Writing at the Edge

Writing at the Edge

The coast of Maine and New Hampshire is a place where the written word has always been king, but there’s never been as much page celebrity as today, thanks to the local ties of four of the best contemporary novelists of our time.

From on board the M/V Thomas Laighton, cutting through the coastal waters near Portsmouth, the rocky islands seem at first an apparition, a thin gray line shimmering under the summer sun. They take shape slowly, rising from the sea, nearly barren, scrubbed clean by the wind. These are the Isles of Shoals, a place once known for its rich fishing (among the “shoals” or schools of fish) and then made famous by Celia Thaxter in the 19th century. Here she wrote poetry, planted a remarkable garden, and entertained her friends from Boston-writers and artists who wove some of the first threads of New England’s rich literary history. They left behind an enduring image: kindred spirits gathered round the hearth, ideas flying, fire glowing, on a small bit of land surrounded by sea.

A list of northern New England’s celebrated authors, writers who have chosen to “gather” round the hearth here near the sea, reads like a sort of literary mantra: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, Wharton, Jewett. Through time, the list continues to grow, and today includes some of the best-selling novelists of our time: John Irving, Dan Brown, Anita Shreve, Richard Russo, and a slew of others. They continue the tradition of those who came before them, putting down roots and creating work that ensures this coast is an enduring place on the world’s literary map.

“It’s not surprising to me, the number of authors we have who live in this region,” says Patricia Lynch, executive director of Portsmouth’s Music hall. “This is an area that attracts writers and readers. New England has a vibrant literary scene.” Lynch should know. She is the creator of Writers on a New England Stage, a popular series at The Music hall that features big-name authors from across the United States and New England.

When The DaVinci Code author Dan Brown took to The Music hall stage on a spring night in 2006, the crowd was standing-room only. The press turned out from across the country and beyond.  One of the fastest-selling novels ever, The DaVinci Code was about to be released as a movie, and Brown had recently been named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. he was officially, as Lynch put it in her introduction, “a literary phenomenon.” For Brown though, The Music hall event, his only planned public appearance before the film, was a return to his roots and a chance to benefit a local landmark-the only reasons, he told the crowd, that he was enduring the spotlight he typically preferred to avoid.

Brown, it turns out, grew up in Exeter, just down the road from Portsmouth. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where his father taught math. When he started writing seriously, he used to climb the stairs to his office above Exeter’s Water Street Bookstore, stopping by to talk to the owner, his friend Dan Chartrand.

At the end of his Music Hall talk, after he told his stories, after he touched on the international controversy sparked by his religious thriller and shared snippets about the surreal life of becoming an overnight celebrity, Brown was asked one last question: “You could live or work anywhere in the world. Why New Hampshire?” For Brown, the answer was simple. “Family, friends, and the seasons,” he said. “I was born here, I grew up here.” It comes down, he explained, to one simple thing: New England is home.

Brown still lives on the Seacoast and goes to Exeter occasionally for a bite to eat and to visit friends. And he and his wife are generous supporters of a number of local efforts and organizations. Put simply, they live like members of the New England community they call home. Their friends and neighbors, in turn, do their best to treat the author as a local and not as a celebrity. “We like having Dan better as a friend,” says Chartrand, “than for the notoriety he could bring us.”

The famously reclusive John Irving, who now lives one state over in Vermont, also grew up in Exeter and attended Phillips Exeter Academy, as well as the university of New Hampshire up the road in Durham. According to Chartrand, some of the tourists who find their way to his store are on an Irving pilgrimage. “Especially people from Europe,” he says. “They are huge fans of his work.” They come wanting to see the school that was the basis for Gravesend Academy in A Prayer for Owen Meany (Phillips Exeter) and looking for the orchard up the road in Hampton Falls considered the setting for Cider House Rules.

“What he’s written about orchards comes from his experience here,” says Linda Wagner, whose husband Peter owns Applecrest Farm orchards, where Irving spent a few summers working alongside Peter and his brother Ben. The teenage pals did everything: painting, haying, mulching. Even back then, Peter remembers, Irving kept them entertained. “Johnny could always tell stories,” he says, “and they were good stories. He had a great sense of humor.”

When he was working on Cider House Rules, Irving returned to Applecrest to do research, following Peter around for days, checking every detail about the orchard. “Johnny was always after the right word,” remembers Peter. “’Rollers’ or ‘conveyor belts’? ‘Bushel boxes’ or ‘crates’? And the kids out there checking apples—what did we call them?”

Irving got it just about perfect, according to the Wagners, who still have a copy of the early galley the author sent them. And occasionally they still like turning to the acknowledgment page, where their good friend—now a world-famous author—thanks the Wagner family.

Perhaps no novel has a more overt connection to this stretch of coast than Anita Shreve’s national best-seller, The Weight of Water, which weaves fact and fiction to explore the mysterious double murder that took place on the Isles of Shoals in 1873. The islands themselves pulled her into the project, she explained in 2007 during an interview on New Hampshire Public Radio: “I found it such a great place to trigger the imagination…It was really the place that began to dictate the story to me.”

