Susan Conley returns with her novel Paris Was the Place

June 18th, 2014 by Catherine Fisher

On a very lovely day in May author Susan Conley stopped on her way to the Black Fly Writing Retreat in Grand Lake Stream to read from and discuss her new novel, Paris Was the Place. As author of both a novel and a memoir, the latter being the award-winning The Foremost Good Fortune (2011), Conley had some engaging things to say to our group about place, about belonging, and about the “middle ground” (as she calls it) created when elements from real life are woven into a work of fiction.

The bulk of Paris Was the Place takes place in a Paris that is “more of a real Paris than a romanticized Paris. It’s not meant to be a postcard of Paris that perpetuates the myth. Still, there is a lot of enjoyment of Paris and a lot of savoring of it,” Conley said. “The characters also go to India for a brief stint,” she added.

The narrator, a 30 year-old American woman named Willow, called Willie, has moved to Paris to be with her brother and volunteer teach at a refugee center for immigrant girls seeking French asylum. She also teaches poetry full-time at the American exchange college there. From the author we learned that there is a rich middle ground between the fictional story and Conley’s own life experience. “This is not an autobiographical novel at all, really, but there are a lot of things in here that did happen to me. I have taught refugees – I do that in Portland through the Telling Room, an organization I’m very involved with. I have lived in France, and I have taught poetry, but I have never taught refugee girls in France. The refugee center is based on a lot of research but it is entirely fictive.”

Conley is a skilled and experienced teacher, and we were in such good hands as she took us on an illuminating journey through three incarnations of the book, showing us the progression of one particular passage through two drafts and on to the third and final version. She hand wrote the entire first draft in a collection of notebooks, and it was enlightening for her, too, to revisit that early prose as she read it, remarking on the multiple chapter drafts and the notes to herself, one of which said, “I feel like I’m finished with the first draft.” That was in 2010.

She then read the same passage from the second, printed out and copyedited version, dated 2011, with thoughtful comments from her editor at Knopf, with whom she also worked on The Foremost Good Fortune.

Before moving on to the published version, Conley explained her motivation for walking us through these drafts. “I thought this might be interesting because a couple of things happened structurally with this novel. The first is that it moved from a whole draft in third person to the final version in first person. A writer friend in Portland, Lewis Robinson, inspired me to make that shift. When he asked me if I was going to change it to first person, I said no, but it stuck in my head.”

Cally Gurley, Director of Special Collections at UNE, wanted to hear the first version again for comparison, wondering which parts of the final book had come out early on.

“I think for me, writing any kind of book–forgive the rather obvious analogy–is like building a house,” Conley said. “You put up your outside walls first and the structure is very rough. That’s sort of what the first draft was, sort of a sketch. And then you’ll notice that in the second draft, I focused on place and gave it a really specific location.” She really wants us to be in that little alley with the narrator as she makes her way through in the first chapter, before she knows what she’ll find at its end. From the published form:

“A high cement wall runs along the start of Rue de Metz—a one-way alley off Boulevard de Strasbourg. Four blue suns have been painted on the wall and the bodice of a woman’s lime green dress. The end of the wall is a deeper cerulean, and the graffiti here looks done with chalk—spaceships and loopy sea creatures and messy stars.”
— Paris Was the Place

All the way along, Conley knew that she really needed to capture place, even before she knew the title of the book, and she sees the first two drafts as writing she needed to do in order to start to understand it.

“I named the novel after a line from a Gertrude Stein essay,” Conley shared, “a line I only discovered when I was furiously writing the final draft in a cabin near Southwest Harbor. ‘And so when hats in Paris are lovely and french and / everywhere then France is alright. So Paris was the place.’ I thought, oh, that’s it, I finally have my title. But when I landed on that title it called for a whole reexamining of the book, to really map place in the book. I got a little crazy and created multiple maps in my little writing studio and made sure I knew every street corner and every metro stop. I felt like I had to live up to the title. But I’m always interested in place as character. [In The Foremost Good Fortune] I made China come alive as a character in that memoir. I wanted to bring the reader to China and then here I wanted to bring the reader to Paris.”

