Author Joanna Scott gave a fiction reading last Thursday to a small but attentive audience in Griffin 3. Scott, whose stories have appeared in Best American Stories and The Pushcart Prize, read selections from her work-in-progress novel The Guilt Cabinet. Scott is an English professor at the University of Rochester.
Scott mixed elements of biography with personal memoir by discussing her family history within the context of self discovery, interspersing her readings with explanations of why she chose to write them. She was primarily motivated to begin her latest work after coming into a wealth of “new information” about her family.
Scott sprang her first reading on a seemingly surprised audience: She told of a man standing bent over the guardrail of a ship, of how “it had all come to this” and “jumping was the only way out.” Nobody had seen his midnight dive, and all that was heard was an ensuing splash.
In another segment, Scott narrated from the perspective of her younger self, recalling when she discovered her family’s “guilt cabinet,” aptly named for the emotion one would likely feel if she were to disturb the delicate objects upon its shelves, the fragile knickknacks and ancient bowls that were once used to hold “the tears of women weeping for the dead,” Scott said.
Somehow seeing the cabinet leads her and her mother into discussing the death of her grandfather, who died at sea years ago. “Maybe someone pushed him,” Scott’s mother suggests to her. And then, “Or maybe he jumped.”
Eventually the audience discovered that Scott’s readings focused in one way or another on her grandfather, “a sort of P.T. Barnum of the travel world,” who earned his livelihood leading ship tours across North America and Europe.
Scott repeatedly alluded to her grandfather’s “seductive” advertisements, which captured women young and old with their promises of luxury.
Once, near the end of his career as a travel tour guide, he was traumatized by the death of an elderly passenger who, enticed by both the alluring advertisement of the North American tour and her niece’s good-natured suggestion to board the ship and enjoy one of the famous tour voyages, was “seduced” into doing so.
Scott said her grandfather took full responsibility, perhaps more than he should have. According to the author, he decided then and there “that he would choose the time and place of his death.”
We learn that he jumps from the rail of a ship and into the sea with only one man to hear his splash, just as the elderly woman is laid into a makeshift coffin and lowered into a watery grave, her stunned niece the only family member by her side.
Scott emphasized that her work is in its early stages, and she was indecisive about categorizing it as a novel just yet. She finally settled on “work of fiction,” but regardless of its name, the rose smells just as sweet. The diminutive, rapt crowd in Griffin seemed as drawn to the past as Scott herself.