When Thisbe Nissen's mother read an early draft of her daughter's moody second novel about a disastrous summer at a dilapidated hotel in an island resort community, she called her daughter and wondered, "Am I going to have to sell the house? Am I going to get run off the island?"
The island in question is that little dot off the eastern end of Long Island called Shelter Island. That's where Thisbe Nissen spent the happiest weekends and summers of her childhood, and it's the emotional touchstone for her latest novel, Osprey Island.
"Place is important to me in life generally and it is really important to me in writing," the ebullient Nissen says during a call to her home in Iowa City, where she has lived since arriving ("with a sigh of relief!") in 1995 to attend graduate school at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. "I often write in order to write myself back into a place that I miss or feel inside me. So a lot of the impulse behind this book was about recreating the aura of the place where I had spent so much time as a kid. I don't think the book is representative of the actual place. I've riffed off it. The idea of an island provides rich, fertile ground for a lot of stuff to happen and combust."
And combust things certainly do. Literally. A fatal fire in the laundry shack of Osprey Lodge in the first third of the novel turns what had appeared to be a sharp-eyed, satiric look at the boozy frolics of the staff at a run-down resort into a darker story of the mysteries and secrets that bind and separate members of the close-knit community of year-round Osprey Island residents.
Set in the early summer of 1988, during the frantic, preparatory weeks before Osprey Lodge opens for the season, Osprey Island at its most essential is about the return of two of the island's prodigals. Suzy Chizek, a divorced schoolteacher on the mainland, returns to the island with her young daughter to help her parents run the Lodge for the summer. Twenty years after leaving the island - according to some to enlist and fight in Vietnam, and to others to flee to Canada and avoid the draft - Roddy Jacobs, son of the local environmentalist and women's rights activist, returns to Osprey Island because he's run out of places to go.
A kind of aching need draws Suzy and Roddy together. But the laundry shack fire sets off a downward spiral of events that complicates everything.
Most importantly, the fire leaves eight-year-old Squee Squire bereft of his doting mother and in the undependable hands of his hard-drinking father Lance, who is the complicated, malevolent force in this tale and, it turns out, was the high school nemesis of both Roddy and Suzy. Squee turns for comfort and guidance to the quiet, competent Roddy, and the depiction of the relationship that develops between these two characters is one of the great charms of Osprey Island.
"For a long time as a writer I shied away from male characters," Nissen says. "My fiction always had absent fathers and dead husbands, because I didn't know what to do with men. But Roddy was the character I spent the most time on. He was the centerpiece of the book, and writing about him never felt hard. His relationship with Squee was so organic to me that I'm not sure where it really came from. A tenderness grew up between them. I just saw it all happening in my head. At the risk of sounding psychotic," Nissen adds, laughing, "Roddy and Squee were having a relationship, and I was scrambling to write it all down."
Nissen is also exceptionally good at social dissection, deftly portraying both the conflicts among year-rounders and their strangely unified front in the face of the summer people. Nissen attributes her slightly comic insider's understanding to a "very brief!" stint working at a Shelter Island hotel.
With its darker storyline and its larger set of characters, Osprey Island marks a departure or evolution from the tender, humorous tone and two-person focus of Nissen's well-regarded first novel, The Good People of New York. "I really wanted to do something narratively different," she says. "I had read John Irving's Cider House Rules and was amazed by his ability to have this omniscient narrator hovering over the narrative then swooping down into close perspective on a lot of characters, and I really wanted to try something with a bigger cast of characters."
Nissen projects her characters against a backdrop of natural island life, particularly bird life, and mythology. "Sometimes I think I write solely in order to do research," Nissen jokes. "I really, really, like doing research! I read somewhere that the osprey had been misnamed in terms of the myths its genus and species names come from. So I got to go back and read all the myths that the names did come from and then the myths that the names should have come from. And I thought, oh my God, there are all these ties in these myths to the story in my head! So I started weaving them in."
Thus a characteristic, if hidden, playfulness laps along the shores of Nissen's rather somber Osprey Island. "I have such an instinct for letting love prevail that I have to fight against sappiness and the novelistic desire to wrap things up too neatly," Nissen says. "I'm a lot more interested in life than in novelistic tie-ups. At the same time, I'm too hopeful, I have too much of a desire to put hope in the world to leave the ending entirely bleak."
Nissen adds, "Often you hear writers talking about how painful it is to write. If I felt that way, I wouldn't do it, because I care too much about the day-to-day, moment-to-moment, quality of my life. I like the act of writing. Writing is how I make sense of the world."
So Thisbe Nissen told her mother not to worry about Osprey Island after all. "I think the locals will embrace you."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.