It’s in the final version that, while still focusing on the setting, Conley introduces the characters more quickly than she had in the previous drafts. “Conflict is the engine of fiction. There’s only so long you can wait before you start to introduce conflict. I felt like the guard [in the first chapter] was sort of hinting at that, and then Sophie, who runs the detention center, starts to lay out some of the dilemmas, and that had to happen pretty fast.”

Beth Dyer, Reference & Instruction Librarian here at UNE, asked Conley if she also had been to India. “I would imagine it would be hard to write about a place that you’ve never been. That would be a real leap,” Beth said.

“Yes, I had been to India for only about six weeks in the early ‘90s, but it’s one of those places that stayed with me really vividly and I really wanted to write about it. When I think of the kernel for the novel, it was actually a woman on a train in India…I had really wanted India to be a dominant setting in the book but it didn’t work to have both Paris and India be so big. How much can I ask of you as the reader? I ask a lot of you in this book, because I have three fairly distinct plot lines. So I thought, ok, this has to be a true research junket. She goes to learn what she needs to learn about this poet that she’s researching and she gets out and she still has her mind blown.”

Beth then asked, “In India, a sort of goal of Willie’s was to deliver the letter to the grandmother, and I couldn’t help wondering if the woman she gave it to might not really have been the grandmother. It seemed she kind of stopped at the first old lady she saw. But she felt good about it.

“That’s really cool to hear,” Susan said. “I like that ambiguity, actually. That character was inspired by a granny I met in a remote parish in India where I stayed for a week or so. She had a long white braid and she would come and sit by us at the little tiny store, almost like a canteen, and in one of the pictures she had taken my sunglasses and put them on, and she thought was a hysterical thing. That’s in the book, actually. Gita’s grandmother is wearing those sunglasses.”

Another group member said, “I’m curious about Willow. How would you describe her? What were you hoping to achieve with her? There were times when she didn’t behave like I thought she would.

Conley agreed. “No, she doesn’t behave like I thought she would, either. She screws up and you could almost lose your patience with her. I was interested that people could really screw up and that they could also be forgiven. Another inspiration for this was work I used to do for the Maine Humanities Council at the Long Creek youth prison. I had a grant to teach poetry to the male youth there. We’d meet in a library and everything was locked and all of the furniture was bolted to the floor. There were several times when the kids would be let out on work duty and they would just disappear. A volunteer/guard would take them out to do litter pickup or something and the kids would just disappear so easily. I was fascinated by that. What do you mean, you lost him? What do you mean, John is gone? And I thought, who is culpable? Did the guard help? It’s so easy for people to just disappear for a while, so that’s why I let Willie do that…I think Willie was naïve and she thought she was highly principled.

MWWC curator Cathleen Miller asked Conley why she chose Paris in the first place. What was compelling about telling the story in Paris?

“That’s such a good question. Aside from the obvious conceit that I lived there,” she began, “I wanted to do two things. I wanted to talk about the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that was growing in France in the late 1980s. It’s gotten so much worse, so I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning of that. Similarly, there is the specter of AIDS in this book. I wanted to capture that at that time, it actually was possible to fool yourself about whether AIDS was happening. If there was someone in your life who had AIDS, you could really allow yourself to think that they were just sick. That happened to me. There have been a few reviewers who have thought that wasn’t possible–how could she not know? But we don’t know what we choose not to know. Particularly I thought, get them to France, keep them out of the mainstream, keep them out of what might be happening in the States. I’m really interested in what happens when we move around, when we get dislocated. I think we change. I think we might be more open, we might be more associative.”

Conley closed by saying what a great thing it is to be a writer in this state. She has a work of nonfiction in progress and a novel set in China on the horizon, and she added, “I grew up in Maine in Woolwich on the river, and I feel like I have a Maine story in me, too. I just haven’t gotten there yet.”

To learn more about Susan Conley and her work, visit susanconley.com.

