I designed the seven, soon to be eight, novels of Darby Chronicles to stand alone, but I think they are best explained by how they are interconnected. All the action occurs in the imaginary town of Darby, NH, and in the time periods when I was writing the books.
Around book three, WHISPER MY NAME, when I could see ahead to future novels, I realized that the main character in the series would have to be the town itself, about where you'd find Westmoreland, NH, on the Connecticut River.
Three families dominate the Darby Chronicles: the Elmans, representing rural working class people; the Jordans, representing the rural underclass; and the Salmons (pronounced Sal-mohn), representing the old rich of New England.
The short essays in DARBY CHRONICLES are laid out below in book format on one web page, so just scroll down for the text. Topics headings include: Dedication, Stanford University Dropout, Tough and Tender, Breakthrough, Chip on My Shoulder, The Geography of Darby, An Iffy Start, The Interior Life, A Story and a Dedication, Writing a Novel on a Typewriter, Typewriter Follow-up, Publication of THE DOGS OF MARCH, Howard Elman and Zoe Cutter, Howard Elman's End, The Protagonist and His Maker, A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN, WHISPER MY NAME--Origins, First Inkling of the Darby Series, Ernie's Soap Opera, THE PASSION OF ESTELLE JORDAN, LIVE FREE OR DIE, Live Free or Die--the Poem, SPOONWOOD, HOWARD ELMAN'S FAREWELL, WHIRLYBIRD ISLAND
DEDICATION: To the People
who tend to the sick, the wounded, and the dying,
who weave the cotton, mine the precious metals,
and serve the burgers, the bangers, and the booze,
who wire the street lights, the handhelds, the electric chairs, and the cables at the bottom of the sea,
who punch the cows, herd the sheep, cut the timber,
net the fishes, and plant the seeds,
who trim the hair, clean the toilets,
and wipe the asses in the nursing homes,
who paint the houses, the barns, the bridges,
the cell phone towers, and the town on Saturday night,
who drive the cabs, the sixteen-wheelers, the ambulances,
the fire trucks, and the long cars of the well-off,
you, whose forebears built everything of value
along with the stupid skyscrapers,
the stupid cathedrals, the stupid castles, the stupid pyramids,
and many many stupid walls,
I write to honor you.
Stanford University Dropout
When I married Medora Lavoie March 22, 1969, I was a twenty-seven year-old senior at Keene (NH) State College, and she was a nineteen year-old sophomore from Dover, New Hampshire. We honeymooned in Quebec City near our ancestral roots.
In the fall of that year we set out in my 1963 Chevrolet that I had bought with savings in the three-plus years I worked for New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. before I started college. We were headed for Palo Alto, California, where I’d been accepted by poet Donald Davie in the poetry section of the master’s program in creative writing at Stanford University.
It was at Keene State that I discovered myself as a writer, first by writing essays in a Freshman composition class, then writing for the school newspaper, then called The Monadnock. But it was a poem--Preludes by T.S. Eliot--that persuaded me to become a writer. I believed that reading that poem made me a better person. I thought that if I could move other people the way Eliot had moved me, my life would have some meaning. After that moment, I became a mad undergraduate poet.
Medora and I were an hour and a half out of Keene in Bennington, Vermont, when my 19- year-old bride said, "Ern, this is the furthest west I’ve ever been."
I loved driving across the country. It made me feel patriotic in a time when there were good reasons to question the decisions by our leaders and even our values. Among my peers, patriotism was suspect, but I grew up with the idea that the United States was special, even favored by the Divinity. That road trip helped me reclaim a little bit of that earlier feeling for the Country, if not for the Divinity. It was enough that the land and its inhabitants were special to me.
I was a grad student by day at Stanford and a janitor and gas pumper by night at Commuter Shell gas station in Palo Alto. I didn’t like the Bay area from the get-go--too many seemingly good-natured people and a climate that raised my suspicions, because it was so redundantly nice. I wasn’t in a mood for "nice" in those days. I wanted rigor.
I had hints that I was in the wrong creative writing workshop when I realized that my poems all depended on narrative. Also, I didn't really click with most of my classmates, who seemed to belong to the Sylvia Plath/Anne Sexton branch of confessional poets. I don't think they appreciated it when I referred to their sub-genre as the Morass of Moi school.
So I wrote Grace for the Bishop, a crazy short story about a young woman who seduces her pastor, literally killing him with carnal love. Novelist Wallace Stegner let me into his fiction-writing class based on that story. The class did its job, which was to tell me I was more fiction writer than poet all right but not one cut out for grad school. Let me add that I valued both Donald Davie and Wallace Stegner as mentors, but also John Todman, owner-operator of Commuter Shell and his right-hand man, Rusty Wilson.
I quit Stanford at the end of the second term. Medora and I had a notion to move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where my close childhood friend William M. Sullivan was enrolled in a phd program at the University of New Mexico. But when we arrived we found ourselves intensely homesick for New Hampshire. We headed back to Keene so Medora could finish up her undergraduate work at KSC. I took a job pumping gas at Top Gas in Keene, then located in the Riverside Shopping Plaza.
Tough and Tender
Eventually, I landed a job as a reporter with The Keene Sentinel newspaper, but for a couple years I managed Top Gas, a small, one-man gas station then located in the Riverside Shopping Plaza in Keene.
Nights I labored at the craft of fiction writing, days I wore a baggy light-blue jumpsuit that said Top Gas over the left breast pocket. Some years later, after I’d published several books, a guy on the streets of Keene stopped me and said, "Where do I know you from?" I named one of my books. He said, "No that’s not it." I named another book. "No," he said, "I remember now--Top Gas. You washed my window. They don’t do that anymore."
One summer afternoon in 1970 an old dented pickup truck pulled into the station. The driver was a big fifty-something man with little squinty eyes and a mouth set in the start of a snarl. He wore heavy cotton forest-green work duds. The left sleeve of the shirt had been cut below the shoulder revealing an arm that ended just below the elbow. On the passenger side of the truck was a boy about age 8.
The man bore into me with his eyes. "Fill it," he said, and pointed with his one index finger to the regular pump. While I dispensed the gas, the man grabbed an oil rag on top of a pump with his one hand, tucked it in the crook under the half arm, raised the hood of the pickup, and checked the oil level. I was impressed by the man’s competence and something else, a "don’t tread on me" attitude.
The man remained at the outer limits of my peripheral vision while I washed the windshield. The boy watched the motion of the squeegee with interest and delight.
Probably I never would have remembered the incident if something seemingly insignificant hadn’t happened. Just as the pick-up was pulling out of the station, I glimpsed the man as he looked at the boy with a sudden softness in his hard eyes. I thought: this is a man who is tough and tender. I didn't know at the time but that phrase would resonate in my mind throughout my career as a fiction writer.
That night I went home and started writing a novel that I titled The New Englander or maybe it was A New Englander--can't remember. I wrote in longhand in a school notebook. Since I had no idea what the story was, I wrote a bad day in his life, using Bic pens and number two pencils, sharpened with the short blade of my Swiss Army Knife. Over the next few months I wrote, I don’t know, maybe a hundred or so single-space pages. I had all this data about a character, but no story. I didn’t know what to do, so I set the notes aside and moved on to other projects.
A couple years went by. I wrote a sci-fi novel that wasn’t very satisfying to me or to my writer pals who read it, but the work did help me learn the craft of novel writing. I left Top Gas when I got a job working for the Sentinel, first as a sports writer, then as a general assignment reporter. I was only an average reporter (it embarrassed me to ask tough questions, so I didn't ask them), but I did have a flair for feature writing. I wrote fast and easily. My first year on the job I won two New England United Press journalism awards.
Like my journalism writing, my fiction writing was coming fast and easily, but it was no good. I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was frustrated and on the verge of despair. I thought that if I wasn't going to succeed at writing my life would be a failure.
Sometimes a big hurt is what a writer needs.
I'd reached a point in my fiction writing that filled me with confusion and desperation. In part of my psyche was an unshakable belief that I had something to give to the world; in another part of that psyche was a scared little boy lost in the woods. I realized I needed something, but what that something was I did not know.
Medora encouraged me to attend the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont. In fact, she paid the tuition from money she made working as a playground instructor with her friend Nancy Ancharsky. To save on lodging, we stayed in a tent at a nearby campground. It rained almost every day. The conference was a crisis point for me, and I was not in a good mood. I did not enjoy seeing my fellow conferees having a good time.
I had whipped together sixty something single-spaced typed pages and submitted them to novelist John Gardner, whose fiction and books on the writing craft had inspired me. I liked Gardner's over the top prose style. He loved metaphors and his characters were brooding, meditative, and argumentative--even if they were arguing with themselves. I thought his novel THE SUNLIGHT DIALOGUES was a model of what a novel should be.
Gardner was a compelling speaker, and he had an interesting face. When you looked at it straight on it was masculine, direct, even cruel. It did not resemble my idea of a literary man, but rather of a warrior. In profile, the face seemed to belong to a different person. It was soft, vulnerable, classically feminine.
When I went into his office for his critique of my work, he was sitting behind his desk, which acted as a barrier between us. Years later when I started teaching I thought about Gardner and his office, and I placed my desk against the wall so that when students came into my office they could sit directly across from me without a desk between us.
I knew instantly the encounter with my literary hero wasn't likely to go well, because he didn't make eye contact. He held up the first page of my submission, pointed a third of the way down the page, and said without any introductory banter, "This is as far as I read. No real writer would write a sentence like that."
It was as if I'd been punched in the solar plexus. I could neither breathe nor speak. I left his office without a word and remained in a zombie-like state of mind until the drive back home, when out of the blue it struck me that all the good writing I’d done came after I’d written it over and over again. I was, by the necessity of deadlines, a first-draft newspaper reporter; I was not a first-draft fiction writer.
On that drive back to New Hampshire my muse visited, showing me in pictures the story I had to tell. The first image was of that "tough and tender" gas customer standing outside on the front stoop of his house admiring his junk cars languishing in tall field grass among wildflowers. I had emerged from the shock of Gardner's condemnation full of energy and mad confidence. In that image of my Top Gas customer, it was as if I'd seen the Divine in a burning bush.
