Q&A: Maddy Blais Talks Martha's Vineyard, Writing, and Noticing Happiness


In the witty and charming To The New Owners: A Martha's Vineyard Memoir (Atlantic Monthly Press), Maddy Blais focuses on the attachment she developed to her in-laws’ Martha’s Vineyard home and the bonds she established there with friends and family.  Through the lens of a beloved house, Blais writes about her childhood, marriage, and motherhood, contrasting her early days with the privileged world into which she married— her father-in-law was Nicholas Katzenbach, a prominent lawyer who served as President Lyndon Johnson’s Attorney General.  She contemplates privilege once again when she explores the ways affluence has changed Martha’s Vineyard.

Blais, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing while on the staff of the Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine, is a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she serves as Honors Director in Journalism.  She was also a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Blais is the author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, the story of an Amherst, Massachusetts girls high school basketball team, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle.

To the New Owners is full of beguiling stories and memories, but at its heart it is a book about giving up a beloved thing — in this case, a home in which Blais spent many fine days. In the book, she describes the transfer — and why it was fraught enough to prompt a deeply felt memoir:

What was most vexing to me about selling the house was that the new owners had no idea what they were getting. They saw 5.5 acres, with only a small amount a buildable footprint. They saw the lot and the subdivision numbers by which we were known to the town of West Tisbury, important if it ever had to send a fire engine our way. They saw a roof that needed replacing and the chance to burden us with half the cost ($17.000). They saw a house they might upgrade, a house they might tear down.

The new owners could of course imagine their own future happiness, but they could not see, and therefore could not appreciate, the human history preceding the purchase, all the lives that grazed ours and those that truly intersected, the noisy arrivals and departures, the arguments and the recipes, the ghosts and the guests, crabs caught and birthdays celebrated, clams shucked, towels shaken, lures assembled, bonfires lit, the dogs we indulged, the ticks we curses, the pies we consumed, and through it all, both close by and in the distance. The moving waters (as the poet put it) at their priest like task. The could not see the depth of the life lived here during the summer for all those years.

Blais talked with The National about her new book, Martha’s Vineyard, and that very special house.

Q:  What prompted you to write To The New Owners?

A: In 2014, my in-laws decided to sell a modest house on a peninsula on a pond leading the ocean on Martha’s Vineyard.  Even though I never owned the house, and clearly never would, I felt a pang of loss.  The moving company gave us red stickers to place on items of value of which there were very little unless you include chipped Stangl pottery dishes, a dusty lantern on the mantel, two duck-shaped wicker bread baskets. But how do you pack the most stunning item.  How do you pack a view? Do you fold it nicely, smoothing out the wrinkles, and place it in a cardboard box surrounded by Styrofoam peanuts? How many memories can you cram into a cardboard box before it starts to bulge? The more I helped in the dismantling of the property, the deeper my mixed feelings and anyone in the writing business knows: mixed feeling equals material.

Q:  You portray Martha’s Vineyard as a quiet place. One of your young guests said she liked to visit because it was fun to have the kind of childhood people had before she was born.  Yet isn’t the island chock-full of celebrities and CEOs?

A: Both, actually.  The Katzenbach property was in a remote location and we would settle in there for days on end, with forays into town for provisions and newspapers, but very little in the way of glitzy socializing. We were unplugged for the most part as well.  But famous and accomplished people are part of the island mystique.  The notoriety of Martha’s Vineyard began with Chappaquiddick, continued with Jaws, and then with all the Presidential visits, the Clintons and Obamas.  In the summer, there are speeches by heavyweights from Harvard, fundraisers at fantastic homes, cocktail parties for accepted students and their families sponsored by prestigious prep schools and colleges.  In the off-season, the island reverts to small town New England, with lots of scripted (and unscripted) neighborly gestures. Every year the children at one school make pies at Thanksgiving for the elderly and for shut-ins and a generous gift fund is set up for needy children at the holidays -- especially welcome because pie is the official island dessert. In the winter, life boils down to an elixir of essentials: light and the lack of light, cold, more cold and what to do about it.

Q: What has been the reception to the book so far?

A: For the most part, quite gratifying.  The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor weighed in with favorable reviews and Scott Simon from Weekend Edition did an interview --- his question about Alan Dershowitz on the nude beach threw me for a loop, but I think I held my own.  An excerpt about our once a year dinner date with Katherine Graham appeared in Vanity Fair.  I always fussed about what I would serve when she came to our house and she always behaved as if we were on the same playing field, hostess-wise, which would have been true if only world leaders dined at my table routinely and if I had a French chef. 

Q: Do you have a favorite chapter?

A: No favorites, just like children, but I am proud of the portrait of my mother-in-law Lydia Katzenbach.  John’s father, Nicholas Debelleville Katzenbach, was an amazingly accomplished man, famous for standing in the schoolhouse door and forcing George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama. He was also a master of understatement.  As his plane was being shot down over Sicily and the pilot informed the crew that they had thirty second before hitting water, he said, “That’s too bad.”  John’s mom was born into an old distinguished family but like FDR she couldn’t wait to be a traitor to her class.   She is still beaming from a school report from when she was in the third grade: “Lydia is a natural leader but in the wrong direction.”

