scramtown paces deliberately as he thinks out loud.

SCRAMTOWN: So. I’ve got a missing cat that everybody seems to love. I’ve got a mysterious painting of said missing cat that falls out of the clear blue sky that nobody knows a darn thing about. And I’ve got a missing book on the occult written by one of the members.

Scramtown takes another drag of the cigarette.

I am really craving some seeded raspberry jelly right now.

Lights down stage left, lights up stage right. Scramtown and Waverly shake hands.

SCRAMTOWN: Mr. Waverly, thank you for taking the time to sit down with me. I know you’re a busy man.

WAVERLY: Think nothing of it, I could use the diversion. I am working on my next manuscript.

SCRAMTOWN: If this is a bad time—

WAVERLY: Your timing, and your wording, are perfect. For I am working on a book about time!

SCRAMTOWN: Is that a fact? I won’t pry—

WAVERLY: In this book I explore the meaning of time. How it guides us. How it restricts us. How it frames our existence—contextualizes it. How it is constantly shifting, an amorphous idea that no one person can fully wrap his brain around on his own, and that just when he thinks he finally gets it, is finally standing on solid ground, he finds that alas, he has been standing in quicksand the entire time, but it is too late, he has no time left, he is already buried.

Long, pregnant pause.

SCRAMTOWN: O…K…Mr. Waverly—

WAVERLY: Please call me ‘Wavy.’

SCRAMTOWN: Right. Wavy. You’re a member here, is that correct?

WAVERLY: As correct as the void that is a black star.

SCRAMTOWN: I’m going to put you down as a ‘yes’ to that question. How long have you been a member here?

WAVERLY: Time is such a tricky proposition. For what may feel like an eternity to you is but an instant to your neighbor. Time is but a wisp of smoke, ethereal, fleeting.

SCRAMTOWN: Um. Let’s try this. Who was in the White House at the time you joined?

WAVERLY: I believe it was Calvin Coolidge.

SCRAMTOWN: That puts us somewhere in the 20 year range, 21, 22, 23, somewhere thereabouts?

WAVERLY (sighing): If it pleases you.

SCRAMTOWN: So Mr. Waverly—

WAVERLY: Wavy.

SCRAMTOWN: I’m sorry, Wavy

WAVERLY: No sweat, my pet.

SCRAMTOWN: Um. I understand you wrote a book titled Mind Your Matter, is this correct?

WAVERLY: Indubitably.

SCRAMTOWN: Can you please explain what this book is about, relegating your response to the domain of the planet Earth?

WAVERLY: In short—in long, they’re the same—it is a step by step, in layman’s terms, guide to harnessing the power of the brain to manifest substantive change to one’s form at the tiniest levels, atomic if you so choose.

SCRAMTOWN: You mean—

WAVERLY: Precisely, my astute sleuth. It is a how-to on re-arranging matter using only the power of the mind.

SCRAMTOWN: It cannot be done!

WAVERLY: Oh, but it can—just use that impeccable brain of yours!

Silence as Scramtown stands, leans into Waverly, staring him down. Finally, after a couple beats, he sits back down.

SCRAMTOWN: Nah. Didn’t work.

WAVERLY: You should read my book. For anyone who does may wield enormous power! In fact all you need to do is simply hold the book in your hands and it will imbue the holder with certain…supernatural characteristics.

SCRAMTOWN: Is it possible somebody could have used your text to turn Madame Squeakerton into a painting?

WAVERLY: Affirmative. I wrote the book with the best of intentions, but there is nothing to stop anybody from applying my method to nefarious ends.

SCRAMTOWN: And Madame Squeakerton?

WAVERLY: She’s a wittle fwuff-fwuff cute-cute.

SCRAMTOWN: You mentioned whoever holds your book wields enormous power. Wavy, I have to ask, are you carrying this book on you right now?

WAVERLY: Heavens no!

SCRAMTOWN: Would you submit to a thorough pat-down so I can verify this?

WAVERLY: Heavens yes!

Scramtown pats down Waverly. He’s clean.

SCRAMTOWN: Alright Wavy, you are free to go. Oh, one last thing since I have you here: hows abouts a complimentary replacement copy of your book for the library’s collection? Anything we can work out there?

WAVERLY: What am I, made of money?

Waverly extracts a one hundred dollar bill from his pocket as he heads toward the door and blows his nose with it. Lights down on stage right.

