In the beautifully written novel, Game of Secrets (Random House, 2011), writer Dawn Tripp weaves the past and present, locating the patterns that make us human, no matter the turns of the generations, and the different and intricate ways in which we keep our secrets. I asked Tripp about the details that went into her novel, from how she views the game of Scrabble to how she approaches her writing style.
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo: The matriarchs of the story, Jane and Ada, play Scrabble every week, and much is revealed through their word choices and the means by which they play the game. What gave you the idea to craft some of the mystery of the novel around the game of Scrabble?
Dawn Tripp: Game of Secrets began with three primary fragments—the image of a fourteen year old boy driving fast down an unfinished highway in a borrowed car; the image of two lovers meeting in an old cranberry barn; and the image two women playing Scrabble. I did not know their names. I did not know the details specific to their lives, but I could feel the undercurrent of secrets and the tension between them as their hands shifted the blonde Scrabble tiles, and laid them on the board.
I began to write into these images; I had already filled a notebook, when an older man I knew from town told me a story of a skull that surfaced back in the 60s out of a truckload of gravel fill, a neat bullet hole in the temple. The moment the story was out of his mouth I knew that skull had everything to do with the game itself.
The unfolding of the mystery in Game of Secrets mirrors the playing of Scrabble: clue after clue is revealed, letters are arranged into words, words are played out; the story comes together piece by piece.
I love Scrabble. Growing up, I played with my grandmother. I remember the thrill I felt when I was old enough to keep my own letters, to have my own rack. When I went to visit her, she and I would play game after game, all afternoon until it was time for her to fix supper. Then we’d eat, clear the table, wash the dishes. I would dry them for her, and then I’d ask to play again. The idea for Game of Secrets came to me years after she was gone. The story has nothing to do with her life, but the sense of my time with her—generational, intimate, lost—is strung all through it.
How we play Scrabble can reveal so much about how we tick, how we live, who we are. Some people play for the words; some play strictly for the numbers. Some play to keep the board open, some play to shut it down. Some play with an eye to the sum of the total scores of all players; some play, simply, to maximize their own score. Most players will look at the board and see the words that fill it. But a really good player—a canny player—will also see opportunity in the skinny spaces still left open in between.
As I wrote the scenes for Game of Secrets, the game for me became the perfect lens for a story about two families bound together and divided by unspeakable secrets—a brutal past, a murder, a love story. Because what are words if not a bridge? Between one person and another. Thought and reality. Past and present, present and future. Words bridge silence. Words, and the stories they comprise, bridge time.
MCD: Setting is palpable in your work, especially the clear love of it. It comes through in the knowledge of the landscape and also in the pulling in close to more abstract details that your prose renders sacrosanct. Can you speak about what informs your sense of place?
DT: Game of Secrets takes place in the town where I live: Westport, a small town on the southcoast of Massachusetts. I love this town. I love it beyond reason. It is, and has always been to me, the most beautiful point of earth. Historically, Westport was a fishing and farming town. There are still vast tracts of open space, fields marked off by stone walls and swamp woods; there is the sea. The characters in Game of Secrets are driven and defined by this place—the working, fishing, farming, tough, fierce, hardscrabble, salt marsh rank stoic, stone-walled New Englandy beauty of the place—swathes of open fields still left, roads paved over old deer trails, the double-forked branch of the river, sea running into the land. “It’s a particular point of earth,” Marne says. “You come home and the light here is like nowhere else.”
I’ve loved Westport since I was a child, but I am not from here. I grew up coming as a summer person. I am married to a local man whose family has been in town for 15 generations. And while I live here year-round now, I recognize that I will always see the town through the lens of someone from away. When you are from a place, really from it, your experience and perception of it is more complex. A town like ours, any small unique town, is marked by its stories. There is a certain consequent, almost luminous force that infuses a place as a result of the lives that have played out there. The heart of a small town, like the heart of Game of Secrets, revolves around stories—those that are told and retold, that enter the common lore, and those other stories that are not told. Every small town has them: stories that are known but only spoken of behind closed doors, if at all; often stories that cannot be told, because they are too tangled, too tragic and raw, at times so wild and unlikely they could never be cast into fiction because no one would believe they were true.
