‘It’s always miraculous how we become who we are’

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Bill Eville ’87 next to text reading: PAWCAST: Bill Eville ’87 on Writing a Memoir
Photo by Jeanna Shepard
Photo by Jeanna Shepard

Bill Eville ’87 always wanted to be a writer, but for a long time, he didn’t think it would happen. He studied economics at Princeton and tried working at a bank, and neither was the right fit. But life takes some interesting twists, and this month, Eville — who’s now editor of the Vineyard Gazette — has published a memoir. In Washed Ashore: Family, Fatherhood, and Finding Home on Martha’s Vineyard, he tells the story of how he found his voice, and on the PAWcast, he lends his insight to other aspiring writers.


Liz Daugherty: For years, Bill Eville ’87 has been writing down his life in bits and pieces, publishing essays about parenthood, childhood memories, and yes, being a Princeton alum. Now he’s gone further and written a book, a memoir called Washed Ashore that’s filled with his thoughts about high school wrestling matches, marrying a minister who fought breast cancer, moving from New York City to Martha’s Vineyard, becoming a stay-at-home dad, and later the editor of the local newspaper. If all of this sounds ordinary, well, maybe it is. But in the hands of this writer a pattern emerges: Life’s unexpected turns can change you in extraordinary ways — if you let them. 

So Bill, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Bill Eville: Thanks for having me, it’s great to be here.

LD: So let’s start with the book. Why did you decide to write a memoir? 

BE: That is a very good question. It’s not like I got up one day, looked in the mirror, and said, “You’re awesome, everybody wants to hear about your life,” which is the big fear about the memoir. 

For years I’ve been — I’ve sort of — I started writing and I focused on fiction and I never really got to the core of it. But then when I started writing personal essays in The New York Times and the Vineyard Gazette and various other places, there was something that happened. Something that happened that I was emotionally attached to on a level. And so throughout the years I’ve been writing these essays and after a while you write enough personal essays, people connect with them and they say, “These are great,” and then you start thinking, maybe I should write something longer. Or at least that’s what it was in my case. 

And I saw a lot of themes that I thought could be universal. My wife is a minister, so there’s the faith journey. I’m not religious, so that makes it kind of interesting. The parenting journey, the journey to find vocation and avocation, and the highs and lows of life, whether it’s my wife’s breast cancer or a kid’s home run, whatever. 

So I thought, why don’t I go for it? And I started by trying to write about my wife’s cancer. And this was looking back now years later. And it was terrible. It was like I could not connect. It was too far in the past. So I went back and started looking at my essays that were written during that time and felt the immediacy, felt the emotion, resaw, relived. And I thought, I’m not going to write it better than I did these moments in my life, these episodes, when they were happening. And that’s when I saw a different type of structure and thought, oh I could do this. Plus, I have a busy full-time job. So it’s like how do you fit it all in? 

But when I laid out these essays I saw this bookend kind of from the kids’ toddler years until it ends with my oldest son going away to college, which, I still get choked up when I say that, because he left last year. And I thought, wow, here are these emotionally resonant episodes that I’m now looking back at and I can reshape them and fit them together and write pieces — the what I called glue — to make them form both individual moments but a fuller narrative. And that was the idea.

LD: There were so many stages of this process. It goes back a really long time. Because you were taking classes at The Writers Studio in New York for like 10 years, right? And you went to grad school for writing in Florida. And then of course there’s the whole world of publishing that you had to navigate. So can you talk a little bit about all the how of how you go about writing a book like this?

BE: So the how and like how I wake up before my critic wakes up, before my kids wake up, before my dog wakes up, and I go to the basement and I light two candles, and — in the dark — and I have my coffee while my two candles are flickering. And first thing I do is I write 300 words every day about nothing, just blabbing, sort of that artist — The Artist’s Way, the Julia Cameron book, which is actually great, because just 300 words of nothing. And then I turn to writing about whatever the essay is I’m working on. And that’s in a nutshell of the sort of when and how and why. 

