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“Decidedly, I’m a better landscape gardener than a novelist,” Edith Wharton once claimed. The gardens at her estate, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts, are indeed a highlight of the estate, which I visited recently on a day trip with my husband and my mother-in-law. For an afternoon, we traveled to the turn of the twentieth century and envisioned life as Wharton knew it during her tenure as mistress of The Mount. 

Wharton had a talent and a passion for architecture and landscape design. She was heavily influenced by her years abroad and drew on classical European design principles for both the house and gardens. Before she penned The House of Mirth, her breakout novel, in an upstairs bedroom suite at The Mount, she co-wrote a book on interior design, The Decoration of Houses, with architect Ogden Codman in 1898. Remarkably, the book is still in print.

The white, three-story mansion is reached by walking along a forested path, and we explored the house on a self-guided tour. Highlights are the library (right) with dark wood, carved bookshelves, where Wharton’s personal collection of tomes resides once again after being purchased from a European collector; the drawing room, the largest room in the house and the only one with ornate ceiling treatment; and the dining room, where a cushion placed beneath a Victorian table is reminiscent of one that Wharton kept there for her canine companions. (I was disappointed to find out that Wharton disliked cats and referred to them as sneaks in fur.)

Visitors are allowed on the second level of the house, although it’s currently undergoing restoration work. Wharton’s sitting room is the one that’s most finished, and it has vivid floral paintings set into the paneling, which came from Milan, Italy. One room has been designated the Henry James Guest Suite in honor of Wharton’s fellow writer, her good friend and traveling companion (they once toured France together, where one of their sojourns was to French scribe George Sand’s chateau).

After exploring the house, we had lunch at the Terrace Cafe on the wrap-around porch overlooking a glistening pond and the gorgeous gardens. A broad staircase leads from the terrace to a walkway lined with lime trees. On either end of the walkway are two formal gardens: a French-style flower garden circling a fountain in the shape of a dolphin and an Italian-style giardino segreto (hidden garden; at left) with stone walls and archways.

I was pleased to see there were a lot of people at The Mount on the day I visited, although it didn’t feel crowded because of the sprawling size of the estate. The Mount is open until October 31st. It’s still facing financial difficulties, and it could be a last chance to visit this exquisite place, which is unlike any other literary landmark in the United States. As Henry James said, perhaps while admiring the view from his guest room window, The Mount is “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.” –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Our friend Jennifer Hart at wrote earlier this week about a fundraiser taking place on September 23rd to benefit the Mark Twain House & Museum, which is in danger of closing. The extravaganza, “Writers Reading for Twain,” features authors Sara Gruen, Tasha Alexander, David Gates, Phillip Lopate, Tom Perrotta, Arthur Phillips, Stewart O’Nan, Amy MacKinnon, Kristy Kiernan, Robert Hicks, Andy Carroll, Philip Beard, and Jon Clinch (whose novel Finn reimagines the life of Huckleberry Finn’s father). Admission is $40 for the reading/signing and $100 to attend a reception along with the reading/signing. Click here for more information about the event.

Jennifer has an excellent suggestion for book club members looking for a way to help support the Mark Twain House, as well as Edith Wharton’s estate, The Mount, in the Berkshires, which is also facing financial troubles: select a Twain or Wharton work to read in your book club and have each member bring $10-20 to donate to the respective author house. If you’re feeling especially generous, do it for both! My book club recently read The House of Mirth, and in our twelve years of meeting we all agreed that it inspired one of our best discussions ever. 

And for further proof that classic literary scribes never go out of style (see Tuesday’s post about Edgar Allan Poe making headlines), there is more Mark Twain news. HarperStudio, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, just announced plans to publish Who is Mark Twain? — a collection of 22 previously unpublished short pieces written by Twain — on April 21, 2009, the 99th anniversary of the writer’s death. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt 

Fighting over Edgar Allan Poe’s remains? This weekend the New York Times reported on the “ghoulish argument” between Philadelphia and Baltimore over the scribe’s final resting place. He’s buried in Baltimore, where he lived as a young man and later died under mysterious circumstances during a return visit. Edward Pettit, a Poe scholar in Philadelphia, argues that Poe should be re-buried in the City of Brotherly Love because he wrote some of his most noteworthy works while living there.

