As she took her place on the Jewett couch last Thursday to read from and discuss her first novel, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, Morgan Callan Rogers shared with the large group her special joy in being at the Maine Women Writers Collection. An admirer of Sarah Orne Jewett, she said she was honored to be included in the same library collection with her and so many others, and imagined that from the shelves, “all of our books will be talking to each other at night!”
Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is the coming of age story of a spirited young heroine in coastal Maine during the early 1960s. When her mother disappears during a weekend trip, Florine Gilham’s idyllic childhood is turned upside down. Until then she’d been blissfully insulated by the rhythms of family life in small town Maine: watching from the granite cliffs above the sea for her father’s lobster boat to come into port, making bread with her grandmother, and infiltrating the summer tourist camps with her friends. But with her mother gone, the heart falls out of Florine’s life and she and her father are isolated as they struggle to manage their loss, and the additional challenges that come their way.
After reading a passage from the book — a scene featuring Maine women characters based on Rogers’ father’s relatives, selected in honor of our venue — Rogers gave us some background on the genesis of the book. Raised in the shipbuilding city of Bath, Maine, her sense of the coast and its villages deeply informed the setting and characters of the tale. While enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, she needed a story idea to fulfill an assignment and the characters of Florine and Dottie came to her right away. From that short piece, Florine emerged to become the young narrator of Red Ruby Heart, with Dottie as her best friend. “Florine drives the story,” Rogers explained, and later mentioned that she’s at work on a sequel, allowing Florine to continue her role as protagonist. Throughout the discussion Rogers referred to the voice of Florine in her mind as a real and formidable presence who would correct her if she wrote something not in keeping with what the heroine would do, say or want.
One guest described the book as “very visual,” and this is so true, especially in terms of color. The vibrance of the multi-hued title and vivid blue, brown and green dust jacket is carried through to the text inside, with its consistent yet simple mention of color in nearly every scene. Rogers explained that she had “sprinkled that in afterward” and was pleased it worked.
Another guest was aware that before it was even published in the U. S., Rogers’ book was already doing very well in Germany, and she wondered what that was like for the author. Rogers explained that an international publisher had happened across her manuscript as it lay on her agent’s desk and decided to publish it abroad. She took it to the Frankfurt Fair and it became the third best-selling book in Germany for 2010-2011. “I was surprised…flummoxed!” And Rogers feels that the German translation of the Maine colloquialisms is pretty good, reluctant to criticize because it’s been such a good experience to work with them. She thinks the story appeals to the German publishers “because they have a romantic streak. But they also get things done with efficiency and grace.”
Following the novel’s success abroad, Viking bought the U. S. rights and the book is now in print all over the world. “I couldn’t be more excited and thrilled.” “And by the way,” she added, “At the same time all of that was happening, I also fell in love and moved to South Dakota.” Quite a year!
One member of the group thought Rogers took some risks with the plot, especially in the case of Carlie, Florine’s mother. “One of the things I wanted to explore with Carlie going missing was not to write a mystery, but rather to write what it was like for Florine to grow up missing someone — without closure.” This divergence from a more typical plot structure creates suspense for the reader. “I kept waiting for something to happen,” the woman said.
A member of the group who shared that she grew up in both Ireland and the U. S. pointed out that there is a generation of women that is slipping away, a generation that did not have a lot of personal power. Rogers concurred, adding that women really had to get out there and find the resources they needed to survive. One of her grandmothers found work in a jewelry store; the other was deserted in Boston at a very young age, and danced on the street with her brother for pennies before being taken to Maine. “We take our opportunities for granted,” she said, and agrees it’s important to sit down with those of that generation and listen.
Anne Zill asked the author how she incorporated details from her own life into the novel. In addition to setting it in the 1960s, Rogers said she dug deep to her roots in Phippsburg and Bath, and drew on other long-familiar sites such as Wolf’s Neck State Park and Small Point, pointing out that the setting and the narrator’s age was familiar, but not the characters. Her youth was not characterized by the kind of trauma that Florine experiences, and laughed, “If I had done half the stuff she did, I would have been grounded forever!” But on the other hand, “(The character of) Dottie IS my sister. She just is.” And Rogers’ real-life family did cherish a collection of red ruby glass.
Rogers began writing at the age of eight, mostly about gangs of kids in the vein of the Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew series she enjoyed. Sharing a vivid memory of a pivotal experience so crucial to her writing life, she said that one night in bed she had begun to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Being afraid of the dark at that time, she was in the habit of playing the radio as she went to sleep. By some creepy coincidence that night, she heard the voice on the radio describe a scene so similar to the one she happened to be reading at that moment, in very nearly the same words. Terrified, she slammed the book shut and “couldn’t sleep for the next three years.” As she lay awake, then, night after night, she created a world of imaginary characters and furthered the story until she could fall asleep. “That’s what got me into the practice of developing character and plot,” she reflected.
A number of members of the group enjoyed the personification of nature in the text, and one asked the author if she consciously included the metaphors about the seasons. “I make them living things because nature is a living thing.” And she consciously worked to see and describe it the way Florine would. Reinforcing her sense Florine was with her all the time, she added, “We wrote the book together.”
In working on the sequel to the story, Rogers is cranking right now, she says, thanks to being in Maine for the summer. She finds that living and writing in the South Dakota landscape is very different, concluding that she’s not a Western writer. Here, she muses, nature is softer, greener. There is flexibility offered by the ocean, and privacy afforded in the seclusion of the woods. Out there, she says, you can have all the space you want, but you are exposed. The landscape, nature, the climate are all in your face. “Out there, you have to redefine the word ‘lonely.’”
Asked to expand on her work at the moment, Rogers confessed that the other day, she wrote the ending to the sequel, even though she’s only two-thirds of the way through the book. “I just trust that the next step will come. I trust in the universe.” And it seems she can also, always, trust in Florine.
To learn more about Morgan Callan Rogers, visit her website: morgancallanrogers.com.