But the key is visiting it every day, every morning, which every writer says, and you hope that you’re not the one, hope you can just visit it once a week, but you can’t. Because what happens: Say my morning routine is 20 minutes, say it’s 45 minutes, whatever it is. If I visit it every day, the rest of the day it’s mulching. So I’m driving around, I’m walking around with this essay that may have started with just a sentence or just a moment that I sort of was connected to, whether — I may not even know why — whether it’s just having to tell my daughter like in one of the things that this half-wild half-tame rabbit had died. And I’m not wanting to tell her. And weeks go on, not wanting to tell her. Then like huh, there’s something in here. Because I don’t even want to address this. So then you start to nibble away at the essay. And then you’re walking around with it each day. And then the essay starts to expand, it just doesn’t become about a pet rabbit, it becomes about my daughter getting older, my getting older, my looking back, my time with pets, whatever, all those other things just start to visit me throughout the day, and the essay takes shape. So that’s how the essays kind of evolve. 

Speaking to the point, then, how does it find its way into the world as a book? One of my essays, this was written during COVID, became one of the Modern Love essays in the New York Times, which is a very nice platform, I found out. Everybody reads that. And was very exciting. And when that went out, the tiny Bill Eville website which maybe gets one visitor a year suddenly gets 10,000 in one day. It’s like, oh, my God, people saw this. And a literary agent saw it. And so he reached out and said, “Hey, what else are you working on? Do you have a book? What’s going on?” So that’s what helped me start to get even more excited. I’d already started to think about it, but that started like, oh, there’s a guy out there who wants to read this. So that was huge. 

And then when I finished what I felt was a good first draft of this journey, before I sent it to the agent I sent it to five Princeton friends to see what they would think. And these are friends going back to freshman or sophomore year. These are friends, family, whatever — they’re blood. They’re orange Princeton blood. And I knew I’d get an honest answer. They walked with me now for God only knows how many decades. And so it was exciting and scary when they said, “Yes, we’d read this thing.” And then each one read it, and each one got back to me and overall saying, “Yes, this is more than a few essays strung together, this is real, this is a book.” And great feedback about where things should go, how the narrative could flow. And I’m going to name those people: Alex Lebenthal ’86, Jay Diamond ’86, Dave Crisanti ’86, Mia Freund ’87, and Mike Vatis ’85. So that was my crew in the beginning. 

And then after I got their feedback and reshaped and rethought, then I sent it to my agent, or who was maybe going to be my agent, but then became, so Andrew Blauner. And then I remember he called me a week later and I was driving along the Vineyard and I pulled over next to the beach and he told me how much he loved it and that’s when I started crying because someone I don’t know actually likes it. And then he started then with some more revisions. He started shopping it out to publishers, and the big houses all sent very nice rejections. He would send me some of them. Like they loved the writing, loved the idea, but it was too quiet. I guess that’s the phrase for “not for us.” But they were nice rejections. And then eventually a smaller publisher, Godine, based out of Boston, that’s been around for like 100 years, and is known for creating, really paying attention and taking care on the editing and the book, what it looks like, Joshua Bodwell, the editor there, he said yes, and then we started working together. And then another year goes by as we’re working on the editing and shaping it because now I have another awesome outside eye. And May 16th it goes out into the world.

LD: Terrific. Do you have any advice for alumni who might be interested in writing their own memoirs?

BE: Oh yeah, that’s a tough one. I teach writing a lot to the high school kids. I work with them on their college essays, it’s something I do for free here on the island. And for me with anyone who wants to write, write. It’s sort of like there’s — it took me so long to give myself permission first to admit that I wanted to be a writer. At Princeton I was an economics major, was miserable, I didn’t like economics, but felt I had to do it. I was not good at it. I was put in Lit 151; when you sign up and you have to write your essay to see which class you get in, I got in Lit 151, which is the bottom, so I thought, I’m a terrible writer. Princeton told me I was. Not that they really did but this is what you internalize. 

And then it wasn’t until moving to New York City and having this thing in the back of my mind that I always wanted to write that I started taking classes at The Writers Studio. And that freed me up to start writing. And the way The Writers Studio, their form or their practice is really focusing on creating a narrator. It’s all about the persona that’s telling the story. It’s not the plot, whatever, you weren’t thinking about that. It’s like, how do you just become a persona. It’s almost like acting: Who’s the person you’re going to be to tell the story? You might be too shy. Well, you can create a persona who’s loud and this. Or you might want to be shy. And each week we’d read a page or a chapter and then we’d write a page. 

