John Casey Comes Back to South County
The author of the 1989 National Book Award-winning Spartina (and the long-awaited sequel, Compass Rose, out this month) talks about a bargain island, why Rhode Island inspires him, and what he knows about women.
John Casey finished writing Spartina in 1986, but his characters weren’t done with him. The novel went on to win the National Book Award, Casey went on to other books — but he never stopped writing about his fictional South County world. Twenty years later, the highly anticipated sequel, Compass Rose, brings it all back. “I was thinking the next time I’m in Rhode Island, I’ll go look at that big old white house on Sawtooth Point,” Casey says. “Then I remember that I made it up.”
What is your connection to Rhode Island? I was born in Massachusetts, so I’ve always felt myself a New Englander. I regret to say that one of my ancestors on my mother’s side was a fairly grim Puritan. The only poem I know that he wrote had these lines: “Let men of God in courts and churches watch/ O’er such as do a toleration hatch.” He was unsympathetic to Roger Williams, someone I’ve always admired.
There was part that was chance: My then father-in-law called his daughter and me up. We were living in Iowa at the time. He said that there was a very small island in South County for sale; he could see it from his house. He offered to put up some of the money against his daughter’s inheritance if I could come up with some and mortgage the rest. He thought the price reasonable — I think it was $52,000 for 4.2 acres. Four at high tide. I’d had a run of good luck selling stories and was feeling adventurous. I also thought I knew something about boats. In the next four years, I learned how much I didn’t know.
What about Rhode Island inspired Spartina? Both the varied nature of the nature — salt marshes, salt ponds, different kinds of shoreline on the bay and sound — and the people I got to know, partly hanging out in a boatyard that had mostly lobstermen and quahog tongers as its clientele, though I also got to know some men from larger vessels. I’d written a bit about Iowa farmers and was impressed by how much they knew about so many different things: carpentry, machinery, animals, soil.
The same thing struck me about commercial fishermen.
Some of your Spartina fans may be surprised that the sequel is a novel about female relationships. Spartina is about a gruff, vigorous and impulsive man, who is fulfilled by building his own boat and going out to the edge of the continental shelf to set his offshore pots. Compass Rose is from the point of view of three women who have to wait on shore and deal with the problems he leaves behind when he goes to sea.
But it’s more than fairness that drew me to the women. I heard their voices, and they were saying things that fascinated me.
Was it hard to write from the female perspective? Any man would be a fool to claim he had anything more than a puzzled, though often admiring, knowledge of women. I do happen to come from a large family and have married into two large families, mostly female. My four daughters have also given me a great deal to puzzle over and then admire.
A lot of the time I was trying to be a method actor, improvising and then playing the roles of the five principal women. In life, remembered or invented, there is a fair amount of overlapping between women and men. I should ask a younger friend to draw a Venn diagram showing the overlap and the mystery.
What did you learn about women while writing this book? In 1989, I wrote a story, “Avid” (published in the New Yorker), from the point of view of a woman. At a party a female professor came up to me and very nicely said, “I’m amazed that a man wrote that story! You understand women.” Standing nearby were my wife and ex-wife, who are friends. They looked at each other and had to put their hands over their mouths to keep from laughing out loud. In their trills of only half-muffled laughter, there is a lot to be learned. I’m working on it.
For fans of Spartina, which was published in 1989, the sequel has been a long time coming. Was it difficult to get this novel exactly right? I wrote a first draft before Spartina was published. My editor liked Spartina but thought the Elsie/May sequel was a mess. My friend and colleague Tony Winner also thought it was a mess but potentially even better than Spartina. I tried rewriting it, but the first draft wasn’t working. Then I got diverted by writing The Half-life of Happiness, which took four or five years.
I also translated two Italian novels and wrote some essays and poems. Then I took out a clean pad of writing paper and started from scratch. It went very well for a year or so. My editor had…various thoughts. Some of them were helpful. I wrote another two drafts. Tony Winner typed eight pages of commentary, single-spaced. Very, very helpful. I then figured out what the rhythm and sequence should be. I rewrote it again, not changing much but paring it down. I also added a few short chapters. But there were still some arguments about the title and the cover design. Many terse emails later, both were settled the right way.
I’ve lived with the characters in Spartina, Compass Rose and a half-dozen short stories set in South County off and on for more than twenty years. I’m happy. I’m satisfied that it was worth it.
What is your writing process like? I prick a fingertip and write a word. Then I prick another fingertip and so on. Okay, getting fanciful, but that’s the way it feels some days. There are other days when I go to my work shed and get lucky.
