A few months before her novel ‘Mr. Splitfoot” was published in 2016, Samantha Hunt had to request marketing copy from other authors.
“It’s embarrassing to ask my friends and writers I admire to work for me for free,” said Ms Hunt, a writer of haunting literary fiction. “Blurbs are work. So I thought, if blurbs are labor, why not just pay for them? It would be easier, fairer. And then I thought, since I already went to some mediums as research for ‘Mr. Splitfoot, ‘why don’t you just ask someone to call Charlotte Brontë and get a blurb from her?’
So she went to a psychic in Albany. In a dark office with no windows, Ms Hunt said, the medium tried to make contact. Presumably speaking as the author of “Jane Eyre”, she expressed the opinion that “Mr. Splitfoot” was a good title.
“‘It’s what people want,'” Ms Hunt recalled the medium said, in Brontë’s voice. “’It has a lot of good energy and people, people will like it. It’s intriguing.’”
Ms. Hunt doubted Brontë, the great 19th-century author, would speak like that, but those words appeared as a blurb on the back, attributed to “Charlotte Brontë, speaking through a medium.”
Despite her skepticism, Ms Hunt, 50, said she remains intrigued by mediums and the work they do. “How much is intuition? How much is listening? How much does it cost to be an observer? I believe in all those things,” she said during a visit to her childhood home in Pound Ridge, NY, last week. ‘As a writer, my job is to listen. My job is to observe everything and pick up on who people are.”
In her latest work, “The Unwritten Book: An Investigation,” a collection of essays published Tuesday, Ms. Hunt considers how the Pound Ridge home, originally built in 1765 and expanded since, has informed her writing and worldview. It’s a haunted house, she said, but not in the traditional sense.
“I started thinking about the way we are being chased as a process of calcification,” she said. “’Haunted’ is when something accompanies you, when we are not fully aware of a presence. It’s something you carry with you.”
Her mother, Diane Hunt, 85, has lived in the house since the family moved in more than 50 years ago. The author’s father, Walter Hunt, who worked as an editor at Reader’s Digest, died in 2001 at the age of 71.
The house is now “filled with things from people we love who are dead,” Ms Hunt said. She compared it to art installations by Nick Cave or Portia Munson, calling it “a wacky museum where you can touch everything.”
The rooms are full of collections: patchwork quilts, her father’s ties hanging behind a door, costumes in the attic, thousands of art books, and dozens of canvases her mother painted over the decades.
A portrait in the dining room shows Mrs Hunt as a girl surrounded by ripe fruit, a candle, a cup and a memento mori.
“I put a skull in it,” Diane Hunt said, “which wasn’t fun.”
Mrs. Hunt laughed and said of her mother, “She seems like a delicate flower, but she’s also a morbid one!”
In the living room she gestured to a large painting of a shadowy male figure behind a blindfolded woman.
“And that’s you,” she said to her mother, “even if you said you didn’t?”
“I think it had to be me because I don’t think I had a model,” her mother said.
“I always think of that when you and Dad,” said Mrs. Hunt. “Even if it’s a little scary.”
“Some people think it’s scary,” her mother said. “Some people think it’s romantic.”
‘An antenna for the creepy’
The house was lively and noisy when Mrs Hunt grew up, often full of neighborhood kids, who seemed to love the go-anywhere atmosphere. She and her five siblings also dealt with adults drinking at marathon parties. In “The Unwritten Book” she recalls “sloppy clothes, jealous fights, dirty songs at 2 a.m.”, as well as “uncles stumbling down the stairs” and “visiting editors sleeping on the living room floor”. Some nights ended with adults driving into a ditch at the end of the driveway.
To escape the chaos, Mrs Hunt found herself drawn to her father’s Royal typewriter. “Writing seemed like a quiet place in this house that wasn’t quiet at all,” she said.
At age 15, she left home to attend Northfield Mount Hermon, a “hippie” boarding school in Massachusetts. “My first religion teacher came in and said, ‘Hello, I’m a feminist!’ And I thought, ‘What is that?'” she recalls.
She later studied geology, graphics, and literature at the University of Vermont. After graduating, she lived in a geodesic dome, providing waiting tables and working in a clothing factory. Almost every morning she got up before dawn and wrote fiction, a practice she continued while she had a job with Seven Days, an alternative weekly in Burlington, Vt., and The Village Voice in New York.
Ms. Hunt, who lives in the state with her husband, journalist Joe Hagan, and their three children, has published three novels and a collection of short stories. Her first novel, “The Seas,” earned the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. Her second, “The Invention of Everything Else,” based on the life of Nikola Tesla, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. In 2017 she published her short story collection ‘The Dark Dark’ and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction.
“Her sensitivity is like an antenna for the uncanny,” said writer and editor Ed Park, who collaborated with Ms Hunt on The Village Voice.
Ms Hunt said she recently discovered a story she’d written in her early twenties about two girls on a road trip. The girl behind the wheel talks all the time while the other is silent. (Fans of her novels will recognize this twist.) “Of course the girl in the back seat turns out to be dead,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I’ve been writing the same story for 25 years.”
Some readers have been paying attention for almost as long. “Sam has been writing consistently innovative, eccentric and compelling books for the past 20 years,” said poet and essayist Maggie Nelson, who wrote an introduction to a reissue of “The Seas.” “Her work is always feminist in a very profound way, that is, it speaks to difference while enabling fascinating cross-identifications and new metaphysical possibilities.”
Before the family moved into the Pound Ridge house, Diane Hunt begged all the ghosts to stay hidden. “I said, ‘If there are ghosts here, that’s fine. You’re welcome to stay. But don’t let me see you,’ she said. “And they never have.”
Thanks to the original stone chimney and American chestnut floors, made in the 18th century from a tree species that is now virtually extinct, the past is always present. “I was always aware of how many families had lived here before mine,” said Samantha Hunt.
The most vibrant domestic spirit belongs to her father, who condensed books as part of his work at Reader’s Digest. The family thinks he will be visiting in the form of cardinals, Ms Hunt said. Her mother added that once, when she lost her wedding ring, she asked her late husband where it was. Almost immediately she found it “in a pile of rubble in a purse in the hall,” she said.
Walter Hunt preferred Gilbey’s gin and Schlitz beer, and his drinking meant that Mrs. Hunt and her siblings were always on the lookout. “The children of alcoholics are detectives, alert to the slightest changes in smell, behavior and language,” she writes in “The Unwritten Book.”
She also notes in the book that his ashes are still in the house, in a cookie jar marked “Walter Victorious.”
‘It may be lost again,’ said Mrs Hunt during my visit. She turned to her mother. “We had it about a year ago, remember?”
She left the kitchen and went upstairs.
“Look behind the bishop’s pew!” her mother called, referring to a fold-out table in the hallway.
Mrs. Hunt returned a few minutes later, a little out of breath.
“He was in the attic,” she said.
She was carrying her father’s briefcase, the same one he took to the Reader’s Digest office in his Oldsmobile Starfire. In the living room, she opened it to reveal the tin containing his ashes, a stack of condolence letters and an old lottery ticket.
“He was a big fan of lotteries,” said Mrs. Hunt. “He played every day.”
“Oh yes, every day,” her mother said.
The title of “The Unwritten Book” comes from his unfinished novel, which Mrs. Hunt discovered on his desk shortly after his death. She includes excerpts from it between her essays, with annotations to reveal the connections between his fiction and the family.
“My dad liked puzzle books and tricks and games,” she said, “so he’d be happy to think something strange happened to his work.”