Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Oct. 26, 2021

Reimagining a Classic Catskills Ghost Story

Reimagining a Classic Catskills Ghost Story
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This week, we spoke with author Christine Wade about her retelling of a classic Catskills ghost story. In 1819 Washington Irving published his tale of Rip Van Winkle, who wanders off into the woods to escape his nagging wife, and meets up with the ghosts of Henry Hudson and his crew. They bowl, they drink, and ... Rip falls asleep for 20 years. If you don't know the story, it's a quick read and an iconic piece of Catskills folklore.

Cut to the 21st century, when Christine Wade, real-life resident of Rip Van Winkle country, wrote an historical novel called Seven Locks, featuring a character remarkably similar to Rip, the lazy husband of a hard-working wife in the pre-Revolutionary War Dutch Catskills.

This interview was produced in association with Catskill Historical Views, an audio companion to Catskill Tri-County Historical Views, published by the Gilboa Museum & Juried History Center. With support from the Zadock Pratt Museum.

--- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/kaatscast/support


Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via https://otter.ai

Brett Barry  0:03  
Welcome to Kaatscast, the biweekly podcast from New York's Catskill Mountains. It's Halloween week and time for dressing up, carving pumpkins, and retelling old ghost stories. This week, we spoke with author Christine Wade about her retelling of a classic Catskills ghost story. This interview was produced in association with Catskill Historical Views, an audio companion to Catskill Tri-County Historical Views, published by the Gilboa Museum & Juried History Center. With support from the Zadock Pratt Museum.

Bob Neufeld  0:42  
Every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains, and they are regarded by all the good wives, far and near, as perfect barometers.

Brett Barry  0:58  
That was an excerpt from Washington Irving's classic tale, "Rip Van Winkle," in his 1819 publication, "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon." Rip Van Winkle is the hen-pecked husband of Dame Van Winkle, whose disapproval of rips lackadaisical lifestyle, sends Rip into a Catskills wilderness, where he encounters the spirits of Henry Hudson and his crew. Rip drinks of their liquor and falls famously asleep for a couple of decades. He awakens Post-Revolutionary War to an unfamiliar new nation. Two centuries later, the Van Winkle family would inspire Christine Wade to reimagine the tale and to dig deep into Dutch American life in the 18th century. Christine Wade wrote about her book in Volume 2/Issue 2 of Catskill Tri-County Historical Views. We met on her porch on a windy September afternoon in Greene County, New York. Wade's novel was born out of a career in of all things, medical journals...and after 25 years in that field, was confronted with a newfound freedom to read, and to think, on the very porch where we met.

Christine Wade  2:21  
I'm trained as an epidemiologist and I worked in research for many, many years, and I believe that writing NIH grants taught me how to write fiction. Because during the 25 years that I did it, they kept shrinking the page limitations...and so you had to write a very complex story, you had to get your reader excited about the idea, you had to write a good background. Also, the journals that I published, my science stuff in, also got shorter and shorter and shorter, and it just made me a good writer, I think...and I didn't really plan to write this novel, but the research center we worked in collapsed, which is not unusual for a research center and funding cycles are sometimes pretty strange and wild...and so I didn't really plan on it and I was really, really bored sending out cover letters to get a new job and because I had lost my job, I had this freedom to read randomly and I was reading all this difference stuff and it came together when I was sitting in that rocking chair and I had read the original Irving folktale and it made me mad, I liked it a lot. He was enamored of one character and he reduced his wife to a scold, when words scold, and that made me mad.

Bob Neufeld  4:04  
If left to himself, he would have whistled his life away in perfect contentment, but his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. Morning, noon, and night, her tongue was incessantly going, and everything he said or did was sure to produce a torrent of household eloquence. He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, cast up his eyes, but said nothing. This, however, always provoked a fresh volley from his wife; so that he was fain to draw off his forces, and take to the outside of the house--the only side which, in truth, belongs to a hen-pecked husband.

Christine Wade  4:52  
So I decided it would be fun to write her story and I had nothing to lose. It was just fun for me.

