Arts April 30, 2009

The Secret Life of Madame Vanderbilt

The Tragedies & Triumphs of a Middle-aged Heroine (a writer's challenging journey towards publication

“Beyond a certain age, you’re pretty much invisible to a lot of people,” says local author Annie Vanderbilt, 62. But that doesn’t keep Vanderbilt from her firm belief that middle age is the time of life to “let the voluptuous side of living and loving take center stage.”

And that, not surprisingly, is the view of Lily Crisp, the heroine of Vanderbilt’s first novel, The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti. While reading it, I was tempted to open a long sequestered bottle of pinot noir and sip slowly while enjoying the sunset. There’s something about Vanderbilt’s writing that reminds you to savor the delights of the moment.

The novel ranges from the sensuous south of France to the steamy rain forests of Mexico. And even spends some time here in Idaho, amidst “the dry herbal tang of sagebrush and solitude.” It’s a tale of a middle-aged woman looking back on her life after her husband’s death and trying to figure it all out.

“The places are real. The plot and characters are not,” declares Vanderbilt’s husband Bill adamantly, when I run into him in Atkinsons’ market. In fact, the couple has lived in all the beautiful places that serve as settings for the book.

There are, however, a few suspicious similarities between Vanderbilt and her strong, independent heroine. Vanderbilt, like Lily, has a cherubic halo of curly hair and a mischievous gleam in her eyes. “I’d say there’s a part of Lily in me,” admits Vanderbilt. “But she does things that I would never do.”

Like Lily, Vanderbilt’s life has had its share of dramatic ups and downs on the journey towards finally publishing a novel at age 61.

She started writing, she recalls, in fifth grade, having come up with the fictional couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph Pimperidge. “I was always writing the Pimperidge stories about a Southern couple in the early 1900s who drive around in a horse-drawn carriage and get up to mischief,” says Vanderbilt smiling. “I would write a serial every week and read it to the class.”

Later she was off to Radcliffe where the then-Ann Swanson met Harvard student Bill Vanderbilt and began their 40-year marriage. The adventurous Vanderbilts (like the Pimperidges) traveled the world (distracting Annie from her writing.) First the Peace Corps in India, then hiking in Nepal, finally settling on Vashon Island where her creative side was fulfilled as a sculptor, woodcarver and carpenter. Yes, she actually built houses. >>>



Although Bill is one of THE Vanderbilts, descended from Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, 6th generation, the two have chosen to lead fairly normal lives. They’ve always worked (eg., teaching, running Wood River Nordic and Bigwood Ski Touring Center), or been busy with community volunteer projects and other good works through their Family Foundation in places like Nepal, Tibet, Haiti, Honduras and the U.S.

When they moved to Ketchum in 1982, Vanderbilt returned to her first love, writing. She searched for an agent to represent her novel Yesterday’s Woman (a “sort of science-fiction book” about a woman who has blackouts that transport her back in time.) But then a sudden turn in life put a halt to her literary dreams.

The Vanderbilts love backpacking and were exploring the canyons of southeastern Utah when Annie fell from a cliff. Bill hiked out to get help. After an agonizing 24 hours alone in great pain, she heard a helicopter. “There was Bill. It was just so amazing to be alive.” Doctors told the athletic Vanderbilt she would lose her foot and never walk again.

photograph: Bill VanderbiltBut she didn’t lose her foot and although enduring five surgeries, her spirit never gave out. “I grew up overnight. I had a lot more wisdom and was more aware of my inner strengths after that. I thought I was going to die that night so I realized what mattered. I didn’t care if I had a book published. All I thought about were Bill, my family and friends. That was it. Period. I learned what was important at the age of 35. Usually you don’t learn what actually matters until you’re old. That was the gift of the accident. Plus it took my relationship with Bill right down to bedrock. He saved my life. We thought we’d lost each other. After that we knew we’d be together forever.”

Because the couple couldn’t continue their beloved backpacking, they took up another hobby—biking. Beginning gradually, they ended up triumphantly taking a year off to bike first from the northern tip of Norway to the Rock of Gibraltar, then the length of Japan, and finally New Zealand tip to tip. “We biked about 12,500 miles that year. Pedaling polished the shattered joint and created a healthier ankle. She could walk again without a cane.

“When I came back from that trip in 1991, I sat down and started writing Gathering Speed,” a nonfiction story of their four-month bike trip across Japan, interwoven with the story of her accident. The book was snapped up by a literary agent but never sold because it was in two different categories in the bookstore—survival and travel.

