The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 7, 2002
October 7, 2002
VOL. 32, NO. 6


Time Out With... Jean McGarry In Her Writer's Hideaway

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The path to Jean McGarry's "sacred place" in Baltimore County is about as straightforward as a Thomas Pynchon novel--fitting for the chair of the Writing Seminars. Give or take a direction or two, to get there visitors must pass many indistinguishable cornfields, go down a long, bendy gravel and dirt road, turn left at the chicken coop and then walk halfway up a wooded hill before emerging at a sloping hayfield.

At the end of the journey is a charming cabin about the size of an ice cream truck. The barn-red structure has four windows, pine paneling and a cedar shake roof and rests on cinder blocks. It stands roughly 25 yards from the house McGarry shares with Wayne Biddle, a visiting associate professor in the Writing Seminars.

For McGarry, a professor of fiction since 1988, the modest structure has become her haven, a needed private place where she can escape from the distractions of the real world to read and write. The undecorated and nonwired cabin contains all she requires--a chair, a table, handmade bookshelves and a lamp that is plugged into a thick green extension cord that runs to the main house.

On a summer day, Writing Sems chair Jean McGarry stands by the cabin she built for writing and working. It sits in a hayfield just 25 yards from her house in Baltimore County.

An alumna of both Harvard and Johns Hopkins, McGarry is the author of two novels and four collections of short fiction. Her most recent book is Dream Date (JHU Press), an assembly of 13 relationship-driven stories divided into His and Hers sections.

The Gazette was recently invited out to McGarry's cabin, which is about to celebrate its first birthday, to talk about her special place and her new book. Among other things, we found you can take the girl out of New England but not New England out of the girl.

Gazette: Thanks for letting us visit you out here.

McGarry: You're welcome. You know, I probably should tell you this is my first house.

I'm confused. What about the house over there?

My boyfriend designed and built the farmhouse down below 15 years ago, and I've been living there with him for five.

You've always been an apartment dweller?

Yes, my whole life. So to me it seemed hilarious to have this be my first house. I'm a Rhode Islander, and I bought the plans from Cape Cod, and the parts were prefabricated in Maine. There was something just too perfect about it.

There must have been space in the main house to call your own.

Yes, and no. Our house is so small. Before I had this place, I would work in the loft, or off in a corner. But then I thought, there are 100 acres out here; I can easily have my own cabin somewhere. Now I have my sacred space, where all you need is a lamp and a pen.

How did the cabin get built?

I ordered it from a catalog. It was really bare bones, mostly wood parts. It didn't come with insulation, and we had to buy the roof tiles, the cedar shakes. We also had to lay the foundation down, of course. But it couldn't have been any easier than it was. It went up in a month with the help of Wayne and a former graduate student and an undergrad.

And your part?

I did some painting.

Why barn red?

In the country, you have the main house as one color and the outbuilding as another. That is the standard practice. Here, the main house is ochre stucco. I first wanted this cabin to be ochre, too, but my mind was changed, and now I think it's the perfect color. It warmly reminds me of New England houses, especially the houses in Massachusetts, with its dark trim.

Do you plan on coming out here in the winter?

Yes, but first I have to figure out a better way to heat it. I can't plug in two space heaters because I'm hooked up to the main house through a single overground cable called a Frog Hide. I have enough wattage for the computer, a lamp and one heater. The next step is to put a proper cable underground. But I never want so much electricity that a phone line is threatened.

You must love the view up here.

I can see deer going across the lawn, and foxes. They don't really think this house is inhabited, I think.

Maybe the foxes think it's another chicken coop?

Our chickens do come up here a lot.

Why the need for such a private space?

One reason is because I'm the chair of a department, and I have wall-to-wall professional duties. Here, there are no phone lines, there are no e-mail lines. Wayne can come up here to tell me somebody's called, but I'll just call them back later.

Looking around, I can see it's also a place for your books.

Well, most of my books are in my office at school, but I thought I have a lot of books, and so now I have two libraries. One time I got an Oxford catalog and I found all these classics I haven't yet read, like Don Quixote and The Twelve Caesars, and I bought them. In total, I bought about 25 books, and now they are sitting right there on the shelves. One by one I will mow them down. Yet, sometimes I wish I didn't have any books here. It would be nice to just have the four walls.

The books are calling out to you?

Right. I also have all my journals here going back to 1970, which could be a distraction. Sometimes, instead of sitting here and writing, I think, maybe I'll go back to 1982.

Do you try to limit what you do out here?

I haven't edited student papers here yet. I have prepared lectures here, however. In general, I like to keep the writing and working spaces flexible so that every perfect condition doesn't have to be in place. Because, you know, you would get nothing done that way.

Any colleagues of yours been out here?

For the last few years we've held the department spring party out here on the farm. So yes, they all have been out here to have a look.

Have you inspired others to create such a space for themselves?

I think so. They also want to adjust my space. People immediately come in and say, "I'd like to have it on top of the hill." I like it right where it is.

What do you call this place?

I call it different names, so I know I haven't found a name yet. I call it a cabin. I call it a hut. Wayne calls it a shed. I've called it a cottage.

Is it a he or a she?

Its gender hasn't made itself clear to me yet.

I've heard you've also referred to it as a folly.

This could be a folly, but I don't want to get too fanciful with it. I don't want it to become a place where I have to dress up to come here. This is more just a functional space.

Tell me about your new book, Dream Date.

It's a book built of two rooms. It has a His and a Hers section, with a connecting theme. The book is about prospects for men and women in a postdivorce era. Given what we now know of how people live, I think we have to create different kinds of fables for what happens in life. It can't be boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, end of story. It's got to begin with a storm. I used to tell students that if Cinderella were a modern story, it would start with the end, where suddenly you had a situation revolving around resentful sisters and a smug Cinderella. My book is about life after disaster.

And the His and Hers sections?

The first room contains male characters and their plights and the second, female characters and theirs.

Were any of the stories worked on in this cabin, or should I say cottage?

I think the whole manuscript was copy-edited here. One of them might have been finished here.

How much of your fiction writing do you do here?

Almost all of it now. In fact, I've written a novella in here already.

Any authors you know of write in similar cabins?

Michael Pollan of Harper's has written about his cabin, which I think he built himself. George Bernard Shaw. Thoreau. At first, I thought I would design my own little house and then have a contractor build it. But that would have been much more expensive, and I also didn't want to wait a year. I was eager to have it.

Does writing in this cabin provide inspiration, or twist or turn a story in any way?

I think it does. It's a house where nothing else happens but writing. A house is like a brain, like being on the inside of a consciousness. Henry James talks about the house of fiction being one of many windows. This one only has four, but it's still enough to see.