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NEW ENGLAND WRITERS AT WORK

Elizabeth Graver draws inspiration from family history

Fiction writer and essayist Elizabeth Graver. At right, (top) a photo of her mother and grandmother that she keeps near her desk and (bottom) a doll her grandmother gave her.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Fiction writer and essayist Elizabeth Graver.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

A photo of her mother and grandmother that she keeps near her desk.

Elizabeth Graver writes novels, short stories, and essays. Her last book, the historical novel “The End of the Point,” was longlisted for the National Book Award. She lives in Lincoln and teaches at Boston College.

A FAMILY AFFAIR: I’m working on a project that will probably be a novel, maybe linked stories, maybe nonfiction, but probably fiction, using as its seed the story of my maternal grandmother and assorted family members. [My grandmother] had a very interesting life. She was born in Turkey in an upper-class family, then they lost all their money, and she moved to Barcelona in the 1920s, at a time when there were no Jews there. . . . Through various twists of fate, she ended up having an arranged marriage to my grandfather, who was in New York, and marrying him in Cuba and settling in Queens.

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EXPLORING WORLDS: I tend to do a lot of research. I’m not so much looking for answers as I am dropping inside worlds so that I can find the stories there. I can’t really know what I’m looking for until I encounter it, so it’s a long process. For this book so far, I’ve been reading and traveling. I went to Barcelona with my mother in April . . . and discovered all kinds of interesting things, like the fact that my great-grandfather, when he lived there, had been the keeper of a private, hidden synagogue in the 1920s. On the old site, there’s now a hotel called the Hotel American. I’m already starting to write about that place.

UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE: I take notes and tons of pictures and record my conversations. I have research assistants at Boston College to help me, but . . . I can’t delegate much because it’s the uncertainty that moves [a project] along. Besides, I really like it.

QUALITY CONSTRUCTION: I love sentences and the music of language. Much harder for me is the architecture of a novel. I can usually fool myself into thinking I’m getting somewhere because, sentence by sentence, it sounds like I know what I’m doing.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

A doll her grandmother gave her.

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HIDING IN THE BASEMENT: If I’m feeling very distracted, I head to the public library. I’ve worked in a lot of public libraries. The Lincoln library has a sheet music room in the basement that’s windowless and very small, like a closet. I sometimes hide in there because I won’t run into people I want to chat with.

LIFE OF A DESK: I found my desk on the street in Somerville, where I used to live. These priests were putting it outside. The base was a terrible bright green, so I stripped it. I found a sticker that said “Property of the University of Michigan.” Then I found another sticker underneath that said “Property of the US Military.” I love that it has this history.

SOURCES OF DISPLEASURE: The real difference between writing now and writing 20 years ago when I was starting is the gifts and perils of all this connectivity. I find I need help getting deep into the story and making decisions without constantly pulling in other sources. I can tell, particularly in historical fiction, when someone has done research in a way that feels not integral to the piece. Suddenly, you’ll come across a paragraph that talks about everything that happened on that day. You can just tell they Googled what happened on March 2, 1852. For me, the characters, the psychology, and the pulse of the story have to stay central, as does a voice that’s not the voice of the time I’m writing about, but my voice.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. Reach her at eugenia.williamson@gmail.com
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