Gravesend Light

Payne, David

Published by Plume, 2001
ISBN 10: 0452282624 / ISBN 13: 9780452282629
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Synopsis: In Gravesend Light, award-winning author David Payne masterfully combines moving drama, a high-seas adventure, and a deeply affecting love story. It is the story of Joe Madden, an anthropologist who has returned to his family's summer home on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Little Roanoke, with its traditions dating back to the time of Sir Walter Raleigh, is an isolated enclave threatened by the ncroachment of modern civilization-and the subject of Joe's study. Here, he meets two people who will alter the course of his future: Ray Barstow, a fisherman and ex-con who, aboard the Father's Price, teaches him more than just the ropes of one of the world's most dangerous professions; and Day Shaughnessey, a Yale-educated Ob-Gyn and ardent feminist whose views on reproductive rights come into conflict with the deeply religious people of Little Roanoke. The events of the story culminate in a savage storm at sea that the crew of the Father's Price-including Joe Madden-may not survive.

Gravesend Light assures David Payne's place as one of the most important chroniclers of the contemporary Southern experience.

From the Author: Q> What inspired this novel? What was it about Joe Madden that made you want to revisit him as an adult?

I am interested in understanding how who we are in our first families-- those we come from--colors and conditions who we become in our second families, which we make. Having chronicled the decline of Joe Madden's parents' marriage in Ruin Creek, I wondered how the adult Joe might repeat, in his love affair with Day Shaughnessey, May and Jimmy Maddens' dysfunctional patterns. Would Joe, in a sense, "marry his mother" (or her opposite)? Might he even "marry his father"? (Or some combo of both parents?) In other words, would he try to fix, in the here and now, with Day, what was broken in the there and then? And, if he did, might he and Day, through hard-earned understanding, eventually break the cycle and achieve something true, lasting, all their own?

Q> Critical reception for Gravesend Light has been through the roof. What about readers' feedback?

I have been known to peek, on occasion, at the "reader review" postings at amazon.com-- which interest me precisely because they are from real readers vs. reviewers-- and I've been heartened by what I've found. I think perhaps the strangest and most original compliment I've ever received came from another novelist, who wrote me that, "Gravesend Light feels like a beautifully sculptured pair of smooth black pliers have been placed in my mouth and attached to my teeth and the force of the world is pulling on these pliers." I don't know quite what it means, but I like it!

Q> As many readers surely have and will, I fell in love with Day Shaughnessey. Did her voice come easily? What particular sorts of challenges, risks, liberties come with crossing gender lines and inhabiting a female consciousness?

Of course, it's politically risky, in our PC era, to cross gender lines and write from a woman's point of view, but I guess I feel that what serious writing is about--one of the things it's about-- is the attempt to imagine our way out of the solitary cells we inhabit as individuals and to touch and experience otherness, the Other, another. Which is the higher aim, to try, for a few hundred hours, to see and feel the world as a woman might, or to regard female experience as proprietary and forever closed to me because I am a man? Whether one can pull it off, of course, is another matter, and if I can and have, I imagine the reason why goes back to something very old and deep in the earliest time of childhood that made me particularly sensitive to and aware of the moods and feelings of the women in my early environment. I'm really just guessing, because I don't know. The actual experience of writing Jane McCrae in Early from the Dance, May Tilley in Ruin Creek, and now Day Shaughnessey in Gravesend Light was rather like sewing a large, elaborate sail, let's say, putting in the grommets, and so on. Once done and hoisted, though, the wind that filled it was from elsewhere, and I just sat b
ack and took the ride.


Q> What happened with the Oregon Inlet Stabilization Project? Was this an actual controversy in Little Roanoke in the early 1980s? How do things stand today?

There is no such place as Little Roanoke. There is, of course, Roanoke Island, where the Lost Colonists landed and, later, disappeared. Oregon Inlet is real, as is, or was, the Oregon Inlet Stabilization Project. The fishermen there today still want and believe the jetties will be built. Few people outside the fishing community share that view, but I've been told that the project presently has a better chance of resurrection than at any time in the last ten or fifteen years.

Q> What kind of research went on behind the scenes of this book-particularly your vivid evocation of North Carolina's Outer Banks in the early '80s? In your Acknowledgments, you refer to an experience with "the rough charms of commercial fishing"...

