On Writing at Weymouth
By Kelly Mustian
Photograph by John Gessner
On the second floor of the Boyd House, cloistered in quiet rooms set apart, Weymouth writers-in-residence labor over novels, poems, memoirs, and all manner of literary endeavors. I wrote a considerable portion of my novel, The Girls in the Stilt House, in one room or another in those quarters, everyday responsibilities left behind, all attention on the work at hand.
Writing in that grand old house is unlike writing anywhere else. Although writing is, by nature, a solitary experience, at Weymouth I am sequestered with ghosts — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Max Perkins, Paul Green, and a host of others. An abundance of illustrious authors of James Boyd’s day were guests in the house, and something of their essence seems to linger in the air.
On occasion, I sit with these ghosts at night in the intimate, dimly lit downstairs library. It is not difficult to picture them gathered in front of the fireplace, talking books and writing and agents and editors. This room is inherently inspiring, with its broad, rustic floorboards and rich wood paneling, walls lined with glass-front bookcases housing Boyd’s vast collection of volumes. When I was working on The Girls in the Stilt House, I often padded down to this library to slip into the past and meet my characters in their own time period. In a small pool of light from a floor lamp behind the sofa, the windows black with the night, I found inspiration that is unique to Weymouth.
My imagination is in high gear in that beloved house. Sometimes I pretend as a child would, but isn’t pretending the primary calling of a novelist? I settle into my assigned bedroom like a character settling into a story. So much that remains of the ’20s and ’30s throughout the house — the old push-button light switches, the shutter hooks outside the windows, the peekaboo keyholes, the sleeping porches — immerses me in the era in which both my last novel and my current work-in-progress are set. I arrange my writerly necessities on the desk, look through the wavy glass of a hundred-year-old window, and feel connected to everyone who has ever gazed out at that view of longleaf pines and English gardens.
I have come to know the house like a friend. There is a little door behind the bed in the Sherwood Anderson room, so small one would have to crawl through it, that is still a mystery to me, but I know where to find the corner fireplace that appears in an old black and white photograph upstairs yet is nowhere to be seen in a tour of the house. There is a stunted staircase leading to nowhere that I accidentally stumbled upon in a closet. I know where the old wood floors creak most loudly, and that on just the right kind of stormy night, wind blowing across the window shutters can sound almost like footsteps on the old iron balcony outside the Paul Green and Thomas Wolfe rooms.
In the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame upstairs, I see James Boyd working at his standing desk, still there today in front of the window with a view he loved. Downstairs, I see Thomas Wolfe, as the legend goes, climbing through a window before dawn after a long train ride and a bit of imbibing. When Weymouth hosts an event in the great room, voices, laughter and music drifting up the stairways, I hear a 1930s party, those familiar ghosts dining and dancing and telling stories.
Whispered among some of the Weymouth writers are rumors of a different kind of ghost. I have had no otherworldly experiences to relate, and I tend to be somewhat Nancy Drew-ish about that. But I suspect that almost everyone who is alone in that enormous house and steps into the dark hallway between bedroom and bathroom in the wee hours, is, for those few seconds at least, a believer.
There is a camaraderie among the housemates, usually no more than four of us at a time. During the day, we pass each other in the hallways almost like ghosts ourselves, exchanging a quick snatch of conversation or just a nod, our minds still on our work. We occasionally share lunches in the kitchen or walks through Weymouth Woods. Sometimes, near the end of a week’s solitary work, a few of us gather in the evening to read to each other from what we’ve written, the night-quiet house lending itself to reflection and the sorting out of life’s complexities, for both our characters and ourselves.
With each residency, I feel as if I’m adding my fingerprints to those of James and Katharine Boyd’s literary comrades, my footprints to those of all the writers who have walked those worn floors, a hundred years ago or last week. Weymouth’s writers-in-residence are all beneficiaries of the tradition of hospitality to authors established by the Boyds and furthered by a long line of Weymouth’s loving caretakers.
It’s just a building, but I have a relationship with that house. I miss it when I’m not there. It welcomes me back when I return. And my writing is richer because of it. PS
Kelly Mustian is the author of the USA Today bestselling novel The Girls in the Stilt House, shortlisted for the 2022 Crook’s Corner Book Prize, and is pretty sure she is Weymouth’s biggest fan.