MLP supporter and former MLP blogging team member Madeleine Mysko has a new book out from Bridle Path Press. Stone Harbor Bound is the story of Camille Pickett, who’s grieving the loss of her longtime partner, and also of the people she encounters in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, when she returns to her partner’s beloved beach town for the last time. In the book, Madeleine tells a story of loss and redemption, community and family, forgiveness and hope.
Hillary Moses Mohaupt: Camille Pickett, the protagonist of Stone Harbor Bound, is a lesbian and is grieving the loss of her partner. I’m curious about how this character came to you and how you, as a straight ally for LGBT rights, came to write her story?
Madeleine Mysko: Since the release of the novel, I’ve been braced for that question. I know that just because I’m straight I shouldn’t have to explain my choice of a lesbian protagonist, any more than just because I’m female I should have to explain my choice of a male. And yet I worry that some readers will think I chose Camille Pickett as a device to make a statement—because after all I have been outspoken in my support of LGBTQ rights and marriage equality, and I’ve served on the editorial board of More Light Presbyterians. The truth is, I can barely remember coming up with Camille. She wasn’t a character in any of my early short stories about Stone Harbor, but when I needed a strong character whose story line could intersect with and manage the others, suddenly there she was, taking over. Camille has her own problems, but I like that she’s the sort of person who’s naturally drawn to help others. A registered nurse and devoted “rescuer” was just the character I needed for this complicated plot—the irony being that who more than Camille in this novel needs rescuing? In the end, I think that Camille just happens to be a lesbian, in the way some people I know and admire just happen to be lesbians.
HM: Even though Camille does not see herself within a religious tradition, there’s a lot of religious imagery in this book. Camille, for example, remembers her partner’s practice of her Catholic faith, with a refrain of “the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins.” How do you see the role of religion and faith in this story?
MM: I have been a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for many years, but I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools, including nursing school and college. I describe myself as a “parenthetically Catholic” Presbyterian. I still attend Mass every now and then—at St. Vincent’s in downtown Baltimore, a very strong social-justice congregation. And I take spiritual direction from a Benedictine nun. I think I have an incarnational view of the world, and what the poet Dana Gioia calls a “Catholic Literary Imagination.” The working title for the novel—for me anyway, even after my editors shook their heads and said no, because they thought it too “religious” for the cover—was always “The Communion of Saints.” I see Camille as working out her grief against that memory of Bridget declaring that everyone is a “saint.” I see the others characters as struggling to be in communion with each other, despite the brokenness that is forever plaguing relationships, especially within families. To that way of thinking, you can change the word “sins” to “brokenness.”
HM: One of the things I loved about this book is the way you bring the Jersey shore—and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic, really—to life, by letting the reader visit Stone Harbor through the eyes of several different characters with very different relationships to the town. How did you come to set this story in this place?
MM: I had never been to Stone Harbor before the year 2001, when I met my husband John and he began taking me along on his family vacation. Like the Heaneys in the novel, my husband’s family established a tradition of going to Stone Harbor every single summer all the way back in the 1940’s. But my parents couldn’t afford vacations, so I was seventeen years old before I ever saw the ocean (though I was raised within a three-mile driving distance of it). The experience of the traditional family going off to the same idyllic place year after year was something for me to wrestle with. Whenever I’m in Stone Harbor now, I’m writing. I wrote the first draft of this novel over several summers, taking long walks in the morning, sitting in the coffee shop or on the beach, and observing people—especially families—then writing it down in longhand. During the winters, back at my desk in Baltimore, I would shape things up. I worked on this slim novel for about seven years in this way. I like to say that John gave me Stone Harbor and then I made it my own in fiction.
HM: So, in a way, you spent a lot of time on the beach during the winter. Do you think you could write about Stone Harbor and the traditional family summer vacation because you were looking at it from the outside (like Camille, in a way)? How does that compare to writing about Baltimore, where you live?
MM: I think you’ve hit on something with that “outsider” question. I wrote about Stone Harbor, if not as an outsider, then certainly as a newcomer. I felt a little wistful sometimes. There I was, welcomed into a wonderful family, absorbing their stories about wonderful summer traditions, and at the same time I couldn’t help but think how my own childhood memories compared. On the other hand, I’m always a bit skeptical of other people’s idyllic childhood memories, so sometimes I had to be careful about the critical edge in my writing. As to how that compares to my writing about Baltimore, the novel I’m writing now takes place entirely in Baltimore, which is where I was born and raised, so you’d think that would make me an insider. But the irony is that now, with all the social unrest in Baltimore, and the striving for racial justice, my point of view feels precarious. The protagonist of this novel is (like me) a white woman in her late sixties who suddenly realizes how little she really knows about the Baltimore she was born and raised in. I’m having to do research on things you’d think I would have learned as a child. But the Baltimore of the late Fifties and early Sixties was full of secrets, and so I feel as though I’m working from the outside, making my way back in.
