On Writing "Down to the River"

RL 2.jpeg
Photo by Olive Pierce

I was born in 1953, one of the charmed Eisenhower babies, into the sunny, post-war era of gung-ho optimism and social bliss—TV dinners and moon rockets’ red glare, mothers in maroon lipstick and belted, seersucker dresses, squeaky clean dooby-doo music and neatly mowed lawns.  As soon as I could write my own name, I got my first library card.  I read everything—The Bobbsey Twins, Charlotte’s Web, Archie comics, and the ubiquitous backs of cereal boxes.  Onto the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, The Secret Garden, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, How Green Was My Valley, paperback romance novels and "Mad" Magazine.  When my mother pestered me to “Go outside and play!” I blocked my ears.  I was more likely to be found curled up inside with a book in some favorite nook, on the heating vent, or the attic stairs, the cushion on the bay window—disappearing into disparate and far-away worlds—toughing it out on the Prairie with Laura and Mary, sailing into the kingdom of Narnia, sliding through a mysterious Wrinkle in Time.  To my mother’s credit, she did “drag” my brother and sister and me to Sanders Theatre in 1960 to hear Robert Frost read his poems, shortly before he died.

 

Some years later, after the Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the nation and JFK was assassinated in 1963, the world suddenly tilted on its axis.  I came of age in a turbulent urban wilderness in an extraordinary time (the late 1960's) in an extraordinary place (Cambridge, Massachusetts).  Living just footsteps away from the Harvard and MIT campuses, I attended a sprawling, diverse public high school sitting on the fringes of Harvard Square.  With a new, laissez-faire style of parenting in vogue, my siblings and I, as young teenagers, were left largely to our own devices. Suddenly freed from old rules and constraints, we tumbled headlong into a world of sex, drugs, politics and rock and roll. We tossed away our parents’ old-school values and rules, all our hang-ups and inhibitions.  We smoked pot and hashish and burned our draft cards and our bras. Nothing was out of reach; nothing was forbidden.  We answered only to ourselves and to each other.

 

High school was often disrupted or cancelled for days at a time, due to demonstrations, racial strife, riots, snowstorms and bomb scares.  Ours was a different kind of education.  We roamed the city barefoot day and night, wearing army jackets and wool-buttoned sailor pants and mini-skirts “up to our navels,” as the saying went.  At the age of fifteen, I rode on a jam-packed, overnight bus to Washington, DC to join half a million others gathered to protest the Vietnam War.  By that time, I was already on the Pill, smoking Camel non-filters and buying nickel bags of pot in the girls’ bathroom at school.  I saw Joan Baez perform at the Club 47 in Harvard Square, Richie Havens, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, the Animals in a basement room of a technical school.  I heard Tina Turner sing her heart out at the Harvard Stadium, and the Beatles at the Suffolk Downs Racetrack.  The list goes on and on.

 

And that was just the world of music.  The political and social upheaval of the time was legendary and unprecedented, for better and for worse.  We lived through the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.  We watched Neil Armstrong take a first step on the moon and witnessed first-hand the SDS takeover at Harvard.  We lived through the Summer of Love, Kent State, the Mai Lai Massacre and the Tet Offensive.  We saw the rise of the Black Panther movement and the arrest of Angela Davis.  News crept East of the grisly Manson murders as we danced in the muddy fields at Woodstock.  

 

Still and always, through it all—I read books—only one of a few in my high school English classes to love the classics—Silas Marner and Beowulf, Return of the Native, even Ivanhoe.  I read Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin, Carson McCullers, Sylvia Plath, John Fowles, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Ray Bradbury.  Later, in college I devoured the work of the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy, read every book written by Jane Austen as an independent study.  The French novelists beckoned—Stendhal, Zola, Colette and Flaubert.  I majored in French Literature at Brandeis University, and wrote my thesis in French on “Fatalism in the Novels of Emile Zola.”  Later, I spent a year living and studying in Paris.

