Maryanne, in writing Cascade, where did you start? Where did you first find inspiration for the characters or the story?
Cascade was originally three separate short story ideas. One was going to be about New York artists who painted for Roosevelt’s New Deal art projects in the 1930s. I was interested in the fact that the government, had for the first time, said, 1, that putting artists to work was just as important as putting bridge builders to work, and 2, that art was for everyone. The second story was going to be about four towns in Massachusetts that were flooded to create a reservoir in the 1930s. And the third story was going to be about a dying man who was more concerned with orchestrating what would happen to his beloved Shakespearean playhouse after his death than he was about the people he had entrusted to care for it.
When I was first combining these story ideas into the beginnings of the novel, I wasn’t sure how they were connected—I only trusted that there was some connection, and that it was my job as the writer to figure it out.
Your novel evokes America during the 1930s. Has this period in time always been of interest to you? And Dez, your heroine—do you think you could’ve written her story in any other decade?
Dez could definitely exist in any decade. Her struggle between duty and desire is timeless. But I have always been interested in the 1930s—I think because they were such a time of uncertainty, with so much at stake. The world was so gun-shy after the Great War. And once the Depression really settled in after the stock market crash, people really worried that the United States of America might have been one big experiment that failed.
I also wanted to show that, as hard as it was, not everyone was down and out. When I started interviewing people who’d lived through the Depression, I would hear, as expected, “oh yes, it was terrible, very hard times.” But then, when I would ask more personal questions, I’d hear, “Well, it wasn’t so bad for us. MY father always had a job.” Or “My father bought me a roadster for my 17th birthday.” And I realized that, just like now, some people were doing okay. It’s the uncertainty, I realized, that makes hard times hard for everybody. The uncertainty and fear that things will get worse. That if you’re doing okay now, you might not be okay tomorrow.
Cascade explores characters who struggle with independence and reconciling their passions with their responsibilities. What themes in this book are most important to you—or were when you first set out to write it?
Well, a big one is fate versus free will. And change. Repentance. I loved having Shakespeare to play off of, and I particularly liked working the mistaken identity theme. And from the very beginning, I had a Seamus Heaney line running through my head, which is, quote: “You lose more of your self than you redeem doing the decent thing.” I wanted to really examine that idea, examine “what defines a right choice.”
What do you want readers who don’t live in Massachusetts or the New England area to take away from Cascade?
At heart, Cascade is about the choices we make when we find ourselves in complicated life situations. Such stories are universal—they take place everywhere, during all time periods.
Also, a big part of Cascade actually takes place outside New England, in New York City, but regardless, I might have placed this story in any number of settings. It’s just that I felt western Massachusetts and New York in the 1930s worked really well.
Flooded towns happened everywhere, all over this country—Florida, California, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas. And they happened all over the world. There’s a lake in Italy, Lago di Vagli, that’s actually a hydroelectric dam. In the forties, they flooded a stone village, and every ten years, when the lake is emptied for maintenance, the village emerges from the water like a ghost. And of course, thousands of villages in China were submerged to create the 3 Gorges Dam.
For people who don’t know western Massachusetts, it’s worth a visit. It’s a remarkably lovely place, and has been a cultural mecca for a long time. It’s home to Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Edith Wharton’s The Mount, countless museums, and arts festivals.
You’re an accomplished short story writer, have published numerous stories throughout the years. What’s different for you when you sit down to craft a novel?
I never planned to write a novel. I take my time with prose, I do a lot of deepening and polishing, and 25 or so short story pages seemed like plenty. It took a while for me to learn to break open scenes and know that it was okay to write a few extra pages just to see where a scene might go, or what a character would do. There’s a juggling, certainly, that goes on with a short story …but it’s just a much bigger set of elements to juggle when you’re writing 300 to 400 pages. You have to be conscious of a reader wanting to turn all those pages, and you want your work to have all these rich layers. So for Cascade, there had to be the here and now drama of “will the town be chosen,” “will Dez and Jacob end up together,” but beyond the plotlines, there had to be the story I really wanted to tell, which is about the personal and cultural salvation that is art.
Early on in Cascade, your heroine Dez finds—what proves to be pivotal—a postcard and you write, “Dez fingered the card, thinking how pleasant it was to get a postcard, what a nice little lift it gave a person.” Any memorable postcards in your past, Maryanne?
I do have a memorable one actually. Every once in a while I am compelled to tell a living writer just how much I admire him or her. Someone I once wrote to was Alice Munro, and she sent me in reply a thank you postcard, which showed a picture of the library in her Canadian town. It’s this small, colorful treasure that sits on my bookshelf. I do like postcards. I like that they’re so immediate, and yet they stand in time.
Listen to the audio podcast of this interview, click here: