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By: Gail Obenreder
“It is not really possible for me to fully explain how this idea came to me, except to say that it felt as though Susanna took me by the shoulders and said, ‘Listen and learn.’”
Mara Gorman has lived most of her adult life in Delaware and forged a successful career as a print and online editor, publisher, and award-winning travel writer. Born in Maine and spending her childhood in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Vermont, Gorman felt that as a native New Englander she was well-versed in its historical lore. But the Newark resident was surprised when – on a 2016 trip to Plymouth, Massachusetts – she saw a historical artifact that totally altered the course of her writing.
It was “a large wicker cradle, [and] I couldn’t stop looking at this fragile object, so full of hope.” It had belonged to Susanna White, five months pregnant when she boarded the Mayflower. White gave birth after the craft made landfall, and little more is known about her. But Gorman could not get the woman or her cradle – and the myriad queries it engendered – out of her mind. “I realized that I wanted to seek answers to these questions, even if they were fictional answers. I decided to write a novel.”
Susanna’s Cradle is her first piece of long-form fiction, but Gorman became a writer after signing up (“on a lark”) for a nonfiction workshop at Middlebury College. She intended to study political science, but when she was accepted into an audition-only writing class, those plans changed. After graduation, she received her MFA in writing from Penn State. And she credits early literary inspiration from her mother, “who believed fiercely in the value of art, taught me to read when I was three, and encouraged me to range freely in the library.”
Susanna’s Cradle, January, 2020
Part I: The Journey
Later, much later, after the arrival and the births and the deaths, long after the ship that carried her had vanished from all sight and knowledge, there was still the cradle, fragile though it had always seemed. Susanna knew it was sinful to hold so tightly to an earthly object or to take selfish pride in her possessions. But still she loved its woven wicker, its sturdy rockers, the way it enfolded her children. There had been many times when she wished to crawl into it herself, to sleep curled up and small within its confines away from all sight and knowledge of the world and its perils.
Gorman is still an avid reader, with character-driven historical fiction as (not surprisingly) a favorite genre. And since her book is set in New England, “when I want to be reminded of what it’s like to be on Cape Cod, the poetry of Mary Oliver is always inspiring.” But when Gorman began to write Susanna’s Cradle, she knew virtually nothing about the 17th century and embarked on a steep learning curve about the era’s religion and customs. “I like the fact that I am telling a story that many people think they know and understand from the perspective of a woman who, like almost all of her peers, has been utterly discarded by history.”
The Division’s Fellowship will offer Gorman the opportunity to put her work in front of agents and editors at the (virtual) 2021 conference of the National Historical Novel Society in June. Deeply sensitive about the native people of Massachusetts and Rhode Island that she is describing, Gorman says the Award has – most importantly – allowed her “the chance to pay a member of the Wampanoag tribe to serve as a sensitivity reader for my novel, something that I view as imperative.”
Gorman feels “lucky to be able to work in the safety of my home office.” But the pandemic has made it impossible to travel to Plymouth for research or attend a 2020 residency program on Cuttyhunk Island (off the coast of Massachusetts) that would have afforded time for research, writing, and her exploration of “the untold story of the Puritan women in Plymouth.” However, she is hoping to go to Cuttyhunk in September 2021.
Artist website: motherofalltrips.comFellowship Home
Related Topics: 2021 Artist Fellows, art, artist fellowship, arts fellowship, arts grants, Delaware, Delaware Department of State, delaware division of the arts, established artist, fiction, grants, grants for artists, individual artist fellowship, literary arts, literature, Mara Gorman, State of Delaware, writer