Act I Scene 4

Scramtown is looking a bit tired now.

SCRAMTOWN: What a loon, eh? Time and quicksand and atomic levels…did you catch any of that? And boy does he have confidence in the power of his own writing! He is kooky for sure. But is he responsible for the disappearance of Madame Squeakerton? I think not. As it stands the only thing I can credibly accuse him of is being a cheapskate. Then there’s the Lieutenant. Self-serious, sure. But cat-napper? Or worse? I don’t see him summoning the level of alertness to carry it all off, if you really want to know. That leaves us with Circulatio. Now this guy needs his head examined. You saw him in there. The man is on. Edge. And this cat apparently liked to screw with him. You would be appalled by what a man can do when he feels he’s been pushed too far, see. And he knew about the book. Maybe it was never missing. Maybe he found it and started looking through it. Got hooked on Waverly’s masterful prose. Became inspired to make a change in his life. Went too far…

Lights down on stage left. Lights up on stage right. Circulatio is back in the hot seat. He is wearing a shaggy sweater.

CIRCULATIO: Look, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it I tell ya! I swear! You gotta believe me!

SCRAMTOWN: You know what I believe, Circulatio? I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe you hated that cat, that Mrs. Squeakface—

CIRCULATIO: IT’S MADAME SQUEAKERTON, SHOW SOME RESPECT! And I didn’t hate her, I didn’t…I loved her…

Circulatio is on the verge of tears. It wouldn’t be the first time a grown man has cried in front of Scramtown. And it usually means one thing: earnest regret over a bad decision made on impulse.

SCRAMTOWN: You did love her.

CIRCULATIO: I mean, sure we had our differences. But that’s inevitable when you are talking about a human and a cat. We’re two different people.

SCRAMTOWN: You are. People can love each other but they still have friction, doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. Yes, yes of course…you didn’t hate Madame Squeakerton, you loved her…you loved her so much you kidnapped her, brought her home with you. You see her each and every day, don’t you?!

CIRCULATIO: I don’t, I don’t, honest!

Scramtown walks over to where Circulatiois seated.

SCRAMTOWN: You know one thing that all cat owners have in common, son?

CIRCULATIO (sobbing): No, what?

SCRAMTOWN: Oh, a cat lover can be a man or a woman. Can be young or old, black or white, religious or not…but do you know what they all have in common?

Scramtown is looming over the trembling Circulatio now, his hand outstretched toward his sweatered shoulder.

They are all, without fail, eternally, and ever to their chagrin, covered…IN CAT HAIR!!!

Scramtown yanks at Circulatio’s long-haired sweater, expecting stray cat hairs to come off in his hand. No dice.

CIRCULATIO: What are you doing, stop it! You’re going to ruin my sweater.

SCRAMTOWN (deflated): I…thought you had cat hair on you.

CIRCULATIO: No, it’s just the material of the sweater.

SCRAMTOWN: But you look like a cat in it.

CIRCULATIO: What can I say? I miss Madame Squeakerton.

The two sit in silence for a beat.

SCRAMTOWN: Well this is uncomfortable isn’t it?

CIRCULATIO: It sure is.

SCRAMTOWN: Still. I think you did it. And I can prove it. Empty out your pockets.

CIRCULATIO: What? Why?

SCRAMTOWN: Just empty them. Now.

Circulatio complies. Pencil, scraps of paper with call numbers hastily jotted down. No sign of Waverly’s book.

SCRAMTOWN: That everything?

Circulatio nods.

SCRAMTOWN: Are you sure, son? I know the look of a man who is hiding something.

CIRCULATIO: It’s going to look worse than it is.

SCRAMTOWN: Ah, so there is something.

CIRCULATIO: You’re going to take this the wrong way—

SCRAMTOWN: Let’s have at it, man!

Circulation withdraws Madame Squeakerton’s ball of yarn from his pocket and hands it over to Scramtown.

SCRAMTOWN: Carrying around a memento of your latest victim, eh sicko?

CIRCULATIO: It’s not like that!

SCRAMTOWN: Oh sure. You probably don’t even know what it’s doing in your pocket, right? ‘Gee, how’d that get there? I guess it just jumped into my pocket unsuspectingly!’

CIRCULATIO: I’m telling you, no—

SCRAMTOWN: Give it up, son. You know where she is. And you’re holding her toy hostage because you don’t want anybody to find her. Sing it!

