INTERVIEW A New Milford writer switches genres
Where do old writers go to spend their final days?
In Terri-Lynne DeFino’s funny and moving new novel, they get themselves a suite at “The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses)” (William Morrow).
The beautiful facility in the book is the creation of a literary world patron named Cornelius Traeger, a man who is long dead when the story begins in the spring of 1999, but who lingers over the action through bits of his life philosopy that grace the beginning of each chapter (i.e. “You can rarely tell the real thoughts behind a smile”).
The novel’s heroine, Cecibel Bringer, is an orderly who has never quite recovered from the auto accident that left one side of her face scarred.
Things start to change at the converted Bar Harbor mansion when Cornelius’s lover, literary giant Alfonse Carducci, arrives to spend the final months of his life. A legendary figure, whose wild private life — including trysts with men and women — made him a fixture in gossip columns, Alfonse moves into the biggest apartment in the home, the one that was once occupied by Cornelius.
All of the residents believe their writing days are over until Cecibel inspires Alfonse to begin a new autobiographical story. With his increasingly weakened condition, the novelist allows two of his old writer friends to collaborate on the book, and a once-famous editor to shape up the material as it is produced.
It’s a story about second chances in life that also represents a major change in direction for the author, who decided to shift away from fantasy and romance novels to focus on literary fiction.
DeFino says she started thinking about her story after she saw the 2012 British film, “Quartet,” about a home for retired performers, featuring Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay.
“It was such a great movie. I thought how wonderful it would be to retire among birds of a feather. ... People who know what you did throughout your life,” the novelist recalls.
But that idea sat on a back burner in the writer’s imagination until the character of the scarred Cecibel came to her. “Actually, she came right at me,” DeFino adds. Coincidentally, the writer was nearing the end of a contract for her romance novels and decided the time had come for “something new.”
A home for distinguished old writers with Cecibel as an employee began percolating in the writer’s mind, and less than a year later, the novel was finished. DeFino chose the Maine resort as the setting because she loves to visit there — “If I had all the money in the world I would have a place up there.”
The book’s casual depiction of gay as well as straight relationships is a reflection of the author’s view of sexuality. “No one talked about it when I was growing up Italian Catholic in New Jersey. But I have a brother two years older than me who came out at the age of 20,” DeFino says.
The characters in the novel wonder if books and reading might be fighting a losing battle with changes in American popular culture, so I ask DeFino about the future of novels.
“It’s one of those things where it is so hard to say. When radio and TV came along, people thought that would kill reading. But it ebbs and flows. I think books will survive,” she says.
DeFino enjoyed her work in the fantasy and romance genres, but believes popular fiction such as “Bar Harbor” is what she will be focusing on now. “This is where my heart is,” she says, “where it has been leading me all this time.”
The quick response to her change in direction has encouraged the writer. “I finished the book in June and by December we sold it to William Morrow,” she notes.
DeFino credits her daughter with getting the book into the right hands. Jamie had an “in” with senior editor Rachel Kahan through their connection on the Jezebel women’s issues website.
The author has written most of her novels without a contract — “on spec” as they say in the trade — which takes a high degree of self-confidence.
“Yes, that’s probably true,” DeFino agrees, “but I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t write. I have three more (books) done that I hope to sell. I feel like it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to write.”
The moment of truth came when Jamie was younger: “I thought, do I get a job or do I stay at home, take writing seriously, and make it work ... I think this is the way it is with a lot of artists, you just have to do it because it is so much of who you are.”
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