Take a walk any morning through the gates of the Yglesias family’s place. The rambling orchard is thick with huge old apple and pear trees, the ancient barn is emptied now of everything but firewood and junk. Almost the only sound disturbing the pastoral quiet of their 15-acre coastal farm in North Brooklin, Maine is the sporadic clacking of typewriters.
The farm hasn’t been worked since before World War I. But its harvest is as generous today as any it yielded before: a bumper crop of novels, articles and stories seeded and nourished in this one-family writers’ colony.
Jose Yglesias, 57, and wife Helen, 61, moved to Maine from the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1969—”when it got so bad we had to take the phone off the hook to get any work done,” Jose remembers.
At that time he was the family’s only author, and his short stories were appearing regularly in The New Yorker. Helen was literary editor of the Nation with a novel gathering dust. Her son from a previous marriage, Lewis Cole, 30, had been jailed for his role in the student strikes at Columbia University that year, and their own son, Rafael, was increasingly restless in high school and threatening to quit.
Since the move, the family name has appeared on six novels and numerous other works. In 1972 both Helen, at age 56, and Rafael, at 17, published first novels, and both have second novels out this year (Helen’s is Family Feeling and Rafael’s The Work Is Innocent). Lewis is working on two projects—a novel and a book about basketball—and Jose’s writing life has never been more fruitful: his fifth novel, The Kill Price, was published last spring, and a book he is writing about Franco’s Spain is due out in 1977. “It’s a great working situation,” Helen says, even though they miss the excitement of the city. “It’s fortunate we’re good company for one another, or we’d all go stir crazy.”
Both Jose and Helen were known Communist party members throughout the McCarthy era—and at some risk to Jose’s job. He was an executive with the pharmaceutical house of Merck, Sharpe & Dohme from 1951 to 1963, when he quit to devote full time to writing. “We actually had split with much the party stood for earlier than ’53,” he says, “but we thought we’d stay in while times were tough.”
Jose was one of the few American journalists allowed into Castro’s Cuba, and his book about it, In the Fist of the Revolution, came out in 1968—”just as Lewis closed down Columbia,” he recalls. “That overshadowed my publication party.”
Then, in 1969, Rafael, always a brilliant student, began wholesale class-cutting to work on his novel. “I felt school was slowing me down,” he says now. There were bitter family fights, until finally he showed Jose and Helen his manuscript. “We were floored at how good it was,” Jose remembers. Rafael dropped out and finished Hide Fox, and All After on his 16th birthday.
Today the family is joined on occasion by Helen’s daughter, Tamar, 32, who lives on a mountain in Vermont with her architect husband, Richard Lear, and their two children. (She is a writer of short stories, none of them yet published.)
Each day at the Yglesias homestead begins with a big family breakfast, after which they all peel off to separate workrooms. Jose and Helen go up a steep old staircase to the second floor, Rafael to a 200-year-old cabin out back, and Lewis to a beach house lined with books. After lunch they do chores, errands and research. After dinner it’s more writing, relaxing, reading aloud or talking about works-in-progress: often Helen’s memoir called Starting Late or Rafael’s new novel.
Their personal and professional situations may be ideal, but they still must scratch for a living. (The farm is their fallback: it cost $10,000, was renovated for $30,000 and is now worth about $100,000.) In spite of the critical acclaim, none of them has ever had a bestseller and their advances tend to be modest. “Publishers feel it’s an extraordinary privilege to make your living just by writing,” says Rafael. And Jose adds, “I tend to agree with W. H. Auden who said that publishers and editors are criminals.” Helen is more cheerful. “We live well,” she says. “We work hard, and we’re always in trouble about paying for this and that.”
By all accounts it is Helen whose “family feeling” keeps the house running smoothly. As she stokes her brood’s creative fires with home cooking, Jose remarks, “She could stand some liberation. The men in this family do a lot of frills like gardening and baking, but it’s she who puts that meal on the table.”
Helen admits that mothering postponed the novel she finally wrote but adds, “I don’t think it’s a waste of time to care for three human beings I love.”