Upon returning home, I hauled out the New Englander manuscript that I’d written in longhand and discovered I couldn’t bear looking at my handwriting, so I never re-read it. I worked from memory. For content, all I had was a day in a man’s life when everything goes wrong. On the plus side I had a protagonist that I liked and who seemed to please my mysterious muse so that the subsequent writing came naturally. Also I knew a lot about him, where he lived, who his loved ones were, and most important the nature of his personality, a man who was tough and tender.
And I had given him a name--Howard Elman.
I named my protagonist Howard to honor a novel that meant a lot to me as an undergraduate at Keene State, HOWARD’S END by E. M. Forster. The Elman name comes from my hometown of Keene, New Hampshire; when I was growing up it was known as the Elm City. I have vivid childhood memories of huge spray guns on trucks spraying white fog into the crowns of the great elms on my street. The sprays didn't help. All the trees died, destroyed by a disease brought in by insects from overseas.
One reading THE DOGS OF MARCH might conclude that I based the name Elman on the theme of loss, that as the elm trees of Keene and other American communities were reduced by an invasive species so was Howard Elman, the protagonist of THE DOGS OF MARCH. Actually, it was the other way around. I picked the name Elman because it sounded like a New England Yankee name. It wasn't until later that it occurred to this rather dense author that Howard Elman’s name suggested the theme of loss. That's how it goes with me; I'm a slow thinker, but a thinker nonetheless.
In Forster’s novel we see an uneasy mingling of social classes; we see population changes to a small town brought on by the expansion of the city of London. I saw the same situation in the towns in my part of the world, southwestern New Hampshire, changes brought on by the coming of the Interstate highways, which closed the distances between rural areas and urban centers.
Chip on My Shoulder
Athletes seem to perform better when they feel disrespected or angry at some real or perceived injustice. Same thing goes for writers, or this writer anyway. The chip on my shoulder was brought on by two exalted books.
When I was a college student back in the 1960s I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY, a canonical American novel, and James Dickey's DELIVERANCE, a newer work, very successful and so much admired that Hollywood made it into a blockbuster movie. I hated both books for the same reason: their treatment of working people.
In THE GREAT GATSBY, the least likable and stupidest character in the book, who in a jealous rage shoots dead the wrong guy, is the only person with a real job. He operates a small auto repair shop. Other characters of importance in the story have no visible means of income, never seem to be working, and somehow are well-off or very rich. Read Fitzgerald's personal essays, and it's soon obvious he's indifferent to or contemptuous of but also clueless about working people. In DELIVERANCE, rural working men are portrayed as bestial. In both those books the authors never bothered to develop their working men. They are mere literary devices created to do the author's dirty work.
And working women? They do not appear in these books, nor in most of the so-called great American novels that I was asked to read in school. A woman was portrayed as a love interest, a maid, a victim, a supportive spouse, an unsupportive spouse, a bitch, a witch, a grandmother, a fairy, but never as a realistic character who represents real working women, unless they were "little women."
What did I get out of my studies? Apparently big shot American writers, the critics who praised them, and the readers who supported them believed that working men were dopes and that working women didn't matter.
I have a history. My dad ran power looms in a textile mill 55 hours a week for almost half a century. My mom was a nurse. From age 16 to 31, I worked a variety of working class jobs--gas pumper, machines operator, taxi driver, mental hospital attendant, central office telephone equipment installer. My parents and co-worker were my friends, my mentors, and my heroes. As a young man trying to find himself as writer, I was looking for a realistic character I could identify with in fiction that represented the world I came from, the world of working people.
I didn't find these kinds of people in the American novels I was asked to read in high school and in college. Working men were either debased, as in THE GREAT GATSBY and DELIVERANCE, overly romanticized, as in the writing of John Steinbeck, swamped in authorial verbiage, as in the writings of William Faukner, or ignored, as in the writings of Ernest Hemingway. Working women were barely mentioned or simply absent.
It was not until I took a class in 20th Century British literature that I came across a character who was fucked up in the same way I was. That character was Leonard Bast, and the book where he appeared was HOWARD'S END, published in 1910 by Forster. My models for writers of long fiction ended up being British writers of that time period. Besides, Forster, there was:
• George Orwell. His novel COMING UP FOR AIR gave me permission to write about ordinary people.
• D.H. Lawrence. In LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, the working guy gets the girl. That never happened in the American novels I read.
• Virginia Woolf. Her writings taught me that the interior life of a character was as important as the character's actions in the material world.
As I began to type a draft of the New Englander, I paid homage to Forster, not only by naming my main character Howard, but by changing the working title from A NEW ENGLANDER to HOWARD'S END. I'm a big believer in book and chapter titles, even if early on they're the wrong titles. A title gives the writer a reference point for meaning. If you can't title something it means the piece is probably not about anything, and you have to rethink it. Often you stumble into a good title that suggests what you're really reaching for, in the early stages of a literary project.
My intent was to portray a working man in a realistic way, to delve into his thoughts and sensibilities as well as showing his actions, and to keep him at the forefront of the story at all times. I wasn't going to allow middle-class and upper-class characters to upstage him. I consciously wrote the book with a chip on my shoulder against the big time American writers of the 20th Century.
The Geography of Darby
Darby is a composite of three towns in Cheshire County in New Hampshire. Westmoreland--where I reside as I write these words--serves as the geographic template for Darby. But the demographics and culture of Darby are different from Westmoreland's, and I borrowed from other towns in Cheshire County to fill out my imaginary community.
A patch of ground in the town of Sullivan used to be conspicuous for its shacks and trailers. I moved that patch to Darby, expanded it into a village, and called it Darby Depot, locating it in my mind somewhat north and south of Route 12 in Westmoreland from the London Cross Road West to River Road.
In the real world, just north of Westmoreland continuing on Route 12 close to the Connecticut River is the town of Walpole. In imaginary Darby, Walpole doesn't exist. In its place I combined Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey and Mount Ascutney in Ascutney, Vermont, and called the resulting peak Abare's Folly Mountain, in local parlance "The Folly."
The folly of The Folly in the Darby books is attempting to farm above the 2,000 foot mark. But I had another personal reason for naming my mountain, Abear's Folly. It's a longish story that begins with my name.
"Abear" is the rough phonetic pronunciation of Hebert in French. So just what is Hebert's folly? After I published THE DOGS OF MARCH, a very wise old woman gave me some advice. Her name was Mavis McIntosh, one of the founders of McIntosh and Otis, the first all-women literary agency in New York and my first agent.
My most important advocate in the early days of my writing career was Lael Wertenbaker, a writer living in Nelson, New Hampshire, who read the manuscript of THE DOGS OF MARCH and passed it to her New York agent, Mavis McIntosh. She championed my book and helped me find a major publisher.
Before she retired, Mavis handed me off to her protege, Rita Scott (a former Miss Pennsylvania, by the way) and took me aside for a serious talk.
"Young man," she said, "I have two pieces of advice for you. First, don't get involved with the business side of publishing, because if you do it will hurt your writing. Let your agent take care of business. Second, whatever you do, don't write a series. They'll only read the first one."
I followed Mavis' advice in the first case and tried to stay as naive as possible regarding the business of book publishing. I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I'm as clueless now as ever. I ignored Mavis' advice in the second case and ended up publishing a series of seven novels, the Darby Chronicles. But Mavis was right! Only the first of Darby books, THE DOGS OF MARCH, has been a financial success, and a modest one at that. So the folly in Abear's Folly is writing a series in violation of Mavis McIntosh's wise words.
On my Darby/Westmoreland map, you'll find Upper Darby in the highlands of Glebe Road. The rich people in Darby live in mansions in Upper Darby. The grandest property in Upper Darby is the Salmon Estate, based on a mansion in Dublin, New Hampshire, where my mother worked as a nanny for the Cabot family and where she met my dad in 1939 on a double-date with her friend, an upstairs maid.
Center Darby includes the town hall, school, library, village store, town common and a cluster of houses. In my mind it is pretty much the same geographically as South Village in Westmoreland. River Darby is made up mostly of farms on the ancient bottom land of the Connecticut River, including the Hillary Farm, the site of a possible shopping mall (see book WHISPER MY NAME).
Howard and Elenore Elman's house in THE DOGS OF MARCH with its purple asphalt shingles, barn, and yard of junk cars is located about where my wife and I live today in the Park Hill Village of Westmoreland. In place of the Park Hill Meeting House is the house of Zoe Cutter, the antagonist in THE DOGS OF MARCH.
The Elman house is derived from a house I admired in a perverse kind of way, on a back road in Cheshire County. I figured the owner must have gotten a bargain on the shingles and used them as house siding. Junked cars in the front yard that appear in what would become THE DOGS OF MARCH? They’re more common than you might think, not only in New Hampshire but across the country.
Next time you drive coast-to-coast, take back roads. Much of the USA is a junk yard, which suits this author. My desk is a junk yard. My truck is a junk yard. My mind is a junk yard, from which I scour memory for used parts to replace defective reality in present-time. Junked cars are all part of nature to Howard Elman and also to his creator, beautiful in their own way as mountain peaks, rock outcroppings, cascading waterfalls, and other useless vistas.
An Iffy Start
To start that first typed draft, I began by looking at my notes, which included the hand-written pages of A NEW ENGLANDER, and various loose pages, big and messy that surely would have disappointed the Sisters of Mercy who taught me the Palmer Method of Penmanship at St. Joseph's Elementary School in Keene.
Somewhat relevant digression: I was only an average student at St. Joe's, but there was one area of study that I was very good at and that I enjoyed, and that was diagramming sentences. I think I internalized the geometry of language so that when, finally, as a college student I started to write I was prepared.
