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In-N-Out and the Great Depression: Grads read their new novels

by Erica Mixon / Beacon Staff • February 28, 2013

Maryanne O'Hara wrote her novel Cascade based on her fascination with drowned towns.
courtesy of Maryanne O'Hara
Maryanne O'Hara wrote her novel Cascade based on her fascination with drowned towns.
courtesy of Maryanne O'Hara

It was a wet, soggy night last Tuesday, and the streets around Emerson’s campus were mostly empty. At the W Hotel on Stuart Street, only a couple of blocks away, authors Kate Racculia and Maryanne O’Hara were preparing for yet another book reading. This one was different, though. 

It was the graduate admission program’s first time hosting an alumni reading at Emerson. Both Racculia and O’Hara are first-time novelists that graduated from Emerson’s MFA creative writing program. The atmosphere in the W Hotel conference room was casual yet intimate, and many of the attendees had quiet conversations with one another, holding their drinks and sharing book recommendations.

The two authors sat down in armchairs at the front of the small room and introduced themselves. Racculia, author of This Must Be the Place, talked about how Emerson has inspired her work, particularly from living on the West Coast.

“The summer I traveled out to Los Angeles, I had an internship at a production studio, which was really cool,” she said. “I ate nothing but In-N-Out burger and gained 10 pounds. And I read a ton of scripts.” 

Racculia proceeded to read the first chapter of her novel, which she said was directly based on her experience in LA. Her main character, Arthur, struggles with transitioning from Boston to California. Racculia’s writing style is packed with comparisons, metaphors, and similes. 

“I know where I start, and I usually know where I’m going, but how to get there is the mystery,” Racculia said of her writing process. 

O’Hara, author of Cascade, who started off as a short story writer, took classes and taught creative writing at Emerson. Cascade, set in the 1930s, is loosely based on four towns that were flooded to create the Quabbin reservoir, one of Boston’s primary sources for drinking water. Unlike Racculia, her book is based on research and history rather than personal experience, but she said the subject has intrigued her since she was a little girl. She remembers that the first time she learned about drowned towns, she conjured a fascination that could only be satisfied with writing. 

“We were on a family field trip, and I looked out at this island and my uncle said, ‘Well, that used to be a hill.’ And I was totally spooked, and obviously it haunted me for the rest of my life,” said Racculia.

Setting the novel in the 1930s was a challenging aspect, O’Hara recalled, because the economic hardship was what everyone remembered about the thirties, while few considered more specific and personal situations. O’Hara said that many of the people she interviewed who had lived during the 1930s were fine financially, and she was determined to incorporate that into the novel. 

“It got me to thinking that I wanted to move beyond stereotypes in the writing of the book and show people who weren’t down and out, but to also show people who just were uncertain,” O’Hara said. “I wanted it to be complicated, I wanted it be real, and I didn’t want it to be full of stereotypes.” 

Both authors said Emerson’s graduate program provided them with the foundation they needed for finding jobs as writers.  

“One of the things that I loved about the program here at Emerson was all of the MA classes — the book editing, magazine design, all of that stuff,” Racculia said, “[They] really helped me be more preferable for many other types of jobs when I got out.”