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Susan Stinson

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June 27th, 2014

04:36 pm: Reawakening Calvinism by Briallen Hopper
There is a beautifully written, thoughtful new review of Spider in a Tree up on Religion and Politics. It's by Briallen Hopper. It's really gorgeous, and includes a fascinating consideration of the new resurgence of Calvinism in the context of its history in the US. It means so much to have my work read and responded to this deeply. I'm thrilled.

But how did American Calvinists go from writhing in public in the eighteenth century to more buttoned-up forms of religious expression in the twenty-first? Why aren’t today’s young Reformed doctrine nerds still shouting glory through their tears and throwing their prized possessions into the flames? And what was American Calvinism, before it became a brainier, sterner alternative to “cheesy” popular evangelicalism?

In her quietly beautiful novel Spider in a Tree, Susan Stinson hints at the answers to some of these questions. Through an empathetic recreation of the life of the eighteenth-century Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards and the people and animals around him, she allows us to feel the urgency and cruelty and enduring gifts of this historic American religious movement.

- See more at:

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October 14th, 2013

07:45 pm: Research Notes: Spider in a Tree
Here is a short essay I wrote on the publication day of Spider in a Tree, up at Necessary Fiction. When I took my ten year-old outline down from the bulletin board, I cried.

Years: Writing Fiction About Jonathan Edwards in Northampton

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March 26th, 2013

08:10 pm: More about the cover
Elisabeth Alba blogs about drawing the cover for Spider in a Tree.   It's cool.  She posts sketches and the 18th century watercolor that Small Beer Press found to use as inspiration.

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March 15th, 2013

10:15 am: PreOrder Spider in a Tree: Licking the Beaters

Click on the photo to preorder Spider in a Tree. I used this picture because it's almost, almost, almost ready to go out into the world, but why wait to share the deliciousness until it's completely baked. (That's me in the corner.) Order now, get the book when it's published in October!

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March 3rd, 2013

10:23 am: Cover!
Spider in a Tree Cover

I had to remind myself to breath just now. I’m taking short, shaky breaths. Here, my friends, is the cover for my novel.
The illustration is by Elisabeth Alba.

I love it so much.

I didn’t have a strong feeling about what the cover should be. There are some beautiful old maps of Northampton in the Local History room at Forbes Library that I thought might be good. Forbes also has reproductions of a painting of the eighteenth century town down in the 1930s, which I’ve used in the past. Yale owns the only portraits of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, so that was a possibility. But the book has multiple voices, including those of Leah and Saul, enslaved in the Edwards household, and of Rebekah, Joseph and Elisha Hawley, who were related to Edwards and helped bring out his expulsion from the pulpit in the town. It is because Jonathan Edwards was so well-known and powerful in his time (I’ve read at least one account by an historian who said that preachers were like rock stars in the 18th century colonies) that the portraits exist. His readers in Scotland wanted to know what he and Sarah looked like. In the past few years, I’ve also seen a poster of a more muscular-looking Jonathan Edwards commissioned by scholars who thought he needed an image make-over for the twenty-first century. But Spider isn’t the story of Jonathan Edwards, Calvinist rock star. It’s the story of the people in a community – Northampton, MA – and the consequences of the waves of intense religious experience that swept over them, sparked by JE’s preaching, as what historians call the First Great Awakening caught fire and transformed life in the colonies.

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press came up with the idea of an image of the inside of the meeting house for the cover. It’s one of those fantastic leaps that fiction makes possible, since, although First Churches in Northampton is a continuous congregation since its founding, no paintings of the inside of its early meeting houses exist. Kelly, Gavin and Elisabeth, the artist, looked at images and information about other meeting houses. They looked at the seating chart for the 1737 Northampton meeting house, which was built (under dramatic circumstances!) during the time of the novel. And Elisabeth created this great painting, which teems with the life of the town and the spirit of the time. Along with the imaginative stretch, there is a lot of attention to historical detail: seating by gender was changing at this time, so some of the boxes have mixed gender family groups. Enslaved people and servants sat in the back of the meeting house, on the stairs or in the gallery, and here they are, present, visible. (A phrase that comes to mind is “Like People in History,” the title of a novel by Felice Picano about gay men in the 1950s.) That means a lot to me. This isn’t an impossible photograph insistent on its accuracy, but an openly subjective leap into a world, based in considered information, but willing to risk being wrong for being alive and present. I think it serves the story well.

When I showed it to a friend this week, she was surprised to hear that it was by a contemporary artist, but thought it was an image from the 18th century. That makes me just pulse with delight. Another loved how quickly the cover brought her to the time and place of the novel, and the hint of mystery and strangeness in the contrast with the title. Small Beer actively looked for my thoughts and feedback in this process, but it was their gorgeous idea and Elisabeth Alba’s painting that created this image. I hope it makes you want to enter the world of the book as much as it fills me with the pleasure.

The book itself is due out in October. ETA: The book can be pre-ordered on paper or as an e-book now here!.

