Martha Elliott ’73 worked as a journalist following graduation and had written a non-fiction book. But her wish was to finish a novel she had started 15 years ago. With life’s responsibilities taking up much of her energies, she had no time to work on the book. That is, until she heard about Vassar’s Time-Out Grant.
Endowed by an anonymous Vassar graduate, the competitive award for alumnae/i ages 40 and older seeking to make a career change or pursue another endeavor will provide Elliott with $45,000 and the financial freedom to focus on the book she began so long ago.
“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since March, when I found out about it,” she says.
“When I still lived on the East Coast, just as a fluke, I had an idea and I wrote down about three pages. I let a friend of mine, who’d been in publishing, read them,” Elliott says. “If she had told me it was terrible, I would have just thrown it away and been done with it.”
Last year, another friend—Judy Kohl, Dutchess Community College professor, dorm house mother, and spouse of former Vassar professor Ben Kohl—read 30 pages and asked if there were more.
“She said she thought the book had merit. I valued her opinion and I wanted to finish it,” Elliott says.
The book is about a New York City reporter who receives an assignment involving religion, but she doesn’t want it. As the daughter of an Episcopal priest, the character is averse to organized religion and the subject matter, which is to see if the world’s Messiah has come.
As often happens, circumstances pulled Elliott away from her novel and in a new direction when her now-ex-husband moved the family to the West Coast for a job, she says. Regular employment was a necessity for Elliott and she began a career teaching high school history.
As the novel got put on the back burner, Elliott worked on other projects, including a non-fiction book that will be published by Penguin Group this year. The Man in the Monster is about convicted serial rapist and murderer Michael Ross, with whom Elliott communicated while he lived on death row in Connecticut.
The relationship began when she was editor at the Connecticut Law Tribune and continued for 10 years, until his execution in 2005. Elliott’s story shone a light on how untreated mental illness and prosecutorial misconduct impacted the case.
Though heady stuff, writing non-fiction is in a different league than writing fiction, Elliott says. “Even though I had a career as a journalist and I have written books that are non-fiction, making the jump into fiction felt hugely impossible,” she notes with a healthy dose of mirth. “I didn’t have the time or the track record to write a novel.”
The Time-Out Grant will bring plenty of changes to Elliott’s life. In June, she’ll leave her job teaching at a private school in Santa Barbara and move to her cottage in Maine for a year to concentrate on her novel.
“I would not be able to do this without the grant,” she says.
--Photo courtesy of subject