Sarah Blake’s follow-up to her New York Times bestseller, The Postmistress, is a richly drawn multi-generational epic. The Guest Book tells the story of three generations of the Miltons (an old money family who summer on their own island off the coast of Maine) and the secrets they keep -— buried secrets that eventually come to light for a painful reckoning.
Themes of racial and class tension, antisemitism, grief and complicity pack these pages. Bustle calls it “the family saga you’re going to fly through in summer 2019.”
I talked to Sarah over email about her inspiration and ambition for her latest novel, the idea of the “anchoress,” and why historical fiction readers can’t seem to get enough of World War II.
Even though it focuses so closely on human emotions and impulses, the scope of this cross-generational book is definitely epic. Was that part of your concept of the book from the get-go? Did you always want to weave together the story across three generations, or did one generation provide the seed for the others?
I’ve always loved reading big juicy multi-generational novels that span whole eras, and I’m a sucker for a book with a list of characters or a family tree published right up front: Turgenev and Tolstoy, Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits, Virginia Woolf’s The Years, and of course, Galsworthy’s Forsyth Saga. But when I decided to try and write my own I knew I wanted to write a novel that worked the way Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” works, dramatizing the story of two generations of one family separated by 100 years, but who still share the same house on stage, so the past and the present are literally playing out in tandem in front of the audience, moving back and forth in time, scene to scene. I wanted to try to build the layering of a family story, showing how families echo and repeat each other without knowing what they do.
When I started, I was only going to think of two generations, the present and then the ’50s, but then I realized how foundational the ’30s as an era was to the ’50s, and also how necessary it was to have the first generation’s story play out on the pages as actively as the second and third. If the echoes were going to resonate, the richly complicated nature of all three generations was going to need to be imagined. So, in about year four of writing, I opened the narrative to the first generation—Kitty and Ogden—and really delved into their stories and lives in the 1930s in order to fully understand the lens through which they view the world, and through which they demand their children view it as well. Ultimately it is the point of view of the 1930s, embedded unseen in the family that is what is passed down.
It really is. As a historical fiction writer, I often tell people that the best historical fiction is never really just about the past. Is there a particular resonance with the present day that you want readers to take away from these pages? Or, as you shaped the story, were you more focused on how the Miltons’ misdeeds resonate solely within the world of the story, not beyond it?
James Baldwin’s words are tacked above my desk: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” I’ve stared up at those words for my whole writing life. As I came to write this novel in which I wanted to directly explore our relation to our past — I began really thinking about taking those words literally — as in, how would I imagine history being trapped in people, or in this case, trapped in three generations of a family. What would Baldwin’s trap look like, and how would that trap show itself? And, as I wanted to tackle this country’s racial memory as well, how its half-truths half-remembered and certainly half-told, seem to echo the way the half-truths of family memory can create a false mythology — one that a family will live by, and bind themselves to — I was always interested in dramatizing a family who does not see the bars of its own history, thereby repeating the trap.
And how to do that?
Write a “historical” fiction that sets the past walking alongside the present, put them side by side on the same stage, walking in and out of the same house — unseen except by the reader. We see the spectacle of a family — a white, WASP old-money family, a “bastion” of New England — caught in the trap of passing on the past without confronting it. So, in answer to your question, I was always thinking about resonances between now and then — echoes and repetitions — in an effort to explore our relation to the past, both inside the Milton family and beyond. In the end, I wanted to explore whether it is possible to spring history’s trap in us, and if so, how?
That’s so beautifully put. And such an ambitious goal to tackle, especially with everything else going on in the novel. How did the idea of “the anchoress” enter the story? It’s such a powerful idea, your modern-day historian focusing on women whose silent servitude was their greatest — maybe only — contribution to the world. I’d love to know where that inspiration came from.
Years ago, I was at a party talking to a poet friend who had just come across the fact of anchoresses in some research he was doing, and we were both so completely taken with the idea that a girl/woman was bricked in at the side of an abbey (this was how we imagined it) to live out her days — the silent heart and soul of an institution. It was so weird and wild and inviting an image to both of us that we set ourselves the assignment of writing a poem of the anchoress that very night. Well, he went on to write a whole book, but that was the last poem I ever tried to write. Imagining her inside her cell, her face turned toward the crack for a window, her ear tuned to the singing of monks inside the church, the shaft of sunlight that crossed the wall day after day as she prayed could not be done in any poem I could write. She begged a novel, or someone like her. The challenge of that psyche, how to render her, turned me into a novelist! I never wrote a word of the poem. But her figure, and the power of her, metaphorically, stuck with me. And she found her way into this book.
Though the sweeping scope of this story means it’s about far more than World War II, the war does loom large here, as it does in so much of today’s historical fiction. Readers seem to have an endless appetite for WWII-set stories. Why do you think that is? What sets those years apart?
You are so right. I wondered about this appetite for World War II when I was talking to readers about The Postmistress, my second novel which was explicitly about that war and set in 1940, the year right before the US entered the fight the British and the French had been waging. And what I came to think is that that war — and by extension that era — is the closest thing we have to a classical struggle; in some ways that war is our Trojan War, the war that has slipped into the western mind’s mythology because the enemies were clearly defined, and the cause was existential. Upon that epic background the individual human stories that have been unearthed — through a greater understanding of history and in some ways a greater reckoning of the truths of what happened — can endlessly be hung. And I think because of that epic nature, until these past two or three years, that war — that past — seemed to be so past, something to read at a comfortable distance. And of course, that distance has collapsed.
As a writer of historical fiction, do you also read widely in the genre, or do you prefer to read outside your genre while you’re writing? Whose work are you currently reading and enjoying?
I love reading the history of whatever era I’m imagining — there are so many good stories to be found in the truth! And especially, I love reading the books written in the time I’m imagining. I find the language and the diction of the ’30s, for instance, helps me stretch my canvas, and figure out how to paint a scene set there. So, as I’m writing fiction set in the past, I read and watch the books and movies made in that same period to help me move easily around in the thinking and the voices of that history.
Right now I’m reading William Faulkner, having somehow made it all the way through my reading life without him. He is so good, it almost hurts to read it.
Sarah Blake will discuss and sign The Guest Book at Anderson’s Naperville on Monday, May 13 at 7:00 pm.
The Guest Book
By Sarah Blake
May 7, 2019