This much I knew from my notes. My protagonist, Howard Elman, was a shop foreman in a textile mill like the one where my dad worked for almost half a century and where I worked for a purgatorial summer between my junior and senior year at Keene High School, and he lived in the small town of Darby, NH, in an rundown house with purple asphalt shingles and a yard littered with junked cars that offended the sensibilities of his new neighbor, Zoe Cutter, who I created to represent the nouveau riche of the 1970s.
For maybe another week or so I didn't do much writing. Just lots of re-reading of notes and the creation of additional notes. And then I did what I always did, just jumped into an iffy situation feet first: I started writing.
Next Post: First Draft, Lopped Arm and a Theme
##First Draft, Lopped Arm and a Theme
Relying on my memory of notes I'd already taken, I wrote scenes of Howard Elman getting up in the morning and going to work at Lodge Narrow Fabric Co., based on International Narrow Fabric where my Dad worked and where got me a summer job between my junior and senior year in high school.
For the dramatic part of the chapter I remembered back to my "tough and tender" Top Gas customer. He had one arm. So I chewed off Howard's arm in an industrial accident. When I worked at the cotton mill there was no OSHA, and one of my most vivid recollections of the place was how dangerous it was.
I thought it was quite a nice scene, and I was pleased with myself. It's dangerous for writers to be too enamored of their supposed triumphs. A passage in a work of fiction includes emotions states of mind experienced by the characters, the readers, and the authors. Those states of mind are almost always different from one another; an understanding of that trinity helps this writer make his way.
For example, when initially I wrote the scene about Howard losing his arm in a shop accident, he no doubt would have been feeling horror, pain, then perhaps shock. But I was feeling giddy at my own cleverness for devising the scene. I lost touch with the emotion of my character. When I went back and read the scene out loud, it didn't sound right. It had a jocular quality, inappropriate to the action. It was as if I was satirizing myself.
This mistake in craft, if it had stayed in the story, no doubt would have elicited an emotional response in future readers that would not have been the one I was hoping they would feel.
Once I was back on track I realized that I had a more serious problem. I was now writing a book about a man with a crippling physical disability. Did I really want chapter two to be about Howard getting used to being a one-armed man?
The answer was no. "Ernie," my Muse instructed, "you need some drama in chapter one, but not so extreme as the protagonist losing a limb." I rewrote the finale of the scene so that Howard loses a little finger. Now I had a symbol to signal readers that this would be a story about a man who loses things. What's the next thing he will lose?
That question led to the next chapter and my realization that this was going to be a book about loss. Howard will lose his little finger, his job, the affections of his only son, and the companionship of his wife Elenore.
If this had been real life, Elenore's involvement in Howard's troubles would have been more profound. Indeed, the way I pictured their relationship in my mind, they would have faced those problems together as a long-time married couple. However, I wanted Howard to be isolated, so I had remove Elenore from the story in a way that would increase rather than decrease Howard's angst. I accomplished that purpose by arranging an accident where she breaks her leg and has to be hospitalized during the subsequent crucial chapters.
In retrospect, I believe that one of the flaws in THE DOGS OF MARCH is that Howard's wife Elenore is never deeply developed as a character. I deliberately subsumed all the characters, because in so many books the working men are upstaged. Even in the good books that I mentioned earlier. For example, LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER is not about the working man lover, it's about Lady Chatterly. I was determined to keep the focus of my story on my working man protagonist.
For me, the most important question to answer was when does Howard stop losing things and make a stand? It was in pursuit of the answer to that question that drove me to keep writing.
I love to create outlines, even while knowing that I will frequently deviate from them. Outlines are like stops you might plan for a road trip but not make reservations for, because you want to leave room for spontaneous changes. Then why make outlines to begin with? Because they keep your spirits up in the creative process that you know can fade to nothing at any time.
I proceeded very slowly, but I was happy because I was making progress. With each typed page, I became more knowledgeable about Howard Elman, my protagonist, and Zoe Cutter, my antagonist.
Originally, I had envisioned a male antagonist, but I soon realized that, given Howard's character, a fight between the two would be inevitable and would require guns blazing. I did not want a showdown at the OK Corral. I wanted the struggle for Howard's soul to be with himself. That's when I came up with the idea that the antagonist would be a woman, his wealthy neighbor from down country--Zoe Cutter.
The more I wrote the more empathy I felt for Zoe as well as for Howard--indeed, for all my characters; the more I wrote the more information I accumulated about the fictional world of Darby, though at the time I had no idea I would go on to write more books about a make-believe New Hampshire town that I named Darby for no better reason than that it sounded vaguely New Englandy and it was short and therefore less work to type over and over again, which is probably a lousy reason. At the time I wasn't writing about a town; I was writing about a feeling of … how to say it? Of intimacy with landscape and the people who inhabit that landscape. Howard loved the land, because /E
I soon figured out that Howard's End was not only too derivative as a title, but too cute, so all the time I was writing I was looking for a title. Years before I started writing "dogs," I actually witnessed a pack of domesticated dogs chasing a deer, for those were the days before towns passed dog-restraining ordinances.
When I was a reporter, I did a news story on the problem of domesticated dogs running down deer and killing them. An officer for the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game told me that March was the worst month for deer. For one thing, they would be weakened after the long New Hampshire winter. For another, the snows were still deep but crusted from freezes and thaws. A dog could run on that crust, but a deer's sharp hooves would plunge through the crust and slow it down, making it vulnerable to predators.
I started writing a long poem about dogs running deer that I didn't finish for years; it eventually made its way into the fifth Darby novel, LIVE FREE OR DIE. I called the poem THE DOGS OF MARCH when I was tinkering with it and eventually I borrowed the title from the poem and gave it to the novel. Or maybe it was the other way around. I can't remember which came first.
Upon completion of the draft of THE DOGS OF MARCH novel, I experienced a thrill, the warmth of accomplishment. But this feeling only lasted a couple days, replaced with an empty feeling. One of the rewards of novel writing is that you're never bored, because when you've taken on a big writing project there is always something to do or to think about. I liked that feeling of having a new problem to solve every day, and since it would be a problem of my own making in my head and not in the material world I didn't need to worry about hurting or inconveniencing other people.
That eureka experience in the car that I had after John Gardner's critique of my writing at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference initiated what would be a pattern for future books: plotting books on the road. Every book I've written has been schemed out while I was driving, often on long cross-country trips, sometimes on short hops. Depended on my life situation.
The Interior Life
There are two dramas in life. There’s the drama on the outside that we are all familiar with. We struggle to earn a living, seek intimacy with loved ones, deal with strangers, serve entities such as the workplace, church, state, make our way in the world, satisfy our corporeal desires, try not to screw up. This is the public drama of human life that is celebrated in film, TV, music, and the conventional print media.
There’s another more secretive and sometimes more intense world, and that is the world of the interior self, the terra incognito of reality. Sometimes we pretend to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind, but nobody really knows anyone else. I will go so far as to say that we cannot even entirely know ourselves.
By the time we gain an insight into our current self, it is because we have actually shaped a new self who has observed and noted the old self. But this new self remains unknown. You can’t observe yourself at the same time that you are being you. Maybe this is a corollary to the Uncertainty Principle. The human brain is quantum entangled. We never quite catch up to ourselves.
A nagging loneliness accompanied by the shadow of the uncanny haunts us all. It’s this continuing, elusive drama--the story with no end in sight, the story inside the mind--that I claimed as my domain as a fiction writer.
That world of the secret self, the self hidden from public view, the self lurking in the shadow of the known self, but revealed, if partially, in fiction writing is sometimes referred to as the "stream of consciousness." Perhaps "scream of consciousness" would be more appropriate. I prefer the less excitable term "interior monologue," probably because I am always talking to myself.
When I set out to write THE DOGS OF MARCH I sought a balance between the thoughts and motivations of Howard Elman as revealed in his interior monologue with the actions he performed in the world of things and time.
Here is a related point. When I was writing "dogs," I worked to avoid a mistake that many fiction writers made, which was to report the thoughts of rural characters in the peculiar diction of their accents and dialect. I used this technique myself writing satire and light-hearted pieces. However, in writing about serious subjects, the result was often degradation of the actual thought and the intrusion of humor where it didn't belong.
Accents and dialects are perceived as such by an outside observer, not by the speaker. The ruminating person is not thinking in dialect, and indeed sometimes is not even thinking in language but in the abstract. Words often pour out unsummoned. Thoughts are often unconnected to speech and actions. My task as a novelist was to find a correlative to that mysterious interior world of my characters, who were often inarticulate or who articulated in language that readers might find confusing or comical, or that guided actions often in spite of themselves, and the best tool I had was my own language.
My strategy in presenting Howard Elman's thoughts to the readers was to use my words in the voice of a third person narrator, not Howard's. In THE DOGS OF MARCH, Howard not only thinks but talks in Ernie Hebert's standard English, though every once in a while I tried to signal to the reader how he actually spoke. For example, "Ain't you smart," Howard says to his son, but I spelled his words the way he spoke them, "Ain't you smaht."
Next post: Important figure in my life.
##Elphege and Father Vac
When Elphege Hebert, my father, was drafted into the Navy toward the end of World War II, my mother, Jeannette Hebert, moved with my brother, Tony, age 2, and me, age 4, from Keene, NH, to Epping, NH, to be nearer her mother and older brother, the right reverend Joseph Ernest Vaccarest, the man I am named after, my full name being Joseph Ernest Vaccarest Hebert.
In those days Father Vac, as he was known, was pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Epping, a town of about 1,700 people in those days. My infirm grandmother Elise Marcotte Vaccarest lived in the rectory with Father Vac. "Memere," an immigrant from French Canada, spoke no English; she was cared for by a local teenage girl, Gemma Jean who, like my mom, later became a nurse; she was a lifetime friend of our family. Gemma died in 2018, at 99, the last survivor of those Epping years besides Tony and me.
I developed a special relationship with Father Vac, in part because I was named after him but also for other reasons. Blame it on war. Back in 1945 I was at an age where a boy begins to identify himself with a male figure. Since my father was away I latched onto Father Vac, an affection he reciprocated. Later when my father came home from the war he was traumatized, and by his behavior he traumatized me. All though my boyhood I carried a secret that I never expressed to anyone, which was that Elphege Hebert was not my true father; Father Vac was.