CIRCULATIO: No! I love Madame Squeakerton and I would never do anything to hurt her. She’s my wittle fwuffy fwuff! Honest, you gotta believe me!

SCRAMTOWN: WHERE’S THE CAT, SON?

CIRCULATIO: I don’t know!

SCRAMTOWN: WHERE’S WAVERLY’S BOOK, SON?

CIRCULATIO: I don’t know! Believe me, I hate missing books. Once they go missing they don’t come back. And this one was especially annoying because Mathilde probably wouldn’t even be asking for the book if Baxter hadn’t recommended it to her.

SCRAMTOWN (getting quiet): What did you just say?

CIRCULATIO: Baxter. He recommended Mathilde read Waverly’s book. She mentioned it to me when she enlisted my help to find it. Why, what does that matter?

SCRAMTOWN: I’M COMING FOR YOU, BAXTER!

Lights down stage right. End of Act. I.

Act II, Scene 5

Lights up stage left. Scramtown lights another cigarette.

SCRAMTOWN: Let’s game this out. Baxter. We all know what a drag Baxter is. Doesn’t like cats? He doesn’t like anything. I once asked him what kind of music he liked, after he’d criticized my saying that I enjoyed jazz. You know what he told me? ‘I don’t like music.’ ‘I don’t like music!’ As if all music was a monolith. As if music doesn’t possess the power to transfigure your pain into something beautiful. ‘I suppose you don’t like fun either?’ I had snapped back, thinking he’d have nothing to say to that. Know what he said? ‘Never much cared for fun, no.’ Honestly. So I have no trouble at all believing Baxter could have it in for this cat, especially one so darn cute. Maybe he was jealous of this cat. Was sick of her getting all the glory. Thought it was high time to do something about it. As associate director he has access to every space in the building—he said so himself, you heard him—even spots the rest of the staff can’t go. Maybe he didn’t kill her, no. He hides her! Somewhere nobody will stumble across her, somewhere nobody will hear her scratching at the walls. Poor wittle kitty. Then he uses his painting skills to paint a picture of her to suggest something otherworldly is at play and get folks all riled up. You thought you were being clever, didn’t you Baxter, by coming to my office hat in hand, asking for my help, but you slipped up didn’t you, you underestimated me…

Lights down stage left. Lights up stage right.

BAXTER: Scramtown, you are treading treacherous waters here my friend.

SCRAMTOWN: Oh I’m your friend am I? Your age-old friend? Going to play that card, are you?

BAXTER: Well I am sorry to report I am using the term loosely here. You certainly aren’t acting like a friend. I don’t very much like being accused.

SCRAMTOWN: And I don’t very much like being jerked around! You kidnapped Madame Squeakerton. You hate cats—hate everything—miserable, rotten wretch that you are. You had Circulatio’s feedback that she was messing with the books and you didn’t like that—books are possibly the only thing you do like. So you nabbed the cat and you hid her away. Painted her picture and hung it on the wall to get everybody thinking that she had somehow transformed. And then you come to me begging for help, betting that in doing so I would unconsciously assume you were innocent of any wrongdoing. All signs point to you, my friend.

BAXTER: You are wrong on so many levels.

SCRAMTOWN: Cram it, I’m not finished. There are two things I can’t quite work out. One: what does Waverly’s book have to do with any of this? It’s not really magic, is it? Two: if you were trying to deflect attention why would you recommend the book to Mathilde? At first I thought you were trying to frame her for this supposed magical transformation, but the timeline on the chain of events doesn’t track.

BAXTER: Are you finished?

SCRAMTOWN: I’m ready for you to start giving me some answers, if that’s what you’re asking. So go ahead and try to refute me on any of what I just said.

BAXTER: First of all, I don’t hate everything, I’m not a monster. I’m just introverted. Second: I love Madame Squeakerton. She’s a wittle cutie-patootie. On this matter there is simply no debate.

SCRAMTOWN: If that painting is any indication I am inclined to agree with you there.

BAXTER: Third. And I want you to really hear me: I did not kidnap, nor did I kill, Madame Squeakerton. To think! Nor did I paint a picture of her to lead people into believing she somehow transformed into a painting—that is an absurd conjecture on your part and quite frankly, shame on you. You should know better. Fourth: I never recommended Waverly’s book to anybody. And fifth—

SCRAMTOWN: Wait a minute wait. Circulatio told me that Mathilde told him she was interested in reading Waverly’s book because you had recommended it to her.