On January 13th, Pettit will defend his views during a debate with Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House in Baltimore; the debate will be held at the Philadelphia Free Library. Jerome’s response to the suggestion that Poe should forever leave Baltimore? “Philadelphia can keep its broken bell and its cheese steak, but Poe’s body isn’t going anywhere.”

I had the chance to meet Mr. Jerome last fall when he gave me a fascinating tour of the Poe House in Baltimore, Poe’s former residence and one of four literary landmarks devoted to the writer. The others are the Poe National Historic Site in Philadelphia, the Poe Cottage in the Bronx, New York, and the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. January 19, 2009, is the bicentennial of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth, and celebrations at the sites are being planned.

Whatever the outcome of the debate over Poe’s legacy, it’s great to see a classic literary figure making modern-day headlines. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Novel Destinations has received not one but two reviews on the 24/8 Book Club site. It’s a wonderful destination where booklovers can find lists of themed reading suggestions, interviews with their favorite authors, and more.

In a feature called “Oil & Vinegar,” founders Falise Platt and JoAnne Stone-Geier each offer her perspective on our book. Falise even has her own literary connection — she grew up in Ernest Hemingway’s hometown, Oak Park, IL.

24/8 also has an interview with us talking about everything from finding the right publisher for the book to how it felt to hold it in our hands for the very first time. Later in the month they’ll be sharing our list of favorite classic travelogues.–Shannon McKenna Schmidt

With Labor Day just around the bend, it’s the perfect time to start thinking about attending one of the dozens of fall literary festivals that take place between September and November each year. Some of our favorites are the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, and the Texas Book Festival in Austin, where Shannon will be speaking and giving a slide show presentation highlighting some of our literary travels.  

Novel Destinations includes a full chapter devoted literary festivals, but to peruse an online list, you can visit this link at Publishers Weekly.  

I was intrigued to read Brunonia Barry’s new novel The Lace Reader because of its setting: contemporary Salem, Massachusetts. I visited Salem two summers ago to do research for Novel Destinations, which has a chapter devoted to the town’s famous native son — Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose gothic tale The House of the Seven Gables was inspired by a seaside residence there.

The Lace Reader is the story of Towner Whitney, who returns to Salem after an absence of more than a decade. A self-confessed unreliable narrator, Towner hails from a family of Salem women who can read the future in the patterns of lace. The disappearance of her beloved aunt compels her to finally return to her hometown…and ultimately brings to light the truth about her twin sister’s death.

I enjoyed The Lace Reader as much for the setting as for the plotline. It was fun to read about places I had visited during my Salem sojourn. The House of the Seven Gables (at right) receives a mention, as does the Custom House, Hawthorne’s one-time place of employment.

If you do make it to Salem, it’s an opportunity to explore the landscapes of both a contemporary and a classic tale. On is a walking tour brochure of sites in The Lace Reader (you can also enter a sweepstakes to win a weekend getaway for two to Salem), and thanks to the National Park Service you can take a self-guided walking tour of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Salem.

Along with details about Hawthorne’s ties to Salem and a tour through the House of the Seven Gables, Novel Destinations has plenty of suggestions for a literary itinerary — what to see and do as well as places to drink, dine and doze, among them the ideally-located Morning Glory Bed & Breakfast. You can slumber directly across the street from the famed gabled dwelling. —Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Appearing on the cover of the July 14th issue of Time magazine is Mark Twain. Several articles explore Twain’s literary legacy and how a century ago he addressed still-familiar issues like race, religion, and war — and why it’s especially fitting to remember his acerbic honesty and deadly wit during an election year.

In a piece titled “The Seriously Funny Man,” Richard Lacayo writes that by the late 19th century Twain was “the first writer to enjoy the kind of fame reserved until then for Presidents, generals and barn-burning preachers.” Lacayo then goes on to explain why today’s political humorists owe a nod to Twain: “Not quite a century after his death, in 1910, we get a lot of our news from people like him — funnymen (and -women) who talk about things that are not otherwise funny at all. This is an election year in which some of the most closely followed commentators are comedians like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and the cast of Saturday Night Live. All of them are descended from that man in the white suit.”

