A magical story: Sarah Beth Durst

Dream of writing comes true with fantasy novel set in Northboro
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks


Life has been something of a magic carpet ride for Sarah Beth Durst.

When Durst was a little girl, her mother read to her all the time, and some of her favorite books were handsome, illustrated collections of legendary European fairy tales. Durst, who grew up in Northboro, loved to hear the stories over and over again.

When Durst was a student at Bancroft School in Worcester, she felt ready to create her own magic kingdom. She wrote a musical about fairy tale characters in the real world.

“It was a horrible musical,” Durst said with a light-hearted laugh. “I can play the piano, but that doesn’t make me a composer.”

Yet she had gotten a glimpse of her future.

Durst would continue to spin fantasy adventures, and the idea of make-believe characters in the real world has never lost its appeal. Indeed, Durst, now 33, recalled that she had the original idea for her new novel, “Into the Wild” (272 pp., Razorbill, $15.99), when she was at Bancroft.

“It was hanging in the back of my head for a while,” she said.

“Into the Wild,” Durst’s first book, was released two weeks ago. “It was a dream come true,” she said. She will give readings this month at locations across Massachusetts. On Saturday afternoon, she will be at Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Plaza in Worcester.

Over the years, as she worked on the manuscript for the book, Durst fashioned an intricate fantasy set in Northboro and at landmarks in and around Worcester. Her main character is a teenager named Julie, whose mother is Rapunzel and grandmother is Gothel, the witch who locked Rapunzel in a tower. The dapper cat Puss `n Boots is Julie’s brother.

“The Wild” is a mass of vines from which the family members and their friends escaped long ago. It lives under Julie’s bed, barely under control as everyone goes about their real-world lives. Then someone makes a wish that sets the Wild free. A dark forest engulfs Northboro and the area beyond, entrapping Julie’s mother and grandmother in their fairy tale lives.

As Julie ventures deep into the Wild to find her family, she encounters familiar characters and pieces of plots from an array of fairy tales. She must find a way to free the people she loves without becoming a permanent part of a fairy tale herself.

A series of adventures and some clever thinking lead Julie to Rapunzel, who is held hostage in the Higgins Armory Museum; Durst’s imaginative writing transforms the steel and glass Art Deco building into a fairy tale castle.

“Its steel windows stretched like taffy into thin, delicate silver walls. It towered 50 stories in the air with turrets that stretched into the clouds. Its sparkle filled Julie’s eyes. Silver reflected on the blue seas. The swans glided onto the parking-lot-turned-shore. One of the swans gestured grandly with his wing and said, `Here is the Castle of the Silver Towers.’”

Durst’s father, Worcester lawyer Michael P. Angelini, planted the idea of being a writer in his daughter’s head.

“When I was 10, I was kind of an anxious kid,” Durst recounted by telephone from her home in Stony Brook, Long Island. “I was concerned I didn’t have a career path. I went to my dad. He said, `You could be a writer or an artist.’ Until then, I didn’t realize a real person could become a writer. I totally latched on to the idea, and that’s all I’ve wanted to do since.”

Many good teachers encouraged her, she said, but she recalled, in particular, Eugene A. Bostock, her fifth-grade teacher at the Lincoln Street School in Northboro.

Bostock, who is now retired, said Durst stands out in his memory, as well.

“She was very quiet and read all the time, and part of that, I think, is where she developed her imagination,” Bostock said. “I think she had a lot of family support.”

At Princeton, Durst majored in English with a concentration in theater and dance.

“That let me do a creative thesis senior year,” Durst said. “I wrote a play. That was fun. It had magical elements – a dragon and characters from literature.”

She graduated in 1996 and spent a year in England with her boyfriend, Adam Durst, who is now her husband. Mr. Durst is a physics professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook. The couple have a 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca.

Durst hasn’t lived in Central Massachusetts since college, but it was an easy choice as the setting for “Into the Wild,” she said. She has vivid recollections of field trips to the Higgins, shopping at Spag’s, Shakespeare in the Park at Bancroft Tower and hours spent at the Northboro Public Library.

Durst has signed a two-book contract and is now working on the sequel to “Into the Wild.” She said her goal in writing is to make her readers happy while they’re engaged with her book.

She does not deliberately aim to impart a life lesson, although her story offers a bit of philosophy here and there. When Julie worries that something she blurted out in an angry moment had unloosed the Wild, her grandmother reassures her. “That’s the beauty of the real world,” Gothel said. “Wishing doesn’t make it so. Outside the Wild, it’s actions that matter. Your choices matter.” “Into the Wild” is meant for people 10 and older.

“I wanted it to have a heart and make some deeper connections to people reading it,” Durst said. “I wanted it to resonate with people.”

Her rich creative drive aside, one thing Durst cannot imagine is a story without a little magic.

“I always think any novel can be improved with the addition of a talking cat,” Durst said with a chuckle, referring to her gruff-but-lovable Puss `n Boots. “Restoring that child-like sense of wonder is really valuable.”