BAXTER: That’s not correct.

SCRAMTOWN: If you’re lying to me—

BAXTER: Which I am not.

SCRAMTOWN: —then that would mean Circulatio lied to me. Or else Mathilde lied to him.

BAXTER: Circulatio is…a handful, but one thing he is not is dishonest.

SCRAMTOWN: And fifth?

BAXTER: Yes. It was not my idea to hire you. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you are perfectly capable. But frankly I didn’t want to waste your time. I was certain Madame Squeakerton simply wedged herself into a vent or a seldom-used storage closet. I wanted to take care of this problem myself. I’ve been looking for her every chance I get. Would have been easier if I had had her toy though.

Scramtown reaches into his pocket, pulls out the ball of yarn with the bell knotted at the end that he shook down from Circulatio.

SCRAMTOWN: You wouldn’t mean this one?

BAXTER: That’s the one! Where did you find it?

SCRAMTOWN: Circulatio was holding onto it.

BAXTER: That makes sense, he loves playing with that cat. More than he loves shelving books, it seems sometimes.

SCRAMTOWN: But wait, so if it wasn’t your idea to hire me, then whose was it?

BAXTER: That would be Mathilde.

SCRAMTOWN: Boy, she’s got a lot of friends.

BAXTER: She’s…hard not to like.

SCRAMTOWN: Name keeps coming up.

BAXTER: She’s quite beguiling.

SCRAMTOWN: Might you say—

BAXTER: Yes. She is some dame.

SCRAMTOWN: One more thing: are you carrying Mortimer Waverly’s Mind Your Matter on your person?

BAXTER: No I am not.

Baxter empties his pockets as proof.

SCRAMTOWN: Methinks a Mathilde I shall meet.

Lights down stage right.

Act II, Scene 6

Lights up stage left. Scramtown is munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

SCRAMTOWN: Mmmmmm! So much better with the seeds. So, so much better.

He eats the last big bit in one bite, wipes his hands on his trousers.

OK! Let’s get this over with.

Lights down stage left, lights up stage right. Scramtown is seated in his usual spot. Mathilde is circling the table and weaving around the room. She moves with a deliberate, languid grace.

SCRAMTOWN: Are you sure you don’t want to sit down, miss?

MATHILDE: When I want to sit, I sit.

SCRAMTOWN: Very well. I would like to ask you a couple questions. OK?

MATHILDE: If you must.

SCRAMTOWN: Mathilde, if I may—come to think of it I don’t even know your last name.

MATHILDE: I answer to whatever I want, whenever I want. Mathilde is fine.

SCRAMTOWN: How long have you been a member of the Boston Athenæum?

MATHILDE: What business is that of yours?

SCRAMTOWN: Is it a problem for you to answer this simple question?

MATHILDE: Is it a problem for you I don’t divulge a piece of personal information about myself?

SCRAMTOWN: That depends, Mathilde.

MATHILDE: On what?

SCRAMTOWN: Why don’t you let me ask the questions…and you just worry about the answers, OK?

MATHILDE: Fine. If you must. I don’t know…seven years?

SCRAMTOWN: Interesting.

MATHILDE: How’s that?

SCRAMTOWN: Well it’s just that…everybody around here seems to know you now, and yet nobody can recall seeing you around here any longer than say…one week, two tops?

MATHILDE: Maybe I don’t come in very often.

SCRAMTOWN: Maybe that’s it. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way but…you are very hard to miss.

Mathilde wanders by where Scramtown is seated, brushing up against his shoulder.

MATHILDE: I could say the same thing about you, love.

SCRAMTOWN: So you’re telling me you’ve been a member here for several years, that’s your story?

Mathilde slinks over to the painting of Madame Squeakerton.

MATHILDE: Such a wittle fwuff-fwuff.

SCRAMTOWN: You approached Circulatio asking after a book by Mortimer Waverly titled Mind Your Matter. Why?

MATHILDE: Mind your manners?

SCRAMTOWN: The title is Mind Your Matter. Ring any bells?

MATHILDE: Bells?!

SCRAMTOWN: You know Mathilde, this will be easier for both of us if you stop acting so evasive.

Mathilde waltzes over to Scramtown and nuzzles his cheek, whispers in his ear:

MATHILDE: Who’s evasive?

Mathilde embraces a cold and distant Scramtown.

