A shining light

March 18, 2006
By Ben Beagle, Daily News Lifestyles Editor

The stories Jennifer Donnelly heard growing up in her large Irish family stuck with her as she set out to be a writer. One of those stories, told by her now 96-year-old grandmother, was of a young girl murdered by her boyfriend on an Adirondack lake. But it was a simple ghost story of a spirit that still haunts the lake. Told around the dinner table to raise the hair on the back of a child’s neck, there was no mention of pregnancy or pre-marital sex. Donnelly rediscovered her grandmother’s tale years later, when her mother introduced the adult Donnelly to Theodore Drieser’s An American Tragedy, a fictionalized account of the tragic love story of Chester Gillette and Grace Brown. As she immersed herself in the real-life story that provides an ominous backdrop for her acclaimed third book, A Northern Light, Donnelly found herself haunted by what she read in a pregnant Grace’s love letters to Chester. “It became so much more than a ghost story. So much deeper,” Donnelly, 42, said in a recent telephone interview from her Brooklyn brownstone, which she shares with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. “And in many ways, so much more horrible.” Donnelly makes extensive use of Grace’s letters in A Northern Light, her fictional exploration of a young woman’s coming of age in the Adirondacks at the turn of the century. Nearly three years after her novel was published, Donnelly is again feeling the tug of Grace Brown’s spirit. A Northern Light is featured in this year’s “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, which culminates March 23 to 25 with author visits to Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. It is also part of “North Country Reads,” a similar reading project in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, the latter area where Donnelly spent part of her childhood. And about three weeks ago, Donnelly saw the actual letters for the first time. They are in the collection of Hamilton College in Clinton. “I’ve lived with these words for so long,” said Donnelly, who had previously seen copies and read excerpts of the letters, “but to touch the paper and see his handwriting and her handwriting and to watch her handwriting grow É more scrawly and more ragged as she went along and her voice became more desperate. It was incredibly moving, actually. I was as affected as I was the first time I read them.” A story worth retelling Donnelly and her mother, Wilfrieda A. Donnelly, were whiling away an afternoon in Old Forge several years ago when they visited a bookstore where her mother saw a copy of Dreiser’s 1925 novel. The younger Donnelly had never read the book so her mother bought it. “I had read (Dreiser’s book) as a young woman in Germany,” Wilfrieda A. Donnelly said in a telephone interview from her home in Port Leyden. “It was a book that always stuck in my mind. I said she should read it, that it was an amazing book.” She also purchased that day Craig Brandon’s Murder in the Adirondacks, a non-fiction account of the ill-fated boat outing on Big Moose Lake in July 1906 and Gillette’s subsequent trial, conviction and execution. It was in Brandon’s book that Jennifer Donnelly first read excerpts from Grace’s letters, which helped convict Chester of the murder. “They completely blew me away,” Donnelly said. “I just felt an immediate sort of closeness with her and the grief that such a lovely young life had been ended very very brutally and very callously. You really get to know Grace through her letters, you get to hear her voice and a bit of her soul and her spirit and the person she was.” Donnelly is not the first to find inspiration in the events. The case has inspired countless other writers and filmmakers, most notably Dreiser and George Stevens, who won an Oscar for directing A Place in the Sun. “I did not want to go down the same paths that had been told, but it felt to me very much like my story. I became very possessive of it,” said Donnelly, whose relatives fled Ireland’s Great Famine of the mid-19th century and endured disease and dangers at sea for prospects of a better life in North America. They settled on the Tug Hill Plateau, not far from where events in A Northern Light take place. “I felt I had as much of a right to (the story) as anybody else who had ever looked at it. I guess that’s the writer’s arrogance. It seemed a story worth retelling,” she said. Inspired by family She found her angle in her own family’s history and the stories and characters they shared. Bits and pieces of real people can be found in her characters. An uncle with a penchant “for telling whoppers” inspired Uncle Fifty. Another relative loves to talk about every illness in the world and can be found in Aunt Josie. “Jennifer was all ears when her aunts would get together and tell the family’s stories,” her mother, Wilfriede A. Donnelly, said. “It was all they had to do to entertain her.” Donnelly moved with her parents, T. Matthew and Wilfriede, and siblings to Port Leyden in southern Lewis County in the 1970s. For her father, a state trooper assigned to Northern New York, the move marked a return to his ancestral home. Some of Donnelly’s ancestors helped build the Black River Canal and tended its locks in southern Lewis County. Others bought farms in the region’s inhospitable climate, and later moved off Tug Hill and into Black River valley communities. The late Matthew J. Conway, her great-grandfather, provided some of the inspiration for