“To see where I came from, I’m looking at stones”: Poet Betsy Sholl visits with her new collection

April 30th, 2014 by Catherine Fisher

 

“What if ruin is a good thing? What if each day is built on the ruin of the one before? What if all our attempts to avoid ruin only make us bitter or closed off from what’s around us? What if only by exploring our ruins do we become human?”

The back cover of Betsy Sholl’s new collections of poems, Otherwise Unseeable, begins with this hefty handful of questions. The poems inside show that Sholl, in mining the gritty aspects of life from many angles and perspectives, is not afraid to get in the rubble and get dirty, perhaps in an effort to come clean. She recently visited us to read from and discuss her book, and I was left wading through words like “grit,” “muck,” “rough” and “wound” for days afterward. It’s been somehow a freeing sort of mire.

Sholl began her reading by explaining that even though poetry uses the same words as the newspaper, it’s not the same language. “The language of poetry is the language of metaphor, of association.” It is intended to slow us down, to be more meditative. “It’s a language that is set up with all the speed bumps that Stevens Avenue has,” she joked.

She began by reading “Genealogy,” the first poem in the collection, and prefaced it by explaining that some of her poems are more realistic and some are more metaphorical. Some she can remember the process of writing and some just come to her.

“’Genealogy’ just came to me. If you asked me what it’s about, I don’t know if I could say.” The poem mines two aspects of Sholl’s life ruins, two essential rocks of her own personal rubble. Her father died when she was two, and she says of that, “In a way there is this whole side to who I am that was absent. My mother tried to make him present — I know his favorite foods, I know things he didn’t like — but I don’t know a lot.” The second element that appears in this and other poems is that Sholl is a stutterer.

From “Genealogy”:

One of her parents was a star already gone out,
the other a cup that she carried into the night,
convinced it was fragile.

One of her parents she drank, the other she dreamed.

In the revolving door of her becoming,
one pushed from inside, one from without.
Thus, her troubled birth, her endless stammer.

Class is also a theme in her work. “I grew up in a widow’s household, a family that had been well-to-do and fell on hard times, and I think that must be connected to this next poem, called ‘Alms.’” She described it as realistic, a true vignette about being asked for money by a woman on the street in Portland. In the poem she characterizes the woman’s meek call to her (“Miss, Miss…”) as “voice of pocket lint, frayed button hole,” and later, reflecting that she hadn’t been compelled to give the woman the totality of the seven dollars in her wallet, she reckons with her unconscious withholding. “…so clearly that voice / wasn’t small enough, still someone / else’s sorrow, easy to brush off,” and in her regret she sees it as “a failure, a lack, a lost chance.” Sholl is troubled by the panhandlers so numerous on the streets of Portland these days, saying, “There is no way not to feel indicted, in a way.”

Sholl says that many of the poems in this collection could be characterized as arguments, and the one entitled “The Argument” plays around with those debates she has with herself, when she thinks one thing and then immediately counters with the opposite. The verbal joust between her and a crow centers around her urge to celebrate the beauty of an early autumn day, and the crow’s reminder that it’s the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. The crow voice wants to bring her down, to solemn her heart “for the sake of the murdered, for the sake of the dead / for all that hasn’t happened yet…”, to quandary her in ruins that are not her own, yet perhaps might be.

“Every book of mine has to have a poem with a crow in it,” Sholl remarked, “and every book has to have at least one poem addressed to my sister. She is a musician, and growing up in a sort of grieving widow’s household, my sister would sob as she played the piano, and I thought then, ‘what a dork’. Only as an adult do I realize that all of her grief was going into that.” Sholl read “Tidal,” in which the wailing piano scales played by her sister’s fingers over and over and the wind rattling the roof of a house in a kind of emotional lock-down “…make us / unlatch our wounds, and love our ruins.

During the reading Sholl reflected on what poetry does for her, and mused about how her poems might impact the reader, whether or not what she feels in the poem comes across. “I go to poetry to be expanded in some ways…my thought, my emotions, my view of the world. It’s really hard to tell if your poems do that. Your own poems are in your face. You have no idea if they’re expansive.”

