Alice Fulton on: The Nightingales of Troy
Madelyn Callahan Trethaway, an inspiration, c 1924
The story behind the story was sometimes a family mystery, a half-told tale that enticed me into telling the other half. It seemed the more intriguing the event, the denser the silence that surrounded it. Often, the end of the factual story was all that had survived.
“Queen Wintergreen,” the catalyst for the book, was suggested by a 1918 newspaper account of my great-grandmother’s death. The obituary contained a shocking fact, which had been forgotten or repressed for seventy years. When printed from microfilm, the text turned to white type on black, as if a poltergeist had flipped the spectrum, and this uncanny materiality added to its resonance. This story was my first attempt at fiction, and its requirements seemed daunting. How could I create the voice of an elderly Irish woman in 1918? I had a few childhood memories of the old Irish couple next door, but to write Peg Flynn, I had to draw on published oral histories rather than the primary sources I prefer. It took about six weeks to complete the story, an exceedingly long time, as I saw it. Little did I know!
Three sisters whose lives influenced the stories
“Queen Wintergreen” led me to consider other relatives as fictional possibilities. The lives of my mother, aunts, and great-aunts spanned the twentieth century, and pretty early on, I decided to set one story in each decade. I was intrigued to think that the spirit of the times might be reflected in the texture of the prose itself. Connected stories allow for this possibility, whereas a novel demands continuity of tone and style. Whose decade was it? I asked, when deciding which character to focus on. Whose life was changed, whose world split open?
“Happy Dust,” the opening story, was spun from the little I knew of my mother’s birth. “I gave birth to myself,” she liked to say, and she meant it literally, for her mother was alone on the farm at the time. The story’s protagonist, Mamie Come Running, is based on my grandmother, whom I knew only from my mother’s descriptions. Since it was set in 1908–9, I wanted “Happy Dust” to have a nineteenth-century flavor. Like Anne of Green Gables or The Wizard of Oz, it could be a yarn, almost a rustic fairy tale that introduced the main characters and cast its spell over the century to come.
Each decade required immersion in paper ephemera—newspapers, Sears catalogues, medical journals, magazines, cookbooks. Paper euphoria! The past was the ultimate foreign country, and I felt I’d immigrated there. It’s easy to forget, once culture changes, how vastly different things used to be—to forget that Prohibition lasted fourteen years or that Bayer Heroin was legal in 1908. Newspapers from the 1920s advertised clothing in “Bagdad [sic] Blue,” “Tiffin,” and “Sandalwood,” colors that evoked the decade’s passion for exoticism. Evening dresses, influenced by skyscrapers, were fashioned from “metal tissues” and set with steel disks; cookbooks featured creamy, sweet main dishes and a popular dessert called “flapper pudding.” Just ten years later, during the Depression, home economists were touting creative ways with organ meats.
Nurse Callahan, 1934
Like the character Annie Garrahan, my mother was a visiting nurse in the pre-antibiotic 1930s, when pneumonia was treated with kerosene stupes and turpentine poultices. She said that a window was always left open, and the patient’s room was so cold she had to wear her raccoon coat. The character of Sam Livingston in the title story was based on my father. Like Sam, he owned a nightclub called The Ship of Joy that floated on the Hudson River, a club called The Rainbow Gardens, and a residential hotel, The Phoenix, which dated from the early nineteenth century. Herman Melville wrote his first novel, Typee, about two blocks away, and it was easy to imagine him stopping by to drink with the sailors.
In the 1960s story, “The Real Eleanor Rigby,” fourteen-year-old Ruth Livingston inherits her father’s copy of Typee and becomes infatuated with Melville, a crush that parallels her serious case of Beatlemania. This story was great fun to write. Like Ruth, I’d sent in postcards and won a ticket to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1966, and years later, while working as a radio announcer, I met John Lennon and George Harrison. It was delightful to transform these experiences into fiction, an improving mutation.
Though the central figures are mothers, sisters, and daughters, I don’t think the book is “about women.” The problems the characters face&38212;birth, death, loneliness, altruism, love, betrayal, aging—are men’s problems, too. They’re human problems, part of the human dilemma. If the older characters seem eccentric, perhaps it’s because their ways have been estranged by time. They lived in a world where divorce was a mortal sin, right up there with murder, and no one could marry outside the Catholic Church. As the wife of a divorced Protestant, my mother claimed she was the first in her family to go astray. But not the last, I’d add. Like Katherine Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks and attendant spirit of “Happy Dust,” she cut the way before her.
- “In the twentieth century I believe there are no saints left”—The Nightingales of Troy begins with this observation, and the problem of goodness is one of the book’s central themes. Each character has a different relation to service, love, and giving. Some give too much while others thrive upon generous acts. How do various characters confront and test the limits of altruism? Who gives too much (or too little)? Who is a survivor? Who is damaged or destroyed by altruism? Who is selfish and who is saintly? How do these people come to terms with the demands placed upon them? Does their generosity change over time?
