On a day that mirrored so perfectly the vibrant fall foliage on the cover of Cathie Pelletier’s new novel, The One-Way Bridge, the author made the journey from her home in Allagash to the Collection for a spirited reading and book discussion. Pelletier has recently moved back to her home town and lives with her 94 year-old father in the house in which she was born, with many other members of the Pelletier clan nearby.
From the remove of living for years in Tennessee and then Canada, Pelletier has written five novels set in the fictional Maine town of Mattagash, inspired by Allagash. Some loyal readers may notice that a few of the characters from previous Mattagash novels make cameo appearances in The One-Way Bridge.
Before reading from the book, Pelletier shared a bit of background on both her town and the process of bringing to life the characters it has inspired. There are three one-way bridges in Allagash, we learned: one that crosses the Allagash River, where her grandfather ran the ferry; another stretching over the St. John River; and a third, tiny, one-way bridge across the Little Black River. “I had never put a bridge in my fiction, ever, let alone a one-way bridge,” she said. “A bridge is a metaphor, anyway – a kind of trite metaphor – but a one-way bridge? That means there’s only one way to go, one way to think, one way to live. And if you go against the current, against the bridge, well, then you have a novel.”
It was back in 1991 that Pelletier first conceived of the novel’s main characters, Orville Craft, a local mailman, and Harry Plunkett, a Vietnam Veteran and a thorn in Orville’s side. Late one night in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was then living, Pelletier saw a news clip on CNN about a one-way bridge being swept away “like tinsel in an ice jam.” And it wasn’t just any bridge over any river, but the bridge over the St. John River in her hometown of Allagash, Maine. She made notes for a possible future novel then, telling herself that she really needed to write the book one day. The characters and the project went with her as she moved from Tennessee to the Eastern Townships of Quebec. It was in Canada that she began seriously to write the full draft, completing a version that looked very different from the published book today. “When I returned to Allagash, Maine, in 2009, I did the final draft and deleted 350-plus pages. This novel was hard to write. I’m an organic writer. Most times, I don’t know what’s going to happen until the reader does.”
As she began to read an excerpt from the book, she paused and said, “By the way, I hate to read from a Mattagash book. It’s full of characters and it’s full of stories and plots and it’s difficult to choose what to read. And it’s full of sadness and humor, so what do you read? If I were to choose what to read from this book, I would read the Vietnam passages, but then that’s depressing. I would choose to read the sad stuff.” Pelletier has also written several novels outside of the Mattagash books, both under her own name and the pseudonym K.C. McKinnon, and by comparison, she says that, “When I read from the books I set, say, in Bixley, with only one protagonist, it’s so much easier.”
The Mattagash denizens whose lives she portrays are drawn “out of thin air,” Pelletier says, but as they reveal themselves to her, they become real people. “They come with lives of their own, these characters, and they all converge.” Pelletier is clear that her characters are not portraits of actual citizens of Allagash. “My fictional characters would be so offended if they learned they were being compared to real people!” Paraphrasing novelist Alice Munro’s words on the degree to which fiction displays reality, Pelletier explained, “We all take a little bit of starter clay from the real world. We all do that. It’s usually so minor in my case. It’s usually something about me.” Because there is such a time lag between completing a novel and its actual publication, “you pray that nothing that has happened in the book happens in reality, because people will think that’s where you got it.”
Pelletier’s late mother used to enjoy spotting bits of real life in her daughter’s books. In the pages of Pelletier’s 1986 The Funeral Makers, the first in the Mattagash books, her mother picked up on the appearance of such props as a little red rocking chair and a glow-in-the-dark Jesus nightlight. “That was your little chair! And that was our nightlight,” her mother said. “I still have the rocking chair,” Pelletier says. “Most of these things come from our childhood. Eudora Welty said we write out of the first ten years of our lives. I certainly feel that way; emotionally, anyway.”
In 2010, Pelletier published A is for Allagash, written with her father, Louis Pelletier, as a memoir of his life. “It was a book I did to endorse his life and his ways. For example, my father believes in the curative power of Easter water. Each Easter morning, from the time he was a boy, he would get up before dawn and head for a river or a brook, a place of moving water. He’d dip a pail or jar three times into the stream and keep the water from the third dip. The water’s powers were believed to last forever and they’d use it to treat illness and bless homes. My father also believes you can stop blood if you know the charm. I grew up with this strange mélange of folklore and technology and superstition. And now I realize it was a rich background, a rich canvas.”
Pelletier finds it hard to believe that she’s just sold her 12th book. “My gosh! It feels like yesterday that The Funeral Makers was coming out, but that was 1986!” It became clear that many members of our group had been loyal readers since the beginning.
In 2003, the MWWC acquired Pelletier’s papers. Then-curator Cally Gurley was present at this reading, and shared a bit about the process of acquiring the collection, rich with material dating back to the author’s childhood, and continuing to grow in the present day. Pelletier laughed and said, “Cally calls it the archives. I call it the stuff my cats were sleeping on! My mother saved everything I ever wrote.”
Pelletier welcomed questions from the audience, and the first was the simple, direct query, “Why Edna? Why did you name the character Edna? It’s such an old-fashioned name.” “Well, a lot of these names are coming back,” Pelletier answered. “But not Edna!” the guest insisted.
“I named her Edna in the ‘80s. I had to come up with plain names for characters because it was set in rural, rural Maine. My mother would say, ‘They’re going to think that’s Tom so-and-so or Sara so-and-so. Can’t you change that?’” Names of characters are important to Pelletier. “‘Mom,’ I’d say, ‘I can’t name these characters Natasha and Vladimir. I’ve got to use these common names.’”
A 1st and 2nd grade teacher from Durham shared that her students were aware she was coming to hear an author speak that evening, and she asked, “If you had one piece of advice to give to young writers, what would it be?” Pelletier offered to send the teacher some things she wrote when she was that age. “I started really writing when I was nine years old. Reading is very important, of course. We had very few books at home when I was growing up, except for a set of Childcraft books. We had no bookmobile or library in my early school years, so books were really special.”
Pelletier expressed her own awe and respect for teachers, and a certain bewilderment at how others are able to sustain the energy level it takes to teach. “I teach so passionately that I’m ill when it’s over. Then I can’t teach again for five years.”
One man asked Pelletier about her move back to Allagash. “Can you go home again?” he wondered. This is something the author has thought a lot about. “How do you get the past back? That’s what that line means,” said Pelletier. “Physically, you can return home. You can move back. I’m in the house I was born in. The house is mine now. I’ve made my writing room next to the room I was born in. I look out at the river that my great-great-great-grandparents navigated in pirogues as they came looking for white pine with grants from the King of England. The pine would build the masts of English ships. I can’t drive to Fort Kent without passing the graves of my maternal grandparents and several generations of paternal grandparents.” Her mother’s headstone is, so far, the only one in the family graveyard, which sits above Pelletier’s house. “But emotionally, the past is gone. The feeling of the home is irrevocably lost without my mother there.”
Pelletier would like to fix the place up, plant some trees in the front so it’s private, and turn it into a creative retreat for herself and other artists. “How many of you have been to Allagash?” she asked the group. Seeing that few hands were raised, she said, “Well, we’ll have to change that.”
Learn more about Cathie Pelletier at cathiepelletier.com, and read about her papers on our website, at une.edu/mwwc/research/featuredwriters/Cathie-Pelletier.cfm.