Read an excerpt from Compass Rose on the following pages
Elsie bundled Rose up and went to the new shed. In the jumble of outdoor toys Sally had dropped off, there was a plastic sled, just a bowl really. She put Rose in it and pulled it to the back of the house. She held onto the rope and lowered the sled to the edge of the pond. She walked onto the ice. Thick enough. She pulled the sled halfway up the slope, set Rose in her lap and slid down. They picked up some speed as they went over the bank and ended up in the middle of the pond, slowly turning.
“What do you think, Rose? Fun?”
Rose made noises. She hadn’t said a recognizable word yet, but she’d begun to make noises that seemed to have the rhythm of conversation.
“So we’ll do it again. From the top. Or shall we just lie here?” Elsie spun them around with her feet, and Rose laughed. Elsie acknowledged laughing but not Mary’s reports of singing or saying words.
Elsie spun them around again. Rose said, “Ah” and then higher, “Ah, ah.” Elsie said, “Okay. I give in. We’ll call that singing.” Elsie gave another push with her feet. As they spun to face the house Elsie saw May walk past the station wagon. May disappeared on the other side of the house. Elsie lay still. When she heard May knock on the door, her feet skittered on the snow and the ice, moving the sled a yard or two. More knocking. Elsie turned Rose towards her. She had to twist herself onto her knees to get up. She had no idea, she had a storm of ideas. May reappeared. She might have walked back down the driveway without seeing them. Elsie waved.
May turned her head and stopped. Then she walked down to the pond. Elsie stood still. May came across the ice, taking small shuffling steps that left a channel in the snow. Elsie had forgotten that May was taller than her. Most of the times Elsie thought of May, May was an invisible presence that came up through her and filled her. This May, in her wool overcoat with a scarf over her head, emptied her.
May took off a glove and moved the side of Rose’s hood. She stared at Rose’s face. Rose lifted a hand. Elsie took off Rose’s mittens, May touched Rose’s palm, and Rose held onto May’s finger. May bent her head, and it seemed natural to Elsie to lift Rose higher. Perhaps because Rose felt herself being lifted, she turned and raised her arms. May picked her up and began to rock her gently with a little sway of her hips. Rose put her fingers in her mouth and drooled. May made a little noise, as near to a laugh as Rose’s noise had been.
May wiped the drool away with her fingers and dried them on her coat without taking her eyes off Rose.
“You’re a good baby,” May said. “You’re a pretty girl.”
Elsie said, “It may be time for her bottle. Would you like to come in?”
May handed Rose back to Elsie and said, “I don’t believe I can just now.”
“Perhaps another time.”
May looked up at Elsie’s house, then back at Rose. “Perhaps.” Elsie shifted Rose to her shoulder and dropped Rose’s mitten. May picked it up. She said, “That’s hand knit.”
“Yes. Mary Scanlon knits.” May put the mitten on Rose’s hand. Elsie said, “Mary takes care of Rose most mornings. Here and then at Sawtooth. I’m here after five. Unless I’m with Miss Perry.”
“Yes,” May said. “Miss Perry.”
Elsie couldn’t tell if May was weighing good deeds against bad or if she was still wondering what it would be like to go into the house.
Elsie had no idea what details May might have asked Dick to tell, what pictures came to May’s mind. Now it was just as well they were outside, bundled up in winter coats.
May said, “I think Dick should see her. I think he should see her over at our house.”
Elsie took a step back. Then she pretended she was looking for the sled. She bent down and picked up the rope. May said, “Here. You’ll need both hands going up the hill.” May took the rope and led the way, walking in the footprints she’d made.
When they reached the driveway, Elsie said, “Did you leave your car down by Miss Perry’s?”
“I walked. It’s not that far.” May leaned the sled against the side of the house. “You haven’t said anything.” May sounded mild but deliberate. “You haven’t said anything about what I said.”
“I thought… I would have thought.…” Elsie felt herself flustering. She took a breath and said, “I thought it would be better if we kept apart.”
May put her glove on and folded her hands. “That’d be fine. If it was just about you and Dick.” Elsie felt herself out of time with May’s steady matter-of-factness. She wondered if May knew what it felt like to listen to these long pauses and short sentences. And then she thought that was the way Dick talked.
“You could keep Rose to yourself,” May said. “Or … Dick could come over here. Least that way Rose would know her father. But then Dick might end up thinking he’s got two families. If Rose comes over to see us, then she’s the one with two families.”
Elsie made a noise. It sounded like the yip of a dog having a dream. Rose stiffened. May nodded once as if Elsie had said something conversational. May said, “Charlie and Tom don’t know. They will. It’s getting to be not much of a secret. I expect they’ll be hard on Dick for a while. Course not so hard as if they heard it somewhere else.”
