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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

A Story’s Origins on a Timeless Coast

with Bill Prindle

Somewhere Beyond the Sea” begins in issue 711. The essay “What Is ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’?” appears in issue 718. It summarizes the Review Editors’ discussion and shows that a truly Bewildering story is one that raises questions, to which there is often more than one answer...

[Bill P.] I read with great interest your essay “What Is “Somewhere Beyond the Sea”? I really appreciated your close reading of the story and the points you raised. There are a few discrepancies I wish I’d dealt with more deftly, such as Bess’s cold hands at the beginning and a few other minor things.

I was writing the story about a certain feeling I had, so some of the plot mechanics weren’t all that precise by design. When I was about nine or ten, my family went to a small town named Castine (the model for Dark Haven), well up on the Maine coast.

My father had a sailboat and we’d sail all over Penobscot Bay and out to the nearby islands. On one island there was an old abandoned house. Its pans, pots, glasses, and plates were still in the cupboards, knives and forks and can openers in the drawers, tattered blankets on the still-made beds, old copies of The Saturday Evening Post from early in the century.

As kids, we were told we could explore the house but leave everything as it was, which we did. The mystery of that abandoned house and the people who had lived there has haunted me since then.

My experience of going out to those islands, especially the one with that house, is of being happy aboard my father’s sailboat, being his first mate, and loving my time with him. It didn’t end well, but the memory of those few happy summers, being on the water, visiting those islands and that house left me with an acute sense of loss not unlike that Nabokov describes in his memoir Speak, Memory.

In a way, Bess is the embodiment of that loss. She is the ghost of those few but vivid summers and she is all of it: me, my father, a sunny Maine day and a strong breeze, the ghost house. To that extent, I didn’t worry as much as I should have about aligning some of the details. Were the Clements ghosts? Parallel reality? Was the rarity of that storm something more sinister or benign, as in The Tempest? If two lovers are fated to miss each other because they live in different times, can they find each other? Does love transcend time?

Michael has lost his great love. I was tempted to say his “Rosebud,” but I’d like to think Bess is more interesting than a sled. As short as the relationship was, it was powerful enough to transform him. I’ve heard of similar such loves, usually in extreme conditions, such as wartime, when a brief encounter allows two people to fall utterly in love. This is what I had in mind for Michael. I didn’t want to nail down the mechanics of it too tightly, but as you said, any seeming in consistencies might be enough for people to drop out of the fictional dream.

Michael’s parents do have names, which are mentioned briefly. Harry and Kathleen, whom Harry only mentions once as “Kath.”

As for the potential discrepancies between 1918 and 1951, I gave a lot of thought to how much I should address them and decided to address them lightly. That part of the coast in 1951 wasn’t much different than it was in 1918, and I have the family albums to prove it.

That region of the Maine coast in 1951 was about a seven-hour drive from Boston and, to that extent, it was remote, mostly self-sufficient, and well off the main roads. As a result, some of those little coastal towns changed very slowly and very little over the years.

In 1951, our house in Castine still had phone you had to crank to get a connection; a separate earpiece; you told to the town operator whom you were calling and she might connect you. A farmer, lobsterman, fisherman, or working person in Castine in 1918 or 1951 pretty much dressed the same way. Nothing fancy and a lot of overalls.

In 1951, there was no TV station available in Castine, so in the evenings people went visiting or listened to the radio and read, knitted, or played games. Michael and his father might not have seen much that was different on the island from what they saw on shore. The differences between 1918 and 1951 may seem glossed over in the story. I decided make a few indirect references and let it go.

The ambiguities of the story owe a lot to Twilight Zone episodes that left me wondering was it A or was it B and being content with the possibility of both.

[Don Webb] Thank you, Bill, for the “literary backstory.” Your memoir is as charming as the novella itself. Now readers can see not only how your personal experiences align with Michael’s but also the meaning that you — and Michael — derive from them.

But what about the readers? As our introduction to this page says, the essay in issue 718 summarizes some readers’ responses. I would add that the essay attempts to draw one reader’s conclusion, namely mine, and I’ve deliberately made it rather stark.

Others may differ, for example: “Let Michael have his lifelong love, even though, at age eleven, he does seem a little too young for it.” I quite understand, and adopting that viewpoint — even provisionally — as axiomatic is necessary if one is to finish reading the story.

In the end, readers and authors all interpret stories in light of their own experiences, and they’re never exactly the same. And readers’ reactions tell us as much about the readers themselves as about the story.

At best, then, literature is dynamic. Readers must, in the end, answer one or more of the four questions that underlie even the most seemingly esoteric literary criticism:

  1. What is the text, and what does it say? (text establishment)
  2. How does the text say what it does? (stylistics)
  3. What did it mean in its own time? (literary history)
  4. What might it mean in ours? (interpretation)

You’ve answered quite admirably question #3 and, as much as possible, question #4. But all the questions remain open, each in its own way. Rather than treating literature as a collection of monuments, they bring it to life.

Copyright © 2017 by Bill Prindle
and Bewildering Stories

Responses welcome!

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