The issue also includes a two-page spread highlighting Twain’s success as a travel writer. A map traces his voyages around the world and listed are his travel narratives, which include The Innocents Abroad (his first full-length book and the bestselling of his works during his lifetime), Roughing It (his adventures in the American West and Hawaii), Life on the Mississippi (his tenure as a riverboat pilot, a profession he claimed to love “far better than any I have followed since”), and Following the Equator (a record of the round-the-world lecture tour he undertook to pay off his debts).

Briefly mentioned in the article “Mark Twain: Our Original Superstar” by Roy Blount Jr. is the fact that Twain’s mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, is facing foreclosure due to financial difficulties. It’s shameful that a place where people can go to learn about the life of “our original superstar” might no longer exist. It’s certainly no laughing matter. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

It wasn’t difficult for me to decide which book to take along on vacation last week. Mark Twain’s Roughing It seemed fitting reading for the adventure my husband, Brian, and I undertook: rafting some 240 miles down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

In his travelogue Twain recounts some colorful escapades, among them working as a reporter in Carson City, Nevada, where he began using his famous pseudonym (he was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) and visiting the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) where he stayed at a hotel perched on the edge of a volcano on the Big Island.

Twain also recalls a 200-mile trek on foot through Nevada to prospect for silver, and he writes, “We all confess to a gratified thrill at the thought of ‘camping out.’” My own adventure included camping out for six nights — most of which were spent sleeping under the stars — and traversing some of the biggest white water in North America. The trip was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done and quite a feat for two people who had never before been rafting or camping.

Twain’s spirit of adventure was prevalent throughout the trip, from rafting down the river to making camp on a different stretch of beach each night to taking in the dramatic and varied canyon scenery. Our group of twenty-seven passengers (a terrific bunch!) voyaged with Canyoneers, and the excellent crew not only knew how to navigate the waters but how to make delicious prime rib and homemade brownies in such a rustic setting.

And somehow I think intrepid traveler Mark Twain would approve of our guide Brandon’s motto for riding the rapids: Go big or go home. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Along with visiting the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and sampling the Hemingway-inspired Papa Dobles cocktail at Sloppy Joe’s while we were in Key West, my husband and I explored a connection to another literary legend.

Poet Robert Frost was a frequent visitor to the island in the 1930s and 1940s, often staying in a garden cottage (left) at the home of fifth-generation Key Wester, avid preservationist, and legendary hostess Jessie Porter. Porter’s Caribbean Colonial house — where playwrights Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams also visited — was built in the 1830s and is now the Key West Heritage House Museum and Robert Frost Cottage. The beautiful tropical garden has more than 200 varieties of orchids.

This past April I had the chance to tour the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, which is where he lived as a struggling writer before moving to England and launching his career as a poet. It was interesting to learn more about Frost during my Key West visit, this time focusing on his later years. During one stay on the isle, Frost wrote the poem “The Gift Outright,” which he recited at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

Like Hemingway and Frost, I found Key West alluring. It’s hard to resist a place that has a nightly sunset celebration at Mallory Square (said to have been inspired by island regular Tennessee Williams) and such a laid-back, quirky vibe. Three days in Key West was not nearly enough, and someday I’ll be back to visit the cats at the Hemingway House and indulge in another Papa Dobles at Sloppy Joe’s. –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Recently, I had the opportunity to write a “Behind the Book” story for BookPage about some of the adventures Shannon and I had while on the road researching Novel Destinations. Our very first literary trip together was undertaken nearly three years ago, shortly after I arrived here in England from New York City. Both of us had been itching to get to Brontë Country in the Yorkshire Moors, which is one of the most atmospheric places in England and of course, the brooding locale that inspired one of our favorite books, Wuthering Heights. We were not disappointed!

The tiny, picturesque village of Haworth where the three talented Brontë sisters lived much of their short lives is full of literary treasures, from the Brontë Parsonage Museum, to the church where many of the Brontës were laid to rest, to the moors themselves, where the sisters found much inspiration. We spent lots of time at the Black Bull pub (pictured), where the sisters’ wayward brother, Branwell, whiled away many hours before his untimely death. — Joni Rendon

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