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An Interview With Alice Gerard: Transcribing the Past

I was able to get the inside scoop on Alice Gerard’s latest project that focuses on transcribing the personal diaries of Nicholas Gensler. He was born in the village of Palisades in 1765, and one very notable event in his lifetime is the fact that he witnessed the hanging of John Andre, a British spy, during the American Revolution (being born in a colony and living in a new nation is another notable accomplishment).  Ms. Gerard has been transcribing his stories and is planning to publish them in the near future. Read here about her reasons, inspirations, and hopes for the book.

 

1.       Have you always been interested in publishing books?

No – I have always been a great reader, and writing was easy for me, but for years I wanted to be an archaeologist. I respected authors but didn’t expect to become one.

2.       Did you ever think you would be telling such an untold story of a man like Nicholas Gesner?

I first heard about Nicholas Gesner from my mother when I was in my teens, and for years I resisted the idea of getting involved with his diary, although I did help my mother with some of the translation-transcription when I was older – I’m not sure exactly when but perhaps after I had retired from teaching in 1990. I thought it would be very boring, and it can be if you only read a few pages and are not familiar with the characters. I never thought that I would be the person to finish her work.

You know, my mother and I are not the only people to have read large portions of the diary; both Winthrop Gilman, a 19th century Palisades historian and Carl Nordstrom, the author of a book titled “Frontier Elements in a Hudson River Village” probably read most of the diary and transcribed sections of it.

3.       What was so fascinating about this man that convinced you to transcribe all 1,600 pages of his diary?

I had several reasons for completing all 1600 pages. One was that my mother had spent years working on it and only completed about 400 of the 1600 pages. I realized that the document would be a treasure for 19th century historians and to do it properly I would have to do the whole thing. Also, I was curious about what I would discover in the pages that were left. She died in 2006 at the age of 105 – I wish I could tell her that I had finally completed her work.

4.       In transcribing his story, what story are you able to tell as an author?

When I began, I knew little about Nicholas Gesner’s life. Now that I am almost finished, I find myself at times mentally living in his world, the world of 19th century Palisades New York (then called Rockland). The differences between his life and mine are very great. I feel as though Nicholas is an old friend, a respected and talented man but at times a bit of a curmudgeon. And I see our community, where I have lived for 73 years, almost as a palimpest – a parchment containing a series of layers imposed one on top of the other. Nicholas’s house, which he built in 1794, still exists in Palisades.

5.       You have been involved in almost every part of publishing a book. Can you describe the differences between the process of writing as a journalist/historian and the process of transcribing/editing? Which is more preferable to you?

Transcribing the diary is just a means to the eventual research, not nearly as satisfying as writing. I’m not doing much editing with the Gesner Diary, because I want his words to speak for themselves. I enjoy research – I think one of the reasons I wanted to be an archaeologist was to help to solve some of the mysteries of our past history. I also enjoy desktop publishing: the process of laying out a book; finding appropriate illustrations; and producing an effective and attractive publication. I have never been interested in writing fiction, although in 1997 I wrote a series of stories about real children who had lived in Orangetown, New York in the past. It was published by the Historical Society of Rockland County as “Adventures from the Past.” I have written books on breast feeding, alternative schools, historic houses of Palisades, NY, and the archaeological site of Glozel, in France. I enjoyed writing all of them, as well as doing the layout for the recent ones. I don’t enjoy proofreading but it is a necessary evil.

6.       How has the diary of Gesner affected your life?

I began the transcription on January 1, 2013, and have been working on it constantly ever since then. I expect to transcribe the last page on May 20, 2014 but there is still more work to do: proofing; adding more pictures; and finding people who want to buy the books. Currently I do three pages a day and am always looking forward to see what happens next.

8.       Which aspect of this time period is most interesting to you?

There is no one thing – I have learned about farm work, Methodist preachers, shipwrecks off Long Island, steamship disasters, Halley’s comet, and 19th century medical treatments, among other things. It is particularly interesting to me when Nicholas expresses his feelings about people, animals or events.

9.       What is the biggest difference you have seen in people from 180 years ago vs people now?

People spent their time in the past in very different ways. They had fewer choices and making a living could be difficult. Most men had to work hard at physical labor, either for themselves or for their neighbors, and were in better shape physically than people today. Nicholas was unusual because he had been a schoolteacher and could do surveying and legal work for his neighbors, but he still had to keep up with the back-breaking daily work on his 50-acre farm. At one point he took the census for Orangetown, traveling throughout the area mostly on foot. He would often walk five miles to attend a prayer meeting. There was little to entertain people. I have a feeling that church services and prayer meetings were the most stimulating events in many peoples’ lives.

10.   When you are not reading or transcribing what do you do for fun?

I spend time with my family and friends, sing with a local choral group, study Tai Chi, walk every day, enjoy sailing in the summer, and travel to visit archaeological sites. Reading is very important to me. I write and do layout for our local newsletter, 10964. It has a website: http://www.palisadesny.com

11.  Lastly, what is the impact you are hoping tomake by sharing the story of Gesner?

I believe thatthe full-length diary will be an important resource for historians. For example, Nicholas records almost every penny he spent – in pounds, shillings, ounces, and dollars and cents – and all of the work done on the farm. Once I have finished and published the whole thing – four volumes, each several hundred pages – to be published at cost by subscription – I will write another, shorter book with highlights from the diary and more analysis of Nicholas’s life and his times. I expect that book to be more accessible to the general reader.Image

Ms. Gerard would be glad to hear from anyone who has questions about the book or thinks they might like to order copies.  She can be reached at PO Box 225, Palisades, NY 10964, or by email at gerard55@verizon.net.


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