Friday, August 17, 2012

Maryanne O'Hara: Why the 1930s?

Maryanne O'Hara, author of CASCADE, discusses the genesis of her novel and her reasons for choosing to write about America in the 1930's.

Why the 1930s?
by Maryanne O'Hara

Cascade was originally going to be a few different short stories. One was going to be about an artist who worked for Roosevelt’s New Deal public arts projects in the 1930s. I was interested in writing about what had then been a new idea, at least in America: that the artist’s job was just as important as the bricklayer’s or plumber’s. Another story idea was inspired by the ‘threatened town’ setting that had haunted me since I was a child, when I first saw the Quabbin Reservoir, a vast Massachusetts water supply that covers what were once four towns.

These ideas came together as a novel the day I wondered: what would happen if I set an artist’s story in a similarly threatened place? I was particularly interested in challenging myself to write beyond 1930s stereotypes. We hear “The Great Depression” and visualize runs on banks, and people on street corners selling apples. But when I interviewed people who actually lived through those times, I consistently heard, “Oh, yes, it was a terrible time, although it wasn’t so bad for us. My father always had a job.” One neighbor of mine, a brilliant and vivacious woman who almost lived to be 100, told me about the roadster her father bought her for her 17th birthday, two months after the market crashed in 1929.

I came to realize that it is uncertainty that makes hard times hard for everyone, which is something that everyone can relate to. My characters, Dez and Asa, are managing well enough in Cascade, but at one point, Dez feels for herself “the undercurrent of anxiety that had plagued people everywhere these past years: How much worse can things get? If I have a job, how long can I keep it? What will I do if I lose it?

Today, our economy is the worst it’s been since those lean Depression years, and yet now, as then, everyone's experience is different. For example, as I write this, I’m on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Pleasure boats sail the waters. All over the island, shops and restaurants are packed. The Vineyard is a privileged spot, no question, yet it is just as much a microcosm of the USA as anywhere else. Amongst the vacationers who are here for the entire summer, there are many who are here for a single, precious week. The local fishermen are all complaining that catches are low—two stripers caught on a license that allows five, at four dollars a pound, and some days, there are no stripers at all. These fishermen worry about more than the coming winter; they worry about now. And they are just one segment of an island community that hustles to survive during the long months when ferries carry few visitors and the sun sets at 4pm. 

Because I really feel that not a whole lot changes in this world of ours, beyond the magic of mass communication and air travel and such, I wanted to challenge myself to write about the thirties in a way that felt contemporary and real. When you read Edith Wharton, or watch a well-done period movie like “The Best Years of Our Lives,” you realize that good writing is timeless because it portrays people as they are and always have been. So even though Cascade is set in the past, it reveals, I hope, our underlying human sameness. I hope it recognizes the humanity, not just the history, of those who lived before us.


Maryanne O'Hara earned an MFA from Emerson College and spent many years as Associate Editor for Ploughshares, the award-winning Boston literary journal. Her short fiction has won numerous prizes and has appeared in anthologies and literary journals. CASCADE is her first novel. You can watch the trailer for CASCADE here, as well as visit her website and blog. Maryanne and CASCADE were recently featured in a lengthy feature in the Boston Globe.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Review: CASCADE by Maryanne O'Hara

"There are so many ways of drowning, my dear."

Shakespearean actor and ruined theater owner William Hart never spoke truer words to his daughter Desdemona than these, taken from in the opening pages of Maryanne O'Hara's splendid debut novel, CASCADE (Viking, August 2012). Floodwaters jeopardize the family's hometown of Cascade, Massachusetts, situated on land slated to become a reservoir. Devastating though such destruction would be, physical inundation is but a metaphor for the myriad forces threatening Cascade's inhabitants in 1935. Bankruptcy, foreclosure, and unemployment erode economic security; prejudice, anti-Semitism, and gender stereotyping sow division and distrust. Misunderstanding and unfulfilled promise spark dissatisfaction and boredom; greed and passion prompt ill-considered, life-shattering decisions. Love itself diverges into treacherous currents and inescapable eddies.

Artist and reluctant housewife Desdemona Hart lives the truth of her father's words. In order to save Cascade's famed theater and provide a roof over her dying father's head, Dez marries kind but dull Asa Spaulding, the town pharmacist. She tries to play the devoted wife, but once her father passes away--not before willing the theater to Asa, though he entrusts Dez with the work of preserving and reopening it--Dez realizes she can never become the wife Asa expects. Restless, nostalgic for the vibrant art world she knew in Paris and Boston, she immerses herself in her painting and pursues a relationship with Jacob Solomon, a Jewish artist-turned-traveling salesman. An outdoor tryst not only leads to the accidental drowning of a Water Authority agent but provides circumstantial evidence linking Jacob to the suspicious death of the town doctor. Even more damning, the couple's actions doom Asa's carefully orchestrated plan to force the Water Authority to flood a neighboring town instead of Cascade. Dez longs to flee with Jacob to New York, but Asa's ownership of her beloved theater ties her to him and to Cascade's fate.

As "Dez the wife" founders in a slough of deception, "Dez the artist" successfully navigates Cascade's shoals. She pitches a series of before and after postcards, pre- and post-flooding, to the editor of a national magazine. Wildly successful, the series establishes her professional reputation and opens doors to the New York art scene. Dez wears her role as the town's champion uneasily, however, as her series depends on the ultimate destruction of the milieu she records, a destruction she knows is virtually assured. The satisfaction she gains from her fame and the independence it wins her remain forever colored by the compromises she makes and the losses she suffers in its pursuit.

In this remarkable debut, author Maryanne O'Hara creates a setting as detailed and vivid as the historic postcards she features on her website. From the ornate theater building to the grill at Asa's drugstore to the gazebo on the town green, O'Hara captures the essence of a bucolic New England town of yesteryear. Yet, despite the idyllic setting, nothing and no one is quite what they seem. As complicated and messy as Dez's paint-splotched palette, O'Hara's characters hide more than they reveal, even from themselves, and a deft twist of the plot at the end muddies apparent certitudes. CASCADE evokes a world in transition, a world where immutability is an illusion and security a dream. Unabashedly self-conscious in its musings, the novel examines questions of broad import: How great a role does selfishness play in the execution of grand endeavors? Can art preserve the past? What is worth saving in a world where change is the only constant? Is it possible to escape the rush of duty and expectation and find "a place to breathe"?

Swept up in the beautiful language, striking images and finely nuanced conflicts of CASCADE's fictional world, this reader found herself holding her breath with rapt anticipation as she watched artist and town fight to preserve their integrity against the onslaught of circumstance. Sometimes, she learned, the only way to escape drowning is to fling oneself headfirst into the rapids and ride the current to a distant shore.


Maryanne O'Hara earned an MFA from Emerson College and spent many years as Associate Editor for Ploughshares, the award-winning Boston literary journal. Her short fiction has won numerous prizes and has appeared in anthologies and literary journals. CASCADE is her first novel. You can watch the trailer for CASCADE here, as well as visit her website and blog. Maryanne and CASCADE were recently featured in a lengthy feature in the Boston Globe.

Tomorrow, Writing the Renaissance is pleased to feature a guest post by Maryanne. Please stop by to read why she chose to write about the 1930's.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Contest Winner

The winner of Karen Harper's MISTRESS OF MOURNING, 
chosen at random, is

Susan Higginbotham

Thanks to all who participated!