Elsie looked at the black and white of the trees and snow around them, the hard low sky. She said, “Just how do you see these visits working?”
May looked up. “Bit by bit. I could get a car seat for Rose. Pick her up one day when Dick’s home. The boys back in school.”
“I’m afraid Rose would be afraid.”
May considered this, nodded. “Maybe you or Mary Scanlon. She’s used to Mary, I guess. One of you could come along till she’s used to us.” May shivered and wrapped her arms across her chest. She said, “Dick was good with babies. When the boys were babies. He’s been a good father. Strict about work, but when they do a good job, he says so.”
“Work … I don’t think I’ve looked that far into Rose’s future.” Elsie was afraid she’d sounded too mincing, too ladylike. She said, “I’m just floundering around trying to fit in next month’s doctor’s appointment.”
May said, “Dick’s helping with all that — still making a regular contribution?” She said it mildly.
“Oh, I didn’t mean … yes, he is.”
May nodded. She said, “I expect you’ll want to think it over. It’s time for me to get back anyway.”
“I wish I could give you a ride. It’s awful cold. I’m just afraid I couldn’t get back up the driveway.”
“I’ll warm up once I start walking.”
May let Charlie take her Dodge Dart to Wakefield so he and Tom could buy some things, go to an afternoon movie. She put off Phoebe Fitzgerald, who wanted to have lunch. She wasn’t sure what to do about Dick. He’d said he was going to look in on the Tran boy, then maybe do a thing or two on the boat. Part of her wanted him to show up, find her and Mary Scanlon and Rose. Another part was afraid he’d get angry, and she wasn’t sure she had the energy to rise to that, or that her sense of right, strong enough when she’d gone to see Elsie, would hold up.
Mary Scanlon had made it sound easy. “Sure. It’ll be a breath of fresh air. For Rose too. Better put your good china out of reach, she’s crawling and clambering to beat the band.”
May had felt a note of pleasure. Rose crawling and clambering — what else? Was she learning to stand up? May remembered holding Charlie’s hands, Tom’s hands, helping them take a step, admiring the swell of their small perfect calf muscles.
When Mary Scanlon’s pick-up pulled into the driveway, May went out to meet them. She didn’t dare to ask to hold Rose yet, but she offered her hand and smiled at her. Rose touched her hand and studied her.
May said, “I forgot to ask what she likes to eat.”
“She had her lunch, but she wouldn’t say no to a snack. Elsie’s strict about sweets, maybe a bit of toast…”
“I’ve made biscuits. And there’s jelly. There’s very little sugar in my jelly.” May led the way in, fluttered around the kitchen. She knew she’d do better to calm down. She thought the way Mary pulled Rose out of her snowsuit was too rough-and-tumble, but Rose plainly liked Mary’s touch. May split a biscuit open. Still too hot for a baby. She got the paper bag in which she’d hidden the teddy bear she’d bought. She was pleased she remembered that plastic bags were dangerous. “Can she get it out by herself?”
“Oh yes, she’s a great explorer of bags. Aren’t you, Rose? Just hold it out to her. Rosie, look. She understands if you say ‘it’s for you.’”
May was tongue-tied. She finally managed to say, “Rose.” Rose looked up at the sound of her name, but sat still in the middle of the floor. May knelt and held the bag out. Rose stared at May’s face, and May wished herself pure of any harm she’d ever wished on Elsie. She leaned forward, elbows on the floor, until the bag was at Rose’s feet.
Rose touched the bag and looked at Mary. “Aw, go on, Rosie. Don’t be such a tease.” Mary’s voice sounded like a roar to May, but Rose smiled.
“It’s for you,” May said. “For you.” Rose picked it up and put the top edge of the bag in her mouth. She chewed on it without taking her eyes off May’s face. May felt dizzy. It was all more than she’d bargained for. She was relieved when Mary laughed.
As if Mary’s laugh set her off, Rose grabbed the bag with both hands and swung it up and down, thumping it on the ground. Mary laughed again and said, “A good thing you didn’t give her a tea cup.” The top began to tear, and Rose saw the teddy bear. She pulled at it, got it half out and looked sideways at May, a sly smile that took May by surprise. It was devilish and pleased, and, it seemed to May, meant that Rose knew that May was part of her pleasure. Rose got hold of the bear’s ear. May put a finger on the bottom of the bag and the bear popped out. Rose found the face and began poking at an eye.
May was exhausted.
She got back in her chair, and it was a minute before she remembered her manners and offered Mary a cup of tea.