“The minute I finished Gathering Speed I started writing The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti in 1994.” (Madame Olivetti, by the way, is the Olivetti typewriter Lily Crisp uses to type her memoirs.) The book took 10 years because during that time Vanderbilt became part-time caretaker for her aging parents. That experience added depth and layers to the book as well as to her life, she says. >>>



When the novel was finally completed, an agent accepted it. “It was a wonderful thing. They were thrilled and eager to sell my book.” But then another dramatic downturn. Vanderbilt woke up one morning with agonizing neck and shoulder pain. “I was totally bedbound,” and no one could figure out what was wrong. Finally she was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder from her fall 20 years earlier. “I went to a psychologist and did rapid eye movement therapy. The day we finally went back to the accident I was weeping uncontrollably, doubled over in excruciating pain. It was like the doors just exploded and all the horror of dying alone in such pain came bursting out of me. Unbelievably the next day the pain in my neck started getting better.”

Then in 2005 her Ketchum home burned down—another challenge she survived and overcame.

Finally in August 2007—the day the Castle Rock fire hit the top of Baldy, Vanderbilt got the call. “The flames were shooting out over Baldy. It was dark and smoky and the phone rang. It was my agent saying that National American Library (an offshoot of Penguin) was making an offer on my book,” says Vanderbilt sitting comfortably in her newly rebuilt home. Since then it has been an exciting round of events—book launching parties, book signings, readings, interviews. But Vanderbilt takes it all into stride.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life and I thought, you know, it’s fine. So this book is going to sit in the closet forever. But I was proud I’d written it and then to have this call out of nowhere after all this. It was unreal and wonderful and very exciting to have someone in the larger world who had never heard of me give me that little pat on the back and say ‘Good job, Annie. You wrote a fine book.’ That was nice. That was the closure you look for. If you don’t get it, you learn to live without it. But it was nice.”

Q) Booklist calls your book “a stunning portrait of love in its many aspects.” How would you describe it?

A) It is about the aspects of love—long-term love, romantic love, familial love, platonic love, love affairs in youth and as you get older—families and family interactions told through a story that weaves together the depths of emotions and motivations—why people do the things they do.

Q) A new genre of so-called “chick lit” has dominated bookstores for the past decade, beginning perhaps with Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996). The success of films like Sex and the City and Mamma Mia seem to reflect a new boomer interest in the stories of more mature women, not simply another story about trendy young girls in expensive high heels. Is your novel leading the way to what might be labeled “hen lit?”

A) It’s hard for me to define. I think my book has broader appeal than “chick lit” because there’s so much more going on. It’s not a simple A to B to C story. There are the various relationships and stories of earlier generations interwoven in the richness of different settings. I think Madame Olivetti is perhaps a little wider in scope than some “chick lit” or maybe it’s just well-written “hen lit.” I don’t know. But I think it has an appeal to women of many ages and the men who have read it have enjoyed it immensely. I’d call it literary fiction and leave it at that.

Q) Your sensuous imagery immerses the reader in different exotic locales. What inspired your writing? A “sense of place?” Other writers?

A) Bill and I had been in Mexico for two winters in Chiapas doing environmental work All the heat and sensuality and steaminess of the rain forest were inside of me. Then, too, I wanted to write a book about a woman who was in a long-term relationship and what might lead her to betray that commitment. The Lover by Marguerite Duras was a definite inspiration and Kalimantaan by C.S. Godshalk. Both of those books project the sensuality of tropical climates. Both really spoke to me and got my mind churning.

Q) Are you working on another novel?

A) Yes, but this one is different. It’s more of a psychological thriller with a couple of dead bodies. I’ve always wanted to have some dead bodies in a book I wrote. It’s a story about a woman younger than Lily Crisp. There are still the exotic settings and occurrences: Mexico, Japan, my fall from the cliff, plus eroticism, romance, male/female relationships. These are the subjects I love to write about and can’t help but write about.

Q) Your main character, Lily, is 52. In your book’s conversation guide, you comment about how in your 50s you “have more perspective on life” so you “can let the voluptuous side of living and loving take center stage.” What do you mean?

A) At least for me in my 50s, I realized that there was no way I could compete with anyone in their 20s or 30s. Beyond a certain age you’re pretty much invisible to a lot of people. So why not let loose with whatever feelings you have inside you because what have you got to lose? And if you do let all the rich and varied sides of your personality out you’re not really invisible anymore.

With perspective comes a total appreciation of all the sensual parts of life—the voluptuousness of the wonderful food you eat and the beautiful landscapes that surround you, as well as your own sexuality. At some point you have to get over being worried about what people think about you—if you’re beautiful or smart or have thin thighs or whatever and move beyond that. Appreciate what’s around you and realize that you’re a beautiful part of this large and amazing life experience.

You reach a point where you can let go because you don’t know how much time you have left. The aging process is an opportunity to soften any walls you’ve built up and let them come down. Forgive yourself a little bit more. Have more fun with who you are and what’s inside as you get older. That’s what Lily finally did.


Crystal Lee Thurston is a long-time local freelance writer. She has degrees in literature and psychology and is passionate about reading and telling people’s stories. She was Program Director at The Community Library for many years during which time she led The Great Books Book Club with the late Gary Hunt. A favorite pastime is being a member of the best book club of all time—Qui Legit—of which Annie Vanderbilt is an honored member. All the members are very proud of her.



This article appears in the Summer 2009 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.