Alice Elliot Dark
In her latest novel Fellowship Point, Alice Elliot Dark explores friendship, ownership and legacy through the lens of two women, Polly and Agnes, in their declining years. Set on a fictional peninsula in Maine, the book echoes with history as it is alive with the current-day events happening to the inhabitants as they struggle to come to a settlement about the future use of the land.
Dark shares how she developed this rich, immersive novel.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you that you can share with us?
“I outlined and diagrammed stories and books until I understood how plots and other aspects of craft worked.”
DARK: My apprenticeship consisted mainly of reading, and eventually figuring out how to study what I was reading in a way that taught me about how a piece was written. I outlined and diagrammed stories and books until I understood how plots and other aspects of craft worked. This makes it sound easy, but it took me a long time to figure out how to do it usefully; I didn’t know what I was looking for. It boiled down to figuring out the right questions to ask of a text. Where is it distant? Where does it zoom in, and why? Why this scene and not that? I noticed Edith Wharton writes lots about romance but skips the weddings. That seems right to me. There are so many romantic comedies that build up to the wedding and then are forced to make something outrageous happening to inject drama into a very predictable event. This gave me the most important guideline—to understand what was dramatic and what was not. I still outline books sometimes. I didn’t have a mentor and I very much wish I had. I make sure to be a good mentor to my students.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where did the idea for Fellowship Point come from?
“I was a poet until I was in my late twenties and never even dreamed of writing a big, long novel.”
DARK: It certainly wasn’t as clear a vision as that! It began with the character of Virgil Reed, and I wrote a couple of hundred pages about him that took him to Maine. There Polly appeared, and Fellowship Point, and Robert Circumstance, and eventually Agnes. While they were coming into view, I decided I wanted to write a contemporary take on a 19th-century novel and learn how to create subplots that intersected with the main plot at crucial moments that would send things in a fresh direction. This seemed very hard! I was a poet until I was in my late twenties and never even dreamed of writing a big, long novel. The book developed a land plot out of all these elements, and also my friend Tina mentioned to me that in her work with land trusts, she’d found that a lot of the old ranches of California were donated to trusts, and to the University of California by women. After learning that I looked into the history of laws regarding women owning land in the US, and the under sung (no surprise there) history of land donation to trusts and national parks by women. The idea for the plot came from there.
AUTHORLINK: You did a fantastic job of taking disparate characters and entangling their lives in surprising ways. How did you track this for yourself as you developed the story – outline, index cards, or something else?
DARK: Good question! I have tried all methods and have yet to discover anything great. I can’t understand Scrivener. My notecards are too messy to want to look at again. Ditto my notes. Mostly I make lists on lined pads. Then I forget about them and do it again. Repetition seems to work better than any external repository. I have to get it all into my head. I do have handwritten lists of birth years for all the characters that I keep at hand. I never make lists of their traits or their histories and so on. They come to me whole and tell me what I need to know about them as I go along. Lots of surprises along the way! Recently I had an exchange with an old friend who mentioned Radcliffe and I found myself saying “I thought you went to Yale.” That’s exactly how I interact with my characters. The manuscript itself becomes the reference. If I write Radcliffe and later think Yale, I can go back and find what I said before.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to develop and shape Fellowship Point? Talk about the role of time in developing compelling prose.
DARK: I began in 2011 during a residency at VCCA. By 2014 when I had a six-week residency at MacDowell I’d written 1400 pages without a plan. I laid them out all over the room to discover some semblance of order and got rid of a few hundred pages. Then I began to really shape and organize the book, and to assemble drafts. I couldn’t work on it during my teaching semesters, so it was all accomplished during the summer and over winter breaks. I had a couple of disturbing experiences of returning to my notes after a few months away from the book to discover I had no idea what I meant by what I’d written. I realized I’d made the notes when I was still in a deep creative place, and they were an indecipherable shorthand. I needed to learn to make notes in a more down-to-earth way, and I am better at it now. I sent the book to my agent in 2017 and did a couple of more drafts with my editor. I didn’t come up with the solution to the land problem or the ending until very late in the process.
AUTHORLINK: Fellowship Point offers examples of strong love between characters that doesn’t fit into conventional categories. What did you draw from when creating these touching relationships that drove the story?
