You Can’t Write a Novel Without It Changing You: An Interview with Rachel Urquhart

Rachel Urquhart has written magazine pieces for most of her career, and she has also spent a lot of time in a converted Shaker house. But combining her vocation with her surroundings took almost forty years. An acquaintance directed her to a few pieces on Shaker literature in a used bookstore, and the discoveries prompted Urquhart to spend the past decade crafting a historical and fictional tale of this small but vigorous religious movement in nineteenth-century New England.

The Visionist is the debut novel from Urquhart, who has an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. The book has been praised by the likes of The New York TimesNPR, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She writes in a 2006 Travel + Leisure essay that one particular Shaker site she visits “inspires one to think of the Shakers as people, not weird religious dinosaurs or theme-park mascots.” I can imagine only that Urquhart had this same response in mind when she thought about how people might experience her new book and the bits of this religious culture that she excitedly imparts to her readers.

Rachel and I missed each other when she visited New Haven last month, but we later spoke on the phone, indoors, because it was less than nineteen degrees Fahrenheit in New England.

WIN BASSETT: You’ve had a prolific magazine career with pieces for Spy, Vogue, Allure, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Tin House, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vanity Fair. You’ve also written three “lifestyle” books for Knopf. Does this summarize your pre-fiction life?

RACHEL URQUHART: Reading between the lines, it’s three “I’ll do anything for money” books. They were very nice books, and I’m very grateful that they asked me to do them. But yes, I used to write exclusively for magazines. For a little bit of that time, I was also editing.

WB: Why the jump from magazines to a novel?

RU: I’ve wanted to write fiction for much of my life, and I think that I didn’t really know what I wanted to say. I went into magazine writing with the idea that it would teach me how to write. I think, quite on purpose, I chose style over substance in terms of what I wrote about because I wanted to gain a certain faculty with language. I was extremely grateful for the magazines that asked me to write for them, but I had hoped it would lead to my eventual ability to find a novel or short story collection inside of me.

That sounds so calculating, but I never set out to make a career out of magazine writing. If I had, I would have tried to become a serious editor, or I would have gone after big stories. Then again, I may never have been given a chance to do those stories. Magazine writing made me have to write.

WB: Tell me about your journey to this story about New England Shakers. I know your grandfather bought a Shaker house in the 1930s. Is this what ignited your fascination with the religious movement?

RU: No, it isn’t really. It would make sense if it were because that house is still in my family, and I have spent pretty much every summer and most of my weekends there for my entire life. It’s one of those houses that just becomes part of your being. That said, I wasn’t particularly interested in the Shakers because I thought that they were very pure. It’s not that I don’t think they are pure now, but I had an incredibly simple sense of what they were about.

If you had asked me long ago, “Is your first novel going to be on the Shakers?” I would’ve said, “Are you joking?” It’s kind of funny; I feel like I backed into the subject even though it was all around me, or maybe it was because it was all around me. I think I might have mentioned in my blog that it was as mechanical as someone leaning out of the car window and saying, “I know that your first novel should be about the Shakers,” and wagging his finger at me. That was the beginning of what ended up being a fairly epic struggle to get through the writing of this book.

It sounds dumb that I needed somebody to tell me, but I needed to be encouraged to go and just look at these books that someone had seen in a secondhand bookstore. Those books showed me such a different side of something that must have been somewhere inside me. I must have had an interest that I didn’t know about, or maybe it clicked with some other thing inside me. The darkness and this whole other side of the Shakers just really intrigued me, and it seemed to immediately cause a story to fall into my head. That story pretty much was the story that The Visionist ended up being. It was a very, very strange experience. It’s trite to say that it’s almost as if I had a kind of vision, but it actually felt like that.

WB: How long did you spend studying Shakers, and where did go for your primary sources?

RU: I didn’t read and write about the Shakers at all until I started working on this book. They were around me simply because of the house that I grew up in. There were pegs on the walls, and there was a little bit of Shaker furniture in the house. Since it was wintertime, and most of the Shaker sites were closed, I spent a lot of time reading very generally about the Shakers.

The first of the two books that I looked at identified a very specific period, which is a decade-long revival period that went from 1838 to the late 1840s (maybe early 1850s), and it helped me, as a non-historian, to focus my research not only on a very specific time but on a very specific time when things took place that never really took place in the same way again. That’s a real gift to somebody who is not a historian because it allows you to have a general sense of the group that you are writing about. The first parts of my research involved going to the public library and reading stuff that had been written about Mother Ann Lee, who was the founder of the Shakers.

Once the Shaker sites opened, I was able to visit a couple of them. That started to give me a more physical sense of these rooms because I already had a story in my head. I had a sense of the two girls, and I tried to walk through the space in their shoes and to see things through their eyes, or through the eyes of some of the older characters in the book.

It also helped to have the plot so oddly set in my mind because it gave me a lens through which to look at what might otherwise just look like more Shaker furniture and more Shaker rooms. It became much more personal because the items became things that my characters may have touched. A loom wasn’t just a little loom anymore; it was a loom that they might have worked at. I thought, “How did it work and what sound does it make when it worked and when would they have been working it?” It was a fascinating way to learn about something because you were in somebody else’s shoes all of the time.

WB: You write in a blog post that the book “attempts to describe what I came to regard as the New England magic realism of Shaker worship.” Tell me more about this “magic realism.”

RU: I had always thought that the Shakers were very buttoned-down. I knew that they worshiped, and I knew that they were called Shakers for a reason. I knew that they shook, whatever that meant, but I didn’t have any sense of how they worshiped. In the very beginning, all of their worship was ecstatic worship. During this revival, they went back to their roots as a kind of religion that worshiped through ecstatic rituals.

