photo by Elaina Mortali
Author Lara Tupper's new novel Off Island reimagines the marriage of artist Paul Gauguin, building on the fancy that Gauguin left the South Seas and moved to an island off the coast of Maine.
Tupper has written short stories, an earlier novel, and a screenplay, and is a jazz and pop singer. She taught at Rutgers University for many years and now presents writing workshops and retreats in Massachusetts where she now lives.
Lara recently talked with Rose City Reader about her new book, the authority of a narrator's voice, and Zooming her latest book reading:
How did you come to write Off Island?
Many years ago, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stumbled upon a display of letters that Paul Gauguin had written to his Danish wife, Mette Gad. He wrote, “Pure color! Everything must be sacrificed to it.” And he lived by these words. He spent his last years in Polynesia, where he painted and drank absinthe and had affairs with Tahitian girls. He wrote about these affairs in explicit detail to his wife, who was back in Denmark with their five children, trying to put food on the table.
I couldn’t get the letters out of my mind. I wanted to tell Mette’s story but I didn’t want her to be a victim. In Off Island, she has her own story to tell.
Your novel imagines and alternative history for artist Paul Gauguin, one where he spends time living on an island off the coast of Maine. What drew you to this setting for your novel?
I grew up in Boothbay, Maine and spent a lot of time on Monhegan Island, which is 90 minutes by ferry from my hometown. It’s a fishing community and an artist colony with beautiful vistas and hiking trails, once home to Wyeths, to Rockwell Kent. There’s tension between the summer visitors and the permanent residents, a tension I’m familiar with from growing up in a tourist community. I wanted to write about that tension. And I wanted to see what would happen if I sent Gauguin to a northern place, rather than a tropical one.
How did you research the historical information and detail found in your book? Do you have an art history background? Did you to on-site research?
I took as many art history classes as I could in college and considered majoring for a time. (I was equally torn between art history, music and English; I chose the latter, the safest bet, I thought at the time.) I’m still fascinated by historical contexts. How are we shaped by the time and place we live in? I was interested in the stories behind the paintings.
I have no skills when it comes to visual art. It remains a great mystery to me, how someone can translate what they see onto a canvas. It seems like magic.
In terms of research, I didn’t have the funds to go to Denmark or France or Tahiti. So I read a lot. I knew Monhegan well from my many trips there with my parents. It’s the kind of place that stays in the bones.
What did you learn from writing Off Island – either about the subject of the books or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I learned to plot. My previous novel, A Thousand and One Nights, is autobiographical fiction, so I knew how it was going to end. Off Island is a mystery. I had to construct clues that weren’t too obvious. And I had to balance several moving parts. Off Island is actually two intertwined stories: the Gauguins in 1903 and Pete and Molly in 2003. Pete and Molly parallel the Gauguins. (Pete is a painter. Molly holds down the fort.) The two stories intersect by the end.
Do you know right away, or have an idea, how you were going to end your book? Or did the ending come to you as you were in the process of writing?
I had no idea how it would end. I was just committed to certain elements—I couldn’t say why. This is a book about the sea, about being at sea, and certain seaside images stayed with me. I kept looking at Gauguin’s paintings and the idea of the artist’s mindset stayed with me too, what it’s like to stare at a vista and try to represent what you’re seeing. So I suppose I just stared and stared and sketched and sketched with words until I figured it out. This novel took me many drafts, many years to get right.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?
Of course! I’m always trying to dissect the writing that I love. (How did they do that?) Great books give me motivation. They make me want to write, to try it out in my own way. A recent book I can’t get out of my mind is Ling Ma’s Severance (scarily prescient, except for the zombies). I’m greatly influenced by my teachers and mentors over the years: Joan Silber, Elizabeth Strout, Antonya Nelson, Judith Grossman, Jeremy Gavron, Pete Turchi, Bill Roorbach, James Shepard, CJ Hribal--generous and exacting teachers, all. I love the writing of Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Elena Ferrante, Jennifer Egan, Samantha Hunt. Too many to list here.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I read fiction and non-fiction. I tend to alternate. I just re-read Bill Roorbach’s Into Woods, a joyous collection of essays. I love that he’s irreverent and compassionate at the same time. We’ve made similar career and life decisions along the way, and this comes up in his essays. (Leaving academia, being called to Maine.) We did a reading together at PRINT: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine and it was such a pleasure to celebrate with him there.
Two of my favorite books lately are Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Just stunning.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
Elizabeth Strout taught a class years ago when I was in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. It was on “authority,” that elusive quality that allows us, as readers, to trust and follow the narrator’s voice on the page. It’s not something that can be taught, and I believe this was her point. But it comes from apprenticing ourselves (which Bill Roorbach also writes about), from practice and commitment to craft. This has stayed with me.
You have a terrific website and are active on social media, like twitter and Instagram. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?
Why, thank you! I think every writer must do what she can, within her means, to put the word out. I’m also grateful for the work of my publicist, Mary Bisbee-Beek. I love a post I saw by Alexander Chee on Twitter. He said go ahead, promote your book. Don’t apologize for this. Don’t self-deprecate. If you’ve put blood, sweat and tears into your work, there’s no need to hide. (I’m paraphrasing.)
With that in mind, I’m proud to share my book trailer for Off Island too. My husband, singer- songwriter Bobby Sweet, provides the accompaniment, a beautiful song called “Uncertainty.” Watch it here.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
Like so many authors at this time, my spring events have been postponed. But my publisher, Encircle, just put together an online Author Showcase, and it was great fun—six authors read excerpts to a Zoom audience. They’ll do more of this in the future. And I’ll post updates on my website as my events are rescheduled. I encourage book lovers to support local independent bookstores at this time by ordering online.
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
My short story collection, Amphibians, will come out from Leapfrog Press in March 2021. And I’m at work on a new novel, a futuristic ghost story set in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, where I live now. It’s about the stories we inherit from others and the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves -- how these tales shape us. And how we might change the skipping record eventually.
OFF ISLAND IS AVAILABLE ONLINE. OR YOU CAN ORDER IT FROM INDEPENDENT BOOKS SELLERS. LARA SUGGESTS HER LOCAL BOOK STORE, THE BOOKSTORE IN LENNOX.