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Wendy Mitman Clarke

Wendy Mitman Clarke: Diving Deep Into a Disappearing Culture

Wendy Mitman Clarke showed courage.

Wendy Mitman Clarke
Wendy Mitman Clark

It’s not easy to ask a stranger to read your work. And yet Clarke emailed me, introducing herself and telling me about her novel, Still Water Bending (paid link).

Would I be interested in reading it, she asked. Unfortunately, I can’t read the books of every author I interview. But something about Clarke’s novel caught my attention.

Maybe, since I grew up on a farm, it’s the concept of an adult returning to their rural roots. Perhaps since my parents are getting older, the idea of an ailing father grabbed me. Or, it could have been hubris, the idea that I could help raise awareness of an author’s work.

Whatever it was, I’m glad I agreed to read Still Water Bending. Wendy Mitman Clarke tells a beautiful story that places the reader in the disappearing culture of Chesapeake Bay watermen. I think you’ll enjoy it.

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And that’s why I’m happy to share with you this interview with Wendy Mitman Clarke. In it, Clarke talks about the real-life inspiration behind Still Water Bending, and the unique way of life of the people who commercially fish the Chesapeake Bay.

Enjoy the interview. Consider purchasing a copy of Still Water Bending (paid link). You can also share this interview for your chance to win a signed copy of Wendy Mitman Clarke’s book. Details below.

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Win a Signed Copy of Still Water Bending

Would you like a signed copy of Wendy Mitman Clarke’s Still Water Bending? I’m giving away one autographed copy of the novel. Here’s how to enter to win:

  • Share this interview on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #StillWaterBending.
  • Each social media post containing a link to this interview with the hashtag #StillWaterBending equals one entry into the drawing. (More shares = more chances to win.)
  • You have until 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, to enter to win.
  • This book giveaway is open to anyone over the age of 18 in the U.S. and Canada.
Details about the Still Water Bending book giveaway.

The giveaway is open to any person over 18 years of age, who resides in the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands or a U.S. Military installation in a foreign country, excluding immediate family members of Bidwell Hollow employees. It is void where prohibited by law.

The drawing will be awarded based on a random drawing from among the eligible entries. The initial winner of the drawing has 48 hours to claim the prize. If they fail to do so, a second drawing will be held.

So get to sharing and good luck!

Q&A with Wendy Mitman Clarke

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I grew up in West Chester, Penn., and I spent a lot of time as a youngster on the northern Chesapeake Bay, Sassafras River, where my parents kept their sailboat.

After college in Vermont and work in northern New England for several years, I returned to the Bay—Annapolis—in 1989 to write for a boating magazine. I met my husband-to-be while racing sailboats in Annapolis.

In 2008, we sold most of our possessions and moved our family—our 8-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, who had grown up sailing on the Bay—onto a 45-foot sailboat and spent the next four-and-half years traveling through Panama, Central America, Bahamas, Bermuda, and the Eastern seaboard up to Nova Scotia. When we returned in 2012, we settled in Centreville, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Sailing counts as more than a hobby. But I also like to hike, camp, kayak, run half-marathons (well, once a year), and spend a lot of time making my back yard a haven for birds and pollinators. Also, I have an unreasonable passion for polar exploration and books associated with it, past and present. I love to prowl bookstores and find old editions by the explorers of the 1800s and read their accounts, especially the ones that still have the onionskin charts and sketches tucked into them. Some of the artwork in these books is spectacular.

Someday, I want to travel the Northwest Passage and visit Beechey Island, where the only graves of the Franklin expedition remain. And, I want to go to Antarctica and see Mount Erebus.

Wendy Mitman Clarke on Writing Still Water Bending

What inspired you to write Still Water Bending?

I was executive editor of Chesapeake Bay Magazine when I met a waterman named Walter Coles Burroughs who lived and worked in Mathews County, Va.

It started as a typical interview and day on the water watching him work. But when we came in off the water, he asked me to visit with him in his kitchen and keep talking. He told me about his late wife, how much he missed her. He was so melancholy, and to me, he also seemed to carry the sadness of a vanishing time and place.

Quote by Wendy Mitman Clarke: "He also seemed to carry the sadness of a vanishing time and place."

I knew I didn’t want to write a typical profile story. So I wrote a creative nonfiction piece for Chesapeake Bay Magazine called “The Water and Walter Coles.” It won several awards and then was published in River Teeth. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

The idea of using him as the basis for a fictional character came to me when I applied to attend the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in fiction. It grew from there.

I wanted to pour a lot of my experiences writing about the Bay into the book. It was kind of my love letter to the Chesapeake. I also wanted to explore the idea of how two people who are estranged from each other find a common language in some unique, unexpected way.

This is what happens when Lily Rae comes home and decides to help her father build the skiff.

What was the writing and editing process like for you?

I am lucky enough to be married to someone who believes in what I do and wants to give me as much room to write as possible. When our kids were in elementary school, he suggested I leave my day job and focus solely on writing the book; he would take care of the rest. So over about a year, I did that.

I was trained as a journalist, not a fiction writer. So I took classes at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, and I attended Bread Loaf twice. Through contacts I made at both places, I helped form a small writers’ group of four women, and we met every month in Washington, D.C., to eat too much cheese and other Trader Joe’s delectables and critique each other’s work.

"But then I’d start writing, and just keep going."

I could not have written the book without their dedicated insight and support. And it helped to have to come up with the work every month to show it to them.

Sometimes, sitting there and staring at a new chapter, I would feel like I was jumping off a cliff. So scary, I’d almost feel sick to my stomach. But then I’d start writing, and just keep going.

Once the first draft was done, I asked Barbara Esstman, whom I’d met at The Writer’s Center, to novel-coach it for me. She did a terrific job and pointed out the weak spots, which I had suspected.

