The Big Idea: Wendy N. Wagner
Some types of stories evoke certain locales and lives — can those stories be transplanted into new locations and still be successful? Wendy N. Wagner is thinking a lot about this for her new release The Secret Skin. Read on to find out her conclusion.
WENDY N. WAGNER:
About twelve years ago, I discovered the Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic novel Rebecca. I immediately fell in love with it—the way its prose and story tasted really and truly gothic, even in the moments set in glittering sunshine and in sleek motorcars. It lit a fire within me to write a story that kept its gothic form even while it dripped with the fog and moss of my native Oregon.
The idea seemed at once apt, because Oregon is a place of gloom and shadow and powerful landscapes, but also impossible. The Oregon I know is a surprisingly prosaic place. I couldn’t imagine a story of tumultuous love and supernatural events succeeding in a place where people drank too much cheap beer and wore cork boots. What would an Oregon gothic even look like? It would have to be grimy and struggle with both class issues and a deep history of racism—just like Southern gothic literature—but instead of being set on a haunted plantation, it would have to be set in a place devoted to what was historically Oregon’s biggest employer and most powerful cultural touchstone: the timber industry. Could I write a gothic novel set in a logging town? Could I write a … Sawmill Gothic?
Ten years ago, I sat down to write just that book. The first ten thousand words or so were gritty and scary and really hard to write—in fact, they were so tough, I put the book aside and tried to forget it. But every year I got more and more interested in gothic literature. I found myself re-reading Jane Eyre, “The Fall of the House of Usher,”and The Haunting of Hill House and thinking about just how much I wanted to write a book set in a haunted mansion. It didn’t really jibe with my idea of a sawmill gothic, but it was still irresistible—especially after my family took a trip to the botanical gardens at Shore Acres State Park.
I actually grew up visiting these small, very lovely Japanese-inspired botanical gardens. They’re part of a larger complex of state-owned parks, which include some of the finest spots for tidepooling on the Oregon coast. The gardens perch on the edge of a sandstone cliff overlooking the sea, and even on nice days, fog banks press in from the west. The gardens had been planted for the first wife of a timber and ship-building magnate, Louis J. Simpson, who had also built a fabulous mansion to accompany them. The mansion burned in the 1920s, and plans to rebuild fell through when the Depression devastated the Simpson empire. The family donated the estate to the State of Oregon, and thousands of tourists visit the site every year.
The Simpsons’ story read like a gothic novel. There was a father who had established the family’s fortune, and a son who not only expanded it, but tried to use the money to reshape the cultural landscape around him. There was Louis’s first wife, the beautiful Cassandra, who had left her first husband to marry the darkly handsome and artistic Louis. There were the lavish parties, and the terrible, tragic fire that destroyed house just two months after Cassandra’s untimely death. It was a powerful story that nipped and tugged at my imagination.
And it did have a connection to timber. Maybe my big idea of a sawmill gothic wasn’t so impossible after all.
So, fueled by Oregon’s history and my love for this tremendous site, I sat down and looked at the novel I’d begun years earlier. I sawed off the loose edges and changed the structural beams and sanded it all to fit into 28,000 neat words. It was no longer just the story of a haunted house, or of the Simpson family. It had become a story about different ways of being queer, as well as a story about what Oregon’s rich people looked like in the 1920s, with all their complicated, nearly incestuous lives, and with all their isolation from ordinary Oregonians. Its prose had come to look like a very intentional homage to Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and The Haunting of Hill House. Was it a Sawmill Gothic? I don’t know. But it is a story of secrets, and the skins we wear to keep them, and I’m beyond excited to share it with the world.