There’s a great love story going on up in the Virginia foothills rolling up to the Blue Ridge. Actually, there’s a bunch of them. Every writer that finds his or her way to Trudy Hale’s writing retreat in the little village of Norwood discovers something to love.
I’ve got my list: The big stony bluff over the James River with the eagle circling overhead. The regular hum and ring of coal cars carting West Virginia down to Newport News one trainload at a time. The silence of a long hike along the Tye River where you can feel free to work out your deepest thoughts by hollering at the top of your lungs.
But I haven’t even mentioned the house, The Porches, with its double deck of porches overlooking the James. The Porches–with its creaking wood, laden with memory and books, adorned with Trudy’s treasures from a life in Hollywood, the South, and points far beyond. The Porches–which welcomes writers to days of silence and the holy struggle of finding words. Or not.
The real love story here is between Trudy Hale and the house. Something I discovered when I asked her for some time to talk. Trudy is a writer, teacher, and editor of Streetlight magazine, who also happens to own and love The Porches. Trudy, in addition to being a great and generous conversationalist, has inspired me to keep this writing life alive. In this 3-part interview we explore the house, the craft of writing, and how a place can change you.
[This post is a little longer than normal, but settle in. It’s a wonderful story…]
So, Trudy, what possessed you to buy a farmhouse in Virginia off the Internet [and leave behind a writing life in Hollywood]?
Well, it wasn’t me that bought it originally. It was my former husband who bought it in a manic episode. He shot a miniseries in Richmond, and we always liked Virginia, and we were both from the South. He was from Georgia and I was from Memphis. But because of his bipolar, slowly the scripts stopped arriving at the door.
So, we thought, well, we really like the South. You can get a lot for your money. And while we were thinking, (we were selling our house in Topanga Canyon), he had a manic episode, and a very severe one. He found this house at 3 a.m on the Internet, and I knew right away that it was not right for us.
But he was convinced. He was determined to buy it. And so, my daughter and I said, “We’ll fly down to Richmond, and we’ll go see it.” We were sure that he would come to his senses and see that it was just very dilapidated and way out in the country, and wasn’t in Richmond or Charlottesville. I really love Charlottesville, and that’s where I was trying to push him — west to Charlottesville from Richmond.
Where the Tye meets the James
We come out here and look at the house, and he’s still manic. At one point, he went out on the upstairs porch, and my daughter was filming him. He has a big Panama hat and his plaid pajama pants that he was wearing. Behind him, there’s this post with these black holes of rot. He’s coming towards her, and she says, “Hey, Dad, what do you think?” These tears came in his eyes, and he said, “I’ve come home.”
So, my daughter and I sat out on the porch, and when I looked out across the river valley, all of a sudden I just felt this…where my whole spine relaxed. And there were different depths of the view — you had the foreground with the trees and then you had the river bottom and the river bluff.
It was something about the land that just drew me out of myself and calmed me. And I thought, “Well, it’s not a bad place to land ’til I figure out what I’m going to do with my life.” Because I had decided I could not live–we’d been married 25 years, and by the way, we’re very good friends. I couldn’t just continue to go through these episodes.
So, he bought the house and I told him that I would move him and all the furniture to the house, and then I was going to look for me a place in Charlottesville. We packed the dogs up and we moved.
Then, we get here and he is now in a full-blown clinical depression; and he sees the house, and he sees the holes in the wall. We had bought it from this French artist, and she had put all these armoires and art posters to cover the big holes in the plaster.
She was an artist. She never fixed the porch and she never did any renovation or maintenance to the house. It was falling down around her ears. In fact, they wouldn’t let the people go out on the porch for fear it would collapse, because it was in such bad shape.
But she painted murals. She wouldn’t fix the porch or anything, but she would go around and paint the knobs of things, like little bird nests on knobs and little sunflowers.
We arrive, and my husband totally freaks out when he sees what he’s bought; and his wife is leaving him…threatening to leave. He puts his bed in the dining room with all his boxes, and I put my bed upstairs in this room with this crazy wallpaper. I think, ferns and plumes and… Did you ever read the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’?
Okay. What’s her name? Perkins. That’s it. [Charlotte] Perkins Gilman.
Anyway, I slept in that room, but as he was lying in his bed and not getting out, I began to walk around. I was so conflicted, because I would look at things and say, “Oh, wouldn’t that be beautiful if that was just painted?” And the porch, and the being out in the country, the birdsong, and the river, and I’d take walks. The house began to speak and she said, “I used to be beautiful.” To me.
I was really conflicted for many months. I looked at other places. I got a real estate agent. But I would think, “Well, we just need to paint, and we just need to…” The house began to really cast a spell on me and seduce me.
The bottom line was I couldn’t live with him anymore. So, instead of me moving, I said, “Let’s find you an apartment. I would like to stay here and fix the house up.” At some point along this thing of me being seduced and falling in love with the house, I said, “I’d like to start an artist colony.” Because I thought I really couldn’t justify living in such a big house by myself, or afford it, really, and all the repairs. So, that’s the birth of The Porches.
So, he moved to Charlottesville, and we saw friends and went out. And after five years, he moved back to California to be closer to our kids. So, Alex, what’s interesting is—it was a curse. I thought, “Oh, my God. My life is just falling apart.” I couldn’t believe it. I was walking around in this ruin, way out in the country, totally isolated, no friends out here, all my friends and my kids back in California, and I was a wreck for a long time.
I was in tremendous torment, and the house seemed like a curse. And even when I’d walk up to the third floor and all the plaster was falling down, and I was cursing the fact that there was a third floor, because that meant more rooms that we had to fix up or block off…ultimately, it became the greatest gift, because I would have never had the courage, being in California, to think, “Oh, I’m going to go buy this antebellum house down on the James and start a writer’s’ retreat.” What seemingly were the ruin of a marriage and a financial disaster just turned into the greatest gift for me.
What are you working on now?
I’m actually working on a memoir that focuses on how I ended up coming to this house. But it’s really about living and loving a person who has bipolar and that relationship—how much it gives you and how hard it is. All the pain, and all the joy, too. And oftentimes, people who do have that illness are very creative people.
And the house does become a character, in a way. I mean, it’s like as I began to love this house back to life, I was able to love myself and reinvent myself after this very difficult marriage. And it’s like a house becomes this–I wouldn’t say an alter ego—but it’s like a friend or mentor to me.
And we were able to restore ourselves together.
You see it’s like a pebble in a pond, because it starts to reverberate. And first, you land in this place, it’s like you’ve landed on the moon. And then, part of gaining my sanity was to reach out and see who was in the land, what was the community; make connections, because I felt so untethered. When I began to write about that–now, this is the irony–it’s like I got too far away from the house in the writing. And somehow–here come the villagers–and the energy kind of went–
You were diluting the love story between you and the house.
That’s great! That’s what happened! That is what happened. I left the love story, and the love story of me and the house.
[Part 2 – Writing at the Porches]