Eventually, my dad worked his way out of what we label at this writing PTSD. He was devoted to my mother and the three boys they raised and was an incredibly hard worker. He never complained about the long hours he spent working in a cotton mill. Indeed, he never complained about anything or anybody; never swore, never raised a hand to me, and never uttered a racial nor an ethnic slur. His demeanor was quiet and dignified, if withdrawn.
I would have liked some conversation with my father, some coaching perhaps, and some shared activities. I was a mad reader, a sports nut both as a fan and a participant in football, baseball and basketball. In my intense and frequent day-dreams I was outdoorsman who lived in a cabin in the woods, a hunter, a fisherman, and a trapper. But those interactions were outside of my dad's own family upbringing, interests, and education (he was a grammar school dropout).
After my mother died, dad moved in with my family when he was in his eighties. He was warm-hearted with a sneaky sense of humor, a garrulous nature, a perfect housemate. I remembered him in my boyhood as withdrawn and sullen. It wasn't until he retired from mill work and became cheerful that I realized that all those years in the mill drained his psychic and physical energy.
By contrast, Father Vac was all the things that Elphege was not. Father Vac was a powerful speaker, with more than a touch of charisma about him. I could tell at gatherings of family and friends that people looked to him for knowledge and leadership. He read widely in French, English, Italian, and Church Latin; he possessed a book collection that he proudly displayed. He was also a gun collector, hunter, fisherman, and sports enthusiast.
He gave me a few lessons in boxing and infused me with a combative attitude that came in handy growing up on the streets of Keene. I'm guessing he was probably influenced by one of his parishioners in Epping, former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Sharkey, who sometimes showed up at the early Sunday mass with his fishing buddy, Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams.
In later years, after he’d been promoted to monsignor with ambitions to become the first Franco-American bishop in the diocese of New Hampshire, Father Vac often took me into his office for long talks. I don't remember what we discussed. I remember that he never lectured me, never condescended to me, and always let me have my say. I remember the bookshelves, the big wooden desk, and the massive standard Underwood typewriter.
A Story and a Dedication
When I was eleven and my brother Tony was nine, Father Vac flew us to New York to show us the sights of the big city. Outside of his official duties as a priest, Father Vac didn’t wear his dark clothes and collar, and that day he was casually dressed like any tourist.
We were on the top floor of the Empire State building when Father Vac pointed out the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
"France gave that to us," I said.
My uncle, who had a booming voice, often spoke his mind, and he said, "Yes, and we’ve paid them back many times."
His words and the sarcasm in them were overheard by two French women tourists, who talked in their own language about the rude and ungrateful American.
Father Vac realized he’d spoken out of turn, and he immediately approached the women, talking to them in fluent French. I don’t know what he said, but he soon charmed them and we all went to lunch. That was the kind of man he was, and it was the kind of man I wanted to be.
Father Vac's ambition as a priest was to become the first Franco-American bishop in New Hampshire. He took a step toward that goal when he was made a monsignor. He never had his shot at becoming bishop. He died of a sudden heart attack at age 61 in 1956. I was fourteen. His death sent me into a tailspin that I didn’t come out of until I was in my twenties.
After THE DOGS OF MARCH manuscript was being prepared for publication I got a call from Alan Williams, my editor at Viking Press. He asked me who, if anyone, I had in mind to dedicate my book to. The truth was I hadn't given a single thought to the idea, but when he posed the question, I blurted out an answer that you read in the front matter of THE DOGS OF MARCH:
"To the memory of my uncle, Monsignor Joseph Ernest Vaccarest."
Writing a Novel on a Typewriter
By the time I started to write long fiction in my early thirties I had beat my Smith Corona portable typewriter to death. I was going to buy a new one, but my mother said, "Father Vac’s typewriter is in the attic."
I had the machine cleaned and tuned up; it worked beautifully. It was huge, heavy, and very stable when you banged on the keys, and had a feel so much more pleasant than my portable.
Typing on a manual typewriter is not the same as typing on a computer keyboard. When you type on your computer you wiggle your fingers. But a manual typewriter requires you to raise your arms and strike the keys with some force. The machine responds with complex click sounds that can be scored on sheet music. Get into a rhythm and you feel like a concert pianist.
You watch your words pop up letter by letter onto the paper. There is no word wrap; you return the carriage to the next line with a deft swing of the right hand. There is no cursor to roam back and forth in the text; no arrow keys, no delete key. You must go forward. Make a mistake and it's a new reality. A typewriter is a word processor that saves directly to the paper. That is its glory, and that was its doom.
Back in the early 1970s, I had spent about five years teaching myself to write fiction, I felt I was ready to start a novel--that is, start a good novel (I'd already failed with two)--but I was afraid of more failure, not to mention the hard work that lay ahead. My new typewriter and the memory of my uncle inspired me to get to work.
After my experience at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, which led me to figure out that I couldn't write fiction the way I wrote news stories--fast, furious, and final with the first try--I devised a method to slow myself down. I made three rules. Rule 1: Each page had to be as good as I could make it before going on to the next page even if I had to retype multiple pages. Rule 2: each page had to contain some element I had not seen before, an original metaphor, an action by a character, an insight; in other words, fiction I could call my own. Rule 3: When I made a mistake, even if it was just a typo, I would start over and retype a new page.
It was slow going, but I stuck by my method for the entire draft. I would type a page, take the page out of the typewriter, and edit it with a number 2 pencil. I would put the pencil-edited page beside the typewriter and retype it on a new page. In this process, I discovered a truth about creative writing, which is that sometimes the hands are smarter than the brain, because I found that as I retyped I often rethought the scene and made changes I had not anticipated.
I might type over the page three, four, five, or as many a dozen or more times. In the end what started as one page might become two or three or even ten or more pages. I learned that, for me anyway, novel-writing was an art of accretion. You didn’t build a novel like Michelangelo carving a stone block, you built a novel like the Divinity creating a coral reef, one calcium deposit at a time. Start with a word, make a phrase, encapsulate the phrase in a sentence, write more sentences that fit nicely into a paragraph, and so forth until those words form the human equivalent of a coral reef, a book.
Retyping, rethinking and re-feeling put me in touch with my story in a way I had not anticipated. I grew intimate with the characters and the fictional world. It took me forever to write a chapter, but by the time it was finished the chapter was pretty good and served as the correct take-off point for the next chapter. Like so many writers, I was a better rewriter than writer. (I may have cribbed the wording in that line from May Sarton, who I met when she was living in nearby Nelson, NH, and whose novel A RECKONING was a revelation to me and that supported my decision to concentrate on the interior lives of characters.)
I typed two hours a day, six days a week, for four years--and DONE. Much rewriting of individual chapters but only one draft of the manuscript, all of it typed on Father Vac's standard Underwood typewriter.
Eventually, THE DOGS OF MARCH, was published by Viking Press, a major publishing house. The book was very well received and reviewed nation-side, was awarded a citation from the Hemingway foundation, and sold well if not spectacularly. My career as a novelist was launched. That’s the sweet part of the story.
The sad part is I was never able to write a book on a typewriter again, nor have I ever been able to create a better method for writing than the one I used on Father Vac’s typewriter to compose THE DOGS OF MARCH.
My newspaper employer re-tooled the Sentinel office to accommodate computer terminals. Typing on a keyboard with a display undermined the method I had devised to write fiction on the typewriter. I couldn’t write creatively for six months. I became embittered. I hated the computer as a tool for writing; I hated my job, and above all I hated technology.
I began to take stock when I started to hate my fellow human beings. I was at a crossroads. I could quit my job, dump my wife and child, and retreat into a facsimile of my childhood fantasy cabin in the woods with Father Vac’s typewriter, notebooks, and bile; or I could join the human race on its dangerous but exciting river-raft run of technology.
I chose technology. I bought a Radio Shack Model 1 computer, followed by a Model 3 and Model 100, and my work has lived or died on the computer ever since. I’ve worked on numerous operating systems: Radio Shack, Microsoft DOS, Atari ST, Microsoft Windows, Alphasmart Neo, MacOs, iOs, ChromeOs, and Freewrite. I have tried many different word processing programs and methods of writing. None has stuck. Seems like every book wants to be written in a different, more advanced, or sometimes retro, technology.
I still have Father Vac’s Underwood upon which I wrote THE DOGS OF MARCH. When I was teaching I used it whenever I had a particularly busy day. I’d put a paper in it and whenever I did something I’d type it in to remind myself. In other words, the only remaining use of the Done machine was in creating a Done file. At this writing the Underwood rests on a table I made from local woods in our living room as a reminder … of what? I’m not sure. All I know is I like it in plain sight; it brings me comfort.
All that being said, I might have actually stuck with the Underwood and lived that hermit-writer lifestyle if it weren't for one flaw in the machine that I could not overcome. It was a pain in the ass to change the ribbon. I'd wear a ribbon down to the point where the typescript was so faint it was barely readable, because I dreaded the fiddly task of removing and replacing a ribbon cartridge.
The main dark side of the intrusion of technology on the craft of prose composition is that it removes the tedium involved that scared off most people with an urge to write a book. Today anybody can whip together a three- or four-hundred page manuscript in no time. The result is that publishers are deluged with book submissions. It's easy for quality work to be overlooked.
Me? Over the years I've grown not only to live with but to enjoy technology. Keeping up keeps me bopping. At the same time I can’t get over the feeling that I have lost something that cannot and will not be replaced.
Publication of THE DOGS OF MARCH
In the past when I finished a work of fiction and it was rejected, I took the news with equanimity. As a newspaper reporter, I was used to criticism or, more likely, a coldness toward me because of my work as a journalist who sometimes reported news that was distasteful or disagreeable to my sources and sometimes to the readers of newspaper. My attitude was: move on. It was a healthy attitude.