Shreve is clearly an author captivated by place, inspired, especially, by the sound and sight of the sea. She lives in Western Massachusetts now, but grew up visiting Maine as a child, and today she has a vacation home in the town of Biddeford, just south of Portland. It is here, along the coast, that she found the house that has figured so prominently in four of her novels: The Pilot’s Wife, Fortune’s Rocks (the actual name of the beach in Biddeford Pool where the house is located), Sea Glass, and Body Surfing.

“I was walking along…and I just happened to see this incredibly beautiful house on the water with a wraparound porch and mansard roof and many dormers, [which] suggested to me many bedrooms, and two blocks away is a convent,” she explained. In her novels, Shreve relocates this white clapboard house, which she describes as having an exceptional graciousness and serenity to New Hampshire. She also merges it, in her imagination, with the nearby convent in Biddeford Pool, now the Marie Joseph Spiritual center.

Over the years, Shreve has never revealed the house’s exact location, trying to protect the privacy of its owners. But she has been explicit in the debt she owes to this dwelling and to the coastline on which it sits—the same place she has put down roots of her own. “I found this house and imagined its history,” she said in her NHPR interview, “that a house with any kind of age would have dozens of stories to tell.” Shreve has done just that, spinning tales of intertwining lives and countless dramas large and small within the fictional walls of a sprawling old house on the edge of the Atlantic.

Up the coast in Camden, Maine, Richard Russo is a regular at the local deli, where he often starts his day with the paper, a cup of coffee, and his composition book. The folks who work there know who he is, that several of his books have been made into movies, and that one, Empire Falls, earned him a Pulitzer Prize. They also know enough to leave him alone so he can write— accompanied by the steady hum of background conversation, water views when he looks up from the page, and the aroma of good food.

“For space,” Russo writes in the acknowledgments at the start of Empire Falls, “I wish to thank Fitzpatrick’s café, the Camden Deli, and Jorgenson’s.” These favorite haunts, all located in the quaint village center, represent the essence of small-town life, places where everybody knows your name and, if you’re lucky, they treat you just like the other regulars. “

Almost all of my experience comes from small towns,” said Russo when he addressed his Music hall listeners in 2007. Though many of his novels are set in upstate New York, Empire Falls is in Maine, modeled after towns like Waterville and Skowhegan—quintessential New England mill towns once humming with economic promise. In Russo’s hands, these sprawling mill buildings, now silent and forlorn, become the ideal setting for a complex cast of characters whose lives unfold in minute detail beneath their shadowy presence.

In 2007, on a brilliant fall afternoon, Russo signed copies of his newest work, The Bridge of Sighs, at Camden’s owl & Turtle Bookstore, located, appropriately enough, in a former mill building. The event was crowded with tourists, as well as locals. Maryanne Shanahan, a big Russo fan and nearby neighbor, says events like this one are part of what drew her to Camden six years ago when she left New York after nearly two decades in publishing. “When I saw the number of bookstores and the number of signings and the writers large and not-so-large throughout this community and up and down the coast, I was in awe,” says Shanahan, who organizes the Maine Literary Festival, an annual gathering of people with a shared passion for the written word.

It seems villages by the sea have a special appeal for literary types—the promise of a genuine retreat from “the rest of the world.” For those who settle or vacation regularly here, it’s a distinct lifestyle choice.

“There’s no question writers get inspiration from the environment here,” says Jan Coates, owner of Port In A Storm Bookstore on Somes Sound near Acadia National Park. She’s heard it over and over from “her writers,” the ones she knows personally, who stop by for talks and signings or just to say hello. “Many appreciate the quiet, the contemplative natural beauty that allows them to peel away the layers of life that can’t be peeled away in other settings. That allows them to get at the core of their thinking about a particular subject or take a creative thought and develop it.” Coates pauses, looking out to the glinting water just a stone’s throw from the book-lined shelves. “Part of what Maine offers, I think, is a catching up with the self in some way.”

Writers, perhaps not so unlike vacationers, are drawn to the water’s edge. They may seek solitude, but they value community, too. They love the natural beauty close at hand, even as they relish the bustle of a thriving village. So maybe it comes down to this: here along the New England coast, you can live on the edge—at the edge of the water and at the edge of town. You can escape to the solitude and beauty of the natural world, while culture and community are always within reach.

And then there’s the sound—best heard, perhaps, in the quiet of a coastal bookstore, in a place like the Owl & Turtle, where the Megunticook River roils and shimmers directly beneath the floorboards on its way to the harbor. Here, surrounded by the comfort of books on every side, it’s unmistakable: the whisper of turning pages, hushed voices, a crackling fire at the hearth, and beneath it all, the rush of moving water flowing out to the sea. The sound of literary New England.