Mattie. He was taken out of school in fifth grade, Donnelly said, to drive mules on the Canal. He was almost always a physical laborer, which her grandmother said contributed to his death at a young age. But in his final weeks he surrounded himself with books. “It always struck me as so sad that he only had this on his deathbed,” Donnelly said. “So (Mattie) was named in honor of him. “I just wonder what he would have made in his life and what many people would have made of their lives É if they would have been afforded an education.” Sixteen-year-old Mattie dreams of becoming a writer. She is determined to go to college, but must consider responsibilities at home and her own romance with a local boy. But while working a summer job at the Glenmore, Mattie becomes embroiled in a mystery. A young female guest who gave Mattie a bundle of love letters to destroy is found dead and her lover goes missing. As Mattie reads the letters, she finds insight into her own decisions. Finding Mattie Donnelly spent several years researching the case and life in the Adirondacks at the turn of the century. She crafted a detailed , 100-page, single-spaced, scene-by-scene , proposal for the book. Along the way, like Dreiser before her, she consulted the trial transcript at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. “It had these strange little greasy spots as I was turning pages throughout and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, did Theodore Dreiser drop his lunch?’ So I sort of felt him hovering,” Donnelly said. Donnelly knew she wanted to tell the story from the perspective of a young local girl and how it affected her somewhat isolated community. Eventually, the author found Mattie’s voice. It came at a restaurant during dinner with her husband, Douglas Dundas “I remember É (being) very, very upset talking about this story. Talking about what Gillette had done, the sort of woman that Grace was, and kind of ruining the dinner with my emotion over this story,” Donnelly recalled. Donnelly tried to comfort herself with the fact that society had changed in nearly 100 years. Surely a woman in Grace’s position , 19, single and pregnant , wouldn’t suffer the same fate today. The stigma was gone, single parents were common, and women had other options, too. “But as I started working on the book, all these stories started breaking,” Donnelly said, noting the Laci Peterson case, among others. “They seem to be done away with simply because they’re inconvenient and they don’t suit the boyfriend or the father anymore.” Donnelly just wanted to tell a good story with her novel. Instead, she found herself surprised, horrified and saddened. “The story seemed to still have applicability and sort of modern reverberations,” she said. “Grace’s voice still reverberates down through the years.” On becoming a writer Donnelly spent several years in the North Country, attending the same elementary school where her paternal grandparents, Thomas J. and Mary C. Donnelly, met as teachers in the 1930s. After a year of junior high school at South Lewis Central School, Turin, she returned with her family to Westchester County. She graduated from the University of Rochester , her paternal grandmother’s alma mater , in 1985 with a degree in English literature and European history. While in college, she studied in London, which sparked the idea for her debut novel, The Tea Rose, and its forthcoming sequel, The Winter Rose. Donnelly wrote for her high school’s literary magazine and yearbook and her college newspaper. Those efforts fed and inspired a voracious reading habit that began in childhood. After college, she had a variety of jobs, including a stint as a general assignment reporter for the Watertown Daily Times, the parent paper of The Daily News. It was her first break as a writer. “I learned there not to wait for the Muse because she’s not going to come. So sit down and get busy,” Donnelly said. “It’s all about doing the work and then she’ll come. I treat (writing) as a job and I sit down at my desk from 8:30 to 6 o’clock Monday through Friday. I find if I come she comes, but if I wait for her forget about it.” A string of jobs writing and editing advertising copy for companies including Saks Fifth Avenue and J. Crew followed her move downstate. She would save a little from each job to allow herself time off for her fiction writing. “It was always words in one way or another,” Donnelly said of her jobs. “I’ll sit down in the morning and read the back of the cereal box to see what choices that the copywriter made to get you to buy that box of cereal and eat it. All writing fascinates me.” Donnelly still keeps a portfolio of her copywriting work nearby. To remind her of what she did before and to get busy. These days the focus is clearly on her books. Donnelly is in the rewrite process on The Winter Rose. The book is expected to be published in England by the end of the year and in the United States next spring. This summer, Donnelly plans to spend time in France researching her next project, a young adult novel. “It’s like a compulsion, an obsession with words and stories and it’s nothing that I can turn on. It’s something that, people say ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ and I say ‘I don’t know. They get me,’ ” Donnelly said. “A Northern Light got me. Reading Grace’s words got me.” ,,, On the Net: www.taleforthreecounties.org www.jenniferdonnelly.com l

Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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