I did not have a healthy attitude upon completion of THE DOGS OF MARCH. I had a do-or-die attitude, that if this work was rejected my commitment to the writing life would have been a mistake. I could do no better, so if "dogs" could not find a publisher my quest for a meaningful life would have failed.
In retrospect, this kind of thinking all seems kind of crazy and incredibly selfish. After all, I had good health, a job I liked, many friends and living parents, a wife I loved (who, by the way in case you haven't noticed, Ernie, is pregnant). But I had put so much of my psyche in that book that there was no room left for anything or anybody else. In my mind, if it failed, I would be, like the guy in the song, "a real nowhere man."
What did I do? For a while nothing. Weeks went by. Finally, I gave the manuscript to a few writer friends.
Best advice I got was from my boyhood friend and historian William M. Sullivan. I can't remember his exact words after he read the manuscript, but the following is pretty close, "Ernie, this is a good book, but you can't spell and the manuscript is full of typos and you leave words out; you're probably a little dyslexic. Bottom line: you need to hire a copy editor." So I did. Delia Daniels of Hancock, NH, copy-edited the book and retyped it on an IBM Selectric Typewriter, so it would be more readable.
Delia was the first of several women who championed THE DOGS OF MARCH.
The second was Lael Wertenbaker. I had spoken to James Ewing, the publisher of The Keene Sentinel and my boss, about my book and he had said, "Ernie, I don't know any publishers who publish fiction, but do know a writer."
That writer was Lael Wertenbaker, an experienced journalist and author of 18 books. She liked THE DOGS OF MARCH and recommended it to her literary agent, Mavis McIntosh. I had no idea at the time that Mavis, cofounder of McIntosh and Otis, the first all-woman literary agency in New York, was a big deal in the New York publishing world. Mavis and her protege, Rita Scott (a former Pennsylvania) who became my agent after Mavis retired, found a publisher for THE DOGS OF MARCH very quickly.
I remember the time period well, because it was the same week that Medora gave birth to our first child, a girl May 9, 1978. It was the most exciting week of my life. The part that sticks most in my memory was that the thrill of the birth surprised me, because it was so much more exciting than the thrill of finding a publisher for my book. We named her Lael Scott Hebert.
Howard Elman and Zoe Cutter
Originally, I had planned on a male antagonist, but I realized that, given Howard's character, the fight would require guns blazing. I did not want a showdown at the OK Corral. I wanted the struggle for Howard to be psychological. That's when I came up with the idea that his antagonist would be a woman, his wealthy neighbor from down country--Zoe Cutter.
Howard Elman's End
The culminating scene of THE DOGS OF MARCH occurs when Howard, a hunter, identifies with his prey--deer--and tries to protect them by hunting down a pack of dogs in various descending circles of an old quarry, an idea I got from the descending circles of hell in Dante's Inferno where we find the Devil at the bottom encased in ice.
The dog pack is led by an Afghan hound belonging to Zoe Cutter, Howard's adversary IN THE DOGS OF MARCH. Howard loses his rifle and battles the dog bare-handed on the ice of a pond at the bottom of the quarry.
This extreme experience jars Howard's mind so that he figures out a way to survive.
Howard Elman does not prevail, nor is he defeated. He is reduced in circumstance. And of course in the years since the book was published that is exactly what has happened to working people in America.
The Protagonist and His Maker
Howard Elman made his appearance in my first published novel THE DOGS OF MARCH. He hung around the next five books of the Darby Chronicles, and I made him the protagonist in the seventh novel, HOWARD ELMAN'S FAREWELL, 35 years after "dogs".
I've taken Howard from his middle years deep into old age. He's not your typical hero nor even anti-hero, and he certainly is not the kind of protagonist that invites readers to create a bestseller for an ambitious author, but I've always loved him as if he were real and as if we were related.
In some ways, Howard Elman is a composite of the working men that I admired as a boy and who mentored me as a youth and young man, starting with my dad, Elphege Hebert; then, in no particular order, Joe Patnode, Harold Archer, John Todman, Royal Desrosier, old Bill at Cheshire Landscape.
It wasn't until years after I'd started publishing novels that I realized that Howard was a little than the composite I'd imagined. I was using fiction writing to fuse my working class dad and mentors with my assertive and outdoorsman priest-uncle, bringing together real people into one imaginary figure. In the same way that the Biblical writers created God, I created Howard Elman, out of a need for order in my universe.
A Little More Than Kin
Ollie Jordan: "Everybody’s got an idiot chained to him, only difference is mine’s here to see."
A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN was first published in 1982 by Viking Press.
Back in the 1970s anybody driving on I–91, the new interstate highway in Vermont that ran roughly parallel to the Connecticut river boundary with New Hampshire, would notice how beautiful the landscape was, in part because Vermont did not allow billboards. But look at that: a huge sign, tall and very wide, a single word on it, BASKETVILLE, advertising a store in Putney, Vermont.
The proprietors got away with the billboard by placing their sign across the river in New Hampshire, which had no legal prejudice against billboards.
Every time I drove I–91, especially at night, I would look for the sign. There was something about it, perhaps the incongruity of a lit–up billboard seeming to come out of the forest, that gave me a little thrill, followed by a twinge of shame for feeling so giddy about a blight on the landscape.
I didn't know it but that sign would one day be the central prop in the second book of the Darby Chronicles, A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN. I use the word "prop," because I've always run that book in my mind as a stage play.
Another image, part of an episode, further south on I-91 is another component that went into the writing of "Kin."
One afternoon I was driving south on the highway to New York. Somewhere in Massachusetts in the Holyoke area something caught my attention. High above on the edge of a cliff stood a young naked man in all his male splendor facing the traffic pleasuring himself. I projected the mental picture of that guy to the top of the Basketville sign.
Probably the most vivid image in A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN and maybe in all the Darby books is Willow Jordan, Ollie Jordan's eldest son, standing on the ridge board of the Basketville sign naked facing the traffic on I-91. To that naked guy going solo on a cliff top that inspired that image, I say, "Thanks, friend."
In A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN, behind the Basketville sign, unseen from the highway, are the Jordan shacks. My idea for the Jordan shacks came about as a result of a newspaper ad I answered advertising a 10–foot aluminum johnboat with oars for $75. The time period was the early 1970s.
I called the number in the ad, and a man with a weak voice gave me directions to his place, ten or so miles from Keene. It turned out to be a two–room shack in a compound of half a dozen or more shacks on a country road in Sullivan, NH. There was a lot of junk lying around amid briers, rocks, random vegetable plants but no discernible garden, plenty of weeds and weed trees, though; patches of tall grass and a wild flower or two, but no lawn, nor evidence there had ever been one. This layout of random nature amidst human poverty struck me as beautiful.
It was obvious from the look of the boat owner why he wanted to sell. The man was a walking scarecrow. He told me he had cancer and was too weak to fish; indeed, he could barely get around and converse. I knew I could talk him down on the price, but I paid the $75 anyway. Out of pity and common decency? Well, a little, but mainly I was constitutionally unfit for the art of haggling.
Later when I was writing the first book of what would be the Darby Chronicles--THE DOGS OF MARCH--I put those shacks and "landscaping" in back of my version of the Basketville sign. I also put something of the former boat owner into the physique of Ollie Jordan.
In A LITTLE MORE AND THIN, Ollie and his clan are squatting on the property of an absentee landlord. Eventually, the sign is torn down, the shacks demolished, until there is nothing left but bare ground. In later Darby novels, a trailer park springs up in the vicinity. By the end of the Darby series, the trailer park too has vanished from the earth as if it had never existed.
That's how it goes with the dwellings of the poor. We remember the rich and the privileged, their castles, their walled cities, their pyramids, their great cathedrals, their sarcophagi, the documentation of the structures left by architects, artists, and historians for us to study and admire. By contrast the poor live in fragile and short–lived structures.
The poor are not interred in vaults that last over the millennia; they do not reside in stone castles, mansions, or penthouses in the skyscrapers of big cities. They leave very few paper trails. They are like the creatures of the wilds that build nests to raise young and to seek shelter, only to be dispossessed by fickle weather, a landlordish critter with a different idea, or the demands of their own wandering spirit.
When I published THE DOGS OF MARCH, I sold the johnboat; with part of the $4,000 advance for the book I bought a canoe. As it turned out that purchase was a mistake. For my purposes, fishing on small ponds with a fly rod, the johnboat was superior, easier to toss into the bed of my pickup, and it handled better in wind than the canoe.
Plus too much time in the canoe using, no doubt, poor paddle–technique gave me tendinitis in my right elbow. I never had elbow problems pulling oars. Only thing I didn't like about rowing was having to look over my shoulder to see where I was going. But I could always see where I'd been: maybe that's a better perspective for a novelist than looking ahead.
A Little More Than Kin (CONTINUED)
Ollie Jordan and his clan first appear in THE DOGS OF MARCH. In "dogs" Howard Elman is the protagonist and Ollie Jordan is his sidekick. In "Kin" the roles are reversed. Howard, who lost his job THE DOGS OF MARCH, now makes his living as Darby's trash man.
The Jordans live in shacks behind a huge billboard visible from I-91 that advertises a Vermont business, Basketville. The opening scene shows Ollie's mentally deficient adult son standing naked on top of the "Basketville" sign in Darby, NH, that is designed to be visible from I-91 in Vermont. Ollie imagines that the Welfare Department is coming to take Willow away from him.
Ollie is a central figure of the Jordan Kinship along with Estelle Jordan, the Jordan "Witch." The specter of his relationship with Estelle haunts Ollie at every turn.
When Ollie is evicted from his shacks he breaks his drinking rules and heads out into the wilderness with Willow literally chained to him. It's obvious to the reader that father and son are doomed. How that doom plays itself out, through the disturbed but insightful mind of Ollie Jordan, is what made A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN tick for me while I was writing the story. My goal in this book was to make a rural underclass man a tragic hero.
Ollie, estranged from his common-law wife, is a brooding character with an inquiring philosophical turn of mind, but he grew up with no education, no mentors, and a serious Freudian hangup. A family history of poverty and a culture that runs contrary to mainstream society have robbed Ollie and his people of opportunity, even hope.
