Bee Ridgway grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts.
She attended Oberlin College (B.A.), then worked for a year as an editorial
assistant at Elle magazine. She studied literature at Cornell University (M.A. and Ph.D.) and has
worked at Bryn Mawr College
since 2001. She lives in Philadelphia,
PA. The River of No Return is Bee's debut novel. It publishes today.
So yep, I’m an American. In fact, thinking
about being American is how I make my living.
I’m a professor of American literature, and I spend my days teaching Moby-Dick to young Americans. But about two years ago I sat down and
started writing The River of No Return.
It’s a big, busty time travel novel, a genre mash-up that combines
adventure, romance, spy thriller, mystery.
It’s set in Vermont, in contemporary London and in Georgian
England. Its two main characters are
British. I surprised myself: shouldn’t a scholar of American history and
literature write an American novel?
Instead, a frothy tale of time-traveling Regency aristocrats, beautiful
medieval beet farmers and faceless corporate heavies from an ominous future was
flowing from my fingers.
I had tossed my academic hat aside, my hair
had come tumbling down, and I was tapping into fantasy. And if there’s anything Americans love to
fantasize about, it’s England
(not Britain – England). Of
course you fantasize about us right back, and always have. Brits have more to say about Yanks than Yanks
do, and Americans are fiercely protective of an idealized England that no British person
would recognize. The number of times an
American has yelled at my British partner for not enjoying tea would astonish
This used to tick me off. I’ve spent years in both countries, I have a
pretty good grasp of the “real” Britain
and the “real” US, and I used to roll my eyes at the notions each nation
harbors about the other.
But that was a humorless mood. The fact is, fantasy is pleasurable and
admitting it keeps us honest and makes us more generous, in art and in
life. The fun house mirror that someone
else holds up teaches you to laugh at yourself. I am now a thoroughgoing fan of
the fictional versions of our two nations that we dream up between us. And there are always new ones. Remember that amazing Dr. Who episode where Britain
is zooming through outer space on the back of a white whale? Remember how I told you that I teach Moby-Dick? Our mutual and often absurd
fascination may not have had particularly savory effects on the world stage,
but the“special relationship” has made for some terrific popular fiction, going
back a long way.
If I may put my academic chapeau back on
for a moment, and regale you with some literary history? Some of the most archetypically “English”
writers bounced their portraits of Albion off America. Arthur Conan Doyle grew up reading American
penny dreadfuls: the first Sherlock Holmes story is largely set in Utah. Agatha Christie’s
father was American. P.G. Wodehouse spent vast portions of his adult life in America.
Frances Hodgson Burnett immigrated to the U.S. when she was sixteen. Rudyard Kipling married an American and lived
for four years – he adored it and was wildly prolific while there, writing The Jungle Book and reams of poetry.
I’ve chosen the “popular” writers of yesteryear to make this point, because
it’s the “popular” fantasies that we swap back and forth to this day. The Hollywood
and BBC portraits of one another that we love to hate . . . and hate to love.
I’m an American, and I’ve written a fantastical novel about Britain.
My time-travelly Britain is
also – through a side window and around some corners – a portrait of America. I wrote the novel because it was incredibly
fun to do so. I enjoyed myself
thoroughly, wallowing in the alternative versions of reality that I had given
myself permission to explore. I offer it to you with a grain of salt (for
flavor), and I hope that you enjoy it, too.