Ask novelist Will North where his ideas come from and he’ll answer “Toledo.” Not because he’s from Toledo or is particularly fond of that city, he just thinks the word itself is funny.
Humor aside, North believes ideas for his novels come from a deep place, an inner geography about which the writer is only dimly aware — until they start talking.
Take Edwinna Rutherford, the elderly, sharp-tongued but big-hearted clairvoyant in North’s latest novel, “Season’s End.” North claims she came out of nowhere and bossed him around until, he likes to say, he took dictation. Rutherford is a favorite character of North’s, and he’ll introduce the complete cast of his new book at a reading at 6 p.m. Friday at the Vashon Bookshop.
An award-winning writer of more than a dozen nonfiction books North, who grew up in Yonkers, New York, spent much of his early career as a ghostwriter, penning books for the likes of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, among others. He also wrote a series of off-the-beaten-track guidebooks to Britain. Fiction held no appeal for this writer until the day it crashed into his world.
“Fiction just showed up — like a gatecrasher or unexpected guest,” North said, “and then the stories kept coming.”
He wrote his first novel, “The Long Walk Home,” at a blistering pace — 90 days — and never looked back. His second novel, “Water, Stone, Heart,” began with one idea and two characters. But on page three, a young girl appeared, a character he said he never imagined and who had the gall to try to take over his story. Curious thing is she succeeded, much to this author’s delight. Ask North where she came from, and he’ll say Toledo.
Toledo plays a staring role in North’s third and latest novel, “Season’s End,” but this time it shares the stage with a small, rural island in the Pacific Northwest unabashedly called by its rightful name: Vashon. It’s also one of two places in the world — Cornwall, England, being the other — that North calls home.
Five years ago, friends invited North to the island for a weeklong stay at their home on the Burton Peninsula. North said he drove off the ferry, onto Vashon, and within minutes knew he was home. Here was a community where children safely road their bikes without helicopter parents worrying away their fun, where the pace of life seemed slow enough for friendliness and patience to flourish and where natural beauty infused most every vantage point. Once again, North never looked back. Today he lives with his wife Susan and a rescue dog on the south-facing beach of the Burton Peninsula, known to locals as Governor’s Row, but known to his characters in “Season’s End” as Madrona Beach.
Madrona Beach in particular, but Vashon in general, are the settings for “Season’s End,” a novel that Maria Semple, a summer resident of Burton and New York Times bestselling author of “Where’d You Go Bernadette,” called “full of mystery, desire and rich characters who will linger after the thrilling conclusion.”
“I like to set my stories in real places that I can make come alive visually, where I know people,” North said. “Sometimes there are characters who might be recognizable, but mostly they are not. I love the real places, and I love taking readers on journeys to those real places.”
Indeed islanders will recognize North’s descriptions of the terrain: “as the light strengthened, he could see, atop an old guano-stained piling only 50 yards offshore, the motionless American bald eagle that spent mornings at slack tide scanning the still water for foolhardy young salmon lounging near the surface.” As for shops and businesses, North changes the names of some but leaves others intact: “On the northwest corner of the intersection, housed in the historic old Masonic Hall, was the Quartermaster Gallery, an exhibit space that served the island’s unusually large population of fine artists and was typically the highlight of the island’s monthly ‘First Friday’ gallery tour, in part because there was always cheese and wine. In its shadow was the walk-up Burton coffee stand.”
North claims most of his characters are fictional, but admits the veil covering one in particular is thin at best. Betty Walsh, the beloved owner of the Burton Mercantile, who offers “free coffee and a well worn couch for regulars to sit on while they drank it; free biscuit for any dog who happened to wander in, with or without an owner; and free advice” is none other than Sandy Mattara of Harbor Mercantile.
Still, North took his cue for “Season’s End” from his observation of the four families who for generations have spent summers at their family compounds, swimming and water-skiing in the harbor and combing the driftwood beaches of Governor’s Row.
“It struck me that this is like a throwback to the 1920s, when people had family summer compounds where they would spend the season from July 4 to Labor Day,” said North, who typically starts his books without an outline but with three crucial elements: the setting, one or two characters and a theme.
In this case, North wondered what could possibly happen, what could possibly wrench apart forever several generations of families intertwined by shared summers, by marriages and children who grow up together, by careers and long historical ties to the area.
“I thought it had to be betrayal,” North said, “a series of betrayals all revealed on the last day of the season. I can’t tell you why that hit me, it just did. But the three families in my book have nothing to do with the people on that beach. They are totally fictional.”
Which is a good thing considering the betrayals in the book run the gamut from attempted murder and adultery to suicide.
Long before young Colin Ryan heard of and then became the vet of Vashon Island, he privately fell in love with his college roommate’s girlfriend, Martha “Pete” Peterson. Pete and Tyler Strong, Ryan’s college roommate, grew up summering on Madrona Beach and in some vague sense were destined to marry one another, which they inevitably do and begin the fissures in the sunny veneer of these smart, sexy, privileged and dysfunctional families.
“It’s a dark book,” admitted North, “and that’s worried me from the get go. My first two novels were love stories for adults, about second or third chances in love. ‘Season’s End’ is also a love story, but you have to wait for it. Ryan is slow to understand his real love and spends too much time on a phony love.”
Whether dark or redemptive, North’s stories pay homage to place, as will his next novel, the first in a series of mysteries set in Cornwall.
For North, the importance of place ranks high enough to garner an acknowledgement at the conclusion of “Season’s End.” North writes, “I have the great good fortune to live on a beautiful island in Washington’s Puget Sound populated by talented, warm, and good-natured neighbors and friends. ... My fellow islanders are a big part of what makes this such a magical place to live and work.”