My aim wasn’t to glorify or romanticize rural poor people; it was simply to show them as complex human beings. Though A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN is action-packed the book is at heart an exploration into a brilliant mind that has laid waste to itself.
Eventually, Ollie runs away from society with Willow chained to him to keep Willow from running away.
In a number of scenes, at turns comical and mad, we see Ollie falling apart:
Ollie in a beer bar analyzing by his own lights Sesame Street on TV.
Ollie, drunk, on Christmas Eve hiding in the confessional of St. Bernard's Church in Keene during midnight mass.
Ollie retreating with Willow to a camp in the woods that I call the altar stone. It was that stone at a spot in the woods that I used to go to just to be alone that I got the idea for the ending of A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN.
The working title for that book was THE KINSHIP, but I changed it when my friend and fellow writer Terry Pindell came up with a quote in Shakespeare's Hamlet that resonated with my story.
King Claudius says to Hamlet, "But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—"
Hamlet interrupts and says, "A little more than kin, and less than kind."
Whisper My Name Origins
WHISPER MY NAME is the third novel in the Darby Chronicles. It was published 1984 by Viking Press.
The New England town has the power through its institution of town meeting, the beauty of its landscape, the enduring qualities of its architecture, and its tradition representational town government to shape in a good way the identity of its inhabitants. These values are put on trial at a town meeting. That's the core idea that drove me to write WHISPER MY NAME.
The plot plays out through the eyes of Reporter Roland LaChance, Farmer Avalon Hillary, and the founder of the Salmon Trust land conservancy, Raphael "Reggie" Salmon.
Magnus Mall, a national corporation, wants to buy the Avalon Hillary farm and transform the property into a mall to serve Western New Hampshire and Eastern Vermont. In the end, it will be up to town voters to decide
The aging Hillary is torn between the traditions of his family and "the thought of the money." LaChance is not only chasing down leads in his reportage of the mall he's chasing down the story behind his own origins. Along the way he falls in love with Sheila "Soapy" Rayno, an aphasic girl, and a daughter of Darby with her own mysterious origins.
One of the inspirations for Whisper My Name came from a radio news reporter I was somewhat friendly with. She was very young, maybe 21 or so, plump but curvy and very pretty, but she was perpetually disheveled, and it appeared that she never put a comb through her blond hair. She seemed to be too young and inexperienced--and no doubt underpaid and under-mentored--to do her job well.
Around this same time period I had two other issues on my mind, one relating to my job as a newspaper reporter and a personal matter. The news item centered around a big company that wanted to build a pulp mill on farmland in the small town of Walpole, New Hampshire. Local people divided along class lines in their support or condemnation of the project. In my personal life, my heritage from French Canada seemed to come out of a fog like a specter simultaneously to enrich and haunt me.
In the sometimes wacky way of creativity, the pulp mill drama, the dirty girl, and my own search for identity appeared in my head as a plot line for a book. The radio reporter morphed into an aphasic and troubled teenager that I named Sheila "Soapy" Rayno.
The center for the plot of the book would be a dispute over whether a small town should vote to accept a regional shopping mall. The protagonist would be the newspaper reporter who covers the story and the future lover of Soapy Rayno. I named him Roland LaChance. I broke my writing rule and did not create a profile for Roland because I thought I knew him.
It was my first attempt at writing a book with a protagonist based somewhat upon myself. The work did not go well. I was not ready to confront a story relating to identity with a version of myself as the focus, perhaps because even though I had turned age 40 I was still wasn't sure who I was. It would be another decade before I settled comfortably into a slowly evolving self.
Whisper My Name is the Darby novel that I am least satisfied with, and yet in the end it was the book that for better or for worse led to me thinking of Darby as not just a setting but as an idea. That thought led two more Darby books.
"Say, Muse, just what is that idea?"
"You'll have to write the books to find out," Muse answered.
Part of the answer was obvious to me: Darby was emblematic of a New England small town during a certain period in history. Years later the remainder of the answer began to dawn on me. It was all about the readers whether my vision could enrich their own idea of a small town in late 20th-early 21 centuries.
I'd already published two novels. Nobody was asking me to publish a third. I put that pressure on myself. I usually wrote an elaborate day in the life of my protagonist before embarking on the actual composition of the novel and even before I had a plot; I didn't do that with Whisper My Name. Somehow I staggered through and published the book. In retrospect, I think it's pretty good, though, Roland LaChance, the protagonist, remains the weakest part of the story. However, the experience of writing the book remains a bad memory. It's the only book I've written that wasn't fun to make.
Despite the bad feelings I had writing Whisper My Name something happened toward the end of composing it that led me to a fateful decision.
First Inkling of the Darby Chronicles
WHISPER MY NAME is the only book I've written that was a slog to create, and yet it has great importance to me, because the process of writing it made me understand my Darby books in a new way.
I envisioned the two previous books in the Darby Chronicles, THE DOGS OF MARCH and A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN, as stand-alone novels. With WHISPER MY NAME, I was seeing the books as chapters in an on-going saga that had no foreseeable end in my lifetime, just as a real town has no foreseeable end for its inhabitants.
How I arrived at this idea is in itself a complicated story that starts with my job as a reporter for The Keene Sentinel
New Hampshire is a great place to break in as a reporter, because you get to cover presidential candidates. I was a Sentinel reporter from 1972 to 1981. I did a lot of reporting of candidates and their positions during the campaigns leading up to the election of Jimmy Carter in November 1976. I didn't do any original reporting during that time. I was just learning election politics. When the next presidential campaign season arrived, I was a little more savvy.
The problem for a local reporter is that your knowledge-base is so small. You can never know as much as the national reporters because you don't have the time to devote the hours that they do, plus your access to sources is more limited. The only news you can provide your readership with that is unique is the local reaction.
With the experience of covering the previous campaign I came up with an idea. I had noticed candidates tended to attract local people who shared their ideas. I concluded that you could tell a potential winner or loser by the people who followed their campaign. So, early on, though I thought he was the smartest and wisest politician in the group, I wrote off Jerry Brown, because his local followers were ex-hippies, lefties, and academics. Their candidates never won.
Carter, though he was a Democrat, had distanced himself from the left. His slogan, "I will never lie to you," resonated. I saw people at his political rallies that I had never seen before. So as the 1980 campaign was gearing up in the late spring of 1979 I was looking for new people at political rallies.
I knew by sight all the regulars of all the factions. Edward Kennedy, Carter's opponent in the primaries, drew big crowds, but he had the look of a man who had a hangover; the local political people picked up on that as well as myself. It was soon clear to me that Kennedy was not going to replace Carter on the ticket.
Then Ronald Reagan arrived in Keene for a campaign stop at Keene High School. He came across in an interview as a lot smarter and more knowledgeable than he'd been portrayed in the national media. This was a shrewd operator who knew what he was doing. He packed the gym at Keene High School for a speech that drew a standing ovation. So, then, here was a candidate who drew people to his rallies that I had never seen before. Plus he had a slogan that resonated: "Let's make America great again."
Meanwhile, among the Democrats the crowds were the same old same old. I didn't see any new people. Based on the local reaction, I wrote a piece predicting that the two nominees would be Reagan and Carter, and that Reagan would win in a landslide. It was one of the few political pieces I've written, and probably the only time I've ever been right.
Flash ahead to 1983. I was just finishing up Whisper My Name with a knowledge that it didn't have anywhere near the power of a breakout novel. For the first time since I'd published THE DOGS OF MARCH in 1979 and A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN in 1982, I tried to predict my future literary career.
I took the technique I devised as a reporter (studying the local reaction to candidates) and applied it to my own career. I studied the reaction of my readers. By now I'd received a lot of mail, communicated with many people about my books, and had given talks in schools, libraries, and in private homes to book groups. I knew my readership. Actually, I knew the answer to my question all along but I had deliberately kept the information out of my mind for fear it would pollute me somehow. Deep down I was scared.
I'd already compiled the data in my head so the exercise in thinking about it and coming to a conclusion lasted only a minute. Maybe even less. My readers consisted of a few professional admirers--writers, editors, academics, high school teachers and of course my friends and relatives; add a few educated readers of New England fiction, but the biggest group were new people moving into rural New England who wanted a heads-up on the locals.
Near as I could tell my books had zilch appeal in suburbia, big cities, and small towns outside of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. The people I wrote about--working class people and rural underclass people--did not read my books; indeed, could not afford them. I avoided hot-button issues of the day: war, race, gender, nouveau riche money, porn, celebrity, religion, trendy topics. (Note that these are the same hot button issues today.) Generalizations: My protagonists were men, their themes were male, the readers of literary fiction were mainly women.
Upon realizing my impoverished position in the marketplace, my first thought was that my publishers were pretty stupid: how could they be smart if they were publishing my books? My first novel, THE DOGS OF MARCH, had received a citation from the Hemingway Foundation (now the PEN/Faulkner award), gotten rave reviews in the top newspapers and magazines in the country, and I still did not sell all that many books outside of my own very small region.
Viking Press nominated my second novel A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN for a Pulitzer Prize and other big time awards, but the judges didn't notice the book, reviews were good but not great (they have to be great to be worth anything at all); sales were flat. What would make anybody think that somehow another Hebert book about Darby, NH, was going to break out? Once the publishing companies figured me out I'd be gone. And yet what I had all of sudden in mind were more Darby books.
I can't remember when I got the idea for two more Darby books, but probably it was when I was on my daily run. Like most of my good ideas it seemed to arrive via a celestial messenger. The same angel that impregnated Mary with the son of God impregnated me with the story lines for both the fourth and fifth Darby books, THE PASSION OF ESTELLE JORDAN and LIVE FREE OR DIE.
I mulled over my choices: continue writing Darby books; try to write books that would sell; quit fiction writing and go back to writing newspaper columns. I couldn't think of any other options that I could bear. I certainly did not want to give up writing book-length manuscripts of fiction. I was hooked on the excitement of the creative process and, really, in my vanity I thought I had something to give to the world through my words and imagination.
