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 you.
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 in Vermont 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.
So yep. 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.