Rachel Urquhart has lived every writer’s nightmare.
After working on her first novel, The Visionist, for three years, Urquhart was only two days away from turning in a first draft to her agent, when someone walked into her home in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn, while she was there, and stole her computer off her dining room table. The thief took nothing else. This, you are thinking, is why one has a universal back-up drive. Urquhart did, but the novel wasn’t on it.
“I have to start over,” she told me over the phone, in shock. “I have to start over,” she said, too stunned, it seemed, to even cry.
You cannot plot the geometry of loss, but of all the writers I know, for this to happen to Urquhart, who, because of raising two boys and the demands of her other writing work (her credits are vast, but include The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, SPY) could only dedicate herself fully to writing the novel during the summer—this seemed pointedly cruel.
Years of work, lost like that. That’s the sort of thing that would undo most writers. How did Hemingway, at the time an unpublished writer, survive the loss of that fabled suitcase? I imagine it took lots of scotch. That and he kept writing—which is what real writers do.
Which is what Urquhart did, as well. First the scotch, then the re-writing—perhaps there were days when the two went hand in hand. While I knew it would be impossible for her to replicate her first draft, I took solace in the fact that Urquhart is one of those writers can write in her head—composing sentences, paragraphs, pages—before committing them to paper. She may appear to be sweeping the floor when in fact she is writing. (If I didn’t love her, I would hate her.) I would like to believe that this gift was what made it possible for her reconstruct her novel in two years time. It makes me feel less limited.
In truth, it was Urquhart’s ferocious determination to put the voices and story that had been haunting her for years on the page, combined with her WASP bootstraps mentality, (here we go stomping through the bogs of self-pity) that delivered the novel. The only miracle here is her book.
Set in a fictional Shaker settlement in 1840 during “the Era of Manifestations,” the golden age of Shakerism, Urquhart transports us to a time of spiritual revival marked by the rise of “visionists”—young women who, claiming to be possessed by heavenly spirits, began speaking in tongues, whirling and dancing and shaking for hours on end. The book intertwines three narratives: the story of fifteen-year-old Polly, a farm girl turned “visionist” who has taken refuge in the Shaker “City of Hope” after setting a fire that killed her sexually abusive father; Simon Pryor, the dogged fire inspector determined to puzzle out the mystery of Polly; and Polly’s only friend, Sister Charity, ostracized because the lesions that paisley her body could only have be the work of the devil himself.
The Visionist is a remarkable feat—a gorgeous literary novel that masterfully dovetails a historical mystery with an examination of faith and the human need to be known. On the prose level Urquhart is, on one hand, gifted with restraint, a master architect of the simple, elegant sentence. On the other hand, she conjures sentences that bloom with imagery, that flash and unhinge in a style that might be called Shaker surrealism. What is incontestable is that the woman has a vision.
The Rumpus: A lot of first novels are books that the author has, in one way or another, been writing their whole life. Clearly you aren’t a Shaker, so is there any basis in fact in your case?
Rachel Urquhart: While it was comforting to choose a milieu that was pretty clearly not my own—I’ve been careful to destroy all past physical evidence of bonnet-wearing—I was powerless to keep my obsessions and fears from creeping into my writing. They appeared to me as a kind of code I could not—or perhaps would not—crack. Those thoughts are exactly the ones that would have been front-and-center in a more obviously personal book. So, yes, I think I have been writing this book my whole life. Who knew?
Rumpus: There are times, especially when you are writing in the voice of Polly and Sister Charity—when you are writing about the visions, when Polly is observing what is going on around her, when we are witness to Charity’s grappling with her faith, when the book feels like it was channeled—the language, the prose, it’s eerie. Did you start with the voices? Or did you start with the story?
Urquhart: I began with the story. But because it fell into my head more or less whole and sorted itself like change in a coin machine, the voices followed very quickly. I heard a kind of omniscient narrator—very cinematic in its birds-eye view of the scene—describing the strange behaviors of the first young Visionists. (That section now appears as prologue, told from Charity’s point of view as she looks back decades later.) Polly followed quite easily, since close third-person seemed to me to be the only way for a child of abuse—especially a child of the 1840s—to tell her story. Then, I heard Charity, an apparently simple Shaker sister, speaking in the first person in a declarative and unquestioning manner about Shaker life and her place in it. I knew that the integrity of her voice was deceptive because, ultimately, it becomes clear to both reader and narrator that she’s the least reliable raconteur of her own story. And finally, Simon Pryor, the detective—his was an extremely difficult voice for me. I only found it after I’d read a charmingly over-written arson inspector’s account from the 1950s, and a book full of frontier town newspaper articles from the mid-1800s. The overstuffed, circuitous sentences of both of those otherwise bleak reports were the making of him for me.