It was fun dreaming up scenarios for best-seller novels, but when it came down to doing the actual writing, uh–huh. I could only write my kind of book. In the end I made the only decision that at the time was available to me. I would plunge ahead with Darby books four and five.
Ernie's Soap Opera
When I was writing WHISPER MY NAME I began to think of it as a soap opera, which is probably why it has a soap-operatic title, whose origins in memory are lost to me. I laugh as I type these words, because I am thinking of a moment of comeuppance visited upon me in a used bookstore some years ago.
I ran across a romance novel with the same name as my book, WHISPER MY NAME by Fern Michaeles. Of course I knew you can't copyright a book title, but even so I felt a little huffy that a mass market paperback had the same title as my literary hardback.
I looked at the publication date. The Fern Michaels book came out before the Ernest Hebert book. Sometimes the best laughs are when you laugh at yourself, especially at the realization of your own vanity.
The Passion of Estelle Jordan
One of my many part-time jobs when I was a student at Keene State College back in the middle 1960s was laundry man at Elliot Community Hospital. I had quite a history in that building. I was born there at 4 am, May 4, 1941. Later, it was my mother's workplace as a registered nurse specializing in obstetrics. More than once she'd spot somebody on the street and say, "There's one of my mothers."
The main entry of the hospital was always a treat for me, because on the walls were the murals of old Keene by Barry Faulkner. The hospital's laundry room was not nearly so picturesque. It was in the basement near the morgue.
In my memory I see a pitted concrete floor, basement walls of huge mortared stones. In the middle of the room was a chute reaching up through the building. Dirty laundry would be wrapped in a thin hospital blanket and dropped into the chute. One of my rules was don't stand under the chute. A load of laundry could pick up some knock out power as it fell from on high. Another rule was look before you reach into the pile, because you never knew which bodily goop you might come into contact with.
Off to the sides were a couple of washers and dryers, each about the size of a compact car. I worked with a mentally retard youth who I only remember as Red, because he had thick reddish hair. One day he must have got mad at me for reasons I cannot fathom as I was about to toss some sheets into a washer. Suddenly, I felt myself being lifted off my feet as Red stuffed me through the porthole of the washer. My head and shoulders were already in, so I could not reach behind. For a moment I pictured my spectacular demise tumbling in hot soapy water. At least I'd be clean when they found me.
My kid brother Tony, also a college student who also worked at the hospital, came on the scene and pulled Red off me. I never learned why Red wanted to do me in, and our future relations were cordial. There's a little bit of Red in the Willow Jordan character who appears in A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN.
Once a load was washed and dried, I would wheel it in a cart to a long table behind which stood three women, the folders. At the time, I was young and they were, in my mind, ancient, perhaps late fifties and early sixties. They were dour, a turn of mind no doubt they’d earned. They rarely spoke to me, but one of them touched my heart.
She dressed plainly, wore no makeup nor ornamentation. But her hair--ah, her hair--it was black and white, long and flowing and always freshly shampooed and brushed. I imagined that her pride in her womanhood was in that hair.
During this same time period I would sometimes visit the local bars in Keene. One night an attractive bleached blond in maybe her late forties came into the Crystal Restaurant with a man around seventy. The woman was brash, sassy, self-assured--a turn-on for a 25-year-old like myself. I imagined that this woman was a femme fatale of the most fatal kind. She would hook up with older men, give them one last thrill before ushering them into the next realm.
Years later I combined the woman at the laundry with the woman at the bar to create Estelle Jordan. There are a number of conflicts in THE PASSION OF ESTELLE JORDAN, but one that interested me most intensely when I was writing it was Estelle’s attempt to reconcile her warring selves, the assertive sometimes cold-hearted self and a contrasting vulnerable self that I called "the dear self."
In The Passion of Estelle Jordan, Estelle, the Jordan clan "witch," is sliding into late middle age, drawn to two lovers who could not be more different, Avalon Hillary, a widowed farmer who has a major role in WHISPER MY NAME, and a mysterious young punk that Estelle knows by the car he drives, TransAm. There’s a threat, not to Estelle--she can take of herself--but to Noreen Cook, a younger woman that Estelle sees as a younger incarnation of her own secret vulnerable self
Noreen works as a clerk at Back of the Barn Adult Books and Videos, which is situated in the rear of Ike's Auction Barn, now operated by Ike Jordan's son Critter. Noreen is having an affair with Critter, and she has vague ambitions to become a successful country sex worker like Estelle, whom she admires.
All these forces converge in a violent confrontation that produces (I hope) a satisfactory ending for readers and for some if not all the characters.
It’s not a coincidence that the title of the book and its story arc echoes the passion of Christ. This is a story of sin, suffering, sacrifice, and perhaps redemption. I may be a lapsed Catholic, but the church’s teachings and influences keep finding their way into my fictional world.
In my own layman's terms, what I hope readers get from this story is the idea that sometimes the only way to save yourself is to save someone else.
Live Free or Die
LIVE FREE OR DIE is the longest of the Darby books. (It got a very favorable full two-page review in the New York Times Book Review and the Times named it a notable of the year for 1990.)
The story centers around a love affair between Frederick Elman, the only son of Howard and Elenore Salmon, and Lilith Salmon, the only child of Persephone and Reggie Salmon, who died in WHISPER MY NAME.
Frederick, now age 30, thinks of himself as a poet, but he makes his living painting the high steel of bridges all over the country. His home is his pickup truck with its homemade camper body that he calls the Live Free or Die.
The story opens when Frederick is painting the Huey P. Long Bridge in New Orleans and fails to save a bridge jumper. He is called back to Darby by his mother to take over his father's trash-collection route while Howard recovers from a broken leg. Frederick does his mother bidding, but continues to live out of his camper.
Around this same time period Lilith Salmon, 21, daughter of Darby's first family, is called home by her mother, Persephone. Now that she's come of age, Lilith can take her dead father's seat on the board of the family land trust.
Frederick and Lilith cross paths and fall in love.
I think with a title like Live Free or Die, New Hampshire's motto, a reader might guess that this book has a tincture of tragedy about it and such a reader would be right.
At the heart of the tragedy is the vast misunderstanding that exists between the social classes and human beings in general. The book ends with a longish poem, titled The Dogs of March, that Frederick has been working for a long time.
Live Free or Die was billed (by myself in cahoots with the publisher) as the last of the Darby books. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write more Darby books. It was just that the sales were so discouraging that my desire was to move on to something else. Even so, in the back of my mind a question nagged at me. Birch, the baby of Lilith and Freddie, is born at the end of Live Free or Die. What happens to that child?
I also knew that since my books were written in real time, that is the action takes place during the time period I am writing them, I would have to wait quite a few years before I could attempt a sixth book with Birch as the center.
Live Free or Die, the Poem
Carving Wooden Spoons
How a boy saved his dad and brought together warring families.
All the time I was writing MAD BOYS and THE OLD AMERICAN, novels I published after LIVE FREE OR DIE, I was thinking about the novel that would be SPOONWOOD. I even had that title in my head. My inspiration for the story and the title grew from a visit I made to the Sunapee Crafts Fair held every year in the lake town of Sunapee, New Hampshire. I happened to come across a booth by Dan Dustin, who made his living carving elegant wooden spoons.
In Dan Dustin I saw all that I admired in a craftsman; in his spoons I saw what I pursued in my own creative life--beauty of expression, history, utility, and evidence of expertise by the maker. In the material for the spoons, local woods, I saw my boyhood in the forests of Beech Hill in Keene, New Hampshire, where I grew up.
I started carving spoons. They were nowhere as well-made and beautiful as Dan Dustin’s, but I enjoyed the work and even now, years later, my spoons are still in use in our kitchen. Wooden spoons behave differently from metal spoons. Wooden spoons do not clink. Wooden spoons grow more beautiful with age. If you make the spoon yourself, you get a little mental youtube of its origins every time you pick it up.
I made most of my spoons from firewood that I cut myself--maple, oak, birch, cherry--so that when I carved a spoon I could enjoy a memory of how I acquired it. My favorite spoon wood came from a piece of lilac wood I got from my friend David Corriveau. The lilac trunk was about five feet long and perhaps five inches in diameter. I cut it to make a one-foot long billet, which I split down the middle.
I was shocked with delight to see that the heart wood was the color of the flower--purple. But it was a fugitive color that began to fade within seconds. Or maybe the purple was all a hallucination. Doesn’t matter. The feeling--a thrill--remains in memory. In the end, the heartwood color stabilized to a dark reddish brown, very beautiful, especially the way it played off with the blond sap wood. It was hard work carving that spoon, because lilac is very dense and resists the blade. However, the wood does not splinter easily so in the end I was able to fashion a passable spoon. I followed the grain so that the spoon had a curve in it.
Historically, mountain laurel was called spoon wood because it was hard and lovely, but also easy on the carver's tools, which is why it was Dan Dustin’s favorite wood for spoon carving. After SPOONWOOD was published, Dan and I formed a talk duo for library groups, book stores, anybody who would listen to us.
Fiction writing is like what I imagine method acting must be like. I have to use part of myself in the role I play on the page. When I wrote THE DOGS OF MARCH, I started a gun collection to get into the frame of mind of my protagonist Howard Elman. After the book was finished I lost interest in guns and got rid of them. Same thing happened with SPOONWOOD where Frederick Elman (who changes his name to F. Latour) earns his living and finds salvation in carving wooden spoons. All the time I was writing the book I carved wooden spoons. I haven’t carved a spoon since I finished writing the novel.
I suppose I would be a danger to society if I wrote from the perspective of a serial killer.
I wrote SPOONWOOD as a sequel to LIVE FREE OR DIE, a tragic love story with a down ending. Not all of life is tragic, so I wanted to write a book that was more hopeful for the human condition in imaginary Darby.
SPOONWOOD has co-protagonists, Frederick Elman, Howard Elman's son, who changes his name to F. Latour (You have to read the book to find out why) and his son, Birch.
