Jamaica Plain-based author Beth Castrodale is back, with her second novel “In This Ground” slated to be released on Sept. 18. The novel takes place largely in a graveyard and was inspired by the Forest Hills Cemetery in JP. The Gazette recently conducted a question-and-answer session through email with Castrodale about the new book. For more information, visit BethCastrodale.com. Castrodale will be speaking about the novel at the Connolly Branch Library on Sept. 17 at 6 p.m. (The session has been edited.)
Q.: Where did the idea for the novel come from?
A.: The novel grew out of my fascination with cemeteries, which goes back to my childhood. In those days, a friend and I would roam a local graveyard, reading the names on the stones out loud, and making up stories about the lives we imagined these people to have led.
The connection between cemeteries and stories remained with me, and a few years ago, I got the idea of writing a story collection or novel that would bring together the tales of people who are buried in a particular cemetery or who have some other business there. This culminated, eventually, in “In This Ground.”
Early in the process of drafting the novel, I got the idea of an indie-rocker-turned gravedigger, Ben Dirjery, being the central character. To me, Ben felt like the perfect connection between the living and dead within the world of the cemetery where he works. He tries to do his best by those buried there, by their friends and loved ones, and by members of the larger community.
At the same time, Ben is dealing with struggles of his own, the most daunting of which is his guilt over the death of his former band’s lead singer, who’s buried where he works.
Q.: You’ve said that the Forest Hills Cemetery was a “big inspiration” for the novel. How so?
A.: I imagined the fictional cemetery in my novel, Bolster Hill, as having been founded in the nineteenth century as part of the garden, or rural, cemetery movement, just like Forest Hills Cemetery. And Forest Hills Cemetery–with its winding paths, ornate monuments and statues, and various shaded nooks–was in my mind’s eye as I drafted every scene set in Bolster Hill.
As one character in my novel puts it, stepping into Bolster Hill Cemetery is like “entering some kind of weird, twisty dream,” and it’s possible to get pleasantly disoriented–even lost–on the grounds. These observations and experiences were inspired by my visits to Forest Hills Cemetery, which seems to exist on some other plane than the ordinary world. To my mind, FHC is not just a physical landscape but also an imaginative one, and I tried to re-create that sense of place in my depictions of Bolster Hill.
Q.: How would you describe the novel to a potential reader?
A.: The novel centers on conflicts a rockstar-turned-gravedigger, Ben Dirjery, is facing in his personal life and on his job. As the novel opens, Ben finds himself divorced and at loose ends, and still haunted by the death of a former bandmate, who is buried, literally, under Ben’s feet.
These aren’t his only problems. A court-ordered exhumation of a nineteenth-century vagabond has protesters rallying at the cemetery’s gates. Ben’s boss is blocking his push for green burials, which he hopes to offer in time for a dear, dying friend. And a new gravedigger is pressuring Ben to bring his guitar out of the closet to accompany him at an open-mike performance.
Meanwhile, Ben’s daughter, an aspiring musician, discovers his band’s music and begins questioning a past he has tried to bury. This forces Ben to confront his guilt over his bandmate’s death, and his decision to turn away from making music.
Q.: This is your second novel. How was the writing process this time? Any new challenges?
A.: The greatest challenge I faced writing my previous novel, “Marion Hatley”, also applied to “In This Ground”: trying to tell a compelling story while doing justice to characters’ interior lives and struggles.
But for “In This Ground”, I had to do a lot more research. To give you just a few examples, I researched the day-to-day responsibilities of gravediggers and other cemetery workers, looked into the details of green burials and how cemeteries get certified for them, and explored the challenges of keeping a nonprofit cemetery financially and infrastructurally viable. The most enjoyable research task was shadowing a gravedigger for a day to gather specific details about his job.
Q.: Where can people buy the novel?
A.: The print edition can be pre-ordered through the publisher, Garland Press (GarlandPress.com), and the ebook can be pre-ordered through Amazon. Starting September 18th, the novel’s official release date, the print edition will be available through Garland Press, Porter Square Books, and other retailers.