Alice Elliott Dark, FELLOWSHIP POINT: A Novel

Alice Elliott Dark, FELLOWSHIP POINT: A Novel

Zibby interviews Alice Elliot Dark about her national bestseller Fellowship Point, a magnificent book about 80-year-old best friends and the grudges, grievances, and coastal Maine landholdings that entangle their families together. Alice describes her admiration of older women (an untapped and underserved market of readers, by the way!), how she developed her complex characters and book structure, and the fascinating story behind the female land ownership theme she explores. She also talks about her teaching career, her journey to becoming a writer, and what she is working on next!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alice. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Fellowship Point.

Alice Elliott Dark: Thank you so much. I’m really happy to be here.

Zibby: Great. I’m happy to have you. I know I said you don’t have to perform, but I would like you to describe Fellowship Point to people who have not read it yet.

Alice: It’s a big, long, five-hundred-and-fifty-something-page book about three women, two women who are eighty and a young woman who’s twenty-six, how they interact about various subjects, the main one of which is, what’s going to happen to a beautiful piece of land in Maine that’s owned by the two eighty-year-olds? They have shares in a fellowship that was started by her great-great-grandfather in 1875. Now it’s the year 2000. They’re both eighty. One of them, Agnes, is single and has no children, so she can’t pass her share to anybody. She’s worried about what’s going to happen if it goes to the children of her best friend, Polly, who’s another shareholder, and her nephew, Archie, because there have been noise around about possibly developing the land, which totally horrifies her. Then another thread of the book is this young twenty-six-year-old assistant editor who works in a publishing company in Manhattan. She has the bright idea to ask Agnes to write a memoir. Agnes is a very popular children’s book author. She thinks if Agnes writes a memoir about how she came to write the books and what was her inspiration, that it will be really good for selling the books, and it will also be good for getting her ahead in her publishing career. Those are the basics.

Zibby: I love the scenes that take place in publishing, so the whole thing, and even the aspiring writer — not aspiring writer because she’s already an author, but the writer’s block of the moments and trying to figure out how to structure what’s next. You weaved in a breast cancer diagnosis towards the beginning. You had one line which I loved. You had said, “Maybe the surgery would slice away her writer’s block, as if having some massive surgery would at least yield some ancillary benefit of producing writerly material.”

Alice: That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Agnes is funny. She’s a tough, crusty character who has very high principles. She does her best to make good decisions in life, but she also is capable of making remarks that make people recoil because she’s so blunt. She’s so blunt, which was very fun to write. Fun to write a person like that. I’m not like that. I always thought when I got to be an old lady I could be like that, but I’m not so sure.

Zibby: Having a filter takes energy. You might as well.

Alice: It’s true. It takes a lot of energy and practice.

Zibby: Yes. Agnes is also very sympathetic. Her husband goes through a rejection where he does not get promoted. She says something lovely like, this isn’t a nice thing to do to this old man.

Alice: That’s actually Polly, not Agnes.

Zibby: Oh, I’m sorry. That’s Polly.

Alice: Polly, the best friend, who is married with three children and has had a fourth child who died as a nine-year-old. She’s not as harsh as Agnes. She has more empathetic feelings like that toward a lot of people.

Zibby: At least you get both sides of the coin here early on. We know you as an author, then, can have both sides represented.

Alice: I’m not sure I’m either side, but it was fun to write into those characteristics and just inhabit them for a while.

Zibby: Why make them eighty?

Alice: That just happened when the characters came into my imagination. They were eighty. It took a few years for me to wonder, what am I doing? This feels like career suicide for me to be writing about people who are old. They’re not really traditional heroines. Then I just was so far in at that point. I thought, well, I really actually have a lot to say about old women. I’ve always loved old women since I was a child. My grandmother used to take me to visit her great-aunts. They lived in what I came to understand was a nursing home, but I thought it was a mansion. They were in their late nineties. They were sisters together. They had candy. They painted plates. I would go over there and just think, they really have the life. This is it. Ever since then, I was kind of fascinated by older women because I noticed early that people didn’t pay attention to them. I thought they got to have a lot of freedom and were able to be in the world without having to answer for a lot. I always gravitate, in a party or something, to the old woman in the room because I think there’s stuff going on there that no one else is bothering to figure out. I’m curious.

Zibby: It’s almost like people don’t want to acknowledge that soon, that will be them.