Brett Barry  5:04  
Can we talk a little bit about "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon"? That's a work that many of us know, even if we don't know that we know.

Christine Wade  5:11  
That's true. It's a book of short pieces by Washington Irving, and he wrote it in Europe, and the stories within it have become the iconic Euro-American folktale. He had never been to the Catskills, but he was charmed by Dutch culture, which was fading away. Washington Irving was born, the year the Revolutionary War ended, and of course, he was named after George...and so he had a bead on America, on what the new nation was becoming, but he left for many years, and he's a great satirist, so that collection of stories is introduced by a fake historian, who many people know now because he's the name of the New York basketball team (The Knickerbockers). His name was Diedrich Knickerbocker, and he is a spoof. So Washington Irving was kind of Jon Stewart of his time. He was a satirist, and he did funny things, and he almost always inserted a narrator between him and his story, an extra layer, and I love that.

Brett Barry  6:39  
He comes up in your book...Knickerbocker, as do some other characters from Washington Irving's stories in an article that you wrote for Catskill Tri-County Historical Views. You said that you found Irving's story to be delightful, but it also irked you and you said that the good man's wife was reduced in a word to a scold, while the good man himself was described as a charming antihero, so you really expanded and reimagined the story and bringing in a lot of different elements of Dutch life, Dutch culture, and tell me a little more about how this kind of alternative narrative came about.

Christine Wade  7:18  
So I had read Germaine Greer: "Shakespeare's Wife." I'm a Shakespeare fan, and she wrote a book about Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare's Wife), and she was miffed at all the Shakespeare scholars for dissing Anne Hathaway, and saying that Shakespeare didn't love her, the sonnets were written to somebody else was a shotgun wedding, all this stuff, I also read a book called, "The Bitch in the House," which was contemporary professional women, talking about their experiences, having children in heterosexual domestic situations, and don't worry, there is a companion volume called, "The Bastard on the Couch," but what I'm trying to say is there's a contemporary layer to this tension between who's working domestically and who isn't. I thought that I could bring this old folktale and speak to contemporary issues, and I'm also was very interested and the Revolutionary War being a war for the 1% and the 99% (women, people of color, native peoples, men without property didn't get anything)...and so I think an historical novel is a really fun way to deal with that very important material.

Brett Barry  8:47  
And your...your novel includes "The Bastard on the Couch," but we feel for him, or at least I did.

Christine Wade  8:53  
Oh, good, good. I'm glad. I feel for him too.

Brett Barry  8:58  
This is a dual narrative, which is told by the two women of the household, the mother and the daughter, the men aren't named, and the mother isn't named the protagonist, only the daughter, whose name is Judith, how come?

Christine Wade  9:09  
Well, I was stealing from Irving without any remorse, but I wanted to keep that from the reader, at least till the end, and then they could decide whether I had done well with the stolen goods. So if I named the character that was a bit of a giveaway, that was my first impulse in the fooling around with a draft, and then I began to think about the themes of the book and she's every woman. I was interested in the domestic issues of a woman [then and now], so I wanted the reader to understand her as every woman. The second thing is that Judith is named and there's a point in the book where Judith's mother says, "I want my daughter to have so much more than me," and Judith, a daughter experiences the turn of the century, and sort of embodies the voice of the nation moving forward and things happening. So that's how I played with the names, and I also like to keep secrets from the reader. I don't like to be banged on the head by the book, in the books that I read, I like to read between the lines, and I'm looking for readers who wanted to do that, too.

Yeah, and actually, there was a whole chapter told from the daughter's point of view, and it took me maybe I'm slow, but it took me about four or five pages to realize, oh, this is Judith. Because a lot of times it was set apart, so we knew that it was her, but then there was one instance where took a little while for me to realize that it was coming from her perspective and not her mom's

Well, she is looking back after a number of years, the events of the past, and she is reviewing all of them as an adult...events that she experienced as a young girl and a teenager, and she's reviewing them all and reflecting on them, so she also has come to have more compassion towards her mother, which I guess comes from my own personal experience of...as I aged, I become much more compassionate towards my parents.