Rumpus: I wonder if, on some level, part of the novel’s power comes from the fact that the main character, Polly, is a teenage girl—a very powerful teenage girl. What is it about teenage girls that scares people so much?
Urquhart: Polly is powerful from the beginning because she has risen above abuse that would have defeated most people. Whether it’s a psychological coping mechanism or something more mystical, she finds a personal state of grace that brings her strength and mental escape when she needs it most. She is the embodiment of her own salvation. Once the Shakers notice how this power inhabits her, they proclaim her a Visionist and, in doing so, they bring the divine closer to their lives. Or so they believe.
Rumpus: How many of the Visionists were teenagers?
Urquhart: I think that the fact that, in real life, the majority of Visionists were teenage girls is no coincidence. They are the perfect vessels for perceived divine communication because they are so inchoate as they teeter between identities: innocent girls one minute; sexual women, the next. Perhaps it’s this instability that scares people. And while we find all kinds of ways to marginalize them, it’s pretty easy to imagine such mysterious changelings as having a third power, one that allows them to communicate with another world.
I think some of the Visionists may honestly have felt that they were channeling messages from the spirits, but an increasing number of them began manipulating the situation as the revival wore on. That, after all, is one of the sharpest arrows in any teenage girl’s quiver: her talent for manipulation.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about sex. There basically isn’t any in your entire book. Do you want to address that?
Urquhart: It’s true. Not a lot of bodice-ripping in the book. But the visual isn’t pretty. A hunky Shaker “brother” sporting the worst bowl-cut imaginable and whispering Biblical nothings into the ear of a hot Shaker “sister” who is dressed head-to-toe in brown worsted wool and bonneted within an inch of her life. Their love shack is a room sparsely decorated with beautiful but profoundly uninviting wooden furniture. Unless I’d decided to go all-out Shades of Grey and have Shaker lovers tying one another up with muslin strips and hanging from wooden pegs, there just really wasn’t any way in to a juicy Shaker sex scene.
Rumpus: I see your point. So, sex didn’t fit into Shaker life in any way?
Urquhart: The best way to talk about sex where the Shakers are concerned is follow their lead and rant incessantly about how evil it is. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited with the Shakers many times, wrote: “When you come to talk with them of their topic, which they are very ready to do, you find such an exaggeration of the virtue of celibacy, that you might think you have come to a hospital-ward of invalids afflicted with priapism.”
Rumpus: So they were sex-obsessed with not having sex?
Urquhart: The Shakers essentially sewed treatment for sex addiction into the fabric of their society. “Mortification of the flesh” shaped every aspect of their lives. They understood that the physical exhaustion of relentless labor and the ecstatic release of worship helped to subdue “carnal” feelings. They experimented with a vegetarian diet because red meat was thought to inflame desire. They used group confession and communal living to ensure that no one could enjoy a potentially sinful moment to themselves. Shaker sisters were not assumed to harbor sexual thoughts of their own—only to manipulate and excite them in others. Hence such fashion edicts as the one directing girls to cut flowers (for making rosewater) just beneath the bud so that flirts could not pin blossoms to their bodices and entice the brethren. Bonnets, which were clapped on the heads of teenage sisters just as soon Shaker elders caught the slightest whiff of adolescent sexuality, were designed with a protruding brim to thwart sideways glances and a linen flap at the back to cover the boundlessly sexy nape of the neck.
Correction was often more sexual than the deviation it intended to set straight. In 1793, for example, three young Shaker sisters were ordered to strip naked and whip each other as punishment for watching flies mate. There is even a coded reference in a private journal that indicates castration may have been explored as a means of eliminating male lust. Emerson’s right. The Shakers never stopped thinking about sex.
Rumpus: Okay, but while there may not be actual sex depicted in the novel, there is some fierce physical/spiritual energy flowing between the two teenage girls, Polly and Charity. What did you want readers to take from that aspect of their relationship?
Urquhart: There is real love between Polly and Charity, but I never considered them to have sexual feelings for one another. What interested me was intimacy. They find each other in this bleak and lonely place, and their connection is almost electric. I certainly felt that way about my first best friend. I could not believe that there was someone with whom I wanted to be with every moment of the day; with whom I wanted to share every secret, every little joke, every emotional paper cut. As adults, we forget how miraculous it is to feel understood for the first time. To be known. There is passion between Polly and Charity—and, because they are teenagers, the expression of that passion is sometimes helplessly sexual—but for me, the real current runs through their hearts and minds, not so much through their bodies.