Alice: I think that’s a lot of it. I don’t know biology that once you’re not child-producing age, that you’re extraneous to the biological needs of the species. I don’t know what it is, but we all know it. Once you get to be a certain age, you start to feel a difference. Then it just keeps going. It’s a fascinating thing. I really felt as I was writing this that I was inhabiting these women. I started this when I was in my fifties. I’m in my sixties now. They were older than me. I really felt like we’re wasting a lot of political energy in this country by not having older women be much more of a force than they are. The older women I know are very active. They’re vital. They keep up with everything. They’re just the same, but older. They have physical things, but a lot of them don’t have any other deficits. Yet they’re shunted aside. I got to be very politically motivated to make sure that I portrayed them as being highly viable citizens.

Zibby: Interesting. I keep shouting from the rooftops over here about how huge readers older women are and how nobody bothers marketing to them. All I do is see older women commenting on Facebook, even now, and being massive consumers and very engaged with the material. They do have time to read, for the most part, and are super smart and engaged and thoughtful. Yet everyone’s trying to get millennials, who have eight thousand things going on and might not — I don’t know. I feel people miss the mark sometimes in not doing campaigns. I’m doing some presentations to nursing homes. I made this a priority.

Alice: That’s so terrific because I really found being out with this book that women, let’s say, starting at fifty-five, but especially if they’re around seventy-five to eighty-five themselves — even, I’ve gotten letters from people in their nineties. They are so grateful to have a big book where two eighty-year-old women are the main characters. They have a lot going on in their lives. They’re just so grateful to see it because that reflects their reality. They don’t really have that reality reflected very much in any form. I agree with you about the marketing. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve been thinking there’s a huge market that’s not being marketed to.

Zibby: Huge. I know. I shouldn’t have revealed this secret of mine.

Alice: I guess it’s my secret too. Now that I’ve figured this out, I want to figure out how to get this book into the hands of more people who I know will appreciate it at a level and in a different way than younger readers. I’ve had lots of younger readers, lots of letters from men, all kinds of people who — I didn’t know what the market would be for this book. No one ever really knows. I did find out that it’s an identity book for older women, which is really gratifying to me.

Zibby: You think about how many people talk about how isolating it feels not to be able to connect with someone in fiction. There’s so much talk about the power of having novels or memoirs to make you feel less alone. What if you are looking for that and then there’s almost nothing to grab onto? It makes you feel even worse. I feel like production from a range of viewpoints has expanded in some areas. Yet some still need to be dusted off. I love what you’re doing. I didn’t mean to say that this is my idea, not yours.

Alice: No, I totally understand. I do. You’re in a position to really make massive advances in this area. I’m not. I totally applaud that this is something that you’re really thinking about because it’s out there.

Zibby: My grandmother, until probably six months before she passed away at ninety-three, every time we talked, the first thing we asked was, “What are you reading?” My husband’s grandmother, she would come home. She’s like, “Look at the books!” She would just sit and read every time she visited, the whole time. They just wanted to talk. I’m not basing this on a sample set of two. This is obviously much bigger.

Alice: There’s also the fact that the people who are now between seventy-five and ninety-five, let’s say, they grew up in a reading era, too, when you would go to a dinner party and it would be, “Let’s talk about this book,” instead of, “Let’s talk about this TV show or this movie or this politician.” Everybody had read the books. It was a common conversation. I remember that so well when I was growing up because I was lucky enough to grow up around a reading family. That doesn’t happen anymore. You don’t to go a dinner party, and everybody’s just read the same book.

Zibby: Maybe a very literary dinner party.

Alice: Maybe a very literary dinner party, but not just a suburban dinner party. It’s different now. Then, it really was like that.

Zibby: Not just the same book, but there were only a couple TV — I feel like that’s something that we’ve all lost. There’s so much choice that we don’t bond about the same things at all, shows, movies, books. It’s nice that everybody gets to customize, but it’s also really not nice.

Alice: I wonder about that too. I do feel something’s lost by having every taste catered to at every moment and not having some common — I don’t know. It’s a big subject.

Zibby: We don’t have to tackle that. I am curious, though, in your touring and publicity and getting to know your reader audience, what has been most successful in terms of reaching those readers? What have you done? Obviously, you have such a giant platform because you’re so amazing, but what have you done to ferret out the readers who need this the most?

Alice: I’m still working on that. I really didn’t think of who was going to be the reader for the book. It just seemed like a big story and characters to me. Now I’m trying to think about how to reach older readers and go into, like you said, retirement places where there are book groups and book clubs. I have ideas about it too. Maybe we should talk.

Zibby: We should talk offline about it. We’ll talk offline. I’m doing a class at this elderly continuing education thing. I’m going out to a nursing home in Massachusetts. We’ll get back to that. Tell me about how you go about structuring a book where you know there’s so much going on over the course of so much and that you’re going to have this saga, five hundred juicy pages of information and twists and turns. Do you know that at the outset? Do you have to structure it? Do you have all your plans laid out? Do you just start with a little idea, and you’re like, “I’ll give that as many pages as it needs to get where I — then I know when I’ve reached it”?

