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Q&A with Elyssa East author of ‘Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town’

dogtown

Book signings
Elyssa East’s readings and signings are free and open to the public:
7 p.m. Sunday. Eyedrum, 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive S.E., Atlanta. 404-522-0655, www.eyedrum.org.


7 p.m. Monday. Kennesaw State University, University Room B in the Student Center, 1000 Chastain Road, Kennesaw, 770-423-6000, www.kennesaw.edu.


6:45 p.m. March 3. St. James Episcopal Church, 161 Church St., Marietta, 770-428-9961, www.stjamesmarietta.com.

By Bob Townsend

The eerie landscape and haunted history of Dogtown — an abandoned 3,000-acre expanse in Gloucester, Mass. — inspired and obsessed writer and Atlanta native Elyssa East.

In her new book, “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town” (Free Press, $26), the otherworldly atmosphere of the wilderness area becomes the setting for a true crime story, as well as East’s explorations of the spell it casts over nearby communities.
East was first drawn to Dogtown by the paintings of American modernist artist Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). She describes Hartley’s oddly evocative renderings of the place’s mammoth glacial rock formations as “gloomy,” resembling “gargantuan cheese cubes’’ or “giant chewed fingernails.’’

The curiosity of an art student turned into a 10-year project as East uncovered the fascinating tales of pirates, witches, poets and naturalists who once lived in Dogtown. And in the book’s central narrative, East recounts the grisly 1984 murder of schoolteacher Anne Natti while probing the psyche of the disturbed young killer, Peter Hodgkins.

East will be in Atlanta for a series of readings and book signings beginning Sunday. Recently, she called from her home in New York City to talk about “Dogtown.”

Q: Could you talk a bit about growing up in Atlanta and attending the Paideia School?
A:
I was born in Marietta and grew up there for the most part. I was at Paideia for two years. Paideia is actually where I took my first art history class, and I ended up studying art history in college. One of the things I wanted to do with “Dogtown” was to write the biography of a landscape. I grew up next to Kennesaw Mountain, and I spent a lot of time on the mountain and in the park, so some of the seeds for the book were planted there.

Q: Do you remember the specific moment when you knew you would write a book about Dogtown?
A:
It came over a period of time. But it was in the fall of 2001. I’d only been in New York something like 10 days before 9 /11 happened. I remember coming back from a trip to Gloucester and seeing the Empire State Building and having this feeling that the world could just disappear. But I’d just come from this place that had lasted for some 400 years and I just had to write about that. That was a hopeful thought, even though the spirit of Dogtown is very elegiac and dark.

Q. Was it a difficult book to write?
A.
Well, it just took a long time. But there was a time when it locked into place. It just seemed logical and clear. The history chapters took longer than the murder chapters. But I tried to think of each chapter as a short story that fit into a larger whole.

Q: You interviewed the killer, Peter Hodgkins, in prison. What are your thoughts about him now?
A:
What I think about Peter is somewhat complicated. I do believe that he’s a victim of something. What is it? Is it a mental illness? Was it something that happened in his upbringing? Some people are abused and bullied but they don’t grow up to be murderers.

Q. What’s been the reaction to the book around Gloucester?
A.
People have really been great about it. I think they appreciate how the story of the murder was treated. I did take a lot of pains to lay that out very carefully. And I think they were just glad that someone was telling the story of Dogtown and it’s real history and not just writing a novel about it.

Q: What’s next for you?
A:
I haven’t settled into what I’m doing next. I have two nonfiction projects, but I’m not ready to talk about that yet. I want to keep writing about place and how place affects people.

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