Fiction set in USA and EUROPE: the life of Maria Callas
Talking Location With… author Céline Keating – MONTAUK
8th November 2023
#TalkingLocationWtih… Céline Keating, author of The Stark Beauty of Last Things, set in MONTAUK, Long Island.
Dubbed “The End” for its wild topography and “edge of the world” ambiance, Montauk, a small peninsula at the tip of Long Island, feels a world away from Manhattan, only 118 miles distant. Jutting into the Atlantic ocean, Montauk’s waves crash along miles of spectacular beaches and coves, attracting surfers and fishermen, hikers and beach lovers. I fell under its spell the first time I visited, late at night in deep winter, when a boyfriend and I drove three hours to stand under its majestic iconic lighthouse, commissioned in 1796 by President George Washington. A few years later I camped for a weekend on the beach with the man who would become my husband; it was off season and we walked through the dunes to the water, sun and salt on our skin, breathing in the scents of the sea and the rosa regosa that covered the dune grass. I knew I had found my soul place. I began taking notes for what would decades later become my novel The Stark Beauty of Last Things.
The hamlet of Montauk is a little bit funky, with motels lining the shore that date back to the 1960s. There are also upscale spas, a shopping and eating plaza in the dock area, and a lively downtown with stores and restaurants and a central green. There’s a community garden on the grounds of one of the churches and a vibrant community of artists, environmentalists, locals and second-home owners.
Montauk also has a rich history. The peninsula derives its name from the Montauketts, an Algonquian-speaking tribe that inhabited the area before the arrival of European settlers. Traces remain of their time on the peninsula, from “Indian Fields” near Big Reed Pond to displays and artifacts in the hamlet’s Indian museum.
The military left a more recent imprint. In 1781, the British HMS Culloden ran aground while pursuing a French frigate, and the ship’s remains were discovered in the 1970s. It is now an underwater park for divers, the only one in New York State. In 1898, the U.S. Army established Camp Wikoff to quarantine personnel returning from the Spanish-American War; among them were Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. During World War II, the Army established Camp Hero, near the lighthouse. Concrete bunker observation posts were disguised so they resembled a fishing village when seen from above. In 1957, the US Air Force built a 100-foot-wide radar tower there; the bunkers and radar station are still standing in what is now Camp Hero, a state park.
As various parcels of military and other land came up for sale in the later part of the 20th century, there were applications to put in large-scale housing developments. This pressure to build was met by a fierce determination by local environmentalists. Thanks to their efforts, the Montauk peninsula is 70% preserved land in state, county, and federal parks.
In my novel I take my characters outdoors on some of my favorite hikes: near the lighthouse, in the ethereal Walking Dunes, through the woods of Amsterdam Beach. One of my favorite scenes is when my character Clancy walks the trail to the Shadmoor cliffs after a snowfall and experiences for the first time the exhilaration and wonder of nature. Shadmoor was saved from development because of a tiny, nearly extinct plant called the sandplain gerardia. While those are rarely seen, hoodoos, the other unique feature of Shadmoor, are impossible to miss. These formations are created from the wind and wave action of the ocean munching away at the cliffs.
Montauk is also a fishing mecca, home to the largest commercial and recreational fishing fleet in New York State. This subculture also found its way into my novel. One character falls in love with a fisherman; another works in a dockside bar and lives in a mobile home near a surfing beach.
Once considered a stepchild of the glitzy “Hamptons,” Montauk has been discovered in recent years. Mom and pop eateries, shops, and motels that had been in the hands of local families have been snapped up by financial entities; small homes are replaced by trophy houses. My characters began to feel threatened by these changes. They were alarmed by sea level rise and the resultant beach erosion. Small sandy areas of the coast have begun to disappear.
My desire to highlight these problems animated my novel as well. In The Stark Beauty of Last Thingsmy characters struggle with how to balance their personal goals with those of their community and with that of the environment they love. This is an urgent question not just for Montauk but for many coastal communities the world over.
The author is an award-winning writer formerly of New York City and now living in Bristol, Rhode Island. She is the author of two novels, Layla (2011), a Huffington Post featured title, and the award-winning Play for Me (2015). Her short fiction has been published in such literary journals as Prairie Schooner, Santa Clara Review, and more. She has contributed articles to AcousticGuitar, Coastal Living, Writers’ Digest, and Poets & Writers magazines, and is the co-editor of On Montauk, A Literary Celebration. Céline grew up in Queens, New York. She earned a Masters in Creative Writing from City College, CUNY. For many years a resident of Montauk, New York, she serves on the board of environmental organization Concerned Citizens of Montauk.
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