Saturday, March 10, 2018

Q&A with John Vialet

John Vialet is the author of the new novel Grafton House. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your novel Grafton House?

A: I wanted to write a novel about Newport. I began visiting Newport in the ‘70s when my wife’s family bought a house there. One of the things tourists do in Newport is visit the enormous mansions the super-rich built at the end of the 19th century. I wanted to write something about the mansions.

I remembered that when we were first married, my wife had a summer job as a secretary at an MIT conference center called Endicott House in Dedham, Mass.

Endicott House is an enormous mansion built by a multimillionaire named Henry Bradford Endicott, who grew up poor and then made a fortune in the 19th Century. The Endicott family gave the mansion to MIT in the 1950s.

So I decided that I could write about an imaginary Newport mansion built by a multimillionaire, donated to Harvard, and used by Harvard to house a think tank and a conference center. I named it Grafton House after the street behind our house in Chevy Chase, Md.

Q: You have a huge cast of characters. What was your writing process like? Did you jump from one character to another as you wrote, or did you focus on one character’s story at a time?

A: A few years before I started thinking about my novel, my wife had started writing a murder mystery about a research lab in Washington. She dropped the project after a few chapters but they included a scene in Newport and an interesting young woman investigator.

I didn’t really have a plot in mind but I had to start somewhere. So I decided to begin by describing an interesting young woman who is being sent by Harvard to Newport to follow up on reports of problems at the research center. 

I envisioned a woman looking (and feeling) like the character Wendy Hiller played in Michael Powell’s 1945 film I Know Where I’m Going (which of course Phoebe has never heard of).

In the first scene I wrote (and later dropped), I described Phoebe Snow arriving at the Amtrak station in Kingston, R.I. I had in mind a picture of Wendy Hiller’s film character on board a train to Scotland and a remote island in the Hebrides.

When Phoebe arrives in Kingston, she is met by the Grafton House groundskeeper who is carrying a sign that says “Dr. Snow.” He doesn’t realize that Dr. Snow is a woman, which amuses Phoebe.

As they drive to Grafton House they ask each other questions about who they are and what they do. Answering those questions is the way I began creating them as real people. And as I did this they came alive and started to behave independently. I sort of channeled what they were thinking and what they would do in various situations.

And that’s how I came up with the other characters in the book. I would come to a place where I needed someone to do something and their character would come to life.

Once I had a story going well, I would come up with anther story and get that underway. I would go back and forth among the stories, keeping more or less within the fourth of July weekend time frame. And I would periodically pause and have an overview chapter, which briefed the reader on what was going on with everyone in the book.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I had no idea how the book would end when I started. I was making up the plot as I went along. It took me some time to figure out how to come to an acceptable end.

Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?

A: I like David Lodge a lot. If I can find his mailing address, I’m going to send him a copy of Grafton House because I think he would enjoy it. I also like Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Muriel Spark, and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve started a novel that may be about growing up in Louisiana and/or may be about getting old. I’m not far enough along to say which (or both).

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Writing Grafton House was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. I spent six months in the Army after my freshman year at Harvard. When I got back to Cambridge, I started writing short stories about Louisiana and the Army.

I won the Kirkland House short story prize my sophomore year, and I did well in various creative writing courses. I tried writing fiction after I graduated, but I didn’t really have much that I wanted to say. One of the few advantages of growing old is that I definitely have things I want to say.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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