Alice: B. I didn’t know at the outset. The characters came to me one by one. I knew when I got the first character, which was Virgil, who doesn’t have a big part in the book. He was the first character who came to me. When he came to me, he came in such a way that I knew, oh, I’m in a novel. It just felt like it had a different quality to it. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever really written purely from imagination, except for the settings. Philadelphia and Maine, real places. Not Fellowship Point, but Maine. The characters were all made up. Before, I’d always taken a little bit from here and there from people I know. This time, they just appeared whole as themselves. I started putting them together and having them talk to each other and watching what they said to each other and thinking about their interactions. That taught me who they were. I always like to test out characters by putting them in extreme situations. Then what do they do? Get lost in the wilderness or something, and just see how they behave. It’s a good little exercise.

Then a couple of things led to the structure of the book. One was I saw a miniseries based on a Trollope novel. I thought, oh, my god, I really love these big plots with twists, turns, subplots, all of it. I want to try and learn how to write one. That came. Then the other thing that happened was I visited my friend Tina in California. She was involved in land trust with the University of California cataloging all their land. She told me that so many of the donors were women who had donated their ranch that they had inherited, thousands of acres kind of ranches. I started researching women land donors and women founders of national parks and all of this. It was a really fascinating subject, not really a well-known history in this country of this kind of conservation and donation by women. I started having a thought that women have not been able to control the land that they owned for very long. 1900 was the first date that women in all fifty states — well, the states that existed in 1900 — were allowed to control land. Otherwise, it was brother, husband, father, uncle, cousin, any man. Any man could have control over it before the woman could. Then I just thought, women have a different feeling about landowning than men do because it’s not a part of our DNA. It really isn’t. We’ve lived on the borrowed land and the goodwill of others for a long time. It has made it possible for a lot of women to not hold that as an identity. They pass through the land. They love the land. They love the land so much that they don’t want it developed. They’d prefer to give it to a trust or a park or something. Once I had all those elements together, I had the idea. How I structured it after that was trial and error, lots of pages, lots of throwing away.

Zibby: Wow. How long did it take for the whole book to be written?

Alice: I started it in 2011. I turned it in to my agent in 2018. Then I did a couple of drafts with my editor, Marysue Rucci. She was at Simon & Schuster. Then she moved to Scribner and took me with her over to Scribner. Then I think I wrote the end of the book when it was already typeset. I just was not happy with how it ended, so I came up with a new ending. I’d say the whole thing was done by 2020. Nine years, but not nine full years because I don’t work during my teaching semesters, not on something big like this. It’s too big. I couldn’t keep it in my head and keep all my student work and everything in my head at the same time.

Zibby: Tell me more about your teaching.

Alice: I teach at Rutgers, Newark, in the MFA program and in the English department. The semester’s in full swing right now.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, thanks for even taking the time.

Alice: No, it’s wonderful.

Zibby: It’s good, too, because now you have a built-in audience, right? Hands-on marketers.

Alice: I’m not so sure they would be very — for lots of reasons. My grad students are interested because they are working to become writers themselves. My undergrads, I’ve mentioned as I’m teaching lit, I’m a writer too. They’re like, okay. Okay, teach, move on.

Zibby: It’s so funny. Can you talk more about how you got to this place in your life, how you became a teacher and a writer and if you knew from when you were a child if this was the path you were going on or how you got here?

Alice: I was a child writer. I think I started at about seven and kept going and kept going and kept going. Then when I got through school, I stopped during the college years. I got to a place where I felt people like me didn’t become real writers. It was wonderful at school. I went to a school that had a lot of literary stuff going on, but I just didn’t live in a culture where people became — they were very sophisticated consumers of literature, music, art, but not creators. It took me a little while to get back to it. It really happened after college when I just found that there was nothing I wanted — there were a lot of things I wanted to do, but I was too shy to go try and do them. I was really desperately shy. I took up writing again. I wrote poetry until I was about thirty. Then I started writing prose and just kept going from there. I started teaching. I started working at Rutgers in 2000. Now it’s a good balance. I have one son. He’s also trying to be a writer. He is a writer. He just wrote a big novel. Once he left in 2010, I all of a sudden could manage everything. I always feel like you can do three things, not four things. A child, job, writing, and then house, friends, blah, blah, blah, put all that — you could parse it out to eight things. I think you can do three things with full heart. After that, you’re doing things a little bit less. Kids take even more than a third. They’re in your head. Once he moved out, that’s when things started getting a little more organized for me. It’s no surprise that I started this book in 2011 because I just had the headspace that I hadn’t had since he was born to write a big book.

