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The Library as Safe Place | Behind the Book, February 15, 2017

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Author Jessica Shattuck
Photo by Dorothea von Haeften

When I was growing up in Washington, DC, the library was my safe place. I went two or three times a week after school and stayed until my working mother could retrieve me. This was in the early Eighties: sensational kidnapping stories had captured my imagination, and my walk down the block felt like a harrowing journey through an urban badland in which every blue car that drove past, every stranger on the sidewalk, was a potential maniac. But once inside the modest, single-story Macomb Street branch, I could let down my guard.

I did not know the librarians, though they must have recognized me, and only occasionally did I see other children from my school. But my aloneness did not feel lonely in the presence of so many books and orderly patrons going about their business in a productive hush. I would set up at my favorite table, finish my homework, and then allow myself to browse. So began a lifetime of self-discipline through rewards—a skill that has served me well as a writer. To me, the smell of imperfectly preserved paper is still the olfactory incarnation of peace.

womeninthecastle.jpg21417So it is probably no surprise that my local library became the “safe place” where I wrote my latest book, The Women in the Castle (LJ 1/17), a historical novel that took me over seven years to finish. With three kids at home, one of whom was not yet four when I wrote the final chapter, I needed mental, not physical, protection. And the grand, high-ceilinged reading room of the Brookline, MA, public library main branch offered this. With its wooden paneling and somber, gilt-framed oil portraits, it is a far cry from the single-story concrete library of my childhood, but it is just as much my place.

I recognize my “coworkers,” who range from homeless people to graduate students to a number of other familiars I imagine identities for. We don’t know each other, but there is a solidarity in our overlapping patterns of use. And we all benefit from the rich, creative quiet that comes with being surrounded by unspoken words.

As I was writing The Women in the Castle, the Public Library of Brookline, MA, was my main office but not my only office. When I took my ten-year-old to a farm camp for a week one summer, I found my way to the nearby Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA, an impressive stone fortress that looks like it was built in a Minecraft game. Here in this outlying suburb, the library was as busy as the one in Brookline, with an overflowing community board and a surprising degree—at least to me—of racial, ethnic, and age diversity. I found a quiet table in a room that resembled the nave of a church, with long windows set just too high to see outside. Here, I managed to turn hours that would have been lost to driving into productive writing time.

On several other occasions, I have written at the nearby Newton Free Library, MA. Much bigger than the Brookline main branch or my outpost in Norwood, this renovated building would be at home on a college campus with its skylight-lit reading room and vast collection of DVDs and music. A daily schedule of events included Trivia Night, two children’s story hours, an African lit discussion group, “Brownies and Books,” and a blood drive (!). It took some navigating to find a quiet, out-of-the-way place in this bustling metropolis, but once I did, it was perfect: a table upstairs, looking out through the tree tops and into the neighboring cemetery (and there is nothing more motivating to a writer than a cemetery). I solved a crucial question for one of my characters there.

For a time, before my youngest child was born, I took the subway into Boston to work at the Boston Athenaeum, a venerable private library that I joined through an affordable “under 40” membership. Tucked away just off the Boston Common on an anonymous side street, the Athenaeum has a particularly Bostonian air of discretion, bordering on secrecy. Nothing about the outside of the building betrays the old-world grandeur (prestigious art exhibits, rare books, famous patrons) behind its doors. It was hard not to make a procrastination game of guessing who my “coworkers” were. But I’d tuck into an alcove in the fifth-floor reading room and look out over the ancient Granary Burying Ground (another cemetery!) and try to absorb the hush.

Finally, on many summer days, I squeezed in hours at the gorgeous Camden Public Library, ME, while visiting my in-laws in the little town of Rockport. This library seemed to serve a different purpose than the ones I was used to working at around Boston. A peaceful haven for beleaguered vacationers, it offered, above all, a quiet spot to read the paper away from clamoring grandchildren or tourist crowds. But the general air of collective introspection worked its predictable magic, and with the occasional aid of a set of earphones and a white noise app on my phone, I dove back into the interrupted current of my work and produced pages, even in the throes of family vacation.

Could I have written my book without access to all these communal rooms of my own? Possibly, but it would have been a greater challenge. And the end result, quite probably, would have been a different book. Recently, we rearranged our house so that I could have my own “home office,” which has proved a wonderful place to store all the boxes and files and books that previously cluttered my ­bedroom. But when I actually need to get writing done, I know where to go.

Award-winning author Jessica Shattuck’s most recent novel is The Women in the Castle

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