To get away from booze and people Latour moves into the woods with his infant son; they reside in an abandoned hippie school bus with no electricity, no plumbing, and a mile from the nearest road. In that environment Latour heals himself over time, raises his child, and earns a meagre living carving wooden spooms.
SPOONWOOD comes as close to the fulfillment of a personal fantasy than anything I’ve written. From the time I was a boy I’ve soothed my emotional hurts, staved off boredom, and contemplated a pleasant future by imagining myself living in the woods in a tiny cabin. It’s never happened in real life, but if you count the down time of thinking about it, that imaginary cabin has been a second home for me for many decades. It first appears in a fictional sense as the dwelling place of Darby's hermit, Cooty Patterson.
After I finished SPOONWOOD, I did a lot of writing, but not for publication. Among other projects, I wrote a book on fiction writing for my students. That project was spawned by the price of textbooks. I thought the quality of the textbooks on writing were okay, but way overpriced. Writing my own book and giving it away was my little rebellion against the publishers. I also wrote a not-for-publication memoir for my children.
That project got me thinking about the past, and the next thing I knew I was writing a faux memoir. I asked myself, "Self, what would my life been like if I had never gone to college." The answer to that question was my somewhat autobiographical novel, NEVER BACK DOWN, published in 2012 by David Godine, Publisher. It's my imagined life if I had never gone to college.
The acquiring editor for NEVER BACK DOWN was the founding editor of the company, David R. Godine, but the person who did the actual editing of the book was the poet Susan Barba. I mention her because, like Michael Lowenthal, the editor of my cyberpunk novel MAD BOYS, she was one of my former students. Makes me proud.
For me the most interesting part of writing SPOONWOOD was the development of Frederick's son, Birch Latour, who is a bridge healing figure in the class war between the Elmans and the Salmons. SPOONWOOD won an IPPY (Independent Publisher book award) for best regional novel in the Northeast in 2006.
When I was writing SPOONWOOD, I imagined Birch Latour grownup as a future character in the Darby books, but at the time I never thought such a book would be written. It took advice from another of my former students to kick start that book. More about that in the next post.
SPOONWOOD won an IPPY (Independent Publisher book award) for best regional novel in the Northeast in 2006.
Howard Elman’s Farewell
I had no thought that I would be writing another Darby novel. Then something happened. I was pushing 70 years old, already planning a retirement centered around teaching myself to be a fine artist, and all of a sudden I began thinking about my mortality.
My muse, which until now had been advising me about what to do with imaginary people, was now talking directly to me: "Ernie, eventually your body is going to wither away, your brain is going to turn to mush, and you are going to pass weak-hammed, toothless, and slack-jawed into oblivion, unless of course a stroke or a heart attack or a cancer or a falling tree that you cut for firewood, you idiot, doesn’t kill you first."
Which led me to thinking about my legacy as a writer. It was obvious that my reputation, such as it was, no doubt would rest primarily on the six books I’d already published around the imaginary town of Darby, New Hampshire.
The books were scattered all over the place. WHISPER MY NAM, had gone out of print. A LITTLE MORE THAN KIN and THE PASSION OF ESTELLE JORDAN, were in one volume, titled THE KINSHIP, and were about to go out of print. How to bring all the Darby books together? I certainly could not boast a track record in sales to persuade a publisher to invest the resources for reprints of my books.
Around this same time period Amazon came along with the Kindle. Suddenly, I saw a way to bring the Darby Six–Pack (my name for the Darby novels in those days) under one banner. I envisioned a digital set.
How to go about doing this? I had a lot of ideas, but they were the ideas of a spacey fiction writer. I wanted advice from a smarter, more practical–minded person. I immediately thought of Chip Fleischer, a founder of Steerforth Press, and a former graduate student of mine who was in the first advanced creative writing class that I taught at Dartmouth College back in 1987 or maybe it was '88.
We met for lunch at the Canoe Club Restaurant in Hanover, New Hampshire. I told Chip my desire to bring the Darby novels together and to call attention to the series. He offered one bit of advice. "Ernie," he said, "you'll have to write another Darby book." By the time we'd left the restaurant I had the story that would become HOWARD ELMAN'S FAREWELL in my mind. Apparently, the idea had been there all along. It just needed Chip Fleischer to dislodge it from my unconscious.
I knew immediately that this seventh book would be a keystone novel for the Darby books and that the protagonist had to be Howard Elman, since he was the protagonist of the first Darby novel and the only major character who appears in all the Darby novels. I did some quick math. If I was going to stick to my process of setting the Darby books in the same general time period that I was writing them, Howard would be in his middle to late 80s. I envisioned a geriatric coming of (old) age novel.
Suppose all a man has left is his imagination, then what? That was the question that helped me shape HOWARD ELMAN'S FAREWELL.
I was thrilled at the idea of writing from Howard’s perspective. For reasons mysterious to me, when I inhabit Howard Elman’s persona my muse loosens all her restrictions and I write with great freedom and joy. I was just born to write about this irascible, dyslexic working man. Howard Elman is my King Lear and Archie Bunker rolled into one.
One of my first thoughts was that if I was writing about Howard Elman I had to include Cooty Patterson, another of my favorite characters. But Cooty was even older than Howard. He’d likely be dead or pushing a hundred. Chapter One would be Cooty’s funeral procession.
No way," my muse said. "How about starting with Cooty’s hundredth birthday party?" In this way, Howard Elman’s Farewell got written--and surprisingly fast. It usually takes me three years or more, writing multiple drafts, to write a novel. HOWARD ELMAN'S FAREWELL came together in less than a year. In fact the publication process took longer than the writing.
So what is this novel written by a newbie Septuagenarian about? Here’s what I wrote for my publisher:
"Howard Elman was a fifty-something workingman when he burst onto the literary scene in The Dogs of March, in what would become the first novel of the Darby Chronicles. Now in this, the seventh, Darby Constable Howard Elman is an eighty-something widower who wants to do "a great thing" before he motors off into his sunset. Maybe he does do a great thing, but he gets there in strange, wonderful and dangerous ways, aided, abetted, hindered, and befuddled by his hermit friend Cooty Patterson, age 100, by his living middle-aged children, by a voice in his head, and by the person he loves most, his grandson, Birch Latour, 24. Birch has returned to Darby with his friends to take over the stewardship of the Salmon Trust and to launch a video game, Darby Doomsday. At stake is the fate of Darby. And the world? Maybe."
Next I plan to post the first image in what will be a gallery of drawings centering around imaginary Darby.
My father, Elphege Hebert, was drafted into the Navy during World War II at age 33 even though he was married and had two children.
One of my first vivid memories is of my father after he came back from World War II, a traumatized veteran. He would get dressed in a suit and tie in the morning, sit and stare out the window all day. He hardly related to me or to anyone. It was six months before he was able to return to his job as a weaver in a textile mill in Keene, New Hampshire. Eventually, he worked his way out of his troubles and lived a long, productive life--a good life. But his eldest son could never shake the image of that ghostly figure.
So many of my best friends had fathers who had been in World War II, and it dawned on me in early adult life that their fathers, too, had been traumatized and their behavior had a great impact upon their children. Later still, I came up with the notion that the madness of the 1960s perpetuated by youth was in some way linked to the wartime experiences of fathers who passed down elements of their trauma to their progeny.
My way of dealing with stews of memory, emotion, and ideas is to write about them inferentially and metaphorically. So, then I wanted to write a novel about the aftermath of war, but I couldn't do it because I knew I couldn't write an honest book without hurting people who didn't deserve to be hurt, in particular, my dad. I shelved the idea.
Flash ahead to 2017 when all the old vets had died. I made a halting start to write that book, but I soon abandoned it. I had just published THE CONTRARIAN VOICE and Other Poems (Bauhan Publishing) and had decided that I was done with writing and that I would pursue a long-time dream to draw images from my published novels. Drawing was so much more fun than writing. Around the same time period I reunited with Mary Baglione, a first cousin I had not seen since childhood.
In the family lore, it was well known that Mary's father, an alcoholic who died well before his time, had appeared drunk at Mary's wedding. What I didn't know was that he'd been a veteran in the Battle of the Bulge and that Mary's mother had been an army nurse who also had a drinking problem. "My parents were never abusive," said Mary, an only child, "but it was sometimes lonely growing up in that house." It was Mary's words and the sorrowful way she spoke them--"it was sometimes lonely growing up in that house"--that inspired me to write the novel that would be WHIRLYBIRD ISLAND.
The story is narrated by Junie Blaise, traumatized in 1968 at age fourteen by the death of his father in an apparent hunting accident during the annual reunion and deer hunt of his dad and three other U.S. Army veterans of the Korean War.
Junie, a widower now in his sixties, agoraphobic, and living alone in Shinbone Shack, a log cabin on Grace Pond in New Hampshire, joins forces with the grandchild of another of the veterans, to learn the truths behind multiple deaths. Trinity Landrieu, age twenty-something, is a brash intersex person or NOT, who is a talented computer hacker, investigator, and self-described shape-shifter. Sometimes Trinity passes as a woman, sometimes as a man, but neither Junie nor the reader will know Trinity's true gender.
Much of the action of WHIRLYBIRD ISLAND takes place on Grace Pond in fictional Darby, New Hampshire, but there are also scenes in Lowell, MA, White River Junction, VT, New Orleans, LA, Seattle area in Washington state, Port Mansfield, TX, and Trinidad of the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, all places that I am familiar with.
Junie and Trinity investigate what will turn out to be a series of killings related to the aftermath of an incident in the Korean War. While there's plenty of action in this book and many revelations, it's a character-driven narrative with the not very subtle theme of war trauma
A note Regarding Craft: When body cameras came on the scene in American life, it struck me that these devices could broaden the reach of a first person narrator, in particular in the story I had in mind for WHIRLYBIRD ISLAND. Junie Blaise, the narrator of the book, can report action live outside his immediate locale on Grace Pond, because Trinity Landrieu, who does the actual investigating, is always wired, so this story has a high-tech component.