New Head of the Cape Cod Writers Center, and author of ‘The Muse of the Revolution’
Nancy Rubin Stuart is a seasoned journalist who still remembers what pounding on the keys of a battered Royal feels like, and how to negotiate the shoals of a predominately male, smoke-filled newsroom. Stuart is also the author of a number of critically acclaimed books including her most recent The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation which concerns the Revolutionary War era writer Mercy Otis Warren. Stuart, who has taught writing at Yale, SUNY at Purchase, and other universities, is also the new director of the Cape Cod Writers Center. I spoke to her on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.
Doug Holder: Mercy Otis Warren the subject of your book “The Muse of the Revolution” was a poet, playwright, and propagandist for the Colonies during the Revolutionary War. How effective and how widely read was she during this era?
Nancy Rubin Stuart: I think she was very widely read because much of her work was serialized. Her work was put in pamphlets—that was a major medium of that era. In those days there were no bylines, and certainly a woman wouldn’t have one. Other people would pick her writing up, use her material, and put their own name on it. But as I said it was serialized in all the major papers from Philadelphia to New York City—this was the age of protest publications. Although a lot of folks read her stuff it was not until a lot later on that it was revealed that she was the author.
Warren had been writing poetry before the pamphlets, but this was her first venture into politics. If you think of today’s Saturday Night Live—that is the style in which she wrote. She took political figures and made fun of the, including Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts.
DH: Why was she so obscure?
NRS: Well, that’s why I wrote the book. She was the first female playwright. And we didn’t know that until much later in history. She had good reason to write plays against British rule. Her brother talked about taxation without representation as a tyranny back in the 1760’s. He was an attorney and he was brutally assaulted by the British for his position. He never recovered his sanity after this—and that’s why she picked up the pen. She was fervently for justice for all, the little people, against oppression, etc… John Adams was a friend, mentor—he encouraged her to write. At first she was reluctant. But Adams told her “You have a genius pen.”
DH: Now Warren was a feminist. Yet she was very dependent on her husband to the point of refusing to allow him to take a post away from home in support of the Revolution. How do you explain this woman of contradictions?
NRS: We all have contradictions. Yes, some more than others. She was nearly 50 when the Revolution started. So you have a woman of a certain age. She was desperately in love with her husband, and he with her. Their love letters continued right up to old age. She didn’t want him to leave. In many ways she was a very traditional woman. She believed in education for women, but essentially she was a woman of her time and took care of her family. She had five sons, and was a terrific mother.
DH: So often when politics comes into your writing the work becomes less art and more polemic. Were her plays and poems considered art or were they more rants against the British.
NRS: Her plays were the equivalent of Saturday Night Live. They consisted of caricatures of political figures. They were difficult to read. Certainly she is not in the literary cannon of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. She was a competent poet. She was reasonably skilled. But for a woman of those days this was quite an accomplishment. By a fluke she was well-educated.
DH: You are the new director of the Cape Cod Writers Center. Can you tell us a little about the center and the programs you offer?
NRS: This will be our 49th year. We try to keep abreast with whatever is happening in publishing. Last year our theme was Books, Byte, and Beach. We tried to incorporate traditional genres but we also tried to incorporate social media.
The campus overlooks the Cape Cod Sound—you would be right near the beach if you attend. You can live in the dorms on campus.
The Keynote speaker this summer (2011) will be Malachy McCourt. Lisa Genova will be back with a new book. We will have agents, publishers, broadcasters, media people, poets, etc… Last summer we had poet Charles Coe. We also will have folks who will be talking about social media, blogging—we will offer 33 courses this summer. Also included will be a course on how to present yourself to an audience. We look for teachers who are well-known, and are accomplished writers.
DH: What’s hot in publishing these days?
NRS: A good story. People are still interested in thrillers, and mysteries. Any story that is exciting or different.
In addition, self-publishing has bloomed and blossomed. Because the publishing industry is so stretched most authors find that they have to do most of their own publicity. So they figure they might as well self-publish. All major conferences offer something about self-publishing.
DH: I remember having an argument with Rebecca Wolf of “Fence Magazine” in which
she stated that she would never use Print-On-Demand technology. David Godine Jr., the acclaimed publisher said they now use POD with some of their books and their authors love it.
NRS: It has become much more sophisticated. And now so much is digital. There will always be traditional publishing. This summer we will have the author Lisa Genova who wrote “Still Alice” which became a bestseller—this book was self-published. It is a rapidly changing environment.
DH: You studied at Tufts University—right here in Somerville. Is this where you got your seminal training as a writer?
NRS: I started out as a poet. I also taught high school English after college to put my husband through graduate school. I used to collect rejection slips for my poetry. Eventually I started to write nonfiction. I was writing for local papers in Westchester County, NY. The New York Times started a suburban edition and asked me to write for them. I learned a lot of discipline from my time as a journalist. When I was there it was basically a smoke-filled, male bastion—with typewriters—I loved it! Eventually computers moved in.
DH: Do you pine for the old days?
NRS: I loved it. I loved the excitement writing for a newspaper. I still write a column. Most writing can be done at home now. I was fortunate to do magazine work as well. I really like the immediacy of journalism, but there is nothing like spinning out a story to create a book.