Before turning to discussion, she went on to read a poem for her mother (“Elegy with Morning Glories”); another about the primal tug to trace one’s roots (her to horse thieving Nearys in County Mayo, in “Belmullet”); two poems about sounds and music and musicians (“Wood Shedding” and “Rahsaan”); and one exploring love in the face of inevitable death (“Vanishing Act”), among others.

Once the discussion began, Sholl was asked how she got started writing poetry. “Well, it really is connected to being a stutterer,” she said. “I was the youngest of sisters, and it was hard to get my word in edgewise, and we had rules about what we could talk about; those three things sent me to words, and putting words on paper.” After college Sholl left a Ph.D. program, saying it was because she wanted to be a poet. “So then I really had to get serious,” she said. Sholl met with a friend to write late into the night, and it was then she began to try to write every day. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s, after she had married and had children and was teaching full time, that she went back for her MFA. “I’d published a couple of books and I felt like I had just come to the end of what I could teach myself. I felt like I had hit a brick wall, and either I had to quit, and just say I failed, or put myself in a position to grow. So I went to Vermont College and that was a great experience for me.”

Later in the discussion Sholl addressed the accusation that some make against MFA programs, that they churn out academic poets who all sound the same. “Before they had MFA programs poets had to write in the style of whomever they read and copy and copy and copy until they found their own style. You started as a backup singer. And if you keep at it you might get to the mic. To me it’s the same thing, going to an MFA or staying in a third floor room all the time by yourself with your books. It’s the same thing, and the work is to move beyond that.”

“Do you work at the internal rhymes in your poems? Or do they just come to you?” one guest wanted to know.

“Mostly those just come,” Sholl answered. “I do have to work at structure. When I was in a poetry workshop in Cambridge when I first began to write, most of the poets were 10 or 15 years older than I was. I was like their charity case and they were tough on me. They’d say, “Stop that chiming!” I felt like I had to. And then I began to read Seamus Heaney and I thought, ‘Well, damn, I’m Irish!’ So I began to let that come in again.”

“Do you ever work with fixed forms?” another member of the group asked.

“Well, I do write villanelles from time to time. There’s one in this book. There’s one in my last book. I write a sestina every year and pretty much erase it from my hard drive. I have a sestina and a villanelle that are both about teaching in prison. Isn’t that interesting? The form is sort of a jail…In general, I think it’s connected to class for me. Formal verse, for me, was what all those old guys did who lived in a building on the top of a mountain with a sign outside that said, “No, not you.” Free verse was what an upstart chick with no money could do…And when I try to write in form it just dies on the page.”

“What do you think the work of poetry in the world is? Why the hell write a poem?” MWWC curator and poet Cathleen Miller was curious to hear.

“I was talking about this stuff and a teacher of mine said, “Betsy, we just do what we can do.” I used to live in Roxbury, MA. My husband was a community organizer and he worked with tough kids. And I would think, why am I sitting here at my desk, doing this little stuff, when I could be out saving the world? And what I said to myself was, it’s no worse than working in a shoe factory, you know? You make a pair of shoes and people get to wear those shoes for a little while and then they wear out and they get a new pair. And doing a poem, a few people might wear your poem for a day or two and then look for another one. What more can you say?”

“On the other hand, I think the arts in general speak to our deepest soul and our deepest human roots, and they offer something different from moneymaking, and different from violence. Different from all the forces that tend to dehumanize us. We go to the arts for that expansive experience. To be bigger, deeper or more real than we feel in our day-to-day lives…Poetry is a one-on-one thing. A dialogue between souls. And we need that.”

To learn more about Betsy Sholl and her work, visit www.betsysholl.com.

(Blog post title quote is from the poem “Belmullet”)

 

 

Cathie Pelletier visits with The One-Way Bridge

October 29th, 2013 by Catherine Fisher

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-greatgreat-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.