HM: Can you talk about the role of grief and regret in this book?
MM: I’ll try. Grief and regret are hard to talk about. As for grief, I see Camille as unable to grieve because she’s so angry. She’s angry with her “in-laws,” the Gallaghers, mainly because they aren’t in reality her in-laws, and she desperately wants them to be. And of course she’s angry with Bridget for failing to kick her alcohol addiction and stay alive. And as for regret: that word stumps me for some reason. Maybe regret in this novel is a kind of mourning, a sense that something’s been lost, that things didn’t go the way they ought to have. This is the first time I’ve thought about it, but maybe regret is the sad moment in which we examine our own part it in—the first step toward reconciliation? I think Camille would laugh at that and call it way too highfalutin.
HM: I like that interpretation of regret—acknowledging that you’ve played some role in the loss—and I like that you can picture Camille’s response to that interpretation. I’m interested in whether you think of your characters as fully formed people who, by their nature, help guide the novel into being. Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” When you started writing this book you were already engaged in LGBTQ justice work. Did Camille change how you thought this book would turn out? Did spending so much time with her over the course of writing this book change how you were engaging in LGBTQ justice work?
MM: I like that you mention Flannery O’Connor. Her work has been important to me, ever since she scared the living daylights out of me with “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Early on in the writing process, my characters do become fully formed people. I find myself walking in their shoes all the time. You ask if spending so much time with Camille may have affected how I engage with LGBTQ justice work. I’m recalling an incident that occurred when I was serving on Session some years ago. All of us on Session had received a blistering letter from the father of a child who was about to be baptized in our church. This young father had just learned that another child would be baptized on the same Sunday—the child of a gay couple—and he was so outraged that he withdrew his child from baptism in our church. That letter really shook me up, especially the way he rebuked us for leading others, including children, into sin. I had taught him in Church School, and his mother is a friend of mine. Of course we went ahead with the baptism of the gay couple’s child, and we did it joyfully. But I was upset afterwards, because our Session never really talked about what that angry letter was calling us to do. Worse, I was upset with myself, for not insisting that we do so. Some time after that, Camille arrived in my writing life. I’m wondering now if maybe my closeness to her—my genuine fondness for her—somehow dispelled some of my shyness in becoming a straight ally. Now I’m thinking maybe it was Camille who helped me find MLP.
HM: The families in Stone Harbor Bound are anything but traditional—mostly characters are muddling through trying to define themselves in relation to other people they are close to, trying to figure out how they all fit together. Camille is also a nurse, accused by others—as you said—of being a “pathological rescuer”—a description we see played out over the course of the book. She says, “What’s pathological about wanting to rescue someone?” Can you talk about the ways in which the relationships among characters change, how the characters come to trust each other in new ways?
MM: Well, I think we’re still talking about the religious metaphor of the “communion of saints.” The key word is communion—the belief that there is something holy in each human relationship. But human relationships are so fraught with, well—humanness, which mean trouble! We’ve talked about Camille’s anger already. But I think we can also see her deep and troubling distrust. She has no faith that anything good can come out of communing with people she considers bigots and jerks. But then she finds herself drawn into caring for the Gallaghers, the very ones who have hurt her. I see it as a kind of miracle, because it will bring healing ultimately. Then we have young Owen, who’s so in denial about his addiction that he cannot trust those who might help. And then we have Owen’s mother, Judy, who’s so fearful for her son—that he’s going to die an alcoholic like his father—that she fences herself off from a honest relationship with Gerry. The idyllic family-friendly shore town of Stone Harbor brings all these people together, and somehow they each have to decide to trust in the other. It might sound like I planned it this way as I wrote. But believe me, it didn’t. I guess I had to trust, too.
Hillary Mohaupt, a former MLP Blogger has a decade of experience in communications work with cultural, religious and educational organizations. She has served on the coordinating committee of the National Network of Presbyterian College Women and the churchwide coordinating team of Presbyterian Women, with whom she has held educational trips to Switzerland and France. She is currently an MFA candidate in the fiction writing program at Pacific University in Oregon; she also holds a Master’s in History and Museum Studies from the University of Delaware, and a BA in history from Macalester College. An Illinois native, she lives in Philadelphia with her partner and their cat. She is a ruling elder at Hanover Church in Wilmington, Delaware.
Madeleine Mysko is a former MLP Blogger, an elder at Towson Presbyterian Church (Towson, MD), she is a published writer of poetry, fiction, personal essays, and opinion pieces. She is the author of Bringing Vincent Home, a novel based on her experience as an Army nurse during the Vietnam War. A graduate of the Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University, she has taught creative writing for decades. She is also a registered nurse, and presently serves at American Journal of Nursing as coordinator of the “Reflections” column, a platform for personal stories.