I expected to be intimated by Nick and I was: he radiated gravitas such that you didn’t want to ask him to pass the butter unless you also brought up an important point about the Constitution.  But Lydia was even more imposing.  William Butler Yeats said, “A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.”  He was right as far as he went, but how about the reckless courage of a woman writing about her mother-in-law when she is alive, sentient, and capable of revenge. Lydia could have sailed through life as a hostess: in Washington, she was the subject of a Herblock cartoon picturing a frustrated wife berating her clumsy husband: “How can I do the Monkey at Lydia’s when I am married to a baboon of a husband?” Late in the Washington Years, she underwent an intense bout of therapy and later trained to be a lay psychoanalyst.  One of my favorite moments in the book is a letter she wrote to the parent of a young patient about how to react to the child’s difficulties.

Q: This is a book of memory and we suppose you tried to follow Tobias Wolff’s dictum about writing the best story memory has to tell because you quote it in the text.  Did you have any help along the way?

A: Tons. The Katzenbachs are great story-tellers and it really helped that we also kept logs of each year that we visited since the late 1970’s.  These were beautiful ship’s logs, meant to survive the elements. Some of what went into the logs was pure drivel or, as one guest put, “cheesy teenage blah,” but other entries were gems, observations of times and people and events which might have faded if not for this permanent record.  I am hoping the suppliers of the logs, A.G.A. Correa & Son’s in Maine, sell tons of copies this summer.

Q: In To the New Owners, you write about giving Katherine Graham two memoirs -- This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway – as she was embarking on hers. Why did you think reading them might help her write her own book, Personal History?

A: Both books would, I think, contain inspiration for any aspiring memoir writer, but in Mrs. Graham’s case in particular, I wanted her to have the Wolff because it models several literary devices to perfection, namely scene-building (just re-read the opening paragraphs when Tobias and his mother are stranded by the side of the road with a sheer drop on one side looking at a truck that has flown over the precipice); linguistic perfection (too many examples to name here; I would say every word presages the next one and every sentence is a sleek engine); and a sense of banished sentimentality (we get the true tale, post the rage and post the therapy as someone once put it about memoir that truly sings.) As for the Hemingway, I am aware his star has fallen in some circles, but here is a book, set in Paris almost one hundred years ago, that reads fresh and true even today. Okay, the author is self-absorbed, selfish and even allows a cat to babysit his toddler son, but when he comes up for air, this book contains some of the most cogent writing advice ever offered.

Q: Over your career, you have written the stories of others as well as your own memoirs. Do you feel these require very different skills and sensibilities?

A: I teach an undergraduate course at the University of Massachusetts to journalism students, usually once a year in the fall. Let’s right now unburden ourselves of any skepticism about whether they are too young for this kind of endeavor. They’re not.  I have built in safeguards against them writing the breaking news in their lives (no stories of roommates, or current boyfriends or girlfriends, or how much they had to drink freshman year, or sophomore, or junior…) I ask them to go back in time to find stories from their past: subjective stories to which they can bring objectivity.

They learn to bring compassion to their own past, a capacity to empathize which I hope translates into their work with subjects outside their own personal sphere. Reported memoir (the only kind I like; spare me books that are about nothing but feelings or hazy dream-like recollections) and narrative journalism have more in common than not.  When done well, they introduce the reader to real people in real places with real struggles and real desires.  Remember that quote from Yeats.  Joan Didion talks about the dread she would feel sitting at some Best Western motel working up the courage to call a source.  It is never easy, either way. Writing a memoir is by definition a more introverted activity, but I think many journalists are basically introverts given permission by the nature of their work to be outgoing, as long as the focus is on someone else.

Q: Any final thoughts?
A: I think I should say a little more about my husband’s family.  Put simply, they were before the Mayflower and mine was before the famine.  Growing up as part of the government in Washington, John got invited to a screening of PT-109 in the White House and we got to go to the all you can eat spaghetti suppers in the church basement.  John’s dad was mythic because he was part of history and mine was mythic because he was dead.

One of the greatest challenges in marrying into John’s family was growing accustomed to the degree to which they loved their animals.  And because I believe in light moments as well as heavy ones, I would like to quote a few of John’s sister’s haikus written by her pug Dayzee.

I am on the couch
In comfort and defiance
I am on the couch

I am sleeping here.
and when I am done with that,
I will be sleeping there.


When I am on the town
The people love to touch me.
Why not? I’m pretty

Q: Anything else?

A: One last point. This is a book about many things: memory, marriage, raising children, the power of language, and, yes, dogs and celebrities and even recipes. But most of all it is a book about gratitude. Kurt Vonnegut used to tell a story about an elderly uncle who would be sitting under an apple tree, chatting, sipping lemonade and then he would “suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” Vonnegut loved this saying and used to urge people to “please notice when they are happy.”

This interview was edited for publication.