SCRAMTOWN: Avid reader, are you?

Mathilde withdraws abruptly, sashays to the other side of the room.

MATHILDE: Why do you ask?

SCRAMTOWN: You’re a member here, aren’t you? This place is lousy with books. Stands to reason you’d enjoy them.

MATHILDE: I’ve read a thing or two in my day.

SCRAMTOWN: Take the book you have in your pocket, for instance. The one I could feel through your blazer when you rubbed up against me?

MATHILDE: Come again?

SCRAMTOWN: Let me explain. Just now, when you were trying to distract me. You kind of leaned into me and I felt something hard, shaped like a book. I fancy you’re an avid reader and like to carry around with you whatever you happen to be reading at the moment. So my question to you is: what book is in your pocket, Mathilde?

The two stare each other down in silence. Mathilde is coiled, brooding. She reaches into her blazer, withdraws a book, sets it down on the table in front of her. Scramtown gets up and walks to the other side of the table to retrieve the book. Before he can grab it she slams her hand down on the book and his hand comes down on top of hers. They eye each other again. Finally she withdraws her hand.

Well well well, what have we here…Mind Your Matter by one Mortimer Waverly. Say, wasn’t that the book I was just asking you about?

Mathilde says nothing, just continues shifting about.

SCRAMTOWN: Seems a little, oh…unusual, doesn’t it, to lie about a book you’re reading? Unless of course you didn’t want me to know you were reading this book. A book, I am told, that bestows upon its reader great power. Now why would that be, exactly?

MATHILDE: How do you know—

SCRAMTOWN: Heard it from the man himself, Mathilde. Mortimer Waverly. Odd man, that one. Member here, in fact.

MATHILDE: He is?

SCRAMTOWN: News to you I take it. Very well. Let’s crack on with it then, Mathilde. You kidnapped Madame Squeakerton.

MATHILDE: I did nothing of the sort!

SCRAMTOWN: You don’t expect me to believe you turned her into this painting then, do you? With the help of this book?

Mathilde leaps up to grab the book Scramtown is brandishing. She is not successful. A struggle ensues. Scramtown is able to wrest the book back from Mathilde’s grasp, and in doing so a bookmark is knocked loose. He manages to trap the page it was marking before the bookmark falls to the floor. He reads from the page:

‘Those who heed these steps shall set themselves free/be whatever it is they want to be.’

He looks up from the text, puzzled.

You don’t mean…

Mathilde steps into Scramtown’s personal space.

MATHILDE: Yes. I am Madame Squeakerton!

SCRAMTOWN: But that would mean his book…

MATHILDE: …is really magic. I know. It is.

Scramtown paces frantically.

SCRAMTOWN: Yes, yes of course! You were a cat once. A playful cat that everybody loved. You liked to knock books off the shelves. One day, you knocked this book off the shelf and it fell to the floor, open. Cat that you were, you inquisitively sniffed around, and your paws made contact with the page. And you inadvertently unleashed its awesome trans formative power. This book…it turned you human!

A stunned Scramtown collapses into his chair.

MATHILDE (clapping): Yaaaay, the big important detective man figured it out…how long did that one take you? But yes, I turned myself human. And I’m glad, glad I tell you! You think it’s so easy being a little kitty? In such a big building? With all those open spaces and loud, weird noises? Where are the cozy nooks, I ask you, WHERE ARE THE COZY CAT NOOKS? I NEED TO BE SURROUNDED ON ALL SIDES!

SCRAMTOWN: But the painting…how do you explain that?

MATHILDE: I made it. And then I hung it on this wall.

SCRAMTOWN: To throw people off your trail. And the book? I suppose you told Circulatio that Baxter had recommended it…

MATHILDE: …to make Baxter look suspicious, yes.

SCRAMTOWN: And you urged him to enlist my help—

MATHILDE: In the hopes you would ultimately trace everything back to him and see his coming to you as a cover for his guilt.

SCRAMTOWN: Well played.

MATHILDE: Why thank you.

SCRAMTOWN: But…why? Why all the skulduggery?

MATHILDE: Because, silly. Us cats are smarter than you humans. And it’s fun to toy with you.

With her cat-like reflexes Mathilde snatches the book from Scramtown and scampers around the room.

SCRAMTOWN: Get back here this instant!

Scramtown chases Mathilde around the room, under the chairs, up over the table, she is always just out of reach. It is only when Mathilde begins purring that Scramtown snaps out of his stupor.