 

 

Morgan Callan Rogers visits with Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea

June 20th, 2013 by Catherine Fisher

 

As she took her place on the Jewett couch last Thursday to read from and discuss her first novel, Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, Morgan Callan Rogers shared with the large group her special joy in being at the Maine Women Writers Collection. An admirer of Sarah Orne Jewett, she said she was honored to be included in the same library collection with her and so many others, and imagined that from the shelves, “all of our books will be talking to each other at night!”

Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea is the coming of age story of a spirited young heroine in coastal Maine during the early 1960s. When her mother disappears during a weekend trip, Florine Gilham’s idyllic childhood is turned upside down. Until then she’d been blissfully insulated by the rhythms of family life in small town Maine: watching from the granite cliffs above the sea for her father’s lobster boat to come into port, making bread with her grandmother, and infiltrating the summer tourist camps with her friends. But with her mother gone, the heart falls out of Florine’s life and she and her father are isolated as they struggle to manage their loss, and the additional challenges that come their way.

After reading a passage from the book — a scene featuring Maine women characters based on Rogers’ father’s relatives, selected in honor of our venue — Rogers gave us some background on the genesis of the book. Raised in the shipbuilding city of Bath, Maine, her sense of the coast and its villages deeply informed the setting and characters of the tale. While enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, she needed a story idea to fulfill an assignment and the characters of Florine and Dottie came to her right away. From that short piece, Florine emerged to become the young narrator of Red Ruby Heart, with Dottie as her best friend. “Florine drives the story,” Rogers explained, and later mentioned that she’s at work on a sequel, allowing Florine to continue her role as protagonist. Throughout the discussion Rogers referred to the voice of Florine in her mind as a real and formidable presence who would correct her if she wrote something not in keeping with what the heroine would do, say or want.

One guest described the book as “very visual,” and this is so true, especially in terms of color. The vibrance of the multi-hued title and vivid blue, brown and green dust jacket is carried through to the text inside, with its consistent yet simple mention of color in nearly every scene. Rogers explained that she had “sprinkled that in afterward” and was pleased it worked.

Another guest was aware that before it was even published in the U. S., Rogers’ book was already doing very well in Germany, and she wondered what that was like for the author. Rogers explained that an international publisher had happened across her manuscript as it lay on her agent’s desk and decided to publish it abroad. She took it to the Frankfurt Fair and it became the third best-selling book in Germany for 2010-2011. “I was surprised…flummoxed!” And Rogers feels that the German translation of the Maine colloquialisms is pretty good, reluctant to criticize because it’s been such a good experience to work with them. She thinks the story appeals to the German publishers “because they have a romantic streak. But they also get things done with efficiency and grace.”

Following the novel’s success abroad, Viking bought the U. S. rights and the book is now in print all over the world. “I couldn’t be more excited and thrilled.” “And by the way,” she added, “At the same time all of that was happening, I also fell in love and moved to South Dakota.” Quite a year!

One member of the group thought Rogers took some risks with the plot, especially in the case of Carlie, Florine’s mother. “One of the things I wanted to explore with Carlie going missing was not to write a mystery, but rather to write what it was like for Florine to grow up missing someone — without closure.” This divergence from a more typical plot structure creates suspense for the reader. “I kept waiting for something to happen,” the woman said.

A member of the group who shared that she grew up in both Ireland and the U. S. pointed out that there is a generation of women that is slipping away, a generation that did not have a lot of personal power. Rogers concurred, adding that women really had to get out there and find the resources they needed to survive. One of her grandmothers found work in a jewelry store; the other was deserted in Boston at a very young age, and danced on the street with her brother for pennies before being taken to Maine. “We take our opportunities for granted,” she said, and agrees it’s important to sit down with those of that generation and listen.

Anne Zill asked the author how she incorporated details from her own life into the novel. In addition to setting it in the 1960s, Rogers said she dug deep to her roots in Phippsburg and Bath, and drew on other long-familiar sites such as Wolf’s Neck State Park and Small Point, pointing out that the setting and the narrator’s age was familiar, but not the characters. Her youth was not characterized by the kind of trauma that Florine experiences, and laughed, “If I had done half the stuff she did, I would have been grounded forever!” But on the other hand, “(The character of) Dottie IS my sister. She just is.” And Rogers’ real-life family did cherish a collection of red ruby glass.