MCD: How did you choose the points of view from which to tell the story?
DT: The larger thematic question at the heart of Game of Secrets is How well do we ever really know another person? That question touches, in some way, each character and every relationship in the story. I lived in that question, hung out in it, for the several years it took me to write this book.
The characters in my novels are not based on anyone I know. Characters come to me before the story—they drive the story—the sense of them, the burn of them. Even early on, I know things about them: what they want, fear, hide, remember, dream, what they will not let themselves dream, long before I know their names, or the details specific to their lives.
To me, a character’s flaw is their most intriguing aspect. It impacts their fate; it is the point where what is paradoxical, seemingly irreconcilable—what is weakest and most violent and most noble about them—can intersect. Luce’s greatest flaw, the reason he fails his daughter Jane is not because he does not love her enough, but because he loves her so much yet cannot step out of his own shadows to say so. Jane, in turn, nearly visits the same fate upon her daughter Marne. I feel, though, the most deeply flawed character in Game of Secrets is Huck. He appears to be a secondary character, but he was in fact a driving force for the story. He was one of the early pieces I started with. Before I knew any other detail about him, I knew him only as a 14 year old boy driving fast down an unfinished highway, his hands and throat on fire because he loved a girl. I knew that long before I realized what he might have done and who he would become—how he would grow up to be a man whose views and past stood for things that are easy to dislike or disdain. But you can’t quite lock him up that way, because of that fierce and simple desire he felt once, not just for that girl but for the freedom of a dream she stood for.
Characters to me have to have that relentlessly living aspect about them—even characters who might at first appear one-sided—I will go and dig into them, to find that other side, that vulnerable, inescapably human side that renders them in a different light, if only momentarily.
MCD: You have written other books set in the past, and Game of Secrets toggles between passages set years back and more present years. What appeals to you about writing from decades past?
DT: As a child, there was an old black and white photograph of my Australian grandfather that I loved. One day when I was around 8, I remember looking at that photograph, and it struck me that the world in my hand—my grandfather, the boat he was on, the ocean he was looking out onto—was not black and white at all, but was once in vital, inimitable color. At that moment, I understood, in a strange, deep sort of way, that the past has a certain life that cannot be easily known, or penetrated by a still and single image, and is often overlooked by the blinkered rush of our everyday.
My first two novels were historical, set in a bound and finite past. Moon Tide opens in 1914 and leads up to the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Season of Open Water, is the story of a blue-collar family that gets drawn into the rum-running trade during the late years of prohibition. I have always been fascinated by stories of the past, and Shakespeare’s words “What’s past is prologue.” In Game of Secrets, I wanted to explore how threads of what has come before continually surface to remake the present. I wanted to capture elements of the unique history, culture, and human demographic of the place, to allow the working consciousness of the town to impact the unfolding of a present day story.
Game of Secrets revolves around a decades-old murder and the mystery surrounding it. 50 years ago, Jane’s father, Luce, was ostensibly killed by the jealous husband of his mistress, Ada Varick. At first, when Ada and Jane sit down to play their Scrabble game, it appears as if time perhaps has healed the rift left in the wake of Luce’s death. Ada in particular approaches the present with typical Yankee fatalism: “What’s done is done; all that.” And yet both women want the truth to surface; both women can sense the tangible warp of tension that remains as a result of the secrets they have kept. But it is the younger generation, specifically the unexpected romance between Jane’s daughter, Marne, and Ada’s youngest son, Ray, that forces a true reckoning with the past. As Marne puts it, “The dead are in their precincts. Sure. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their fingerprints all over the lives of the living.”
