That’s the question writers hate hearing so much they’ve come up with answers like: a P.O. Box in Schenectady. A better question might be, what was the inspiration for your book, short story, or poem? In the case of my latest novel, Long Journey Home, the answer is fairly long-winded, so if you have a few minutes, pull up a chair, come sit by the fire, and I’ll tell you about it.
It all started when I moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. After a surprisingly strong start, my career ground to a standstill, giving me had plenty of time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. When a friend of mine told me about a man named Alex Murray who channeled peoples’ spirit guides, I was intrigued. This was around the time that Shirley MacLaine came out with her book Out on a Limb, in which she wrote about her explorations into channeling, reincarnation, and the possibility of aliens visiting the earth. Many actors felt they were being called to become as famous as Shirley MacLaine, so that they could share similar revelations with the world.
While that may have been the bait that lured me into Alex’s channeling circles, I stayed for the wisdom and helpful advice that was transmitted, however that was happening.
After I had been a regular at these circles for a few months, I made the difficult decision to give up acting. Not only was my career not taking off, even when I did manage to find work, it didn’t give me the same thrill as it had in the past. A few weeks after I had made that decision, one of my guides, Strong Bow, came through Alex and said, “So you’ve decided to give up acting.” I said that was true. He went on, “And now you’re wondering what you’re supposed to be doing.” True again. He said, “You’re supposed to write.”
Within two weeks I heard about a writing class for actors that was happening a block and a half from my apartment. I signed up for the class and began to write. Now writer guides began to come through Alex, first a guide who called himself “Nathaniel,” and another who called himself “Irving.”
Do I believe that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving are living in another dimension? Do I believe that, even if they were, they’d be giving advice to an unknown writer? I don’t know. I had made a deal with myself a long time ago, that if something fascinated me, I would pursue it and leave my questioning, rational, skeptical mind at the door until I had gotten everything out of the experience I could. After that, my rational mind was welcome to join the party. So I did my best to suspend my disbelief and listen to the advice they gave me.
I was living on Tenth Avenue and being serenaded by sirens and garbage trucks all night long. Now that I was embarking on the career of wannabe writer, as opposed to wannabe actor, I was free to move away from the stimulating but unrestful sights and sounds Hell’s Kitchen. After about a year of picturing living in a place where I could see trees out of every window, I moved to an apartment in Westchester, with trees visible from every window.
After a few years of commuting by train into the city for my paying job, I decided to see if Westchester had anything to offer in terms of work. I found a notice for a job at Philipsburg Manor, an 18th century farm, mill, and manor house. It seemed that working there would combine my love of history and acting, so I applied. A few weeks later a woman called saying that she was the director of Sunnyside, and while I hadn’t applied to work at Sunnyside, they needed tour guides, and she wondered if I would be interested in working there instead of Philipsburg Manor. Sunnyside is the historic home of Washington Irving, the guide who had been coming through to me at Alex’s channeling circle. It turns out that his home was twenty minutes away from where I was living. I said I would be very interested in working there, and she set up an interview with me.
After my interview with the director, the assistant director offered to give me a tour. As we were standing in front of Irving’s charming cottage, with its step gables and wisteria-covered walls, a single white feather drifted out of the sky and hovered in front of my face for a few seconds. I plucked it out of the air and turned to see the assistant director’s reaction. She looked shocked for a few seconds, then quickly shook it off and went on with the tour. I’ve often observed that people, when faced with the miraculous, tend to ignore it and pretend it never happened.
I got the job and stayed at Sunnyside for four years, which is the longest I’ve ever stayed at a paying job before or since.
When not giving tours, we were expected to study up on Washington Irving. I decided to read his collected letters, a four-volume undertaking, which I didn’t complete. I was intrigued by a letter that Irving wrote to his nieces telling them that he knew of their interest in table tipping but hoped they wouldn’t try it on his writing desk, as he didn’t want his desk to start flying around the room while he was trying to write. What, I wondered, is “table tipping?” I began researching it online and learned about the Fox sisters and the wonderful world of Spiritualism.
At the same time that I was educated myself about this prevalent, but never discussed in history books 19th century phenomenon, I was visiting the many historic mansions that line both sides of the Hudson River. The one that sparked my imagination the most was a house in Rhinebeck, New York, called Wilderstein. It’s a fantastic Queen-Anne-style home owned by a cousin of FDRs. I loved it and wanted to live there. Since I couldn’t do that, I decided to write about a woman who inherits it from her wealthy great-aunt, whom she sees and talks to, even though her great aunt is dead.
And that, in a nutshell, (OK, maybe more like a pumpkin shell) is the inspiration for my second novel, Long Journey Home. I warned you that this would be a longer answer than “a PO Box in Schenectady,” and, if you I gave you more information than you wanted, maybe you’ll think twice about asking writers where they get their ideas from.