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For fans of Montclair author Alice Elliott Dark, the two-decade-long wait for her next book is nearly over. Fellowship Point, to be published July 5 by Simon & Schuster, is about an octogenarian writer named Agnes and her lifelong friend Polly, who jointly own a valuable stretch of Maine coast and are grappling with questions about their legacies.
Publisher's Weekly, which gave the book a starred review, says it "delves deeply into the relationships between Agnes and her work, humans and the land, mothers and children, and, most indelibly, the sustenance and joy provided by a long-held female friendship. It’s a remarkable achievement."
It is Dark’s first novel since 2002’s Think of England, which followed two short story collections, Naked to the Waist and In the Gloaming. The latter's title story, about a young man named Laird who is dying of AIDS, was published in The New Yorker in 1993, and was made into an HBO movie starring Christopher Reeve and Glenn Close that garnered five Emmy nominations. John Updike selected it for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and praised its craftsmanship to the author.
Her next book, loosely titled, Ann After Laird, will be a sequel to In the Gloaming.
Despite her hiatus from book publishing, Dark has never stopped writing. “I write every day,” she says. “I don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time, but I’m always happy to be in a story and playing around inside of it.”
She attributes that delight to her formative writing experiences. “I started writing early and wrote all through school. It was my escape and it still is,” she says. “It was a fun place to go when I was little, and I’ve maintained that feeling. I can write and write and be very satisfied without it going out in the world.”
Finding time to do this while juggling her job as an associate professor in Rutgers-Newark's MFA program and English Department is one of the challenges she’s faced in finishing her novel and getting it ready for publication.
At 592 pages, Fellowship Point is an ambitious work. Dark found inspiration in the “big, sprawling, intricately plotted novels” of the 19th century, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Trollope’s oeuvre. “I wanted to learn how to do plots and sub-plots and turns and reveals,” she says. “It was a big challenge and seemed very fun. It drew me in.”
There were many issues she wanted to address, too. Chief among these was her mission to put old women, whom people “write off” in our culture, front and center — “old women who are still active and still very much in their lives and growing and changing,” she says.
Another focus was the idea of preserving land for future generations. “I love property plots,” she says. She was inspired by the many women, such as Roxanne Quimby of Burt’s Bees, trying to keep land undeveloped via land trusts, a difficult, daunting process.
For those with means, what to do with their land “is a real moral dilemma” ripe for a novel, Dark says. “It’s also a fantasy for me. I would’ve loved to have had that kind of security and old family land," she says. “Since I’ll never get to do it in real life, I get to do it by writing,” she says with a laugh.
The novel is set in Philadelphia, where Dark was born and raised, and Maine, where she attended summer camp as a girl. “I always write about places I love," she says. "It’s part of the escape. It’s fun to think of your characters in places that you love.”
Though the exact Maine location is fictional, Dark says people who read Fellowship Point say it makes them want to go there. “It feels very Maine-y to them,” she says.
Raising her son Asher with her husband Larry, a vice president at the financial firm Morningstar and director of The Story Prize, awarded annually to authors of short story collections, also partially accounts for her publishing hiatus. “Taking care of my son was a serious role for me," she says. "I didn’t want to give him short shrift.”
Asher, a 2010 graduate of Montclair High School, completed the MFA program at the University of Michigan last year and is now a writer in Philadelphia.
[: “I write every day. I don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time, but I’m always happy to be in a story and playing around inside of it.” — Alice Elliott Dark]
His birth in 1991 ushered in a remarkably productive period for his mother. The publication date of Naked to the Waist was the very day he was born. Somehow, during this “crazy” post-partum period, despite being “wacked” by hormones and having difficulty focusing, Dark wrote In the Gloaming and sent it, unsolicited, to The New Yorker.
“It was a fluke,” she says. “There’s so much luck involved in anything with the arts. So many things don’t work out, and you have to learn to manage. I did have a couple of lucky things happen to me, and that was one.”
Christina Baker Kline, a bestselling author and close friend for 25 years, met with Dark and two other Montclair novelists, Benilde Little (Good Hair) and Pamela Redmond (Younger) every Friday for more than a decade to support one another and each other's writing. "Besides being undeniably brilliant, Alice has a generous spirit," says Kline. "I’ve been lucky over the years to benefit from her wisdom, editing skills, and kindness — three traits that are surprisingly rare in combination."
Like parenting, teaching has presented challenges to Dark’s writing life while also enhancing it. “I’ve learned so much about writing from editing my students’ stories,” she says. Then, she says, she had to learn to turn the critical process off when she wanted to be inventive. “I would be criticizing myself too soon, and it interfered with feeling creative,” she says. “It took awhile to get good at separating those two brain tracks.”
Belinda Edmondson, the chair of the English department at Rutgers University in Newark, calls Dark “one of our most beloved faculty members. Alice has an understated manner, but don’t let that fool you,” she says. “She is a commanding intellect, a beautiful writer and excellent teacher and mentor."
Dark says she has learned not to “step” on her students’ writing. “You have to understand where people are and move them forward just an inch," she says. “Writers have to figure out writing by themselves. The teacher is just there to keep you doing it.”
Eight tips that take the mystery out of writing
1) Write in the genre that excites you. If you keep sketching battlefield scenes, don’t feel you have to write a romance. Follow your imagination.
2) Take a day to figure out your natural writing rhythm. Do you start off strong, go fallow after 40 minutes, then pick back up two hours later? Match your writing time to your energy flow.
3) Keep a writer’s notebook, including craft techniques you might use, ideas and good lines, a writing log to track what you accomplish, descriptions of the sky in all seasons. Write a line about the weather every day.
4) Know what draft you are on. Don’t judge a first draft as if it’s a final draft, and don’t rush to claim a piece is finished.
5) Make a plan for your writing before every session. What are you going to do today? Make a note afterward of how it went.
6) Interact with what you read. Write about why you like a sentence or a paragraph or a page or an effect. How does it work? Try it yourself.
7) Practice plotting stories. Practice point of view. Practice describing places objectively and then subjectively.
8) Don’t compare yourself to other writers. No one can write what you can write. Enjoy it!
Julia Martin is the 2021 recipient of the New Jersey Society for Professional Journalists' David Carr award for her coverage of Montclair for NorthJersey.com.
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Alice Elliott Dark: Author from Montclair NJ loves writing