Elizabeth de Veer
Inspiration for The Ocean in Winter
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
About eleven years ago, my husband and I visited Maryland’s eastern shore. We took a ferry to visit a small island in the Chesapeake Bay called Smith Island. New Englanders love islands, but don’t imagine a southern Nantucket; Smith Island is small and there is little there to lure tourists looking for a posh get-away. It’s a little more like a time-capsule: a picture of an east coast fishing village past its heyday.
Photo of a house on Smith Island by Lee Cannon from Bayville aka West Fenwick, DE, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The island has been populated since the 17th century, and with the number of people diminishing, the island is dotted with old houses, some occupied, some empty, in conditions that vary from old but livable to falling down. The island reeks of spooky stories and restless spirits. I have always been captivated and delighted by ghost stories, fictional and true, and I came away from the island itching to write a ghost story.
Literary ghosts – including Captain Ahab’s white whale, the three spirits who appear after midnight to Ebenezer Scrooge, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved – are not just specters that appear outside of the characters, but an extension of the characters who work out their pain and broken parts by engaging with them in a different form. In literary fiction, ghosts should be personal and specific, and they must allow the characters to wrestle with specific, personal matters, providing the characters with a way to transform internally.
The main story, about three sisters coping with their mother’s suicide, began when I was considering the question of this quality of being haunted. I wanted to think of a life incident that would affect my characters so deeply that it could change the course of their lives and even effect the shape of their personalities. I read a memoir by Anne Sexton’s daughter, Linda Grey Sexton, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide, and I was struck by the fact that, though she’d been devastated by her own mother’s suicide when she was 21, Linda Gray Sexton, a mother of two, herself attempted suicide. How could someone who knew the awful experience of losing a parent to suicide even consider doing the very same thing to their own children? I asked that question not in judgment but in curiosity. It seemed like this could be a symptom of the quality of being haunted that I was trying to illustrate – a mother’s deep depression and self-inflicted death would be something she handed down to her own daughters, both by example and heredity.
And what if, on some level, the children themselves were aware that they had this inside of them? What would they do? Two of the sisters in this book struggle with this. The third sister never does for she has no memory of her mother and thinks she is immune. This turns out to be her downfall, and the central question of the novel is, can she be saved?
P.S. Smith Island is also well known for their cake, a yellow cake with many layers, glued together with chocolate fudge. You can order one and have it shipped to you! Enjoy!