Come here kitty kitty, come here. Give me that book back, kitty.

Mathilde has started to scale the hutch that houses the George Washington private library.

Here kitty kitty…here cutie kitty…

He pulls the ball of yarn with the bell knotted at the end from his pocket, starts shaking it vigorously. Mathilde, unable to resist anything that dangles, drops the book and begins swatting at the string, knocking it from Scramtown’s hands. As she rolls around on the floor with the ball of yarn Scramtown grabs the book.

That’s a good kee-ty. Cute wittle fwuffy-fwuff. That’s a good keee-ty.

Lights down stage right.

Act II Epilogue

Lights up stage left. Scramtown stares somberly out one of the windows.

SCRAMTOWN: There you have it, folks. After I changed Mathilde back into Madame Squeakerton I had to destroy the book so it could not cause any more chaos. Everybody is thrilled to have Madame Squeakerton back, though I’m not sure she is happy to be back—I think she had really taken to her human form. But it had to be done. These are the moral dilemmas you face as a private detective. I didn’t tell Baxter what happened. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway. Instead I told him Mathilde had kidnapped the cat, that I was able to coax her into doing the right thing: returning the cat and quietly bowing out of Athenæum life. Everybody asks about her, though. And quite frankly I don’t blame them. When she leaned into me real close—well, she smelled like a million bucks, and let’s just leave it at that. Yes, she was some dame.

Baxter enters stage left.

BAXTER: Ssssh!!! No talking up here!

SCRAMTOWN: Baxter, you drip.

Lights down stage left. Somebody creeps onto stage from left. Spotlight up; it’s Waverly. He has a fresh copy of Mind Your Matter under his arm. He looks around to make sure nobody is around—nobody is. He walks over to a shelf and shifts some books to the side, making room for his own, which he then slips onto the shelf. He then shifts the other books back so that his is now snug as a bug in a rug among the rest of the books. Looks around again, still nobody’s watching. Creeps off stage left. 

LIGHTS OUT

03.23.2020

Kathy Nilsson

April 2020

Interview by Carolle Morini

I first met Kathy Nilsson in the poet Lucie Brock-Broido’s poetry workshop in the early 2000s and I have been a fan of Nilsson’s poems ever since. From Poetry Foundation, “Nilsson earned a BA in English Literature from Mount Holyoke College and an MFA in poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and The New York State Writers Institute. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Boston ReviewPoetry DailyColumbiaVolt, and other literary journals. Her chapbook, The Abattoir, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2008. Her manuscript, Black Lemons, was a finalist in the Tupelo First Book Award. The manuscript The Infant Scholar was selected for Honorable Mention in the Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition sponsored by the National Federation of State Poetry Societies and was published by Tupelo Press in 2015. She is a recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Award.” We conducted this interview by email in March 2020.

Q: Do you remember when you first learned about poetry? 

KATHY NILSSON: My parents read poetry to me from children’s books. I studied English Literature at Mount Holyoke but it never occurred to me to write poetry. Only when I took Lucie Brock-Broido’s workshop in 1990 did it dawn on me that beautiful books by living poets sold at the Grolier Bookstore should be read and not just held as gifts. 

Q: I understand you grew up in the Worcester area like the poet Stanley Kunitz. Did growing up there influence your writing in any specific way? Did you learn about Kunitz in school? Was he considered a local celebrity? 

KN: I knew nothing about Kunitz until I went to a reading of his at Harvard long after I left home. His sadness as a kid was easy for me to place in Worcester because I had been sad as a child there. 

Q: Is there a particular author you studied as an undergrad at Mount Holyoke College that you were influenced by? 

KN: Poetry by Dickinson, Hopkins, Keats, Shakespeare, Milton and Plath (images of a red heart blooming through a coat—tulips like dangerous animals behind bars) made a deep impression on me. T.S. Eliot baffled me until I met Lucie.

Q: Would you like to talk about the MFA program at Bennington Writing Seminars? Any teachers you worked with that helped form the poet you are?  

KN: I liked my teachers at Bennington—April Bernard, Liam Rector, Ed Ochester and Thomas Sayers Ellis.We were steeped in writing for two weeks which felt good when my son was little because I didn’t get out much. I loved summer as much as winter out in that bucolic setting. 

Q: What is it about the medium you like? Or what is it about creating that you enjoy or simply cannot seem to get rid of? 

