A Conversation With Elisabeth Elo, Author of North of Boston, A Novel.


Elisabeth Elo

Q. Where did the idea for NORTH OF BOSTON come from?

A. Some years ago, I ran across a book about ambergris ( i.e.whale shit)- a substance that was once believed to have all kinds of magical, curative, and aphrodisiac properties, and is still used today as a fixative in some perfumes. The story of ambergris opens all kinds of windows into the human psyche–our fears and desires, our quests for beauty and adventure, and the lengths we will go to fulfill a dream, even when that dream is actually a delusion.

How a fascination with ambergris led to writing NORTH OF BOSTON involved many tiny steps that I could nor possibly reconstruct. But the path went something like this: ambergris, ocean, sense of smell, marine mammals, boats, perfume, the floor plans of boats, northern lands, cold. In fact, the path was more like a maze, the kind where you often end up right back where you started. Eventually, I had a whole lot of paper on my floor. ( This was back in the days before apps like Evernote, when people still printed things out.) Looking at the stacks of paper, I occasionally wondered whether I might be just a bit crazy, but I had somehow managed to develop a trust in the creative process– which is to say, in myself–so I plodded along.

At the same time, in a sort of parallel universe, I was dealing with a difficult protagonist who had a clear, compelling voice. She had been on my mind for a long time, and there was a sense of urgency in bringing her to life. I knew that part of her story took place on a boat, and that it included near-drowning. Meanwhile, she was enmeshed in various relationships–with a friend, a godson, a father. Each posed a significant challenge. At the age of thirty, she also was dealing with her failure to have found anything resembling love. She wanted to connect with people, but her aloof, independent personality got in her way. Yet she had a certain integrity. I knew she was the kind of person who needed a big adventure to find herself.

Q. Why did you choose to write a thriller?

  A. Because I love the strong protagonists. It’s ironic: people tend to think of thrillers and mysteries as being “plot-driven” instead of “character-driven.” But nothing could be further from the truth. In thrillers there tend to be a lot of secondary characters, settings, and plot points–the protagonist is the one who holds everything together and drives the action. She or he has to be tenacious, observant, and morally centered (with humanizing flaws thrown in ) because a weak character could not ride the bucking plotline with any success. In the best thrillers the protagonist doesn’t simply follow the clues as they emerge; she bends the plot to her will. It’s her creative and powerful impact on the book’s events that makes the mystery come out right in the end.

Q. Why first person?

A. In first person narration, readers are in the protagonist’s mind the entire time; there’s no place else to be. They see what she sees, know what she knows, and think what she thinks.  They are as limited as she is by her blind spots and foibles.

As an author, I find first person narration constraining and dream about the wide open vistas of the omniscient third. But I also know that one of the great powers of the novel (as opposed to film, for example) lies in the way it can describe the inner workings of a mind. The first-person narration is the ultimate in this kind of psychological exploration. I think it comes closer than any other art form to portraying what it really feels like to be a human being. Because we are all, always, in first-person mode–able with diligence to change ourselves but never to escape ourselves. So while we may be quite different from the protagonist superficially, on the existential level, our experience is the same. We are trying to develop our strengths and talents and overcome our weaknesses and biases, while simultaneously  trying to figure out which is which. Witnessing the struggles o a first-person narrator teaches us about our own.

Q. Your protagonist, Pirio Kasparov, has been described as remarkabe. What do you like about her?

A. Her heroic qualities. These are the same the world over and across every epoch: courage, perseverance, a practical intelligence, integrity, shrewdness, honesty, justified compassion. The problem is that, though we all have access to these qualities and display them at various times in varying degrees, we cannot always or reliably find out way to them. We have shortcomings. And those are the same the world over, too. The list of Pirio’s shortcomings is long and varied: mindless rebelliousness, a bit of laziness, misanthropy, reflexive anger, confusion about love and sex, cynicism, aloofness, and recklessness. Bless her heart. I like her as much for her shortcomings as I do for her strengths.

Q. Any plans for another book?

A. This summer I spent a few weeks in Yakutsk, a city of approximately 200,00 in the Sakha Republic of northeastern Siberia. It has a ballet, an opera, and a university. In the winter the average temperature is -40 degrees Fahrenheit. I traveled from Yakutsk to a small village called Cherkeh, on the other side of the Lena River, about a five-hour drive on deeply rutted, sparsely populated roads. The Siberian meadows are very green in summer, dotted with clear glassy lakes and tumbling streams, and the shaggy Sakha horses roam and graze where they will, without fences, and return to their homes of their own accord. The people in Siberia greeted my warmly and gave me a glimpse into their lives. My next novel will be set in Boston and this region. It will involve ballet dancers, political intrigue, and diamond mines. Stay tuned.


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