And I still remember the first day. It was, we read a bit of The Catcher in the Rye. And then we were told to become Holden Caulfield. Not his world, my world, my small-town Jersey world. But writing at it from the perspective of Holden Caulfield. And each week we did that. And what happened is I just became so free, taking on these different personas. 

And so in terms of advice of writing a memoir, yes, there’s the plot of your life. But how are you going to tell it? Who’s going to tell it for you? Are you going to tell it first-person? Third-person? Whatever. But that freedom to write, to feel I was under the power of a narrator that was not me but was me just let me have so much fun. One professor once told me story, he’s like, “Someone said, ‘I want to write!’” He’s like, “Well, do you love sentences?” The person was like, “Huh.” But yeah, love your sentences.

LD: You just touched on something that I thought I might ask you about because we’re in graduation season and we have students who are graduating from high school, they’re graduating from college, and you have a lot in your book about how a young person launches into the world and how you went about doing that. And the decision to major in economics after doing badly on a writing test, even though writing was something that you had always seen yourself doing, I thought was really — really kind of spoke to that freshman experience.

BE: The ignorance. The stupidity.

LD: Well, and the making of decisions maybe — I don’t know — maybe not for the right reasons, or maybe it was the right decision and you were meant to do it, I don’t know. But I was wondering. If you could go back in time to your freshman self, making that decision in that moment, what would you do? Would you do it the same or would you do something different?

BE: Oh, I would do it so differently. But in a sense, you say making decisions, I feel like for so long I didn’t make decisions. I just went with the flow. One decision I made that was great. I wanted to go to Princeton since I was [in] eighth grade, not because Princeton was a good school, but because they held the state championship wrestling there every year for New Jersey and I was a New Jerseyite, I was a wrestler, I wanted to go to the states, and so it was all about Jadwin Gym. That’s why I wanted to go to Princeton. Luckily it was a good school, too. But that was a decision I made. 

But then in college I didn’t make decisions. At least academically. I made social decisions. And for me the Princeton experience is really about what happened to me socially in a wonderful, incredible way. My peers who are my dearest friends today, who, I continue to meet new Princeton people in my 50’s, and it just — there’s some sort of crazy bond with them. But that was beyond anything I could have hoped for in terms of beauty. 

But so, going back to my freshman self, I often think all of the incredible writers I did not study with. Toni Morrison. John McPhee ’53. I’d be like, oh, my God. But I wouldn’t have been ready for that. Or it might have squashed me because it would have been too much or whatever. I found the right writing teacher at the right time in my 20’s, the right person to show me the key to unlock my creative potential which might not have happened. I might have majored in literature, writing at Princeton and never wrote again because of — it wasn’t the right time. So it’s really tricky to do it differently. Yes, I would have wished I had some more agency. 

But then another decision I made, Princeton decision, which was key, so I went out, got in New York, and then was in banking, and I tried to fit myself into various banking spots, even working for an economic and political newsletter thinking, oh, maybe that’s a little more creative. What I finally realized, I need to leave everything I know in order to really find myself or at least find out what I actually like to do. And I signed up for Princeton in Asia and was accepted and got a post in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Moved there in the late ’80s and was in a place I had no clue. I’ll tell you how ridiculous I was. When graduating from — right after Princeton and a couple of us did a European trip, and I loaded up on U.S. stamps thinking when I’m over there I can send a lot of letters, people I want to send to. That’s how much of an idiot I was, not realizing different countries have their own stamps. So that’s how much I needed to get going and get out in the world. So spending a year in Thailand with another guy in Chiang Mai, Tom MacFarlane ’88, year behind me. We were mutual life support systems, as we think of each other, and are dear friends still. 

I really started to think about what I like to do or who am I, what do I want, and I came up with — which is so, thinking back to the freshman, yes, eventually try to see, pull yourself out of the other different things and have your own agency. What would you like? And I came up with two things in Thailand: I like to read books and watch movies. Which was why when I came back I did two things: I banged on a thousand doors and finally got into the movie business, and I started taking writing classes. And from there, the movie business was incredible, suddenly I was in a creative field, there was writing, but as I got higher in the ranks and was working with screenwriters, adapting books or whatever, it kept this thing in the back of my mind was, I’m not deep enough in myself, I’m helping other writers achieve what they want, I’m telling their story or helping them tell their story. And I had one of these what I call sort of — I do this sort of deathbed decision sometimes. It’s like well, on my deathbed would I rather think back and say, “I helped some other people make some good movies,” or would I rather have a book in my hand that I wrote. I decided on the book in my hand. So I turned down Ridley Scott for a vice president of development job. Can you believe how ridiculous that is? Still haunts me. But I knew if I took that job I wouldn’t become a writer.

