English Professor Gregory Blake Smith recently published a new novel, The Maze at Windermere, to national acclaim. It’s been called “remarkable” by the Washington Post, and a review by the New York Times is coming later this month.
The novel takes place in Newport, Rhode Island, a town with a rich and layered past, and follows five characters from four different centuries—a contemporary tennis pro; a scheming, Gilded-Age dandy; a hateful, revolutionary-era British officer; the prolific American writer Henry James in his youth and an orphaned colonial-era Quaker girl—to create a portrait of an American city.
“Each story interpenetrates with the other stories,” said Professor Smith. “Some of them have a parallel story going on, or an inversion, so in one sense it was difficult to keep things organized and understand what’s going on, but what I found interesting was that a scene that would happen in one era would spur a similar scene in another era. So rather than being a burden, it was actually a help.”
One of the unique things about Smith’s novel is the difference in style between each character’s story. Ron Charles for the Washington Post lauded “the chameleon shifts in tone and style as Smith jumps from story to story with perfect fidelity to each era. Open any page at random, and you’ll know exactly when you are.”
But constructing distinct styles didn’t come easily.
“I constantly had to check the Oxford English Dictionary to make sure that a certain word or a certain phrase was actually used in 1692 or 1778,” said Smith. “Each of these things have a real verbal texture.”
Smith, having grown up in New England, chose Newport as the backdrop for these tales because he “doesn’t think that there’s another city of its size in the country that has such distinct eras in history.
“It started out as a little Quaker outpost in the 17th century, and then during the American Revolution it was occupied, first by the British army, and then by the French, and was essentially destroyed during the course of the war. Then after that, it started becoming something of a resort for summer people, and in the 1840s and 1850s families would come up from the Deep South, and they’d bring their slaves with them. So, you had these southern families with slaves accompanying them. And then that resort, by the time the Gilded Age comes along, becomes the center for the absolute fabulously wealthy, the Vanderbilts and the Astors, and all these huge rich American families,” said Smith.
The Post’s Charles has high praise for the novel: “‘The Maze at Windermere,’ Gregory Blake Smith’s staggeringly brilliant new novel, luxuriates in those demarcations of time. It is an extraordinary demonstration of narrative dexterity. Moving up and down through the strata of history, Smith captures the ever-changing refraction of human desire.”
This isn’t the first time that Smith, in his 31 years of teaching creative writing and literature at Carleton, has been recognized for his writing. His novel The Divine Comedy of John Venner was elected as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times, and his short story collection The Law of Miracles won the 2011 Minnesota Book Award for fiction and the 2010 Juniper Prize.
On why he felt the urge to become a writer, Smith quoted the Federico Fellini film 8 ½: “I don’t have anything to say, but I want to say it anyway.” He loves that quote, he said, because “it suggests there is something in the artist that wants to make. It doesn’t matter what the make is, whether you’ve got something to say or not, but you want to make something of beauty, and that, I think, is what I feel as a writer.”