“It’s not comfortable, what I’m doing,” says Hester Kaplan, with a cryptic smile. “I’m protective about showing stuff too early. I’m going to be a little cagey.”
Kaplan is being cagey about her latest book project, How Mark Twain Helped Me Find My Father, for which she recently received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is her second such fellowship, but now, after years of writing short stories and novels, Kaplan is drafting a nonfiction manuscript.
“The freedoms of fiction were starting to limit me somewhat,” says Kaplan, who teaches creative writing for both Lesley University and Goat Hill Writers, a local organization she co-founded. “At some point, you have to find your own material. It’s the one thing you own.”
Not long ago, Kaplan published a short story, “The Biographer,” in a literary journal. This story was partly based on her father, who became a professional writer in his mid-thirties, when Kaplan was about seven years old. Kaplan grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and both her parents were authors. Before he passed away five years ago, Justin Kaplan wrote several biographies, including a first book about Mark Twain.
“Writing that story was the turning point for me,” says Kaplan, who had loosely based the short story on her father. “There was only so far I could go before it became nonfiction.”
For the duration of her fellowship, Kaplan will write a book about her father’s book. Despite her father’s expertise in Gilded Age wit, Kaplan had never read the biography, nor had she experienced much Twain. “That was my father’s thing,” she says. To Kaplan, the material was too close. “It’s like living in New York and never going to the Empire State Building.”
While Kaplan has made significant headway, she is still reluctant to categorize the work, even for her agent. She has fond memories of her father, and the project is not a memoir. In short, she plans to explore his real-life character through his own exploration of a real-life character. “My father was very much an enigma,” she says. “But I think [my parents] gave me a very realistic sense of what it means to spend your life writing. If you choose to spend your life that way, it’s incredibly hard work.” To learn more about Kaplan’s books, awards, and teaching, visit HesterKaplan.com