LD: That’s really interesting. I think — I don’t think every student gets that kind of an opportunity or even thinks about, who do I want to be? Sometimes it just feels like your life is so scripted and you’re just going from high school achievement to college achievement to after college achievement. You’re kind of just chasing what you think you’re supposed to do. As opposed to trying to figure it out.

BE: Yeah. And I probably wouldn’t have been able to figure it out if the thing I was choosing to do wasn’t writing. Because by writing you’re also — you’re tapping into some inner place that I think helped me and I would — there was this moment. I remember it so vividly. I’m in a library and I’m still sort of in this “where am I going, what’s happening.” I think I was probably in the film industry at this point. But I’m in the library and it’s this whole row of Paris Reviews. And the Paris Review has all of these incredible interviews with writers going back to whenever. And I look down this row and I’m reading one, probably Marquez or somebody like that. And I’m in absolute heaven. And I thought to myself, “Oh no. I’m doomed. If this is what I love I’m going to have to be a writer and it’s going to be a life,” it’s guaranteed not to make you much money, guaranteed to do this. But I just was so happy in that spot I decided well, there you go. But it was not a feeling of elate — it was mixed.

LD: There was another later decision, I wanted to ask you about as well, which stood out to me. You became a stay-at-home dad, which should not be as uncommon as it is. But it is a little unusual, and pretty cool, I think. Can you talk about that at all?

BE: Yeah. And that was sort of — I went back. So once I said no to Ridley Scott and said, “I guess I’m all in, I really am going to do this thing,” so that’s when I started applying to grad schools to get an MFA in writing. And so at the age of 38 my wife and I, Cathlin Baker, and my God, she kept saying yes to all these things that I’d say, “Let’s take this turn.” But she has faith, she’s a minister. And she had faith in me, which, I’ll start crying if I keep going. But we’ll go. 

But so we drove down to Tallahassee, Florida, because I was going to go to Florida State, there were some incredible writers there and teachers that I wanted to study with. And so we went down there at age 38, which was like whoa, already. And then when we got down there, we’d been living in New York for so long and it’s fast-paced and everything’s going on and I’m working so much in film and working ’till midnight. Different things. We get down there, we’re like — kind of look around and we’re like, “Wow, we’re poorer than we’ve ever been. But it seems like we could actually have a child.” We could do this now. It wasn’t like in New York.

So our first child Hardy was born, the guy who stabbed me in the back recently, I told you, by not going to Princeton, turning it down for Yale. But he was born the second summer so after my first year there. And so that first year I was in school, Cathlin was working as a hospice chaplain and we sort of — we co-parented as best we could that first year because we were both doing things. And then she got a great offer for a job back in New York at Union Seminary, where she had attended, but now working as chief of staff for the president. So I said, “I’m finishing up here, I want to write, let’s do this. I’ll be the stay-at-home dad, you go to work.” And we were living on campus at Union so it was great. She was there, wasn’t like she was far away. But that’s how the decision kind of went. 

And then I quickly found out wow, stay-at-home dad is hard. It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. The emotional highs and lows. You have to make dinner, too, it’s not just taking care of the kid. So I had no time to write. But it was incredible material for a writer and it was an incredible — I say was because then eventually we came to the Vineyard and eventually your kids grow up and you’re not just stay-at-home. But it was the thing that pulled me more into who I am at my best and worst day. And there’s a bit in the book where I — there was another stay-at-home dad in the sandbox. And he was like smiling and saying, “Isn’t this a great job, greatest job in the world?” And I just wanted to punch him, wrestle him right there, like “What are you, crazy?” But looking back, I am so glad that I had that opportunity.

LD: So how did you end up at the Vineyard Gazette?

BE: It’s been incredible. It came sort out of left field, but not really. My habit, going back to changing careers, what I’ve also done, some people change careers and stay at the level. I start all the way again because it’s a completely different industry, which is kind of weird. 

