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Writing the Great American/Canadian Novel

A year after she moved to New York, Jane Breakell had a life-changing epiphany.

From the frustration and pain of a failed relationship, she says, “boiled an impulse to write a story – to create and control my own world and characters.” Breakell recalls reading through her first effort “with horror.” But she enjoyed the creative process, and after writing a few more stories, came to a startling realization: “I liked this new activity more than anything else I’d ever done.”

She soon learned that Hunter College liked her writing. To the surprise of the Syracuse University graduate who’d foreseen a career in international relations and worked as a policy researcher in Washington, D.C., her MFA applications were accepted by both Hunter and Columbia. She chose the program that was the most affordable, and that boasted Peter Carey, Claire Messud, Colum McCann and Chris Adrian – teachers she considered “the best possible people from whom to learn both art and craft.”

At Hunter, Breakell started the novel that won her the Fulbright. Set in New England and Nova Scotia, and moving between modern and colonial times, the story begins with a shipping accident inspired by an actual 1930s collision between a cruise ship and a floating lighthouse.

Thematically, Breakell says, “It’s about being at sea, trying to find a place where you belong.”

It’s also historically ambitious. Breakell describes her work as a chronicle of “Northeastern North America’s unique spiritual and cultural heritage, and its ongoing legacy on both sides of the border.” The primary colonial characters are based on Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan spiritual leader banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for opposing conventional religious doctrine, and Henry Alline, an 18th-century New England emigrant to Nova Scotia.

Breakell is very familiar with coastal New England, where she was born and raised. But she needs to learn a great deal more about Nova Scotia, the other main setting. She’ll use her Fulbright to travel and spend a year there, conducting research and immersing herself in the culture, landscape and local community.

Her goal is a book that not only finds a publisher and engrosses and entertains a wide audience, but also – as she told the Fulbright program – “will provoke American and Canadian readers to think deeply about our common heritage as colonists of the New World, ways in which we remain similar and ways in which we have diverged, and what we can learn from one another.”

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