Zibby: I say that it wasn’t until I got divorced and had every other weekend without my kids that I even could think again.

Alice: Is that when you wrote your book?

Zibby: That’s how I’ve done basically everything.

Alice: I totally get it.

Zibby: There’s no way I could’ve. Even still, I can barely. These kids, look at them. I will drop anything anytime if someone has an issue.

Alice: Of course. I still do. I think that’s forever.

Zibby: I think that’s forever too. What’s next for you? You have this big book out. Congratulations. Amazing. You’re teaching. What next?

Alice: I’m writing another book. After that, I probably will write another one. At this stage, I really want to just be writing full time. I’m not quite finished with teaching. There’s still things I want to do in that part of my career. There are things left. I’m looking forward to being a full-time writer. When I am, I’m going to go at it pretty hard until I just feel like, okay, enough. Then I’ll just enjoy looking at the ocean or something. I don’t know. That’s how I picture my future.

Zibby: This is totally inappropriate. You don’t have to answer this. I’m always really interested with people who have let their hair go gray or white or whatever. You don’t have to talk about it. I can cut this question, but I’m curious.

Alice: I’m happy to talk about it. I had very dark hair that people called black hair. It was very dark. I started getting white hair in my thirties. When I was about forty, I started doing suburban blond because I had enough gray hair by that point. It wasn’t really black anymore. It was turning gray. Then at a certain point, I guess something happened that I didn’t color it fast enough, and I noticed that it was actually white underneath, not gray anymore. I thought, I like that. I can live with that. It is funny. Women love it. My friends will say that their husband said, don’t you dare do that. There’s a big gender divide about the white hair thing.

Zibby: Interesting. I think it looks gorgeous.

Alice: Thank you.

Zibby: I was debating if I should just let myself go gray, which is a selfishly motivated question. There was a whole things in The Times about how women think it’s cool, and men, they don’t want their wives, necessarily, to be all gray.

Alice: Exactly. I’ve run into that so much. I guess it makes them think they’ll look older if they’re with a woman who is not afraid to identify as an being an older woman. I think that’s their perspective. It’s not women’s perspective at all. Women have very different ideas about how they feel good about themselves. I just knew I would feel good not doing all that coloring anymore. It’s so boring, expensive if you go to a place, which I did sometimes. Sometimes I did it. All of that, I was like, if I could just get rid of that part of my life, I’d be so happy. It is complicated. It’s complicated. I’ve never looked back. I’m happy with it. I do notice that people immediately think of me as older. Then they’ll say, your face doesn’t look old. I’m like, I don’t know exactly what you’re saying. Okay. think I look twenty-five either, even if I am still blond. I think it depends a lot on what the color is. If you were to do it and you find you have a gorgeous gray, it makes a lot of difference, and if the texture’s nice and all of that.

Zibby: My mom has a friend with this amazing bob, beautiful grays and whites. I was like, but how would I know? Maybe I have that. Maybe it would look like that, but I would never know. Probably not.

Alice: I know. You might. I definitely saw a lot of people in the pandemic let it happen. So many people, I thought, looked so much better with the gray hair because it kind of matches your skin tone. You change when you get older. Your skin tone looks great. Then they went back, and I was a little bit sad.

Zibby: I’m more gray than my mom at this point.

Alice: Really? My mother is gray. She envies this hair. She was trying to put platinum coloring in her hair. It doesn’t turn this color. This is not a color you can get out of a bottle. It’s an absence of something that you can’t recreate.

Zibby: It’s very, very cool. I love it. Sorry for talking about that.

Alice: I’m always happy to talk. I could’ve talked the whole time about hair.

Zibby: My kids actually have a whole section in school this year about hair and how it’s so central to identity. It’s allowing them to teach about all these different things.

Alice: That’s great. That’s so smart. It’s so true.

Zibby: It’s so true. I should offer you up as a speaker for second grade.

Alice: I’d love to come in. Pull my hair. It’s real.

Zibby: Awesome. Alice, thank you so much for the fun chat. Congratulations on your book. Let’s stay in touch and start our own really interesting marketing approach.

Alice: Yes, be happy to. Thank you so much, Zibby. Honored to meet you, honestly. Big things you’re doing have been so exciting to all women in the publishing world.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m trying hard. Doing more than four things. I was like, oh, no, she’s talking to me.

Alice: I know. I think you’re doing twenty things.

Zibby: I’m honored to talk to you as well. Thank you. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Alice: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Alice Elliott Dark, FELLOWSHIP POINT: A Novel

FELLOWSHIP POINT: A Novel by Alice Elliott Dark

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