DARK: I have been surprised in the response to the book that people say it is about friendship. That never occurred to me—well, that’s not entirely true. I did write a whole draft of the book about the development of a deep friendship between Polly and Robert Circumstance. The friendship between Polly and Agnes was a given for me. My grandmother had close friends, as did my mother, and I went to a girls’ school K – 12 that put friendships with girls and women at the center of my social life. I was always frustrated, as Agnes is, by the assumption that the marriage bond trumps all friendships, and that choices about who gets more time is based on that. I also think it’s the most wonderful thing to be friends with a child as equals and wanted to portray that. The friendship between Agnes and the housekeeper in Maine, Sylvie, was a favorite and could have been a novel. I have observed glimpses of relationships like all of these and went to work on them with my imagination.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Fellowship Point and how did you overcome them?
” The greatest challenge was continuity.”
DARK: The greatest challenge was continuity. I did my best work when I was away at residencies. At home there are always interruptions, and I can’t get much accomplished on a big novel during the semesters. I try to work at the crack of dawn before the world is up. I feed feral cats outside every day so that motivates me to be up before the light, and then I am rewarded for my attendance to their needs by sunrise. I also love having whole days with nothing else to do and no one nearby. I am intensely distractable, but a whole day gives me the chance of three solid hours.
The other challenge was making the plot work out. It was a great act of faith to believe it would. I had to check all the negative self-talk about having no idea what I was doing and just trust that eventually, I would.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
DARK: I spent a long working day with my editor and her assistant in her office, including a working lunch. She flipped through every page of my manuscript, and we discussed what to cut from the 800 pages I had then. There were four chapters written from male points of view that went, and a first chapter that showed a scene mentioned in the present book when 14-year-old Agnes and Polly see Hamm Loose and his friends shoot a bird and mishandle artifacts in the Sank. There were other smaller changes throughout. We had a smooth working relationship and the book benefitted from my editor’s opinions.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice novelists?
DARK: Everyone works so differently, but I have found that being really sensitive to when I’m excited and when I have doubts makes a huge difference. I write for as long as I can when I’m excited; I back away when I have doubts. That is in the context of daily writing and backing away can consist of taking my hands off the manuscript and making notes or looking things up instead. The most important thing is to understand yourself and your own rhythms. Having a plan for every writing session also helps. Louise DeSalvo’s book The Art of Slow Writing shows how she writes an intention for each increment of her work and records the time she finished in a log. If I go off the rails, I return to that method. A novel takes a lot of time so it helps to both fantasize about the big picture and to focus on what can be done in one session. I’m also a big advocate of patience and waiting. I was cheered when I read that Agnes Martin might wait around for four or five months before she saw a new picture in her mind and then paint it, as opposed to pushing every day. Too many people get lost because they haven’t waited until the book is imagined enough. I don’t think you have to know everything—why would you write it if that were the case? But I do think it helps if it has a life of its own and you can be in dialogue with it before you start. And…protect yourself while you’re working on a book. Limit corrosive inputs and choose your reading carefully.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
DARK: I’m working on a novel that is a continuation of a story I published in the ‘nineties called “In the Gloaming.” The novel follows the family of the young man who died in that story over the next thirty-five years. The book thinks about how we go on without someone central to our lives.
Alice Elliott Dark is the author of the novels Fellowship Point and Think of England, and two collections of short stories, In The Gloaming and Naked to the Waist. Her work has appeared in, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, DoubleTake, Ploughshares, A Public Space, Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O.Henry Awards, and has been translated into many languages. “In the Gloaming,” a story, was chosen by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of The Century and was made into films by HBO and Trinity Playhouse. Her non-fiction reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many anthologies. She is a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and an Associate Professor at Rutgers-Newark in the English department and the MFA program.
In this article, Alice Elliot Dark answers: How do you organize a book? How do you handle continuity in a novel? How important is it to understand your own rhythms when writing? Have a plan for every writing session. How important is patience in writing?
Buy this Book: Amazon: (Print) (Kindle)
What a wonderful interview! I have not read Alice Elliot Dark, but now I will. I very much liked her discussion of her process in creating her work.
Glad you enjoyed the interview, Juli.