Jennifer Vanderbes Interview
Book Clubs at Book Passage, put together this interview with Jennifer Vanderbes. Vanderbes novel, Easter Island, was a recent selection of the Book Passage First Editions Club.Book Passage: Why did you pick Easter Island as the backdrop for your story?
Jennifer Vanderbes: For years, I’d heard about Easter Island. I knew that it was the most remote inhabited island in the world, and I knew it was famous for its enormous stone statues. But it wasn’t a place I thought of writing about until about 3 years ago I was reading an excerpt from the journal of a British archaeological expedition that was there in 1914, who, in the midst of describing their excavations and their anthropological research, mentioned that the German fleet had anchored there for a week, claimed not to have any newspapers, and then left without so much as a mention that the whole world had gone to war. It was then that the isolation of this place really became palpable for me. I began to see this remote island as a place where various interesting story elements—archaeology, Polynesian culture, intrepid Edwardian travelers, Germany's WWI fleet—could literally, converge.
B.P.:What aspects of Easter Island do you think particularly appeal to book clubs?
Vanderbes: I think that the dual-narrative structure of the book invites readers to forge certain connections that would be interesting for discussion. The novel alternates between the stories of Elsa Pendleton and Greer Farraday, two young women who travel to Easter Island 60 years apart. Although the book is told from their perspectives, a lot of things happen beyond their perception that becomes crucial to the story. For example: the narrative closely tracks Elsa’s intellectual and emotional growth while she's on the island, but what changes does her husband undergo? Or, what are the pressures on Greer's husband that lead him to commit scientific fraud? And what prevents Elsa and Greer from seeing these things? I’ve also been hearing from readers that the parallels between the two women’s stories provide for interesting conversation, the essential question being: Is it only time and circumstance that separate these women, or do significant differences in character determine their vastly different fates? Another worthwhile discussion might revolve around how history (personal, ecological, political) is transmitted and discovered in the novel.
B.P.:The world of botany adds a richness and depth to your story. Did you ever study botany or wish to become a botanist?
Vanderbes: Having grown up in New York City, I knew embarrassingly little about the natural world when I began this book. Elm trees, pigeons, cockroaches, concrete—the urban ecosystem was my home. So when I decided one of my characters was going to be investigating Easter Island’s ecological history, I knew I was signing on for major research. I read dozens of textbooks and interviewed botanists. Fortunately, I found botany absolutely fascinating, but what intrigued me most was how often scientific questions seemed to mirror personal questions. Take evolution—the mystery of how and why creatures change over generations. I think it’s a particularly resonant question because we want deeply to understand how and why, over our own lifetimes, we change. This idea of the personal investment in scientific questions became important in the character of Greer Farraday. In Greer, you have both a scientist trying to understand how a once-verdant subtropical island became barren, and a woman trying to figure out why she sacrificed her own intellectual ambitions for a deceitful husband. It's really about her need to unravel the story of ruin.
B.P.: Elsa and Greer both come to Easter Island under different circumstances and years apart. How do you see them overlapping?
Both women make the long trip to Easter Island at crucial turning
points in their lives. Elsa has just entered into a marriage
of convenience, Greer has just been widowed. In taking
this trip to the world's most
remote island, they both are
literally trying to cut themselves off from their pasts. They
approach this trip as a way to start over, to challenge
and fulfill themselves
intellectually. Both women become greatly impassioned by
their research on the island. But one of the
book’s motifs is that the past is never entirely
escapable, even on an island thousands of miles
away. Greer finds that other researchers on the
island know about her husband’s scandal. Figures
from Elsa’s past are literally moving towards her at
the book’s end. When faced with betrayal, both
women realize they’ve been blind to things they
didn’t want to see because they’ve been clinging
to images of the past.
There is a strong sense of the father figure in your story. Both Elsa and Greer had fathers that played a role in their choice of husbands.
Elsa, the Edwardian character, is forced by circumstance to marry a colleague of her father’s many years her senior. 60 years later, Greer, a Ph.D. student, falls in love with and marries an older professor. In some ways, both women, raised by domineering fathers, find the dynamic with an older man familiar and comfortable. The comparison ends, however, with the fact that Greer marries out of love, and her husband's eventual betrayal is the more crushing because of it.
B.P.: The drama at the end of the book is riveting. Did you know the ending when you first started writing the book?
Vanderbes: I had a strong sense of the overall arc of the book when I began, and how the various narratives would come together, which helped me a lot, since sitting down to write your first novel is a daunting experience. As I was writing the early chapters, certain climactic moments started to become clear.
B.P.: Will you do a book signing on Easter Island?Vanderbes: That would be a dream. There’s no bookstore on the island, but they do sell some books at the grocery store. I'll be headed back this fall to see friends. Hmm…Perhaps I could arrange something! Perhaps I could get a book club started down there!