An Interview with Caitlin Hamilton Summie
- What inspired you to write WILD MOUNTAIN?
I wrote my first novel from the point of view of two women, and after that I wanted the challenge of doing something different – writing from a man’s point of view, and writing a short story. I had read a newspaper article about a covered bridge destroyed by an ice storm in a small Vermont town, and I had a male friend who was intellectual, charming, and a wanderer. I thought it would be fun to put someone like him together with a really grounded native Vermont woman in an ice storm that collapsed the bridge. Thus began a short story.
Most writers tell the story of one person, perhaps a handful, but your novel grows slowly to become the story of an entire community. Why did you decide to write so expansively?
I wrote the short story, and it was published in a literary magazine, but then I wanted to know what happened next. New characters began to emerge, and then I thought about an interesting time in recent Vermont history –just before the Freedom to Marry vote – and set the novel then. I think I’m just a novelist at heart. I grew up on George Elliot and Tolstoy, and their novels somehow became imprinted in me as models. There is a whole world around the main characters, and I want to see how all of this affects or changes the story.
- There is a real love of place in your novel as well as a reverence for the natural world. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? Do you live near mountains?
I live in Vermont, where everywhere you go you can see beautiful mountains, rivers and farmlands. I hike, bicycle, and swim in the lakes, and I have always loved being outside in nature. In my writing I love to delve into a particular setting and describe not only the landscape but the unique culture of that place, and imagine how that setting affects our human life. My first novel was set on the Delmarva Peninsula, a vast sandbar surrounded by ocean.
- As much as your novel is about community, several of your characters arrive in WILD MOUNTAIN craving solitude and simplicity—and maintaining it, to a degree. Is this true of Vermonters, that as often as the community gathers, many people are inclined toward privacy?
Yes! The Back-to-the Land movement in the 60s and 70s was big in Vermont, and still is. That universal longing to live simply and in tune with nature continues to bring people to Vermont.
- You work in counseling and theology. Do these professions create empathy or enhance empathy? Do you believe this empathy is critical to your keen character development?
Once you enter into the life of a minister or a psychotherapist (or both, as I did) you can’t help but have your assumptions and prejudices about people challenged. You are almost always in supervision and/or peer groups with others and meet a wide diversity of people and situations. We are there to help, and we are entrusted with people’s deepest pain. If we didn’t have empathy to begin with, we learn it. Someone once said that a novelist plays God and therefore needs to ultimately have compassion for all the characters. I think that’s true, and for many of us, reading novels is our way of understanding the world. When I read a book and can sympathize with even the most unlikeable character, I feel my world expanded.
- In your novel, there is a character whose spirituality is based on more ancient beliefs and another character who is Wiccan. As someone who works within a specific religious tradition, was it hard to write about different faiths?
Actually, although I come out of a specific religious tradition, I have been involved in many, and I work with people of all faith traditions. As the great spiritual teachers say, in all deep and authentic spiritual paths, there is more that we have in common with others than not. As a writer I love to get into the mindset of characters who find meaning in different ways and then see how they interact.
- This is your second book. Can you share in what ways it is different from your earlier work and in what ways it is similar?
Both SEA LEVEL, my first novel, and WILD MOUNTAIN depict a small town caught up in a community battle, and both include a variety of people feeling both personal and community tension. Nature is important, almost a character itself, in both books. And both stories find some resolution through spiritual connection at a funeral. But Sea Level, whose two main characters are a clergywoman and a pagan artist, is more about religious beliefs and church conflict, while Wild Mountain’s community conflict is political.
- As a working professional, how do you find the time to write?
Ah yes, the perennial question. SEA LEVEL started as an arts project for my Doctor of Ministry degree, a way of depicting family systems, church conflict, and spiritual development in story form. That meant I allowed myself the time to write, and it also meant I was motivated to finish it. Then when I got to Wild Mountain, many years later, I had the guts to keep going on it. When did I do it? I don’t know. I think I snatched the time away from other things that would have made me more comfortable financially.
- There are many life transitions in this novel: from being single to being in love, from not being present as a father to seeing a child regularly, from parenting to stepping back because the child is really now an adult, from living to dying, from holding up to falling apart. Yet the novel bears the weight of all these transitions and changes. Was it difficult to manage all the changes? How did you decide which character would bear each weight?
Well, as I said, I felt I knew Frank from the beginning, though he quickly stopped resembling my old friend. But I knew his character, his personality, and so I could travel with him through his optimism, his parenting guilt, his devil-may-care-ness, and see where that would lead him. Same with Mona. As the story progressed, I discovered more about her, as I did about each person’s character, and then I could project them into a new situation. This is the fun and the challenge of writing! Creating a coherent world. And of course that means going back over and over again, revising, revising, revising, so that those transitions make sense.
- The novel begins as a 200-year-old bridge collapses, and the town begins to debate the merits of rebuilding. This is a beautiful metaphor for what happens in many people’s lives. There is no question here. Just an observation. But would like to share an observation about craft, or your writing, or this novel that the distance of now being done writing it has allowed you to see?
It’s so interesting that you would see that metaphor. I just recently realized that the broken bridge was a metaphor for a broken community. It brought out anger and resentments and the different political motivations. There Is a battle over finances and then about the deeper values of the personhood of LGBTQ people. Who deserves a place at the table? Can a lesbian who is fighting for gay marriage be the chair of the select board? And how does reconciliation happen? Here is where the spiritual dimension comes in.