The Butler in the Pond

Sep 15, 2018

“The novelist is one on whom nothing is lost.”

~Henry James

By 1980 I had achieved two important life goals: Little, Brown had published my first novel, and I had a beautiful son, Bear. A toddler at the time, Bear instinctively recognized that the clack of the typewriter was his only real competition for his mama’s attention. I was trying to do demanding revisions on These Latter Days, but when the typewriter clacked, Bear would do something naughty so I could not work, but must pick him up and play with him. That fall, my recently retired father came to Florida to look after Bear for four weeks, and I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to revise These Latter Days nonstop.

That fall we VCCA Fellows, perhaps twenty in all—writers, sculptors, painters, a composer—lived and worked in separate rooms and studios carved out of a huge, drafty barn. VCCA had originally been a beautiful Edwardian home, but it burned down in 1979, hence the barn. Most of the artists were men, taking a rural respite from their busy, even frantic urban lives. I’d never met, much less known people who admitted to being artists. My own writing life had always been a secret from my grad student peers. VCCA—the lively camaraderie and competition among so many creative people—was a wholly new, indelible experience for me. They were all artists, but some I thought pretentious sulky egoists. Some I liked. Some, even in that short space of time, I became genuinely fond of.  One of the people I was fond of, a whimsical painter named Fred Hoch, mentioned one afternoon he planned to sketch the following day at a fox-hunting party at a nearby estate. Would I like to go along?

I almost said no. I was working on TLD night and day (keenly aware of the sacrifices my family had made so I could revise the book). Still, I told myself, this is an opportunity that may never come again. Fred took a sketch pad. I took a notebook. Once there, I felt like a total interloper, not merely that I was not of this class and background, but that I had no right whatever to be present at this event. Like a spy I took notes. (Never have I been so glad I took shorthand!) There, amid the jostling horses and beautifully clad riders, the yapping dogs, and the local reverend blessing the hunt, amid servants passing out stirrup cups of alcoholic punch, I took down every conversation I could, recorded every impression. I had no thought of using these notes, but when I got back to the barn, I typed them up immediately. (I can take shorthand, but I can’t always read it.)

Later the next week several of us took rowboats out on the large woodland lake on the property. The waters were opaque, unlovely, murky with scum and fallen leaves. Astonishing, how sound carried over water! An utterly new experience for California moi. As we were tying the boats back up at the dock, the composer remarked in a joking fashion, “Can’t you just imagine the butler floating in the lake? Like in a mystery novel.”

Well, yes. I could.

When I went back to Florida (having sent my revised script of TLD off to the editor) I started writing Belle Haven for fun. My notes and impressions from Virginia were fresh in my mind, and it didn’t require intense concentration. I could work while Bear was napping. When Bear was awake, he and I were always busy.

In four weeks my father had taught Bear how to read. He was not yet two.


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laura kalpakian
Fair Augusto & Other Stories

Fair Augusto has been reprinted by Paint Creek Press and is available on June 20th 2023.

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