But we moved to the Vineyard, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I have the Vineyard ties, my mom’s side goes back to the 1700s, they were whalers, so I spent every summer in my grandparents’ small cottage. The Vineyard is such a place of my heart and soul, but I didn’t know what I was going to do there. I had an inkling that it might have something to do with the Vineyard Gazette because I had been reading it since I was a kid. It’s been around since 1846, it’s got an incredible history of writing, of news, of this place. It focuses on the Vineyard. So I thought maybe there’d be something there.

But when we first moved there, I was a stay-at-home dad, but I started sending them essays, just life with my kids, whatever, and they were publishing them, never reaching out to say,“Who is this guy?” They would just sort of publish them and I would see it, like that’s nice. And then a couple months would go by. But then two years after we got there — and during this I was commuting back to New York to tutor SATs, because it’s lucrative in New York, it was kind of a mixed-up kind of a time. So they finally had an opening, just before summer started in 2010, for this calendar entry. So I applied, going, I’ve got to do something. 

And yeah, it’s hard. And grueling, because summer was about to start, there’s so many activities on the Vineyard, and you’re making sure everyone’s in there and all this stuff, and it was hard. And I almost left after a day. I was like, “This is nuts.” But then the next day when it wasn’t — it had a little downtime I realized, oh, my job is to write. I can do that, too. I’m on the inside. And I wrote a piece about Father’s Day and then later in the summer I wrote a story, more of a feature on someone, a local filmmaker. And it was just like, oh, this is heaven. I’m writing and I’m writing about the place I love. And because the Vineyard is two things, it’s a small, small town, deserted in the winter, and has all of those pluses and minuses of a small town, I would say mostly pluses, and then in the summer it becomes a worldwide destination. So you get to experience these very different worlds that all come together and write about them. And the people who come here or the people who live here. It’s such a rich place in terms of people, personalities, and subject matter. 

So I just kept doing what I was doing, writing more, and then I became assistant editor and then I became managing editor after a few years. And then the editor, Julia Wells, who I owe so much to, she was my first reader on so many of my essays, or all of my Gazette essays, and just has been an instrumental part of my life and growth as a writer and a person, she retired. And so I took on the editorship. So I’ve been there 13 years.

LD: So now the buck stops with you.

BE: Exactly. Yeah. Lots of pressure. But it’s fun. It’s just the people I work with, the coworkers, we often feel like a sitcom. It’s so much fun, there’s different personalities, they’re so talented. And it’s really a beautiful place. And you just end up knowing everything about the island because you’ve got your eyes on everything. And then Gov. Ron DeSantis will send migrants to our island and we become a national story. It’s really incredible the different things that happen here.

LD: You might be in a good position to — and maybe this is a nice note to end on. Given the work you’ve done with young people and writing, experiences you’ve had as a parent, kind of all this introspection that went into writing the story of who you are, what advice would you give students who are starting Princeton next year?

BE: That’s a really good question and it’s also a hard question. I always think we’re all such individuals, so what worked for me or didn’t work for me may not have any bearing on anybody else. But thinking back to — kind of goes with one of your earlier questions — looking back, what would I do differently? And I really wish I wasn’t so afraid. I wasn’t so afraid of not succeeding or succeeding, of fitting in, of being alone, basically afraid to try anything new. So I think we can’t get away from nerves, they’re always a part of our life, but try not to make decisions based on being afraid. Which of course is much easier said than done. 

And another way, too: I’m a sucker for origin stories. I just love origin stories. So whenever I’m interviewing somebody I always want to know how they became who they are. What was the road? And it’s just never a straight line, of course. It zigs, it zags. It’s filled with setbacks and heartbreaks. But it’s always miraculous how we become who we are. 

And so to freshmen I would say, really understand that you’re embarking on a huge, huge chapter of your origin story. Embrace it. Live your own origin story and nobody else’s.

LD: I love that. Well, you know what, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today.

BE: Liz, this was so awesome. I could keep going forever. 

PAWcast is a monthly interview podcast produced by the Princeton Alumni Weekly. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Soundcloud. You can read transcripts of every episode on our website, paw.princeton.edu. Music for this podcast is licensed from Universal Production Music.