The whole notion was foreign to me on many levels. I’d never really read about it. I wasn’t part of a religion that practiced it. Meetings went on for hours, and people spun for a really long time. People started speaking in tongues, and people would channel voices. This happened fairly regularly during this period. It was so incredible to me that all of this was taking place in New England, which I’ve always thought of as a pretty buttoned-down place.

I like the juxtaposition of the ecstatic with the restrained nature of New England, especially New England in the wintertime in slightly poorer communities, where there isn’t a lot of energy left at the end of the day to do much of anything because life is hard. I think that’s why it felt like New England magic realism—it had the starkness and the discipline of New England life, but it also had the release of the kinds of things that you’d read about in a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It felt like it was happening right in my neck of the woods.

WB: I’m from the bottom of the Appalachian Mountains in southwestern Virginia, where serpent-handling churches have existed for a while. I know what you mean.

RU: Exactly. I’m so amazed by that. I know that there are many expressions in our culture that are as wild as snake handling, but somehow that one in particular just feels like it is another world from the one that we think of when we think of who we are as a people.

WB: How did you decide to tell the story of this nineteenth-century religious community through the alternating voices of fifteen-year-old Polly Kimball, Sister Charity, and Simon Pryor?

RU: I needed Polly’s point of view to be the closest because I needed her not to be able to look too closely at her life or talk about it too personally because of everything that’s happened. She’s been abused, and it struck me that she might talk about herself in the third person for that reason. With Polly, I had her in a blunt first-person view because it struck me that as a Shaker, that would be a very straightforward way for her to tell a story. Though, I believe that she’s the character who is the least reliable narrator because there’s so much about herself that she doesn’t realize until the end of the book.

It was a jigsaw puzzle that was difficult for me to piece together. I’m kind of hoping that my next book has two narrators instead of three. It’s really hard for me to imagine being interesting enough in one narrator’s voice. I always have this image in my mind of a reader sitting alone in a bare room on an uncomfortable chair with something I’ve written, and I can gauge whether it’s good by how quickly the reader gets up and leaves the room.

The challenge that I set myself is, “You need to be able to keep the reader in the room.” I think that it’s such a commitment for a person to read a book, especially these days when anything that takes more than five minutes is a commitment. I was afraid that with a single narrator, I wouldn’t be able to keep the reader in the room.

WB: You weave the genres of Christian apology, fictional thriller, moral tale, and mystery into The Visionist. Did you consciously consider all of these during your writing? Did you have a line you tried to walk among them all? Were you ever afraid of stepping too far into faith for non-religious readers?

RU: I suppose if you decide to write a book that’s set in a religious settlement that has an incredibly rigid and codified kind of set of rules, you’re going to end up writing about religion. I didn’t set out to write about religion. Looking back—and I don’t regret it—but parts of my book maybe go too far into religion and faith. I wonder if that’s where it gets difficult for people not because it’s a difficult book intellectually, but because people have a hard time going there. It’s a big question for many people, and they don’t always want to think about it, especially if they are doing something for fun like reading a book.

It occurred to me that I had characters who would have to explain why they did what they did because I didn’t want the Shakers coming across as bad people. There are people who read my book maybe too quickly or maybe just from a different point of view where they think, “God, the Shakers were so awful. They took children away from their parents. They were so acquisitive of land.” I expected people to be shocked by some of those things, but I needed my Shaker characters to explain that it was not acquisitiveness for acquisitiveness’s sake. To the degree that this is an apology or an explanation, I felt that some fairly extreme behavior couldn’t be presented as cult-like behavior and left there. For it to be interesting, you need to understand where it comes from in terms of what the Shakers were thinking about and what their concept of heaven on earth was like.

In terms of the other genres, I feel as though I’ve written the worst kind of detective story. It’s a joke with my husband that I was writing the worst detective story ever because the detective in my book is the last person to find every single piece of information. I feel like the reader already knows many of the things that Simon Pryor finds out. You don’t read my book to find out ways he can solve a crime.

He’s in there as much to be a character struggling with his own questions as he is to help make everything right. I decided that it was okay that I hadn’t really done a particularly good job of telling a detective story because I wasn’t trying to tell a detective story. I just needed a character in there who I believed in and who did something that would draw him into this story. It’s very hard to draw a character into a story that takes place in a totally isolated community. Most of the action takes place where no one can go, and I needed this story to move on the outside, or swirl around the Shaker community and then end up in it.

WB: At one point, some Shakers tell young Polly, “You must forget all that you have left behind, for your life begins now.” Does publishing your first novel evoke a similar sentiment from you?

RU: This may be a function of getting older, but being led into these incredibly imaginative and passionate expressions of religious belief coincided with something in myself that is more open to some idea of spirituality that is not bound. It’s something that I feel more strongly around me. It’s like a personal spirituality, which isn’t to say that I have crystals hanging all over the house. It’s different from that. I see significance in small things that I might not have seen before, and I think I was wired to go that way eventually. This novel speeded up the process spiritually.

It changed me because I don’t think it’s possible to write a novel, no matter how long it takes you, without being changed by it. Living with three characters for so long and hoping that you can figure out some way to allow them redemption changes you. It makes you think about your own redemption and how are you going to unshackle yourself from things in your past that hold you back.

I started to think a lot more about redemption after writing this book—not so much to square myself with God, but to put myself in a different place than I was before I started writing the book. I didn’t think that was going to happen, but it did.

Win Bassett is a writer and seminarian at Yale Divinity School from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, Paste, Nieman Storyboard, Books & Culture, Religion & Politics, Publishers Weekly, INDY Week, The Toast, The Roanoke Times, and elsewhere. He serves as contributing editor and interim fiction editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. Twitter: winbassett.