Towler, Katherine 1956–
Towler, Katherine 1956–
CAREER: Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, NH, writing instructor; freelance writer; has taught public school children through New Hampshire artists-in-the-schools program; interviews editor for three years for Mars Hill Review.
AWARDS, HONORS: George Bennett fellowship, Phillips Exeter Academy; fellowships from Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.
Snow Island (novel), MacAdam/Cage Publishing (San Francisco, CA), 2002.
Evening Ferry (novel; sequel to Snow Island), MacAdam/Cage Publishing (San Francisco, CA), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including Tusculum Review, Worcester Review, Posse Review, and Sun.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A third novel to complete the trilogy begun with Snow Island.
SIDELIGHTS: Katherine Towler told Felicia C. Sullivan in an interview for Rain Taxi online that she wrote for twenty years before her work began to be published and that working as an editor for Mars Hill Review for three years helped her sharpen her own writing. The setting of Towler's debut novel, Snow Island, is based on Prudence Island in the Narragansett Bay of Rhode Island, a place where she once lived. The actual island is six miles long, two miles wide, and has 125 year-round residents, so it is relatively untouched by modern life. Towler was inspired by the people of the island, though her characters are fictional and the story is not autobiographical.
The novel centers on sixteen-year-old Alice Daggett and George Tibbits, a reclusive World War I veteran, and spans the summers from 1941 to 1943. Alice, whose father has died, runs the island store because of her mother's inability to function. She attends school with the only others on the island who are her age: twins Lydia and Pete Gibson. Thrust into an adult life, the teen finds herself in a relationship with Ethan Cunningham, the twenty-six-year-old lighthouse keeper. George makes a pilgrimage to the island each summer, staying in one of the two homes of his late aunts, who raised him after his parents died. In 1942 George stays for a longer period and embarks on the same boat trip around the island that he and his Aunt Sarah had always wanted to take but never did. When his boat sinks, George is rescued by Alice and Ethan. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the island becomes home to a naval base, and Alice and Lydia watch the planes come and go. Ethan, who has been leading a double life, enlists, and Alice is left with a heavy burden. Ultimately, it is George who helps her find her way and peace in her life.
Donald M. Murray wrote in the Boston Globe that "Towler, a master of pacing, accomplishes the higher art of bringing us to see the drama in the commonplace, the demands of the ordinary, the conflicts and decisions made by people living the lives we discover in our families, our neighbors, ourselves." School Library Journal contributor Sydney Hausrath noted that "this coming-of-age novel is beautifully written—life on the remote island is easy to visualize and the two stories are smoothly linked."
Towler's Evening Ferry is the story of two Snow Island women, Rachel Shattuck and her deceased mother, Phoebe. The year is 1965, and thirty-two-year-old divorcee Rachel returns to the island to care for her father, the hard-drinking Nate, and to teach in the one-room schoolhouse. Rachel blames Nate for her mother's unhappiness during their marriage and for the institutionalization of her brother. In an effort to reach Rachel, Nate leaves her mother's diaries where her own daughter will find them. In reading her mother's thoughts, Rachel comes to understand the harshness of her life on the island. A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked on this second novel in a projected trilogy, noting that "it is gracefully written, and the subtleties of family life should keep readers interested in the continuing saga."
"I was a constant and rabid reader as a child," Towler told CA. "My sister complained that she could never get me to go outside and play with her because I preferred sitting on the couch, reading. My passion for books and the places the writers I loved took me made me want to be a writer. If only I could do the same for some nameless reader out there one day, I thought. Like many writers, I was shy and quiet as a child. Books were my true friends and my refuge. This is still true for me today. I find solace and meaning in reading fiction and poetry.
"The greatest influence on my work are the writers I have read and loved over the years. Some of my favorites and the writers I feel I have learned from the most are Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Knut Hamsun, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Truman Capote, Alistair MacLeod, Edna O'Brien, Alice Munro. Poets to whom I return most often are Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Li-Young Lee, T.S. Eliot, Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, Ilya Kaminsky. I am also influenced by the wonderful exchanges I have with other writers who provide valuable feedback on early drafts and challenge me to read and think and write in new ways.
"I write slowly and take my work through repeated drafts. I begin a book with the characters and setting and a rough idea of the story. My initial conception of the book changes substantially in the course of writing. I love how fluid the process is and how surprising. To achieve anything in writing, you must have the discipline to sit down at the desk for regular hours, but you must also be open to whatever happens while you are there. The writing of a book is a journey, a journey without a known destination or purpose. You must be willing to let go, willing to see where the book takes you.
"Writing has taught me many things. It has taught me to be more trusting of myself and others. It has taught me to be more patient and to wait for what needs to be revealed. It has taught me to pay attention to everything in life—the odd lines of overheard dialogue, the way family members interact with each other, the color of the sky in winter, the smells of houses. Writing gives focus and meaning to my life and helps me make sense of a world that often seems senseless. Perhaps the most surprising thing I have learned as a writer came when my first book was published. I discovered that being published was not about becoming famous. The real benefit of being published is having readers. Connecting with readers remains the greatest gift of being published.
"My favorite book is always the one I am currently writing. Once I have finished writing a book, I am ready to move on, because there's that sense of wanting to do more and better, of not having quite achieved what I wanted. Having said this, I will admit to being attached to my first novel, Snow Island, because I felt so close to the characters in that book and because I worked on it for so long, without much encouragement. I have a more ambivalent relationship with my second novel, perhaps because the book is more complex, and I felt more pressure as I wrote it, but they are both my children.
"I hope, at the most basic level, that my books will entertain readers by immersing them in another world and in a story that holds their interest. In writing a trilogy about island life in New England, I hope to bring to light the lives of rural and working-class characters and to give a portrait of one small community over a span of fifty years. The isolation of the island setting helps me focus on the relationships between characters and the forces that shape their lives. One of these forces, and a theme that runs through all three novels in the trilogy, is war. In the end, I intend my books to be a statement against war, as I explore the impact of the wars of the twentieth century on the island community. Although there is nothing dogmatic in the writing of these books, and war remains a backdrop and one theme among many, it is my hope that my novels will make readers think about the insanity of war and what we can do to end conflict and promote peace throughout the world."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 1, 2002, Elsa Gaztambide, review of Snow Island, p. 924; July, 2005, Kaite Mediatore, review of Evening Ferry, p. 1902.
Boston Globe, October 15, 2002, Donald M. Murray, review of Snow Island, p. E8.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2001, review of Snow Island, p. 1718; April 15, 2005, review of Evening Ferry, p. 449.
Kliatt, May, 2003, Shelley Glantz, review of Snow Island, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, January 28, 2002, review of Snow Island, p. 271; May 30, 2005, review of Evening Ferry, p. 39.
School Library Journal, June, 2002, Sydney Hausrath, review of Snow Island, p. 173.
Curled up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (November 23, 2005), Amanda Cuda, review of Snow Island.
Katherine Towler Home Page, http://www.katherinetowler.com (November 23, 2005).
Poets & Writers Online, http://www.pw.org/ (November 23, 2005), Denise Hart, interview with Katherine Towler.
Rain Taxi Online, http://www.raintaxi.com/ (December 21, 2005), Felicia C. Sullivan, "The Island Itself," interview with Katherine Towler.