Rogers began writing at the age of eight, mostly about gangs of kids in the vein of the Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew series she enjoyed. Sharing a vivid memory of a pivotal experience so crucial to her writing life, she said that one night in bed she had begun to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Being afraid of the dark at that time, she was in the habit of playing the radio as she went to sleep. By some creepy coincidence that night, she heard the voice on the radio describe a scene so similar to the one she happened to be reading at that moment, in very nearly the same words. Terrified, she slammed the book shut and “couldn’t sleep for the next three years.” As she lay awake, then, night after night, she created a world of imaginary characters and furthered the story until she could fall asleep. “That’s what got me into the practice of developing character and plot,” she reflected.

A number of members of the group enjoyed the personification of nature in the text, and one asked the author if she consciously included the metaphors about the seasons. “I make them living things because nature is a living thing.” And she consciously worked to see and describe it the way Florine would. Reinforcing her sense Florine was with her all the time, she added, “We wrote the book together.”

In working on the sequel to the story, Rogers is cranking right now, she says, thanks to being in Maine for the summer. She finds that living and writing in the South Dakota landscape is very different, concluding that she’s not a Western writer. Here, she muses, nature is softer, greener. There is flexibility offered by the ocean, and privacy afforded in the seclusion of the woods. Out there, she says, you can have all the space you want, but you are exposed. The landscape, nature, the climate are all in your face. “Out there, you have to redefine the word ‘lonely.’”

Asked to expand on her work at the moment, Rogers confessed that the other day, she wrote the ending to the sequel, even though she’s only two-thirds of the way through the book. “I just trust that the next step will come. I trust in the universe.” And it seems she can also, always, trust in Florine.

To learn more about Morgan Callan Rogers, visit her website: morgancallanrogers.com.

 

 

March 21st, 2013 by Catherine Fisher


 

Monica Wood, author of When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, visited with us on Thursday, March 7, for a lively discussion of her recent memoir.

Before reading from the book, Wood wanted to talk a bit about her process of revising the text. “All writing is revision,” she explained. Having been a novelist up until now, trying her hand at memoir was a new challenge. Once she had finished her first draft, which she had felt pretty confident was complete, Wood asked her sister Cathy read it. Cathy’s feedback was that “the people of the story were not really in it,” and Wood realized that she had perhaps kept too much distance between herself and the figures in the story. Where it was a memoir and not a novel, she had been hesitant to include thoughts and dialogue that did not adhere strictly to what she knew or remembered to have happened. In revising the narrative she found that, once she gave herself permission to treat the real-life people as characters in a novel, they came alive. She based her imaginings of inner lives and spoken words on truth, on what she knew about the people, and with that awareness she took creative license.

“I didn’t know how much I didn’t know until I started to do this kind of writing,” Wood said of moving from fiction to memoir.

Once Wood had finished reading from the text, the room was filled with questions and comments for the author, and she generously responded with illuminating answers and entertaining anecdotes.

One guest asked, “Did you deliberately place the scene where the family uses the last sheet of paper (of the supply remaining from her late father’s work at the paper mill) where it is, about halfway through the book?”

“I’m sure it was very deliberate but can’t remember now why or how,” Wood replied. “I didn’t change the chronology to the story. Writing memoir is a lot about what to leave out.” Wood then shared a story from a recent reading that an audience member told about herself and her husband. They both planned to read the book, and it was the woman’s turn first. As she was reading in bed one night she began sobbing, and her husband asked her why she was crying. She replied, “They just ran out of paper!” Of course, being so out of context, the husband couldn’t understand why that would be so tragic. Wood added, “At the time, I didn’t even realize that you could actually go and buy paper!”

Another group member asked, “Why did you title the book, When We Were the Kennedys?”

“The book is not just about our family, but about when America was a certain way at a certain time,” Wood said. “It was a time of endings and beginnings. (The assassination of the president) was the end of a kind of innocence for the country…when things were suddenly this way and not that way.”

