by Elisabeth Elo
The first seed of North of Boston was planted when I read an article about ambergris – whale excrement or vomit that floats in the sun, washes up on beaches, and eventually becomes a substance that was highly prized in ancient times for its healing and aphrodisiac qualities and that was—and in some cases, still is—used as a base of perfumes. I loved the paradox, the fusion of opposites. To think that something so disposable could be transformed through natural processes into something so valued. Yet its essence was the same.
It reminds me of the fairytale Rumpelstiltskin. (I digress, I know, but isn’t that a writer’s prerogative?) The heroine is given the impossible task of spinning straw into gold, and with the help of a devilish character, she does, but then she’s required to turn over her first-born child, too—only in the end she finds a way to keep both her wealth and the child.
The mystery of unlikely transformation is at the heart of ambergris and Rumpelstiltskin, and of many good stories. What it all says to me (humor me here, please) is that life is very, very hard, but the impossible does happen, maybe more often than we realize, and we’re supposed to be part of that process, each of us spinning straw into gold (and whale vomit into perfume) if we can. And even if we’re sure we can’t.
For a long time before I’d even thought about ambergris, I’d had a character in my head—she was a difficult person who had that invaluable attribute of being able to call a spade a spade, and who tended to follow things through to the end. She got claustrophobic easily, and needed a big adventure to find herself. I knew her story involved boats and almost drowning. When I added in ambergris, it also involved whales and perfume. Then came the crime, and her need to solve it. And, because she wasn’t as solitary as she thought she was, her relationships freely tumbled into the book as well. They were almost as challenging as the crime.
It was a tall order both for her and, surprisingly, for me. I had written fiction before, but I don’t think I really embraced the process fully until I was willing to follow my character to the hard, cold places she needed to go to, set the impossible tasks, and faithfully wait for the repercussions and unlikely transformations to occur.
The hardest thing for me in writing this book was all the research involved. If it wasn’t for online maps, YouTube videos, and things like virtual tours of super yachts for sale, I wouldn’t have gotten very far. The structure and plot points were a challenge, too—I went through a lot of index cards and ended up running out of the house one day in a sort of fury to buy a really big corkboard that ultimately wasn’t big enough. Much easier than plotting were the characters, who are all amalgams of people I know. The most sublime thing was the writing itself. I love to write when the characters feel real to me. When they feel real, it’s an honor to bring them to life. There’s a sense of urgency, as if I have to get them on paper before they become frustrated with my stalling and wander off. I have to be true to them, to be honest—that’s my first responsibility. It’s as if they’re saying, “This is my heart I’m giving you. Don’t screw it up.”
Elisabeth Elo grew up in Boston and went to Brown University. She worked as an editor, an advertising copywriter, a high-tech project manager, and a halfway house counselor before getting a PhD in American Literature at Brandeis University. Since then, she’s taught writing at Harvard, Tufts, and the evening school of Boston College. She is already hard at work on the second book starring the NORTH OF BOSTON ensemble cast. Below is more information on the book, and be sure to check out www.elisabethelo.com.