 

It wasn’t until several years later, after getting a Masters degree in elementary education from Tufts University and while teaching junior high school in a rough-and-tumble mill town up in Vermont, that I decided to pick up the pen.  I remember pulling over to the side of a dusty dirt road in my beat-up VW Bug, frantically searching for spare receipts or napkins to write down the thoughts swirling around in my head. I’d just been witness to a chess tournament held in a dingy, carpeted Holiday Inn function room in Keene, New Hampshire.  My boyfriend at the time was an avid chess player and I’d gone to cheer him on.  Not much in the way of a “spectator sport,” nonetheless the scene was fascinating.  Chess players were among the most bizarre and inscrutable subsets of human beings I’d ever encountered—brilliant, often socially awkward, if not clueless, sartorially challenged to say the least, almost always bespectacled.  But they quietly exuded the intellectual confidence of knowing they were most likely the smartest ones in any given room at any given time.  Seemingly oblivious to all the clamor and minutiae of the mundane exterior world, their razor-sharp intelligence nearly blew the roof of the Holiday Inn that day.  How could I not write about it?

 

I began to write short stories, most of them set in New England, many of them in Cambridge, my hometown. While raising my three daughters, the stories were published in several literary magazines—the "Virginia Quarterly Review," the "Southern Review," the "Boston Globe Sunday Magazine," the "North American Review," and "Crosscurrents," among others. My short story, “Sans Homme,” won the Nelson Algren Award, and another, “Star Box,” was included in the 1995 edition of "O’Henry Prize Stories."  My short story collection, "Galaxy Girls: Wonder Women," won the Willa Cather Fiction Prize and was published by Helicon Nine Editions in 1994.  (“Demonstrating a keen ear for unpretentious voices, Ms. Pierce uses the stories … to spin richly populated yarns of divorce, abandonment, birth and love.” — The New York Times Book Review)

 

I’d long been a fan of the novel—the longer and more rambling the better—and I wanted to write my own.  I started a wildly ambitious family saga set in Cambridge in the late 1960s.  It felt important to document and immortalize the era, to capture the language and imagery and visceral emotions, before it all slipped away.  The project soon overwhelmed me.  I banished the unfinished novel to a box and shoved it under my bed.  Instead, I wrote Rain Line, the story of an eccentric Cambridge family, partially based on an incident from my own life, in which a friend’s car swerved off the road and into the Boston Harbor one rainy night. The novel addressed themes of trauma, grief and recovery, and was published by the University Press of New England (Hardscrabble Books) in 2001.  It subsequently won a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, a New Voices award, and the Paterson Prize for Fiction.  (“A lyrical first novel… Small in scope but an elegant foray into beauty gleaned from tragedy.” — Kirkus Reviews) 

 

The city of Cambridge is often as much a character in my work as its human counterparts. My family has deep roots in the city and a long-standing involvement in the social, artistic and political arenas.  My mother was a professional documentary photographer and started the photography program at the Cambridge public high school, publishing a book of photographs entitled, No Easy Roses: A Look at the lives of City Teenagers.  My father, a lawyer and later a judge, was an early champion of women’s rights and fought for access to safe and legal abortions in the late 1960's.  While raising my family, I spent many hours working on writing projects with kids in the Cambridge Public Schools.  I also hopped on the Red Line every Tuesday evening to teach Creative Writing to graduate students at Emerson College in Boston for several years.  Meanwhile, somewhere along the line, I’d gathered my courage and unearthed the abandoned ’60s novel from under the bed.  The final result, Down to the River, will be published in May of 2022.  I am thrilled that at Regal House Publishing, the book has finally found a home.

 

I’ve lived in the same neighborhood my entire life, 02138 — rumored to be the most opinionated zip code on the planet.  Whether or not that’s true, it’s a vibrant and diverse place, and for me it’s always been home.  I love eating out and going to movies, swimming, running and hanging out with my daughters and extended family.  In the summer, I can be found on a remote island in Muscongus Bay in Maine, swimming the frigid waters or picking berries in the woods.  On a crisp fall morning, you might still find me strolling down the street I walked one November day in 1963, on my way to the local Brighams for a vanilla coke with some friends.  President Kennedy had been assassinated that morning in Dallas and we’d been dismissed early from school.  I went home to find my parents crying in front of the TV set, in separate, straight-backed chairs.  I remember thinking, at the age of ten — “This will change everything.”  I’m still here, moseying down to the cafe in the alleyway in Harvard Square where, as a teenager, I saw Taj Mahal perform.  I’m still running down to the river, along its twisting pathways—up to the Esplanade and back down to the Watertown basin. I’m still here, keeping the faith, writing novels and short stories, trying to usher them out into the world.

                                                                                                                                              AWP