Brett Barry  11:26  
You talk about her as the every woman and that leads into another question I have, which is, even though I'm reading about 18th century life in the Catskills. For me, some of the characters and situations really evoked characters in my own life. Here in the 21st Century Catskills and I don't know if that speaks more to Catskills living or to human nature, so much as has in a way stayed the same.

Christine Wade  11:47  
Well, I'm glad you found something universal in this story. Washington Irving's stole it. It was a European folktale. He stole it and then I stole it from him, and we're all in different time periods...and so probably things have not changed that much. As far as the Catskills goes, I think Irving fell in love with sort of a fantasy area, but "Seven Locks" for me was my love letter to this region. I absolutely am enamored of the little mountains I live on, and the water and the mountain people and the old tales.

Brett Barry  12:40  
So speaking of "Seven Locks," which is of course the name of the book, there are Dutch proverbs throughout the book, the book is based in early Dutch life here in the state in this...in this region, and the title of your book comes from the Dutch proverb, "The future is a book with seven locks." What does that mean to you?

Christine Wade  12:58  
Well, proverbs in other languages, other cultures are sometimes hard to interpret like speak of the devil and you'll trip on his tail is something we all know the meaning of, and we wouldn't think about it twice, but when you hear proverbs from other cultures, I always love them, even if I'm totally baffled, and I love the Dutch proverbs. Some of them carried over into the English language, I think speak of the devil is in Dutch, as well as probably other languages, too. So the future is a book with seven locks was a little mysterious to me, but I found that I think it means or it means to me and I tried to make it mean that to the narrator and her daughter as well as they unpack it a little in the pages is a kind of "Que sera, sera...whatever will be, will be"; except it's...it's the mystery of moving forward through your story and you have to turn all the pages before you really understand what your life is about, so that's what I was getting at with naming it, and also the other important thing about the title is seven is a fairy tale number, and I like that.

Brett Barry  14:25  
And it's a beautiful cover and it has one of those seven locks right on it, and in terms of the physical book, what I really loved was the advanced praise that comes after the acknowledgement section from people like Abigail Adams and Diedrich Knickerbocker and Samuel Johnson...even outside of the...of the story, there's a really fun blend of historical fact and fiction. Was that your idea to for that advanced praise section?

Christine Wade  14:51  
Yes. I think Washington Irving inspired me to have fun. He certainly had fun when he was promoting his own work, he took out an ad in a newspaper saying that Diedrich Knickerbocker was missing and treated it as if you were a real person, and that's the greatest book marketing scheme I've ever heard of, but he was always having fun and playing, and he really inspired me to do that as well.

Brett Barry  15:22  
The family that you write about is very similar to or at least one or two people in that family very similar to the ones in the original story by Washington Irving, but you don't name them. You name a pet. You name some people in the town that have to do with the family. How connected did you want your story to be to what you were drawing from and how much of it did you want to be totally around?

Christine Wade  15:45  
I didn't really segment that much. I had never written a novel before, so it was very convenient for me to have a map. Even though here in Tannersville and in the local towns here in the Catskill Mountains, we see tons of images of the little old man with a beard and we hear the story and we have a lot of references to Irving's characters. One day, before I even had the idea for the novel...I said to myself, I want to read the original, I saw the Disney version. I've seen all these little gnomes on people's lawns, but I want to read the original. So I went back to the original and I would encourage other people to do that. You can get it online and read it in a half an hour. It's a short story. It was fun and I felt I had permission from Irving to play with his work...and so I did with abandon or with permission or I gave myself permission, and I didn't worry too much about authenticity or...or whatever I knew I was telling a side of the story that he had not, and I knew that I was adding a realistic element to a fairy tale, but I didn't worry about authentic voice and I stole as much as I could from him because I think he's a great writer.

Brett Barry  17:12  
Would you call this a feminist take on that legend?

Christine Wade  17:15  
Yes, but it also includes, I guess, progressive ideas about other people who don't make it into the history books.

