STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Elyssa East, DOGTOWN

While scrolling through the newspaper accounts, I began to wonder if this brutal act of violence had altered Dogtown’s character, or if bad seeds had sprouted there all along. Was there something truly different and dark about Dogtown? Why had the land been abandoned in the first place? Did some places have a propensity for tragedy in the way that others brew their own dust storms? Did the murder account for why the place always seemed empty?

Dense and painstakingly researched, Dogtown provides fascinating details about a little-known place on Cape Ann, specifically in working-class Gloucester. Author Elyssa East masterfully weaves together: her personal journey to discover Dogtown; a horrific 1984 murder which transformed the community and still haunts residents; artist Marsden Hartley’s connection to Dogtown; and the strange history of the place. It’s a fascinating work of narrative non-fiction.

Steele: You said it took 10 years to write Dogtown. How did you start working on it?

author Elyssa East

East: It was 10 years. At first I just thought I was going to write a magazine article on the painter Marsden Hartley and his feelings for this place. For Dogtown. I got back rejection letters that for five minutes maybe a month or so later make you feel hopeful. And then you feel ridiculous for feeling hopeful. It was originally how Marsden Hartley felt transformed by this landscape. Then the more I started looking into the story of Dogtown, I realized there was a more complex story to be told. I was in graduate school and one of my professors suggested that I start to research it more. One thing led to another.

Steele: I had never heard of Marsden Hartley until I read Dogtown. What attracted you to him and to his paintings?

East: One of the things I really like about Hartley is his story. Critics consider him to be one of the greatest early American modernists. Some think he’s even better than [Georgia] O’Keefe and even Edward Hopper. I feel it would be more accurate to say he’s on a level with Hopper. There’s a real intensity to his paintings and I think he painted from a really lonely place inside. His work is very honest and emotionally raw in that respect.

One of the things that really enamored me to him was that he was born in Lewiston, Maine which is a very rustic old town and his mother died when he was eight. He was abandoned by his family and by his father. He worked in a mill and then later went on to become a great artist. I just love that he’s someone who had a very working class origin and overcame a lot in life. There’s also the story that he was a gay man and being a gay man in the early 20th century adds another layer of struggle as part of his biography. He was always searching for a place that he could consider his home. That was something I really identified with in his story and in his work.

Steele: How do you see all that in his work?

East: I made a copy of one of his paintings. That’s how I discovered him, from a painting class assignment. There’s something about the way he works the paint and uses his brush. His strokes are very agitated. The way that he layers the paint, he was really working that paint and he wasn’t coming from a calm place. He was very anxious. He used a pencil or charcoal ground into the paper. What I like about his Dogtown paintings is that they are not necessarily great paintings but show him struggling and taking a creative risk. That was something I admired and respected about him. He switched styles a lot. The fact that he was willing to take all these risks I think shows a lot of courage on his part.

A lot of his later paintings [of the Maine coastline] are really powerful and explode with energy. It’s really hard to make landscape in photography or painting as dynamic as it is when you are actually standing there. He really succeeded at that.

Steele: You were getting your MFA in creative writing when you started writing Dogtown. Having a creative background, was it hard to write it? What were the challenges of non-fiction?

East: I’ve never been that creative. I didn’t really have an identity. I also produced theater and was the analytical or practical person on the scene. Especially in those fields, there’s a real division in who’s considered creative and who’s considered administrative. I was always interested in the creative capability that these landscapes represented but within the confines of reality. I do have a very strong practical streak.

[In writing Dogtown], I was very attached to the facts and the story. There was something about being restricted by all these facts that made it easier to be more creative. The story was already there, it was just a matter of finding its structure. The challenge was finding the facts and figuring out how to maintain their intrigue and still tell the story without just handing down a bunch of trivia. Finding a balance between the story and the subject. There’s always the subject which in this case was Dogtown and then there’s the story. In this case there were several stories: my quest to find the Hartley paintings; the murder; and the place’s history itself.

Steele: I like the intertwining stories. How did you decide to focus on those particular aspects?

East: A bowl of candy. I work at a writer center in New York. The candy bowl was full of these Starburst-like candies. I was trying to figure out how to make this book from all this information and all these storylines. Purple was the color I chose for Marsden Hartley. Red was for the murder. Green I chose for the landscape and the history. Yellow was the color for me. I kept arranging this candy, finding to find a pattern until I came up with an outline for the book. It helped me, being a visually minded person, to have something tactile to work. I color-coded the research to what type of chapter I thought it belonged. I tried to write each chapter with its own arc. But really it was because of this candy bowl that it all came together. Having five colors of candy really helped.

Steele: When do you know that you’ve done enough research?

East: You know Amy, I really could have gone on and on. I really just wanted to know what the material was. In many instances I had fewer questions. I knew that based on what I would find, that would dictate my story. When researching I was looking for specific things. I kept coming across a story of alleged witches in Dogtown. I researched individual women through vital records and property records. I couldn’t find enough information to validate the allegations. It led me to research women’s history and I found things that didn’t belong in the book but I wanted to keep investigating because it was so interesting to me. I had to just cut myself off at a point and just get to writing.

Steele: In the book you said: “Dogtown had changed Marsden Hartley and his paintings changed me.”

East: Hartley’s paintings changed me in that when I made that copy of his painting, I really didn’t think I could paint. I had to take a painting class in order to graduate with a degree in Art History from my school. I felt I was flunking all my painting class assignments until it came to this Hartley painting. I actually made a painting that looked like something and for me that was a big epiphany. I secretly wanted to be an artist when I was younger.

So that did change me and I felt close to Hartley because copying someone’s painting can be very intimate because you learn how they move the paint on the canvas. I liked that he painted these un-picturesque places and found something beautiful in them. I found that really moving and really compelling. Some of the places that he painted in Dogtown aren’t traditionally beautiful and I liked that.

Steele: One thing you focus on in Dogtown is place and a connection to a place. Can you explain this?

East: The relationship with have with place is something that I think is really under examined. It’s something fascinating and real. It’s hard to grasp. It’s not as easy to delineate in a narrative as say, your relationship with another person. That was really inspired by Hartley and his story. I’m from the South and everywhere I go people assume things about me because of where I’m from. That notion of place and identity is something that I’ve been aware of for a long time and interested in. It wasn’t until I started going to Dogtown and discovering that it has its own vibes that I decided that it was what I wanted this book to be about.

Steele: Why was the murder [in Dogtown in 1984] integral to the book?

East: The thing about the murder is that it really became a turning point within the community. There was this crisis which was the murder and in the aftermath, some people really did want to bulldoze that place, tear it down and put up condos. The majority of the people wanted to maintain Dogtown. That was a critical turning point because it gave people an opportunity to re-examine their connection to this landscape. I keep hearing this story over and over and it happened nearly 25 years before I visited Dogtown. For many people it had changed Dogtown.

purchase at Amazon: Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town

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