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January 28th, 2013

09:24 pm: The Next Big Thing : Spider in a Tree

Elli Meeropol is the author of the fine novel, House Arrest. I love it when she writes with us at the Writing Room at Forbes library.  You can find more about her Next Big Thing here. The next Big Thing is a meme Elli tagged me for, which involves all sorts of writers blogging about our next projects, using the same set of questions.  Here's mine:

What is the working title of your book?

Spider in a Tree.

 Where did the idea come from for the book?

The book is about Northampton, Massachusetts, the town I live in, during the years that eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards preached here.  I live across the street from the cemetery where many members of JE's family are buried (there are two markers for him there, too), and, since I was spending a lot of time walking and writing in the cemetery, I got interested in the stories of some of the people buried there. 

What genre does your book fall under?

Historical fiction.  (I love having an answer to this question.  My favorite book on writing is John Gardner's Art of Fiction.  He says to pick a genre, and I have for all four of my novels, but they read as highly idiosyncratic expressions of genre to others.)  
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Daniel Day-Lewis for Jonathan Edwards.  Maybe Amy Adams as Sarah Edwards. Gabourey Sidibe would be great as Leah.   Michael B. Jordan as Saul.   
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Spider in a Tree is about eighteenth century preacher Jonathan Edwards, his family, and those enslaved in his household in a New England town he made famous for piety before its people rejected him.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be published by the fantastic and intrepid Small Beer Press.  I can hardly believe my luck. Book launch reading: Wednesday, Oct 2, 2013, 7 pm, Forbes Library, Northampton, MA. Come if you can!  
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I just went back to my drafts folder to answer this question.  It looks like I was working on the novel for four years before I had a whole draft.  The whole book has taken me ten years to write. 

To what other books would you compare this story within your genre?
This list is more what I aspire to than anything else, but I'd love have this novel in conversation with the great work of Toni Morrison, including her recent book, A Mercy.  I'd love it to be as good as Emma Donoghue's Astray or Paul Harding's Tinkers.  I love The Known World by Edward P. Jones. What if someone read it next to Marilynne Robinson's novels Home or Gilead?  Or, for sheer New Englandiness and a prickly central character, how about Olive Kittridge  by Elizabeth Strout?  I'd probably swoon with joy if anybody brought up Nathaniel Hawthorne, say, "The Minister's Black Veil."

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired by the stories of the landscape where I live, and how I can feel the history of this place in its present.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I learned a whole lot about Calvinism while researching this book.  There is much more poetry in it than I expected, at least as articulated by the brilliant Mr. Edwards. 

Here's some info about the wonderful poet Ellen LaFleche.  Ellen won the Philbrick Poetry prize for her manuscript, Workers' Rites, which was published as a chapbook by the Providence Athenaeum.  Other chapbooks include Ovarian (Dallas Poets Community, and Beatrice (forthcoming, Tiger's Eye Press.)  She won the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize and the New Millennium Poetry Prize.  She has published poems in Mudfish, Spoon River Poetry Review, Hunger Mountain, Many Mountains Moving, among many others.  She is the assistant judge for the Sports Writing Contest at   Here's where to find her on facebook. ETA: It turns out that it doesn't work to for Ellen to answer the questions right now, but it's great to let folks know about her work, just the same.

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December 29th, 2011

01:54 pm: Honey on Frequencies
Spider in a Tree is my completed but not yet published novel about eighteench century Northampton in the years that Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edward preached here. I am delighted that one of my favorite sections of the novel up on the Frequencies site today.

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August 15th, 2011

10:08 am: Necessary Fiction: Bundling
One of my favorite passages from my unpublished novel, SPIDER IN A TREE, is up now at Necessary Fiction.

It's about bundling, that intense old New England practice to prevent sex before marriage, while allowing suitors to get to know each other better. It was also practical, since people who were getting around by horse or on foot sometimes needed to stay the night if they came for a visit.

Brian Kiteley, who wrote The River Gods, a wonderul novel about Northampton history and his own family history here, is writer in residence on the site this month and invited me to send him this. I've got something else to write for him today, too.

I've really been enjoying all of Brian's writing on the site this month. Especially this response to something I wrote him about an interview he gave on The Writer's Voice radio show when he was in town to read from The River Gods at Forbes Library in March. I've been reading old Northampton newspapers on microfilm lately, so really loved this piece.

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May 15th, 2011

07:54 pm: Hometown News
Here's a really nice article about me and the mid-career novelist prize which ran on the front page of the Daily Hampshire Gazette on the day of our local Pride March.

It's by Bob Flaherty, who is also a really good, wild novelist.

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May 7th, 2010

10:58 am: Jonathan Edwards Center videos
In honor of the Writer in Residence appointment, The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale has posted video clips of me reading excerpts from Spider in a Tree, my novel about Edwards's years in Northampton. As most of you know, the novel does not yet have a publisher.

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