- Alice Fulton has called the past “the ultimate foreign country.” The Nightingales of Troy covers a century with remarkable attention to detail. It’s full of fascinating period objects and artifacts, from cosmetics to medical equipment. How do these cultural objects and markers deepen your sense of the past? Which decade seems the most alien or distant to you?
- Time is one of the book’s large themes. “And though my children were sleeping the sleep of the just, I half believed my unvoiced thoughts would reach them across that room full of twentieth-century light,” Mamie thinks at the end of the first story. What do her thoughts suggest about time? How do they prefigure what is to come?
- In “The Real Eleanor Rigby,” Ruth feels that “the past must exist behind, beside, inside, or under the present.” And in “L’Air Du Temps,” an elderly Anne says, “Memory makes everything happen at once.” What do these statements (and stories) suggest about time?
- What does “The Real Eleanor Rigby” imply about loneliness and intimacy? What does its ending imply about Ruth and her mother? Why do people sometimes feel closer to celebrities than to those they see every day?
- If you had a time machine, which story’s decade would you most like to visit?
- In “Centrally Isolated,” Edna says, “Words once spoken cannot be withdrawn, and that is why our entire family would say nothing about anything important.” How is silence a powerful conductor of meaning within families? In “Centrally Isolated,” is silence desirable, a form of protective tactfulness? Or is it destructive and isolating?
- Charlotte’s fate in “Centrally Isolated” gives us the sense that things have come full circle. What other cycles and patterns can you identify within the book?
- We see Charlotte change from a romantic girl into a woman seasoned by betrayals; we see Annie as a scientific young nurse and later as a gregarious mother who masterminds her daughter’s meeting with the Beatles. How do these and other characters change over time? Whose hearts are broken, and what effect does this have on their personalities? How do the characters’ worldviews change and why?
- Fulton’s characters share a wry humor that allows them to laugh at and push through misfortune. What other traits do they share? How are they alike, and in what ways do they differ from one another?
- How does the voice of each woman contribute to a full portrait of the family? Which of the characters have the closest relationships? Are there missing pieces of their lives that you’d like to know about?
- What do these stories imply about the relationships between women (the bond between mothers, daughters, sisters) and about familial relations in general? Would all of these women agree that “blood is thicker than water”?
- How do the stories work as distinct pieces, and how do they work together? Why do you think Fulton chose to portray this family in stories rather than in a more conventionally structured novel?
- Is Fulton’s background as a poet evident in the stories? In what ways?
- The book begins in 1908 with Ruth Livingston’s grandmother, Mamie Garrahan, giving birth by herself. It concludes on New Year’s Eve 2000 with a story of Ruth and her elderly mother, Annie. Throughout the century, the various women characters are servile and independent, stoical and vulnerable. They all, however, come across as strong women. Would you call them feminists?
- How do men fit into these stories? What roles do they play?
- Although most women are fine with books that feature male protagonists, many men won’t read books that feature female characters. Why do you think this is the case?
- How does the nightingale imagery work in the stories? Is the bird a metaphor? If so, for what? Does its meaning change throughout? Why is Florence Nightingale significant?
- What did you learn about Nurse Annie Garrahan from her loyalty to her nursing school motto, esse quam videri, “to be rather than to seem”? What does this motto mean and how does it enrich the story’s meaning?
- In “Happy Dust,” Mamie Garrahan prays that her baby will be “born modern…an ordinary child and have happy luck all its days.” Is her prayer answered in the person of Annie? Is Annie “a twentieth-century child”?
- At the end of “Happy Dust,” Mamie Garrahan says, “Happiness is nothing but God’s presence in the silence of the nerves.” Does this definition resonate across the century? How do the different generations define happiness? Are their views a product of the times and culture, or are they intrinsic to their personalities and character?
- How does the setting of Troy, New York, inform the stories? Would the book have been different if set in a different location, or if the family members lived at a great distance from each other?
- Which were the saddest and funniest stories? Which story did you like best and why?
Map of the locations in The Nightingales of Troy
About Alice Fulton
Alice Fulton’s honors include a MacArthur Fellowship and the Editor’s Prize in Fiction. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. She lives in Ithaca, New York, and teaches at Cornell University.
Books by Alice Fulton
Highlights from each of Alice Fulton's groundbreaking, prize-winning poetry books.More
Winner of the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress, chosen by the Los Angeles Times as one of the Best Books of 2001, and as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.More
“Outstanding....Alice Fulton reveals herself to be triumphantly at home in the short story.”—Boston Sunday GlobeMore