An Ode to Sewanee, by Novelist Leah Stewart

Photo by Leah Stewart
Photo by Leah Stewart

Kirkus Reviews described Leah Stewart’s latest novel, The New Neighbor, like this: “Stewart’s prose is remarkable for its well-shaped sentences and nonshowy but sharp observations. Quietly incisive.” Quiet is a great word for this novel. It’s not trying to knock your socks off and blow your mind with fireworks and loudspeakers. Rather, it offers a gentle intertwining of two character-driven mysteries. An elderly woman and a young mother become neighbors, and — page by page, chapter by chapter — we learn their backstories. 

What makes this an especially enjoyable read for our local crowd is that the story is set in Sewanee, Tennessee — “the mountain” just down the road from Nashville, where so many of our customers went to school or have ties of some sort. We asked Stewart to tell us a bit about the importance of that place to her novel and to her own life story as a writer.

(photo by Jason Sheldon)
(photo by Jason Sheldon)

I’ve set all of my novels in different places, each time choosing one with an atmosphere that suited the story I wanted to tell, one that fit my characters’ emotional states as well as the novel’s themes. I knew from the beginning that The New Neighbor would take place in Sewanee. Both of my characters choose to be alone and yet long for connection, and a place like Sewanee offers the possibility of both. Its isolation promises solitude, its small size promises that everywhere you go you’ll see someone you know.

If you’re lucky, as you’re writing a novel your choices will lead you into interesting, unexpected territory. As I started describing Sewanee, and returning to the writers’ colony there to work, I remembered that the place itself is magic, a magic that I began to try to write into my characters’ experience, so that their isolation takes on the feel of an enchantment. Sewanee is on a mountain, ringed by woods in which you can walk and walk and never see another person, enormous boulders covered with moss in all shades of green, the kind of tree-shaded sun-dappled darkness that inspires fantasy novels. Acknowledging this, the writers’ colony is called Rivendell. When I was there in May, I stood at the edge of the bluff with a friend and watched fog fill the bowl of the valley. As we watched, a column of fog like an enormous hand rose out of the bowl and reached toward us, and in just a few minutes we could no longer see the house where we were staying. Poof—the world disappeared.

Fog rolls into Sewanee. (photo by Karen Hayes)

Now, like my characters, I go to Sewanee to escape the world, but when I first went there in 1995 it was to join one, as a member of the staff of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I went back every summer for ten years. My friends on staff and I called the place Brigadoon, after the old movie, because for us it was an enchanted village that appeared out of the mist and then vanished again. Like all brief and intense times, those July weeks in Sewanee loom larger in my mind than whole months together of the rest of my life. That first year, I was twenty-one, halfway through my MFA, believing I could (maybe, probably) be a writer but with limited proof that the world agreed. After graduate school I worked as a secretary at Harvard, then a cataloguer in a used bookstore, then a secretary at Duke. When people asked at parties what I did, I said, “I’m a secretary,” because it didn’t yet seem to me that I deserved to say I was a writer. But at Sewanee I was. At Sewanee I stood smoking with Barry Hannah, talking about Jane Austen. (A nonsmoker, I puffed those cigarettes entirely as an excuse to talk to Barry Hannah.) At Sewanee, writers I admired took my manuscripts seriously. I wore a walkie-talkie and drove agents to the airport and rushed around making sure there was wine at dinner, and all the while I felt like a writer. That, too, was a kind of magic.

I keep going back to Sewanee, two or three times a year, to see friends and to write at Rivendell. In Sewanee, I can believe that all times exist at once, because so little about it seems to change, because I remember myself there at 21 and 25 and 30, because it reappears, as I turn off the highway, with all its magic intact. Exit 134 is, for me, the door in the back of the closet.

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new neighborThe New Neighbor