Rumpus: You have always been a master of structure in both your journalism and your fiction. You have the gift. I remember talking to you about my “Joy of Cooking” story. You were the one who suggested, What if you laid it out like a recipe? That unlocked the story for me. So, did you know what the structure of the novel was before you began? There are a lot of moving parts here. How hard was it to figure out?
Urquhart: I began by thinking about the structure of the novel as a braid, with each voice crossing over the one before in the same pattern, again and again. This, I soon discovered, is not a practical way to tell a story. I also initially introduced each chapter with a short archival snippet—a paragraph from a newspaper, a quote from a travel journal, a Shaker prayer, that sort of thing. They had all been part of my research and would, I thought, serve as the perfect jumping off point for the section that followed. But the snippets pulled the reader away from the through-line of the story, so out they went.
In the end, I’d say the deciding factor behind choosing a three-person narrative was the fact that I felt unable to sustain my own interest—let alone anyone else’s—using a single storyteller. That’s a talent I admire but have yet to master.
I think that a lot of writers probably find that every revision involves some form of throwing all the pages up in the air and seeing where they came down. For me, the reshuffling was an exhausting brainteaser every time. And though it’s hardly new to employ multiple narrators, I wasn’t following another writer’s example, as far as I know. I was telling the story the only way I knew how, which—unfortunately—involved changing points of view, a trio of plots, a patois of contemporary and 19th century forms of expression, a detective story, the occasional religious tract, some knowledge of 19th century rural property law, and a bunch of other bits and bobs that would—had I known of them beforehand—have discouraged me from moving beyond the first page.
Rumpus: Although I knew little of the Shakers before I read The Visionist, I always found them fascinating. Now, thanks to the publication of your book (and knowing about your foreign sales), I discover that lots of people are obsessed with the Shakers. In fact I’ve heard—more time than you want to know—people say, “I wanted to write this book!” (And I always think, but don’t say, Yes, but you didn’t….) Why do you think we’re still so interested in the Shakers?
Urquhart: It’s strange. For a religion that engineered its own oblivion by forbidding sex, Shakerism has had a weirdly lasting influence on modern society. Sometimes, I think it’s a matter of pining for the simplicity they stood for: live together, work hard, confess, worship, strive to do and make everything “as though it were to last a thousand years and you were to die tomorrow.” In our lonely, throwaway, consumer society, there is something very appealing about all that. Shaker life is sort of a perfect antidote to the world Spike Jonze depicts in Her.
Less philosophically, the Shakers have obviously been a major influence in design. After all, they were all about form following function long before the Modernists. They were also extraordinarily innovative (their invention of the washing machine is but a single example) and forward-thinking. They were ahead of the curve in their ideas about medicine and diet. They either invented or embraced any new program or machine that would help them be better or more efficient. They were very generous in their commitment to helping the poor. They were revolutionary in their ideas about women and equality. They were pacifists and abolitionists. And, however crazy some of their beliefs may seem, they were steadfast in their pursuit of perfection. As a result, we are left with superb physical examples of their discipline and genius. Sometimes, I guess, the objects we leave behind have more to do with how we are remembered than anything else.
Rumpus: There is something very cult-like about the Shakers. Their religious fervor, moral certainty, a deep-well kind of fundamentalist crazy. Do you see any overlap with the religious landscape of this country today?
Urquhart: I’m not sure that most people—to the degree that they think about Shakers at all—really perceive of them as being a cult. There’s too much Ken Burns and Aaron Copeland floating around our idea of who they were; too many gift shop tea cozies embroidered with their virtuous maxims. But I think of them as a cult. Mother Ann Lee, the founder, was an uneducated charismatic with remarkable power over people. The religion she led demanded that its adherents give up everything, including sex, family, and the right to individual expression. Shaker communities existed in isolation from “The World,” except when it came to business and opening up their Sunday worship meetings to outsiders with the intention of gaining new recruits.
But I think that they differ from religious extremists in several ways. They were non-violent. They did not discriminate against any one particular group. They did not seek to impose their views outside their own communities. If there is overlap with the religious landscape of today, it’s in the area of moral puritanism. There is something particularly American about the wintry sexual repressiveness of the Shakers.
Rumpus: It seems part of the challenge in writing about the Shakers is that relatively little has been written about them. In fact, lots of people are under the impression that the Shakers and the Amish are one and the same. This, despite the fact that the Amish are clearly a sexual people. Or, they confuse the Shakers and the Quakers, although to be fair both sound like names of all-girl Christian roller derby teams from the 1950s. Did you have to do a lot of research?
