On Hurricane Island by writer Ellen Meeropol is a psychological/political thriller that follows five characters involved in a nightmarish crisis at a secret terrorist interrogation center on a small island off the coast of Maine — Professor Gandalf Cohen, who was abducted from an airport check-in line by the FBI; Henry Ames, an FBI special agent who isn’t sure the elderly female professor is a terrorist; Tobias, a rogue agent with a taste for torture; Austin, a newly hired female guard whose loyalties begin to shift; and her grandfather, Ray, who’s concerned for her safety at the center. The novel follows a tight timeline of four days where the conflicts and risks reach a fever pitch as a major hurricane bears down on the island, and everyone is soon fighting for their lives.
Ellen is a fellow alum from The University of Southern Maine Stonecoast MFA program, so I’m proud to announce that Publishers Weekly selected On Hurricane Island as a notable book to watch for during the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute 2015. I was riveted by the story, and after I put it down, several questions for Ellen were buzzing around in my head. I’m so pleased she took time from her busy schedule to answer them:
Q. On Hurricane Island revolves around the viewpoints of 5 characters: Professor Cohen, FBI agent Ames, civilian guard Austin, FBI agent Tobias, and Austin’s grandfather, Ray. How far into your draft did you go before you realized the need for all five?
A. The choice of narrators – which ones, how many – was critical to telling this story, and those choices changed significantly over the course of multiple revisions. It all started with Gandalf, but initially I imagined an ensemble cast of characters all picked up by Homeland Security for different reasons and brought together at the detention center. Soon I realized that giving voice to the very different perspective of the FBI agents and Austin offered more nuance. About halfway through the first draft, I added Austin’s grandfather, Ray, because I wanted a way to enliven a sense of place and of the culture of the islands. At about the same time, I cut out the point of view of Gandalf’s partner back in Manhattan, worrying and trying to find out what happened to her sweetheart. Finally, in revisions suggested by my agent, I changed Margaret’s perspective from a narrator to a short prologue and her letters. In writing fiction with multiple narrators, there are so many choices and sometimes it’s hard to know which ones serve the story best.
Q. Writing multiple character point of view isn’t always easy, nor is writing in the voice of the opposite sex. What issues presented themselves as you wrote from the male point of view of Ames, Tobias and Ray, and how did you deal with them?
A. Actually, it wasn’t gender that presented the most difficult issues for me. I became very fond of Henry Ames and Ray, and crawling into their brains to write felt natural. Not so with Tobias; he was very difficult to inhabit. Partly that might be his “maleness” and his misogyny, but I suspect it was more about his political and ethical take on the world. I tried to understand him – his patriotism, his bitterness about his failed marriage, his ambition – but I fear I didn’t quite do him justice.
Q. Was this the first time in your writing that you “killed” a character? How did you make that decision, and was it difficult?
A. In my first novel, House Arrest, there were deaths off-screen, and I did kill an animal, but yes, this was the first time I killed a character on the pages of a novel. About halfway through the first draft, I realized that the danger of the story and the enormous tension I was trying to build meant that someone had to die. I had no idea who, but at some point it became clear. I rewrote those scenes so many times, maybe more than any other. I still mourn that death.
Q. I imagine you did quite a juggling act, keeping track of the sequence of events, your exact timeline, and what each character was doing. Was there a method to the madness of keeping it straight?
A. Not much method and a lot of madness! I kept elaborate lists and charts, but On Hurricane Island takes place over four days and the timeline is very tight and is critical to building tension. So every time something changed – either in the order of chapters or the timing of events (like low and hide tides!) – that triggered a cascade of other changes to keep the continuity of the narrative making sense. It was a big challenge.
Q. I think of this book as being incredibly sensory, from being a character being kidnapped with a hood over her head to walking in hurricane force winds. What physical research did you do for this novel, besides visiting a gun shop to hold a handgun?
A. As a fiction writer, perhaps I should spin a tale. I could tell you that I asked a friend to strap me to a chair bolted to the floor of a basement room and turn the air conditioning up to maximum cold. But that didn’t happen; I did very little physical research. I read about techniques of enhanced interrogation and imagined myself in Gandalf’s body. I read about the stages of hypothermia and imagined those physical and cognitive ravages in myself. I put an imaginary hood over my face, and tried to feel the movement of the fabric back and forth against my nostrils with every breath. For the hurricane scenes, I drew on memories of storm-force winds and my husband’s detailed knowledge of intense weather systems.
I should add, though, that the setting for this book is based on a real place. It’s a place I love, where I have spent time, and observed the physical world in detail – the stone cliffs and quarries, the spruce forests and tides. The real Hurricane Island is just off the shore of Vinalhaven, one of the Fox Islands in Penobscot Bay in Maine. I observed many of the physical details first hand; I read about the history of the quarry industry and labor struggles in Vinalhaven’s wonderful historical museum.
Q. Torture and interrogation is a difficult subject. In what ways, if any, did your research affect your daily life?
A. My research into torture and secret detention affected me in two ways. Most directly, it changed my writing practice. When I started writing this book, my habit was to write into the evening, a holdover from having a day job. But I couldn’t write this story at night. It kept me awake; it gave me nightmares. I began writing in the morning and stopping by mid-afternoon. I needed a number of hours between living on these pages and trying to sleep.
Less directly, writing this book made me very interested in the torturers and their inner lives. As an activist, I think about right and wrong, black and white. But I believe that good fiction, especially effective political fiction, must also inhabit the gray areas where good people do not-so-good things and the world isn’t as simple as we might like.
Ellen Meeropol is the author of two novels, On Hurricane Island v House Arrest. She began writing fiction in her fifties while working as a nurse practitioner in a pediatric hospital. Since leaving her nursing practice, Ellen has worked in an independent bookstore and taught fiction workshops. Drawing material from her twin passions of medical ethics and political activism, her fiction explores characters at the intersection of political turmoil and family life. Ellen holds an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. Connect with Ellen on Facebook and Twitter.