Wood also said that before the book was published she had a drink with a friend who asked what the title was going to be, and “I told her the bad title I had in mind!” Wood shared. The friend was less than enthused and encouraged Wood to list some of the chapter titles. When she mentioned “When We Were the Kennedys,” the friend picked up on it and suggested she use that for the book title, with a subhead that included Mexico, Maine, to create intrigue from a couple of angles.

 

One guest shared that he grew up in Madison, a similar Maine mill town, and that he was “old enough to be (Wood’s) father.” His personal history contains many elements parallel to Wood’s—his father died when he was nine, just as Wood’s did; he himself worked in the mill; and his high school team played against Mexico. He praised the accuracy of Wood’s depiction of the inner workings of the mill in her book, and asked, “How did you come to such a depth of knowledge?”

“Thanks, I did a lot of research,” Wood said. A friend who worked in the mill (and who, incidentally, was recently laid off) was very helpful in describing the ins and outs of the process. In addition, by an interesting chain of events she ended up meeting one of late father’s coworkers. While working on a history of Rumford, the small Mexico Historical Society invited her to come and speak to them. Once she had finished her talk, one of the group volunteered, “You have got to talk to Bunny Carver! He worked in the mill and knew your father, and took his place when he died.” Wood went to Harry “Bunny” Carver’s house, and on greeting her at the door he said, “Oh, one of Red’s little girls!” (Red being Wood’s father’s nickname.)

In addition to providing her with information as to the workings of the mill, Carver gave Wood something even more precious. In sharing with her the reaction in the wood yard to the news of her father’s death that morning, he offered her a view into the story that she hadn’t even considered until that moment. She’d only been able to recall that day from her own 9 year-old experience – being in the house, people coming and going, the home filling with food and flowers. She’d never considered what those same hours had been like at the mill. “When my father was two seconds late that day, they knew that something dreadful had happened. My father was never late.” Carver filled in such details. “It was very touching to me,” Wood reflected.

Later in the discussion MWWC curator Cathleen Miller shared that she found in When We Were the Kennedys many similarities with her own story, growing up in a part of western Pennsylvania dominated by the coal mining industry. Wood agreed, saying, “Everywhere I’ve read with this book someone says, “This is just like my town,” referring to the presence of all kinds of various manufacturing, not just the paper industry. Wood has seen that “people are not only attached to their towns, but also to their industries. The industry itself feels like a person with influence over you.”

One guest was curious as to the reaction to the book by the Woods’ landlord and landlady, whom the story describes in detail.

“Their grandson now lives in their apartment and says that people have been going by to take pictures of the house.” This elicited quite a reaction from our group, and Wood went on to say more about this fascination with her childhood home. On her way to Haystack one day she stopped at the bookstore in Blue Hill, where the book has been heavily promoted. As she was signing stock for the shop, a couple from England who were great fans of the story explained that they had just made a pilgrimage to Mexico to see the house and town for themselves. Wood seemed quite surprised!

As the gathering was winding down, a question came from a visitor from the San Francisco Bay area, who referred to himself and his wife as Wood’s “unofficial publicists.” In commenting that she had shared a bit about how her fiction writing influenced this experience of writing autobiographically, he wondered how her memoir writing might influence her writing of fiction going forward. Wood replied, “I don’t know right now. I’ll have to see…writing characters in a memoir is a thousand times easier than creating characters in a novel. It took me half the time to write this, and I’m so glad I waited until I was older to write it. This is my favorite book and I’m glad I waited until I had the skill to do it.”

Currently Wood is working on a play, explaining, “I wanted to do something collaborative. I’m tired of working by myself. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it yet.” When asked if she would write another memoir, Wood said that she might write more about her sister Betty, who has developmental challenges. She loves to write about her, and recently published pieces about Betty in Reader’s Digest and Yankee Magazine.

When We Were the Kennedys is now in its fourth printing, and Wood has just received the 2012 May Sarton Memoir Award for best memoir by a woman writer published in the US or Canada. Congratulations, Monica!