“If it’s no trouble,” Mary said. “I think we’ve got a quiet moment while Rose tortures her new bear. And I have to say I’m glad you didn’t get her a squeaky toy. Eddie, God love him, got her a rubber duck that quacks, sounds just like the real thing. I’m expecting mallards to be flying into the house any minute.”
Mary kept on talking blithely while May made tea, but when May set the teapot down, Mary took her by the wrist, looked her in the eye and said, “I see you’re taken with our Rose and I’m glad. I can imagine.… But this way is for the best — if Rose grows up knowing you, it’ll give her just that much more.”
May was startled, then embarrassed.
It was false credit. She didn’t dare explain — she wanted Rose with an ache that had nothing to do with doing the right thing. She wanted Rose to want to be in her house, to like the smell of her kitchen, to hold her arms out to be picked up.
She heard stomping and scraping on the front porch. She hadn’t heard a car. Dick came in, said, “I smell biscuits.” He didn’t seem surprised to see Mary, but he stopped short when he looked down at Rose. He looked at the far corner of the kitchen, his mouth set, his head nodding. Certainly not agreeing with anything, more likely moving with his pulse.
He turned around and started for the front door.
It was Mary who was quick on her feet. She darted around Rose and got to Dick in the front hallway. She said, “Oh no you don’t!” and wrapped her arms around him, half tackling him, half hugging him.
He snarled and pushed at her arm. May was terrified they’d struggle their way back into the kitchen. She got down on her hands and knees beside Rose. But Mary laughed and said, “Oh Dick, for God sake — it’s nothing to be afraid of. We all love you, you great lummox.” She kissed the side of his head. “Though I’m sure I don’t know why.” Dick stood still. Mary kept an arm around his shoulder — May hadn’t ever taken in how really big Mary was — and kept on talking. “So you want Rose to grow up thinking Eddie’s her father? She’s about to start saying Da-da — it’s any minute now. So come on, there’s nothing happening here that wasn’t bound to happen sooner or later. And don’t start up with May. I’m the one brought Rose over, you can’t expect me to keep her by myself the whole day without a moment of relief.”
Rose sat looking up at Mary, holding the teddy bear to her chest with one arm. May thought how easily attentive Rose looked, as if Mary were singing. And it was a kind of crooning, a kind of coaxing that hadn’t ever been heard in this house. It was as if the snowstorm had blown in any number of things May wasn’t used to — Mr. Salviatti’s angels came to mind, mixing up religion and pleasure — and here was Mary Scanlon, all in one breath scolding and coaxing, strong-arming him and now hugging him front on, one hand stroking the back of his head, as if she was about to kiss him on the mouth.
And what if she did?
Mary and Dick stepped around May and Rose, and Mary sat down and poured herself a cup of tea. Dick sat in May’s chair. Rose looked at them for a second. May was sure that Rose thought to herself, Those two aren’t going to be fun for a while. Rose held the teddy bear out towards May. May put the bag over its head. Rose furrowed her eyebrows. May pulled the bag off. Rose looked only slightly amused.
May went through all the foolishness she could remember — peek-a-boo, itsy-bitsy spider, this-little-piggy — at first through Rose’s socks and then, pulling one sock off, on Rose’s bare toes. She couldn’t resist kissing Rose’s foot, which smelled like carrots with a bit of earth still on them. Rose found her toes of interest too, and she and May examined each one as if they were leafing through a book together.
And then Mary was on her feet, bustling Rose into her snowsuit, scooping her up off the floor, holding her face up to May’s to be kissed, then up to Dick’s, and Mary was out the door.
May sat down at the kitchen table. Dick got up. He put two biscuits on a plate, poured himself a glass of milk and ate standing up at the sink. He washed his plate and glass and said, “I don’t want you going behind my back like that.”
May didn’t say the first thing that came into her head. After a bit she said, “All right, now you know. I want Rose to visit here.”
“Suppose the boys had come in.”
“I sent them off to Wakefield to the picture show.”
“So you’re pulling the strings.”
“I don’t want Rose to grow up not knowing us.”
“I’ve gone to see her.”
“I said us. And when it comes time to let the boys know, it won’t be so hard on you if they see that I’ve come around.”
Dick jerked his head and stiffened. Then he sat down and stared at the floor between his feet.
May was tempted to push him down further. She could still say, “Who went behind whose back?” She also felt sorry for him — just not enough to say something that would make him feel better. She thought of Mary Scanlon, jollying him out of his snarls. Hugging him,
teasing him, kissing him. Let him get squeezed by jolly Mary Scanlon if that’s what it took to get Rose over here.
Compass Rose will be published by Alfred A. Knopf this month.