KN: If I could I’d write a little novel, but it goes against my instincts to think in narrative lines. Writing poetry was a revelation. Marianne Moore said she wrote it on a clipboard while doing the wash. All of a sudden my interest in books on lobsters, Egyptian mummies, weather, eclipses, Brigitte Bardot and the Dictionary of International Slurs among others, all came together.

I started out as a painter at the Art Students’ League in New York so I understand Elizabeth Bishop’s real wish to be an artist and declaring it wasn’t by choice she wrote poetry, something like that. When a poetry critic told me the moment she realized she wasn’t a poet was when reading a line in a biography of one of the great poets in which he described his life as “the continuum of a dream” I burst into tears.

Q: What I admire about your writing is your use of subtle dark humor. Sometimes humor balances out the horrors of life. What do you think? 

KN: My mother was very loose with the term “horse’s ass” while she was off paying a bill—while in the same department store my father would be looking for wands for his magic show. He used to say he’d retire to go on the road and saw my mother in half. Their first Christmas card before I was born was a cartoon with my father’s head superimposed on a stick figure of a magician—and my mother’s head superimposed on a silver platter. 

Q: A fair number of animals make appearances in your poems. Do you think that some animals encapsulate and/or express particular emotions?

KN: In a way animals have it all over us humans in terms of endearment and sense. The longer I live with dogs and marvel from a distance at horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, ducks, the more I kind of wish I’d grown up in Romania where animals are still the mainstay of people’s lives. The older I get, the more I worry about them.

Q: I know you are a well read and curious person. I always like to know what you are reading. Who are some of the authors you read most recently? Any particular literary journals you like to read? 

KN: On my table I keep books of poetry by Paul Celan, Wallace Stevens, Lucie Brock-Broido, Frank Stanford, Thomas James, Louise Gluck, Sylvia Plath, Franz Wright. I read poetry in the morning. Afternoons and evenings, I read fiction—Clarice Lispector, Bruno Schulz, Adalbert Stifter, Gerald Murnane. I love little novels—A Pale View of the Hills and Never Let Me Go (Ishiguro), November (Flaubert), The Left-Handed Woman (Handke), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Bauby), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson). I like reading literary journals to see what’s out there.

Q: Are there any books that you re-read? Any particular reason why?

KN: Trollope I read every day—all his novels—over and over—many times—so I can live in that century.

Q: I have often listened to the poems you recorded for the Poetry Magazine and Poetry Foundation website. How was that experience? I find I understand the poem better when I hear the author read it. What do you think is added to the work when hearing the voice of the poet? 

The Abattoir, Finishing Line Press, Georgetown Kentucky, 2008, from website

The Abattoir, Finishing Line Press, Georgetown Kentucky, 2008, from website.

KN: I loved recording the podcast for Poetry Magazine. In a soundproof booth at WBUR I felt like Lady Gaga. Christian Wiman and Don Share had such different takes on my work it opened my eyes to the possibilities. I remember submitting those poems thinking—this is the best I can do—if they don’t take these they won’t take any, ever. Their insightful discussion of my poems made me feel ordained as a writer. I do love hearing the voice that goes with a writer—it’s like seeing inside them, being inside someone else’s head.

Q: The cover of The Infant Scholar makes me laugh and also it makes me want to cry—the baby is so adorable and also vulnerable. What made you think of this title and how did you decide on the cover? 

KN: The baby on the cover of The Infant Scholar is my husband, Claes, from Sweden. He is one of the infant scholars, along with Richard Howard and Helen Vendler. I love smart babies and those who show vulnerability in their facial expressions. Claes’s baby picture plus the beauty of an old Swedish photograph—I had a visceral reaction to it. So did editors at Tupelo Press.

Q: Anything you would like to add about this collection of poems? 

KN: The Infant Scholar took me 25 years to write, assemble and publish. It’s a good thing I wasn’t in a rush. Lucie kept reminding me about the importance of the first book.

Q: What is the best writing advice you received? Is there any advice you found to be simply unrealistic?

KN: What I remember most is Lucie Brock-Broido nipping me in the bud, telling me to put everything into a poem—no holding back—give yourself away, she would say. And her definition: a poem is an egg with horses in it (or a blue egg with two purple horses, as in the case of a toy my son John pulled out of a gumball machine at a supermarket one day many years ago which just might still be floating around Lucie’s office at Columbia University).

