Illustration: Jillian Tamaki
Faced with the loss of her neighbor, novelist Alice Hoffman decides to honor his memory by turning his neglected cottage into an imagination-nourishing haven.One brilliant June day, my husband and I arrived at our summer house on Cape Cod to discover that our elderly next-door neighbor had passed on during the long, cold winter. He was a quiet, solitary fisherman with whom we shared a dirt road. The two properties smacked up against each other, several acres of pine and oak on the outermost reaches of the cape, overlooking a quiet pond that our neighbor had stocked with trout. Through the years, we had been busy with children and visitors, illness and joy, all in a steady stream. Conversations with our neighbor were brief and friendly: Had anyone seen his missing cat? Did we know that wild turkeys had been roosting in the woods and liked to perch on his old car? Could our sons cut a path through his woods to drag a kayak into the pond?
We hadn't imagined we would ever want our neighbor's house, a knotty pine-paneled cottage, but when it went up for sale my husband and I realized how grateful we were for so many peaceful years. As abutters, our households had been in agreement, wishing to leave our properties undeveloped, true woods, open to other neighbors who might like to hike across the land in summer or snowshoe in winter.
After thinking it over, my husband and I got in touch with our neighbor's sister, in her 80s and several states away. We bought the place on a whim, intending to knock it down. We'd let the woods take over, let the wild turkeys rule. But soon we began to look beyond the peel-and-stick vinyl tiles, the woodstove with a rusty pipe that went right through the ceiling and leaked whenever it rained, the falling-down barn that was too dangerous to enter, the old-fashioned water pump and cinder-block foundation. We gazed around at the overgrown gardens, patches of daylilies and roses, wild now but once carefully tended. Years ago someone had planted the hedge of spindly lilacs and the enormous pink mountain laurel that flowered beside the screened-in porch. The house, so dilapidated, had clearly been someone's dream.
Who were we to destroy what our neighbor had built?
In the end, we decided the little house could be our dream as well. We would make it into the perfect writers' retreat—a place where our friends could come when they needed to escape from the world, a refuge where the best medicine for writer's block would be the blooming mountain laurel, the scent of lilacs, the deep green shadows cast by old oak trees, part of the original forest Pilgrims had all but cut down.
Falling for a dilapidated house is nothing but trouble. Everything costs more than you expected. Yet there can be lovely discoveries as well: Beneath the vinyl tiles were beautiful maple planks. When we tore out the woodstove and the pipe and raised the ceiling, the cottage seemed surprisingly spacious. We took down all the exterior walls in the living room and replaced them with glass. Once we did, we discovered that we had a tree house. Because our neighbor's cottage had been built on a hill, there was an extraordinary view of the woods. We left the tree that grew up through the deck, a bower of green to sit beneath. All of a sudden the dark, mildewed space felt airy and light, open with possibilities. A house where the clouds were right outside the door.
What does a writer need? Quiet, space, light. A place to escape answering machines, faxes, e-mail, telephones, and—for a few days or weeks—husbands or wives, children and pets. A place where the clatter of Boston or New York is far away. No sirens here, only owls, hawks, the blue herons that soar over the pond. The house is small enough to not feel overwhelming—you can clean it in 20 minutes or not clean it at all. There are no mail deliveries. No one will come down the dirt road unless she's an invited guest. One fall, a friend writing a book of essays said there had been German shepherds peering in the window while she worked. I had to inform her it was a family of coyotes. Another year, a poet friend saw a huge creature on the deck—one of the wild turkeys that roamed the woods had come to visit.
To be in the woods when writing is perfect. But even better to have a good neighbor. Our house is right next door, with its garden full of cherry tomatoes, basil, lettuce, peppers. There are some things a writer may not need that can still make the writing of a novel or a poem even more delicious: gazpacho, noodles with freshly made pesto, bread from the bakery, bottles of cold white and rosé wine. In August, there are blueberries, oysters, fresh peas. In September, there are wild concord grapes wonderful for jam and an orchard of peach trees with small fruit, perfect for pies.
Other factors help the imagination: shooting stars, wicker furniture on the porch, yellow water lilies dotting the pond, dragonfly season when the air is filled with thousands of dragonflies. In autumn, when bittersweet vines turn red, the crisp air smells like salt and hay. By winter many of the shops in town have closed down, but most of our guests would rather be in the writers' house, working on a book, or having a bowl of soup, or beginning to imagine a poem.
The furnishings here are simple. In the middle of the living room sits a big white table that serves as a desk. Nearby, a bureau with a cloudy mirror that reflects mood more than an actual image. A bookcase of hardbacked books about plants, dogs, travel. A modern Italian kitchen with marble counters and cabinets stocked with old blue dishes.
Some places drain a writer, and others inspire. A perfect hydrangea leaf, an hour of dark blue quiet after a storm. That's what our friends find. Time shifts out here, it expands, there's just more of it. There's nothing to do but write and perhaps eat a piece of pie, or go for a walk, then come back and write some more. A lovely friend once said she might not have written any stories at all that year had she not come to work at the cottage. Maybe it's true that houses, like people, need a purpose. Some are family houses, vacation houses, lofts for painters—this little glass house is the writers' house. In becoming such, it has become beautiful, with every nook serving a purpose—the porch a place to curl up with a manuscript, the old white bed perfect for editing or to fall asleep in and perhaps dream the first line of the next story or poem. In the end, the house became a gift to myself. When we have visitors, when our children return, or even when the lawn is being mowed, I slip away to the writers' house. Luckily, I have a key.
Alice Hoffman is the author of many works of fiction, including Practical Magic, Here on Earth (an Oprah's Book Club pick), Blackbird House (stories set on her Cape Cod farm), and most recently, The Third Angel , published by Shaye Areheart books.