Brett Barry  17:24  
And there's lots of real history here, so the stories rooted in real New York history. There's the Revolutionary War, there's fugitive slaves, encounters with Native Americans, and so on, that really makes it real for the reader.

Christine Wade  17:37  
I'm interested in all of that and I had to get my character off of her farm where she had lived all her life and I needed a plot turning point to do that, so the plot turns on the burning of Kingston, which is a real event, and has some humor in it as well because the British were marching down from Saratoga and sailing up from occupied Manhattan up the river and they were going to take the Hudson River Valley and they botched it completely, and the Navy ship docked at Kingston and marched into Kingston and burned the town, but all of the colonists had heard the British were coming and had fled. It was a very lame victory on the part of the British...that was part about the Revolutionary War history that I was knew, completely knew to. So it was fun to incorporate it as well.

Brett Barry  18:41  
We talked about the response from readers like Abigail Adams and George Washington to this book. What has been the response in the real world?

Christine Wade  18:50  
Well, it was published in 2013, so I've been alive for quite a while. I'm grateful for that. I think I have local readers that enjoy it immensely because they can recognize the Stone Ridge or areas that they might (Saugerties, New Paltz, Kingston). I think the domestic realism speaks to a lot of readers in...in a way that they respond to and they like to see their own situation projected onto the past.

Brett Barry  19:24  
Have you continued to write fiction or otherwise?

Christine Wade  19:27  
I just turned in my second novel, so I'm at a time when it's an interesting intersection; when you completed one phase of a book, it was much harder to write. I didn't have a roadmap. I didn't have Washington Irving as my guide, and it was much harder to write in took me about six times as long.

Brett Barry  19:49  
As this one inspired by the Catskills as well?

Christine Wade  19:51  
It has one section set in the Catskills, but the timespan is from the 1980s to 2035, I would not call it a Catskills novel. I would call it a New York City novel. It's...it's more about New York City. It's still New York. I'm still staying within my state.

Brett Barry  20:10  
What are some of the things that you love about living right here near the Platte Clove on the edge of Tannersville and near Elka Park?

Christine Wade  20:17  
Yes, I can walk to the escarpment. So the escarpment is where the glacier push the Catskill Mountains up against the river plain, and then the water eroded the valleys out...out of the glacier and made our landscape, so I love that. I love walking to the escarpment where I can see down to the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, I can see the Berkshires. I hike a lot. I like plants and mushrooms and I'm enamored of the little mountains that are here. I'm very concerned about water issues. I'm an environmentalist, so this seems to be a really good spot. It's right at the headwaters of the Schoharie watershed and it's actually this little section along Platte Clove Road is the head of three watersheds, and it's the largest unfiltered watershed in the nation. We need to protect it. Seven locks, as I said before, I think it's my love letter to the region, and I hope it will inspire others to protect this very special little area; that's only two hours from New York City and yet is such an incredible wilderness area.

Brett Barry  21:45  
Well, when I spoke with Carolyn Bennett in an interview a while back, she was talking about the literary history and legacy of the Catskill Mountains, and she talked about John Bartram, Washington Irving, John Burroughs, and you.

Christine Wade  22:00  
That's very kind to be in that group. I'll play poker with them anytime, but I...I would be the weaker player, but that's very kind.

Brett Barry  22:13  
Well, I really enjoyed the book. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about it.

Christine Wade  22:17  
I love to talk to readers and I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

Brett Barry  22:26  
Thanks to Christine Wade, author of "Seven Locks." Thanks also to Bob Neufeld, whose narration of "Rip Van Winkle," we excerpted at the beginning of this episode; production intern Skye Ruse. Catskill Historical Views is an audio companion to Catskill Tri-County Historical Views, published by the Gilboa Museum & Juried History Center. Subscribe for home delivery at catskilltricounty.org. This series is also supported by the Zadock Pratt Museum in Prattsville, New York and online at zadockprattmuseum.org. Thanks to Humanities New York for their financial support. Audio production by Silver Hollow Audio; with audio books, podcasts, and interviews at silverhollowaudio.com.

Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found for free and automatic delivery every two weeks. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.