After college, instead of going to an MFA program in creative writing, I worked for a year or so in the Atlantic scallop fishery, working on trawlers out of Wanchese, North Carolina, and also in Point Judith, Rhode Island. In 1992, I think it was, as I began to think about and plan Gravesend Light, I realized that my seamanship had become rusty, so I went back to Wanchese looking for a captain who'd let me take a trip. It was a bitter January day on Mill Landing along the waterfront, and everywhere I went in my Saab with green Vermont plates, the fishermen I spoke to glared or, sometimes, laughed outright. Because, sharing a trip, you see, is like living in the intimacy of someone's home for a week or ten days. So, really, why should they have taken me? But as afternoon declined, at the very tip of the island, last stop on the route--the Moon Tillett Fish Co.-- I found two brothers, Craig and Billy Carl Tillett, who remembered the captain I'd fished with (he was dead) and the boat I'd fished on (which had burned and sunk), and on the basis of a fifteen minute conversation, showing the kind of hospitality I tried to describe in the book-- which exists alongside a ferocity that makes the Wanchesers among the most notorious and feared ass-kickers in the Atlantic fishery-- they took me. If the fishing scenes in the book feel authentic, I owe it in large measure to the Tillets, particularly Captain Craig Tillett and the crew of the Linda Gayle.

Q> One of the most compelling aspects of Gravesend Light concerns Joe's gradual recognition of the ways his own identity and experiences will always and inevitably come to bear on his work as an anthropologist. Joe's futile struggle to essentially erase his own voice in his work is tantamount, as Ray says at one point, to being dead. What made you want to tackle these issues?

I suppose I feel that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is key--or a key-- to the zeitgeist of the 20th-century, the notion that the consciousness of the observer helps, in some true sense, to create the "reality" that he or she observes. So the whole 19th-century Newtonian notion of a "really real" external reality independent of the consciousness of our observing minds is bogus. On the whole, I think this is truer than not. And so Joe, as he goes to Little Roanoke to observe the locals, ends up seeing, in these people he barely knows, reflections of himself, his life, his parents' lives, and his search for other leads him in to what Ron Charles in The Christian Science Monitor called, "that first, final and most harrowing subject: himself." (It also strikes me that the shift from a Newtonian to a quantum or relativistic worldview probably accounts, in some sense, for the decline, among novelists, in the third person omniscient point of view and the corresponding increase of first-person writing, but that notion may be more pretty than true.)

Q> Are there any useful parallels to draw between the science of ethnography and the art of storytelling?

Well, getting into or inhabiting a consciousness, or consciousnesses, outside of and other than one's own are key to both. I also think writers, like social scientists, tend to fall into the observer (vs. participant) role. This book is really about someone who has become an observer, is comfortable in that role, and is drawn through a series of crises and opportunities, to step back into the stream of life as a participant. Most of all, it is about crossing the terrifying threshold where intelligent skepticism must give way to faith and where knowledge must give way to love, or else, as Rebecca West puts it, "we walk forever queer and small, like a dwarf."

Q> Gabriel García Márquez has said that there is essentially no difference between what fiction can achieve and what journalism can achieve: "The sources are the same, the material is the same, the resources and language are the same." How do you weigh in on this? Where do "truth" and "imagination" factor here?

Well, there is factually accurate journalistic truth, which has its uses, and there is factually inaccurate novelistic or artistic truth, which, to me, is deeper-- but I suppose that's obvious, right? Otherwise, I'd be a journalist. In other words, I think imagination is a tool available to artists that is unavailable--or less available--to journalists, and it adds a dimension to art that's not present in journalism. So I don't agree with Marquez. On the other hand- as Joe Madden would say--the better the journalism gets, the closer it gets to fiction. Don't you see this when you read a really good profile in, say, The New Yorker, vs. a newspaper piece? And all this relates back to the point about Heisenberg above. Why? Because the better a writer is, the more likely he or she is to realize that his own personality is an inescapable lens through which his subject MUST be seen. There is no choice. And so you stop fighting it. But if you're writing for a newspaper, even The New York Times, chances are you're still operating off the 19th-century Newtonian assumption that truth is out there existing independently of you, and so you try to erase yourself and the writing, thereby, becomes less interesting and rich.

Q> What would your ideal reader walk away thinking and feeling after finishing Gravesend Light?

When and if I ever find one, I'm hoping he or she will tell ME.

Q> Is Little Roanoke's situation in Gravesend Light unique? What is the future for smalltown America-fishing communities on the Atlantic seaboard and Midwestern farmtowns alike-as our urban/suburban culture continues to explode?

The homogenizing influence of mass culture is everywhere and threatens all traditional social groups, whether fishermen, farmers or hunter-gatherers in the Amazon rainforest.

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Gravesend Light
Publisher: Plume
Publication Date: 2001
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Used: Good

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