Beverly Jensen — The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay

Beverly Jensen

Beverly Jensen

Photo by Austin Trevett

Beverly’s Life

Beverly was born on July 17, 1953, the youngest of four sisters, and grew up in Westbrook, Maine. From early on, she loved acting, produced shows with her school friends, and starred in school plays. At the University of Maine, she majored in theater, and she continued her studies at Southern Methodist University, one of the best acting programs in the country, where she earned an MFA and was chosen in a national competition to audition for the League of Resident Theatres.

For three seasons, Beverly acted at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, where she starred in Vanities, The Mousetrap, The Misalliance, Private Lives, and many other plays. After moving to New York in 1978, she worked in various showcases and regional theater productions and studied with the renowned acting coach Larry Moss. Her work in that class was, in her view, the pinnacle of her career in that she was able to most fully explore character, scene, and text. She liked to say that if the character carried a purse but never opened it, the actress still needed to know everything inside.

In 1984, Beverly married Jay Silverman, whom she’d met in Abingdon in 1977. Jay is Professor of English at Nassau Community College on Long Island, and with him Beverly shared, along with many other joys, her love of literature. They read countless books to each other; among Beverly’s favorite authors were William Faulkner, Alice Munro, John Updike, and (for fun reading aloud) Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries.


In “Sea Marks” at the Barter Theatre, 1985


In 1976 Beverly acted at Creed Repertory in Colorado.

Photo by John Gary Brown

1986 was a turning point. Beverly turned down an offer to act for five months in Minnesota and chose to leave acting; she and Jay decided to have children; and Beverly began writing stories. She brought over from acting her love of voices and repartee, her attention to the small details that reveal character, her sense of the edges between people--the drama of relationships, and her sense of pace. She brought over her relentless devotion to "getting it right."

In 1987, their son Noah was born, and Beverly took a part-time job at the Dance Notation Bureau, where choreography is recorded in a system designed by Rudolf Laban. In 1993, their daughter Hannah was born. Beverly was a creative, fun-loving mother who got deep pleasure from playing with the children, watching them grow, and feeding their passions. She and Jay read hundreds of children’s books to each of them. Sharing these experiences was one of the great joys of their marriage.

Beverly, Jay, Noah and Hannah

Beverly, Jay, Hannah, and Noah, 1997.

Photo by Dorothy Marie Robinson

The creativity and persistence Beverly brought to her writing spilled over into family life as well: she was a skilled baker; she sewed, crocheted, and knitted; she designed and drew greeting cards for the Dance Notation Bureau; and she loved creative projects with the children.

In late 2002, Beverly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She underwent chemotherapy but found time for visits with her sisters and close friends. She died in Maine, July 13, 2003, on vacation at the lake where she, Jay, and the children spent several weeks each summer. A funeral was held in South Portland, and a few weeks later more than 100 friends gathered at the Public Theater in New York for a memorial service.

Beverly’s children have done well since her death—her love, approval, and support were more than sufficient to give them a great boost in life. Noah graduated this year from MIT, and Hannah will be a junior at Elizabeth Irwin High School in Manhattan. Jay continues his teaching and has been deeply involved in bringing Beverly’s work to the world.

How Beverly Wrote The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay

Each morning after leaving off the children at school, Beverly sat down at her laptop and welcomed Idella and Avis, never knowing what they would say or do. Often she laughed at their conversation or was shocked by their choices (especially Avis’s). Their voices came from deep within her. She wrote quicly, having only a few hours before heading to her part-time job. Some stories took only a few days for a complete first draft; others took years as she pieced together writing time.

Each evening, as Hannah fell asleep, Beverly would read aloud the day’s writing to Jay—mainly for the fun of it. They would talk over any questions either had, and from time to time Hannah, still a little girl, would pipe up with an opinion. When a draft was completed, Beverly would go through it to tighten the sentences and add details, and then Jay would read it as well. Most stories went through five or six drafts as Beverly cut redundancies and added scenes until she was, for the time, satisfied. Revision, for her, was as much a pleasure as the initial creativity.

In some stories, Beverly took threads from family yarns and wove them into her own fabric; these threads Beverly re-imagined, spinning out details and dialogue, fictionalizing as she went. Other stories she made up out of whole cloth.

Beverly never sought publication. Mainly this was a factor of time: As the mother of two, she had a tough time carving out a few hours for writing on school days or on summer vacations in Maine. She did not want to use precious time writing cover letters, networking, or fretting over the responses—or silences—of editors.

In 2000-2001, Beverly took two writing courses from Jenifer Levin, author of Water Dancer and other fiction. When she submitted her first story, Jenifer assured her that it would one day be published. Jenifer’s praise, as well as the questioning and suggestions from the class, were deeply encouraging. The second course was an intensive class for only four writers who gave an evening each week to discussing the work of one of them, and again Beverly relished the depth of analysis of these mature writers.

But as for all authors, Beverly’s craft was principally solitary: a great devotion, a great joy of creation. She shared some stories with her sisters and friends, but the reward for her was never the praise of others. She loved writing the stories, seeing what came from within her and what she could make of it.

How Beverly’s Work Came to Be Published

When Beverly became sick, her college roommate, Jennie Torres, sent five stories to her ex-sister-in-law, the editor and author Katrina Kenison (The Gift of an Ordinary Day), who wrote back praising the work. For Katrina's own version of her involvement with Beverly's book, see Then, at Beverly’s memorial service, her writing teacher Jenifer Levin asked Jay what he intended to do with the stories. He said he hoped to publish them, and Jenifer volunteered to help. Together they read over each one and chose “Wake” to send out to The New England Review. Joshua Tyree, reading submissions, spotted it and passed it along to the editor, Stephen Donadio, and his assistant, Carolyn Kuebler, who chose it for the Spring 2006 issue.

Meanwhile, Jenifer Levin and Jay assembled the stories into a full-length manuscript, a novel-in-stories, and sent a copy to Katrina Kension, who wrote back enthusiastically. A few days later, she was judging a fiction contest with Howard Frank Mosher, the novelist from Vermont, author of Stranger in the Kingdom and Walking to Gatlinburg. When Katrina told him about Beverly’s manuscript, Howard asked for a copy and became a great champion of Beverly’s work, advising Jay at every step. A longtime friend, Larry Richman, founding editor of the Sow’s Ear Press, hand-made a chapbook of two stories for Jay to give to friends, and later proofread the whole manuscript.

Meanwhile, Joyce Carol Oates nominated “Wake” for a Pushcart Prize, and Stephen King and Heidi Pitlor chose it for 2007 Best American Short Stories. The New England Review subsequently published “Gone” and “Pan-Fried,” and “Idella’s Dress” was included in Sisters: An Anthology, published by Paris Press (2009). Joshua Tyree published “Finding Beverly” in the January-February 2009 issue of Poets & Writers.

Katrina Kenison also recommended that Jay approach the literary agent Gail Hochman, of Brandt and Hochman, who agreed with great warmth and commitment to represent Beverly’s work. She sent the manuscript to Carole DeSanti at Viking Press, who accepted it and steered it through many steps and decisions to publication. At Viking everyone from the designer, Jen Wang, to Carole’s assistant, Chris Russell, to the publicist, Shannon Twomey, has greeted The Sisters with real devotion. Similar devotion has come from an old family friend, Michel Eckersley of Digital Design, who produced this website.