Susan Stinson is a novelist, historical tour guide, writing coach, speaker and the writer-in-residence for the Forbes Library in Northampton. She has published three novels, and recently completed a fourth, “Spider in a Tree”, a historical novel about the life and family of influential 18th century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards based in Northampton. In 2011, she was awarded the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist prize for her “beautiful, courageous and important writing”.
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I was on a book tour around the publication of my fourth novel when I learned that I would be teaching an introductory course on writing fiction to undergraduates in the spring. Although I was in the midst of giving readings and talks in academic settings (as I have done for years), this was to be my first experience teaching a course.
Last Friday night, I went out to eat at Bela in Northampton. I got there early on my trike, so I leaned on it and watched from a little way down the sidewalk as people went in. Bela is a small, warm vegetarian restaurant with lovely food, and I’ve had some really gorgeous moments there. (For instance, my friend Sally Bellerose took me out there to celebrate when my first novel was accepted for publication in the mid-nineties.)
A couple of hundred pages into reading The Portrait of a Lady for the first time in at least twenty years, I worried that I was going to end up furious at Henry James, who wrote it. I really didn’t want to be mad at Henry James. That was not only because it would make the reading the book less enjoyable (and it’s a long book), but also because I was organizing an evening inspired by him as the kick-off event for the 2012/13 Local History/Local Novelists series at Forbes Library in Northampton.
I’m a novelist. I want people to read fiction for the experience: for language, pleasure and love. I was shocked when I realized how many people I knew rarely read novels. For me, reading fiction is a nightly ritual, a regular transition from waking to sleep. I knew that people read for different reasons, that not everyone was as drawn as I was to the music of a sentence that rustles and turns like a leaf meeting another in wind.
The eighteenth century preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote on any paper he could find. In Northampton and later in Stockbridge, he made extensive notes on a version of the Bible with large, lined margins, writing alongside what was, for him, the direct word of God. He wrote on scraps from his daughters’ lacemaking work and in the fold of a newspaper.