Marne likes things in their places, she likes her lines drawn. When things start to spiral outside their neat edges, Marne collides with those more brutal elements of past that she has fought to escape, and she comes to realize that loose ends are what we live on. She comes to recognize her kinship with that same past, not cozying up to it necessarily, but owning it. And in one deft turn, what has come before melds seamlessly into what will be.
MCD: Your prose is gorgeous—stirring and poetic. How do you approach crafting and choosing language?
DT: I grew up writing poetry. Still now, when I take time away from a book I am working on, to let my mind go fallow and do its underground work—I read poetry. Most of the novelists I adore have a certain cadence to their work. I have faith in that cadence. I feel that along with ‘voice,’ it’s a key element of creating powerful fiction that is often overlooked. Rhythm draws a reader through a story. The meanings of words touch the mind—the twists in plot engage the intellect—but rhythm calls forth a deeper, more intuitive connection to the lives of the characters, their struggles and fates. A shift in rhythm allows a reader to feel a shift in thought, a change of heart, that breath-caught-sharp moment of a revelation. I strive to keep my language spare, but I always have that attention to the rhythm pace of a sentence, a paragraph, a passage—and its emotional effect. One consequence of this is that when my editor takes a pen to my draft for a line-edit, I don’t mind at all if she draws a big X through a paragraph, or even suggests I cut a page. I’ll make that cut easily. But if she cuts a word or two in a sentence and the rhythm is thrown off, I have to go back and rework that line until the flow and cadence feels right.
Game of Secrets is a complex story, but I wanted it to be fast-paced. This was something that felt critical to me, and in fact, I took an extra year to go back through and rework this book. To cut out the chaff—to pare out even moments I may have loved but that felt extraneous to the story and its arc. It’s essential, I believe, to learn that kind of ruthlessness—where you can let go of what you long to keep—it gives what remains a kind of luminous intensity. Things rise up, breathe, in a different way. I have a file for those cast-offs. I go back through them sometimes and strip-mine what still has life for me—shift the details and transform it, into new work.
MCD: What do you think of as primary in your style: the writing or the story? And why? What do you think each serves?
DT: Writing has to serve the story. My novels start in pieces—on the page for months—fragments of character, story, scene. They might feel intuitively linked. I might glimpse the larger story they belong to but, curiously, the longer I can resist the impulse to pin everything down into place, the longer I can keep things open, the more necessary—the more vital, the more revelatory—the writing becomes. That doesn’t mean the order isn’t there. It doesn’t mean some dark underside of my mind hasn’t already figured it out. I put my faith in the fact that there is such a cogent order. And I write to discover it.
Game of Secrets was an unusual book for me in the sense that I felt like I was continually being overturned. I knew in my gut that I had to stay open to that. I had to keep my balance with that. Again and again, I would discover some new element that was not in my original vision for the novel, and often in consequence, the arc of the story would change, and I would have to let it change.
I wrote what I thought was the ending of the story early on. I fell in love with it. It became that kind of horizon a strong ending can be—it drives you, day in, day out, to create the 300 pages leading up to that moment. What I did not expect, and could not have foreseen, was that in fact that ending was not the climax. The most powerful revelation was something I was writing toward without even realizing it, until all at once, I did. A story can do that. A game can do that. It can all turn at the end.
Winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, Dawn Tripp’s fiction has earned praise from critics for her “thrilling” storytelling (People Magazine), her “haunting, ethereal” prose (Booklist), and her “marvelous characters” (Orlando Sentinel). She is the author of three novels: MOON TIDE, THE SEASON OF OPEN WATER, and GAME OF SECRETS, a Boston Globe bestseller. Her essays have appeared on NPR and online at Psychology Today. She teaches workshops on structuring the arc of a novel out of fragments of fact and fiction. She graduated from Harvard and lives in Westport, Massachusetts with her family. Find out more about Dawn at her website and on her Facebook page.
Melissa Corliss Delorenzo
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini, mom, homemaker and the Associate Editor for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook and take long walks with her kids and is a woman who wants to meaningfully exchange and intersect with other women writers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is at work on several novels. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her family.