Q: If you were not a poet what would you be? 

KN: If I were not writing poetry I might be incarcerated in one of the American prisons—or I’d be back tending sheep and counting them at night which is what I assume I was doing before I ever wrote a poem.

Q: Any upcoming projects you would like to tell the readers about? 

KN: I’m finishing a second manuscript and sending out poems to literary journals. For the first time, after 30 years, I feel to some extent that finally I know what I’m doing. Writing for me is like taking a little black square of cloth and making a skirt for the Metropolitan Museum, or putting down equations and having them all come out right without really trying, or cutting whole trees out of a piece of gold foil from a chocolate bar. There’s something very mysterious about a finely written poem. Something that almost seems to have nothing to do with the author.

Q: Any last words?

KN: The best line of poetry ever: The world is gone. I must carry you—by Paul Celan.

01.28.2020

Barbara Lewis

February 2020

By Hannah Weisman

I first met Barbara Lewis in the summer of 2019 when she asked if she could enroll in the Athenæum’s first professional development workshop for educators, “Primary Sources in the Classroom: Teaching the Civil War.” Lewis wanted to participate in the workshop as both a UMass Boston educator and as a writer—she was working on a play set in 1867 that depicts a meeting between Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Jane Richards, and Clarence Reeves.

My first impression of Lewis turned out to match my lasting impression: She is uncommonly creative, insatiably curious, and an outstanding role model for all lifelong learners. She excels at finding and creating opportunities for exploring her wide-ranging interests. And she is ready to learn with and from nearly everyone.

Lewis was born after World War II in New York City. She grew up—surrounded by family—in both South Carolina and New York. Her maternal grandparents and other extended family were in South Carolina, while her mother’s ten siblings were in New York after having been part of the Great Migration. Lewis grew to love the “fastness” of New York and the “slowness” of South Carolina.

Lewis attended a parochial school for girls of color in South Carolina run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order of Roman Catholic nuns founded in Baltimore by four Haitian women and a French priest in 1828. For high school, Lewis was sent to a convent school run by the Presentation Sisters in Montreal. There she studied under a British system, learning European history, French, and Latin.

From Montreal, Lewis went on to Hunter College in New York. But her experiences through high school had left her feeling out of place. She came to view her education, particularly in French and Latin, as something she loved, but as something that set her apart from others.

“I was so very different from everybody else. In South Carolina, I spoke with a northern accent. I tried not to, but it was there. And so, I was an outsider there. And in New York I was an outsider. In Canada…I was the only black student there. So, I was an outsider everywhere. And even though I coped very well intellectually, I didn’t necessarily cope that well emotionally. So, when I left Canada…I stayed away from French for quite a while. I didn’t want to see myself as so different from everyone else. It took me a long time before I went back and got a master’s [at City University of New York] in creative writing. I chose translation and I translated a novel from French. That took me back. I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this, I might as well use it.’”

Lewis didn’t stop with the master’s in creative writing. She continued on at City University, earning a PhD in theater, which she describes as having been fun! She reveled in studying theater, literature, theory, and performance all over the world. After studying German as a second reading language for her doctorate, Lewis moved to Vienna for a month to develop her conversational skills, taking side trips to Zurich and Munich to hear different accents.

Her transition from student to faculty began at New York University, where she taught freshman English (which she describes as “a rite of passage for so many”). She spent a short time at the University of Kentucky, and then arrived in Boston 15 years ago to lead the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture at University of Massachusetts Boston. As an academic, Lewis has specialized in the work of August Wilson, Black female playwrights, and Francophone literature. Only after coming to Boston did Lewis learn through her research that her great-great grandfather, born in the Berkshires, volunteered for the 54th Massachusetts and fought in Company B.

But Lewis has not limited herself only to academic writing. She takes her creative writing seriously. She is constantly seeking new research opportunities, improving and refining her writing, and building her community of fellow creative thinkers and makers. She has participated in Company One’s PlayLab, taken classes at GrubStreet, and joined the Athenæum’s Writers’ Workshop. She became a Mudge Education Associate at last year’s Athenæum workshop for educators so she could conduct research with the BA’s Civil War-era materials to inform her play. She attends two different sewing/knitting book groups. And all of that before she retired from UMass Boston at the end of 2019!

Of course, retirement doesn’t mean free time for Lewis. It just means more time to become an ever-more formidable intellectual and creative giant.