crackpot anthropology project”. Not only does the novel feature the field of anthropology and several related themes, but also my research mainly consisted of long, digressive and almost consistently fascinating conversations with a diverse array of people.
Because I was beginning the story in the early 1960’s in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, I set out to talk with family and friends who lived there around that time. One of my dearest friends (I call her my fairy godmother) attended Radcliffe in the late 1950’s and I spent a lovely day interviewing her. I spent much of the time trying to get a sense of her daily life — where she spent her Saturday nights, her routines, etc. The conversation flowed easily and, emboldened, I asked her if I could run a potential character by her. I’d created the basics of Hugh Shipley from my imagination– he wasn’t based on anyone in particular– and so I’d wanted to get a sense if he seemed believable. I described my character the way I would describe a friend, and — nervously — I asked if he sounded authentic, like someone she might have known.
She looked stunned. “You need to meet Bobby Gardner,” she said.
Yet another reason to add to the list of why I call her my fairy godmother.
When I began looking for information about this mysterious “Bobby,” I didn’t have to look very hard. Robert Gardner is a celebrated anthropologist and filmmaker and was the Director of the Film Study Center at Harvard University from 1957 to 1997. I ordered all of his books, and ordered and screened several of his films including the seminal Dead Birds. I couldn’t get over their visual language — so sensitive and lush. I tried to envision the film shoots, especially the older ones. What was it like, I wondered, to travel to remote locales such as New Guinea over fifty years ago? What went on behind the scenes?
After our mutual friend introduced us over the phone, I took a trip to meet him. I was nervous, but I needn’t have been. He was as unassuming as he was compelling. Meeting Robert Gardner was like meeting my imagined character but minus the rather dark side of the character (as far as I know the actual personal life of Robert Gardner shares nothing in common with Hugh Shipley). But the aesthetic interests, the ethical concerns, the disparity between the ideals of his illustrious family and the burning desire to understand a wide range of people — all of these issues and more might have sprung from my imagination, but once I met Mr. Gardner, he brought it all to life. He deepened my understanding of every aspect of my burgeoning character.
Had I not met Robert Gardner or learned about his films and talked with him on a spring day in Massachusetts, I would have written the character of Hugh Shipley but he would have been missing a critical part of himself. And so would I.