At about that time, though, my mom fell suddenly ill and passed away. Then, three months later, we left to go sailing. The book came with me, but I was so immersed first in grief and then in my new, very intense, life on the water that I never even really thought about it.

After about three years, I realized I was ready to go back to it. I had a much stronger sense of Lily’s voice and character by then, so I rewrote a lot of her. I also had new insight on the ending, after what I’d gone through with my mom.

Once I completed that edit, I submitted it to the Whidbey Writers Workshop Emerging Writers Contest and was runner-up to the winner. So I knew I had done something right.

How much was Lily Rae’s father, Jines Arley Evans, based on the real-life Walter Coles Burroughs?

In the first chapter, the pound netting scene is what I saw when I fished with Walter Coles. And the white work boots, the way he stepped in and out of them, the walk to the dock, the melancholy he carried.

But Walter Coles was much kinder than Jines Arley! And not nearly the loner that Jines Arley is. He had a son fishing with him and a daughter right around the corner, and their family was close. Jines Arley became his own character quickly.

Were there any characters that particularly resonated with you as you were writing the book? Or, any characters with whom you struggled?

I definitely struggled with Lily Rae initially. I couldn’t figure her out or really find her voice until I did the rewrite.

Somehow, I knew Jines Arley right away, his voice was really clear. I especially understood the part of him that loved being on the water, that found wonder, mystery, and solace there. Also, the contradictions of him and his inner restlessness are characteristics that I, as a Gemini, understand all too well.

Clarke On Chesapeake Culture

How much of your background is in Still Water Bending?

Some, but not as many as you might think.

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Mainly, the days and months and years I’ve spent on the Chesapeake and the zillions of words I’ve written about it. Also, the concept that I mentioned earlier about finding a common language in an uncommon way is something that I watched happen between two people close to me. And, the house that is in the book really is in Ophelia, Va. It belongs to my oldest brother and my sister-in-law, and I’ve spent a lot of time there.

There are parts of it that I’ve fictionalized (there’s no shed there, for instance) but the layout of the house, the way the sun hits it, the feel of the place and the river, is from direct experience.

What did it take for you to ensure the specifics of the boat building scenes in Still Water Bending? And how important was accuracy to you?

Thanks for noting this. It was the most important part of the book for me, and not just because it’s where the understanding begins between Jines Arley and Lily Rae.

George Butler is a master builder in Reedville, Va., and he let me spend many weekends in his shop as he built a traditional crabbing skiff, answering all my questions, showing me techniques and traditions that had been passed to him. I basically went into journalist mode and recorded every single detail.

It was critically important to me to honor him by making sure the boatbuilding scenes were as accurate as possible. I was really proud (and relieved!) when he told me that I got it right.

It was also important because I wanted people to understand this traditional form of boatbuilding as a part of Chesapeake culture and heritage. These are skills and techniques that are gradually leaving us.

I love traditional boatbuilding, and I enjoy spending time around people who do it and being in those environments. It’s such an art form, and it requires so much patience and knowledge and hard, yet delicate, thoughtful work.

There’s a feeling to Still Water Bending that this is a book about a people, a place, and a culture that is disappearing. Is that the case for the people who fish and crab the Chesapeake?

Yes, I think it is. And it has been for quite a while now.

When I first came back to the Chesapeake in 1989, watermen still moored their boats on Annapolis City Dock during the winter oyster season (it was a beautiful sight on a snowy evening), and you could see them working the bars in the Bay just off the Severn River.

There was still a place where watermen brought their catch and you could buy off-the-boat-fresh local seafood. But it wasn’t long before the oyster fishery started really tanking, and the town found year-round recreational boats more lucrative (and less smelly) than workboats, and the seafood operation, after a brief stint as a watermen’s cooperative, eventually closed. Now, it’s a museum (albeit a terrific one).

I wrote the same story in Rock Hall, Md., where the waterfront transformed from a working waterfront to a recreational boating waterfront in a generation. In so many places, people who have owned property for generations can’t hang onto it as waterfront real estate prices drive property values (and taxes) through the roof. And the cultural change that accompanies this is undeniable.

Coupled with the stresses on the Bay’s ecosystem largely due to human impact in the watershed—polluted runoff, nutrient pollution, to name just a few—it is harder and harder to make a living as a waterman on the Bay and for a whole community to be supported by that economy.

Who are some writers that you admire?

Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Farley Mowat, Rachel Carson, Peter Matthiessen, Gabriel García Márquez, Nathaniel Philbrick, Carl Safina, John McPhee, Ann Patchett

Have you read any good books lately?

Erebus, by Michael Palin; Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders; Tribe, by Sebastian Junger; The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben; Chesapeake Requiem, by Earl Swift; Flash Count Diary, by Darcy Steinke; An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean, Antarctic Survivor, by Michael Smith; The Outlaw Sea, by William Langewiesche. And at least once a year, The Grey Seas Under, by Farley Mowat.

Anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about Wendy Mitman Clarke?

Writing the novel was something I had always wanted to. Now, I’m focusing on writing poetry. Seems like it’s taken a large part of my life to find this voice, but I’m so grateful that I have.

"We’re all trying, in our own way, to give something back to the world."

I routinely participate in a poetry workshop led by Meredith Davies Hadaway, my former boss, and an amazing poet, harpist, and artist, and I’m working on a chapbook and then a collection. None of this puts bread on the table, but it feeds the soul and sharpens the craft. And it’s brought home to me how important it is to support the arts and artists, everywhere.

There are so many out there, doing this work every day. Our names never go up in bright lights. But we’re all trying, in our own way, to give something back to the world.

Thank you to Wendy Mitman Clarke for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website’s contact form to reach out. 

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