Urquhart: I knew enough about the Shakers to know that they weren’t the same as the Amish or the Quakers. You’re right. A lot of people sort of lump those three groups together into one dreary collection of white people with bad hair and strongly-held Christian beliefs. And while a lot has been written about certain aspects of Shaker life, very little is popularly known about the time of the Visionists.
If there is one thing about research that I learned from being a magazine journalist, it’s to get a handle on the big picture first, then zero in on something manageable. Once I knew that I was writing about a specific time in Shaker history, a time that was pretty much unlike anything that came before or after, I had it easy. I could focus on the minutiae of the decade I chose. And what decade! I think that what surprised me most—what really got me interested in the Shakers—was the strange juxtaposition of extreme moral repression and total religious abandon. I began to think of them as belonging to a whole new literary genre—New England magic realism.
Here’s the quote that best exemplifies that strangeness for me. It’s attributed to Mother Ann Lee and it goes like this: “I saw a large black cloud arising, black as a thundercloud; and it was occasioned by men’s sleeping with their wives… Their torment appears like melted lead, poured through them in the same parts where they have taken their carnal pleasure.” Now, who wouldn’t want to know more about a group that could think up things like that?
Rumpus: There is violence in your novel, and in your stories. Physical, emotional, psychic… It’s not gratuitous or over the top but it’s present and it’s important. Now, there is the idea that women can’t or shouldn’t write about violence. It makes some readers uncomfortable. How do you feel about that? Does writing about violence make you uncomfortable?
Urquhart: Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s a writer’s job to make people feel comfortable. And the notion that violence is something women writers should stay away from is just ridiculous. Violence and fear are part of everyday life, especially for women. For god’s sake, just look at childbirth. There’s an argument to be made that it is the ultimate violent act, for both mother and child. It can certainly be deadly.
But there’s a difference between depicting violence that makes more real the brutal world in which some characters live, and porn. I’m not saying one is better than the other—just that there is a distinction. So far, I’ve only attempted the former and I like it. It allows me to play with tension—the pull between the horror of a scene and the calm with which it’s described. You know the way time slows down during a car crash, the way an extreme crisis can narrow one’s focus? That’s how I feel when I am writing about something that’s violent. There’s a strange kind of hush that descends and allows me to think about color and pacing and smell and word sounds and viscera and poetry. From a creative standpoint, it can be bizarrely purifying. And from the point of view of narrative, it can sharpen the senses. When I write violence, I feel I need to be extremely clear in my own mind about its necessity to the story, what it accomplishes, whether it’s in the right place, how long or short it should be. Unless your novel is about one endlessly hideous descent into hell, violent scenes are particular and should be treated with restraint.
Rumpus: Do you have any models or writers you look to, or who you think do this sort of thing particularly well?
Urquhart: Well, I know it’s a boring answer, but Cormac McCarthy—though a little on the purple side at his most violent—is an obvious call. Joyce Carol Oates. Lionel Shriver. And, precisely because she knows how sparingly to use it, Ann Patchett. There is a scene involving an anaconda in State of Wonder that still makes me shiver.
Rumpus: You recently reminded me that I once told you to, “Write like a man.” I wasn’t aware that you were even listening to me. What does that mean to you?
Urquhart: I always listen to you, especially on the subject of men!
When you said, “Write like a man,” I felt that you were giving me permission to put my book first. It was a comment on process. Over the course of working on The Visionist, I raised two children; moved house; lost several close family members; became ill; got well; watched other people become ill; watched some of them get well; lost my entire first draft; started over from scratch. No big deal. Stuff just happens.
But with all of that life going on, I had to learn how to speak up for my right to write. I had to learn how not to apologize for the fact that, at times, my book was more important to me than anything else. I had to convince myself that, in spite of the reasonable number of people and situations demanding attention at any given moment, I did not have to be the one to give it every time. I had to learn how to tell—not ask—someone else to take care of things while I finished my work.
In my experience, putting writing first is not an easy thing for an unpublished female novelist with a family to do. The tendency is to treat it as a hobby, something to be fit in after work, while the kids are in school, or at camp, or at a friend’s house. Certainly, there are increasing numbers of men willing to share the burden of balancing obligations at home and at work. But more often than not, for them it’s still a willingness.
When you said, “Write like a man,” I understood you to be ordering me back to the front, like, what the hell was I doing even considering packing it in for the day? I heard you telling me it was my duty to keep going.
To which I remember answering, meekly, “Yes, sir!”
Featured image of Rachel Urquhart © by Sarah Shatz.
Second image of Rachel Urquhart © by Noah Rabinowitz.
Images of Shaker society © by The Shaker Historical Society Museum & Library.