Category Archives: June 20

The making of a first novel that occupies the ‘slim edge’ between memoir and fiction

“I knew I wanted to tell my story 25 years ago, after I moved permanently to Maine,” says Rackliff Island resident Alice Bingham Gorman. That story is the basis of Valeria Vose, the autobiographical novel Gorman published at the end of 2018, which is the winner of the 2019 Independent Publishers Book Awards Gold Medal in Southern Regional Fiction.

“I began writing it as a memoir and then I went to graduate school to get a MFA in writing and that changed everything. I took a semester of fiction writing and I fell in love with fiction. I’ve always loved to read fiction, and I’ve always loved memoir, too. To me, the best fiction feels as though it’s a memoir and the best memoirs feel as if they are fiction. So I took this semester class and then began writing fiction.”

After earning her MFA in writing from Spalding University in 2005, Gorman began in earnest transforming the memoir she had begun into a novel. “When I finished the manuscript I sent it to my fiction teacher at Spalding and asked, ‘Do you think this is worthwhile, could it be published and, if so, would you work with me?’ And he wrote back, ‘Yes, yes and yes.’ So for the next six months he worked as an editor with me—I’m a complete believer that all writing needs an editor, you need somebody else who looks at it from the point of view of the reader—and then I went about deciding how to publish it.”

Gorman will be talking about her novel in conversation with Maine author Bill Roorbach on July 16 at the Ocean View Grange in Martinsville as part of this year’s Summer Literary Series sponsored by the Jackson Memorial Library. Gorman founded the popular series a dozen years ago and continues to select each year’s roster of presenting writers. “My volunteer committee urged me to be one of the speakers this year. I thought if I did it as a conversation with Bill, who everyone loves, he will bring another dimension to the presentation and balance the fact that I am a first-time novelist. The two other writers this year, Roxana Robinson (Dawson’s Fall) and Hampton Sides (On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, The Korean War’s Greatest Battle) have published a lot of books and I haven’t.”

Her novel, Gorman says, begins with a crisis in a marriage. “The protagonist, Valeria Vose, who is called Mallie—her last name was Malcom before she married so that’s how ‘Mallie’ came about—is living out the expectations she was taught through her Southern mother, her grandmother, her aunts. Her whole life was based on being the good wife and the good mother. And she is suddenly faced with a divorce and that becomes critical. Who is she if she’s not a married woman in this world of expectations that she lives in? So this book is about her creative, her spiritual, her personal search for who she is and how she’s going to live the rest of her life.”

As autobiographical fiction, Valeria Vose occupies what Gorman calls the “slim edge” between memoir and fiction. “The difference,” Gorman explains, “is that you make a contract with the reader when you are writing a memoir or autobiography and that contract is, ‘I will not lie to you. Everything I say is fact.’ Therefore you have to be really careful about conversations, you may remember the tenor of a conversation, but nobody ever remembers the exact words. You can’t make up a character, you can’t use a composite character, you can’t make up a scene, you are limited to the facts. In Valeria Vose on the other hand, the story line follows the story line of my life and the protagonist very much goes through what I went through, but there are scenes that are fabrication. Still, I know the landscape of what I’m writing about. For instance, there’s a scene that involves duck hunting. Well, I went duck hunting with my father from the time I was 12—I was really meant to be a son—so I know the territory. But that scene did not happen. But it created an emotional experience for the protagonist that deepened her feelings at that moment in the book. So it was important to put it in there. There are several scenes that were not actual fact but they were based upon experience and what I know.”

Gorman calls herself a “binge writer.” “For me, writing is a compulsion. I am not disciplined—I don’t get up in the morning and start writing. I write when I have to, whenever the idea is pressing on me. With this novel, I had the format of the memoir already, so I had something to work with, but it was still intense. And I pretty much wrote day after day, for hour after hour. But it was not discipline. It was literally a calling for me. It’s what I had to do.”

Pausing to consider further for a moment, she adds, “The wonderful thing about the creative act is that you don’t even know time is passing. It’s the ultimate ‘having fun.’ Of course it’s hard, but the fun is that you are out of yourself. And I can be in a zone out of myself for hours. It’s a miraculous feeling.”

Editing the work, Gorman notes, “is a different brain function altogether. But I love editing. If someone you respect and trust gives you a really good critique you can think about it and see how you want to change it. The initial writing is intuitive and spontaneous. Editing is analytical. Then you are trying to look at it from the point of view of the reader—is it clear?”

Gorman chose to send the Valeria Vose manuscript to She Writes Press for publication. They assigned her a copy editor to work with before sending it to press. A hybrid publisher, She Writes Press combines the role of traditional publisher with that of a self-publishing company. “It is not an inexpensive thing to do,” says Gorman, “but being over 80 I didn’t want to spend the time to go through what you have to go through to get published by an exclusively traditional press. For that, you have to have an agent and it takes an agent months to find a publisher.” Gorman notes that She Writes Press has become more and more well known in the last few years because many of their writers, like Gorman, are winning awards. “It’s expensive but it works and it doesn’t take forever,” Gorman adds.

The trilogy Gorman is now working on, like Valeria Vose, is also set in the South. Gorman acknowledges that, despite her love of Maine—she began spending summers here in 1960 and made this her permanent home in 1992—and aside from a small collection of poems written years ago, she doesn’t write much about Maine. “I think maybe underlying the need to write is some pain as opposed to joy. Maine is a spiritual home to me. I love Maine. But the stories I write come out of memory, mostly out of personal pain. I think the South, for all of its graciousness, underneath there is pain. I think the Civil War got into the DNA. I think it left a scar that still needs to be healed.”—JW

(The Jackson Memorial Library’s Summer Literary Series will be held July 9, July 16 and July 23 at the Ocean View Grange in Martinsville. Presentations begin at 5:30pm.)

Exerpt from Valeria Vose

In the predawn, still dark outside, the three duck hunting guides, Shorty, Bobby-Ray, and Popeye, poured themselves mugs of hot coffee from the side-board and pulled extra chairs up to the long rectangular table in the living room. A fire crackled and spat out sparks behind the wrought-iron screen on the wide stone hearth. Mallie and Cindy Morgan were the only women present; the other two wives preferred to sleep in. Larry, Ben Morgan, and the other men, in various stages of hunting attire—Gus still in his long red flannel pajama top—were helping themselves to loaded plates of scrambled eggs, hot, greasy bacon, buttermilk biscuits and grits.

“Hey, big man!” Ben Morgan said, standing up to greet Bobby-Ray, his long-time favorite guide. He gave a friendly push to his shoulder. “What’s goin’ on out there?”

“We got ‘em today,” Bobby-Ray said. He was the oldest of the guides, a face as weathered as an old hunting boot. “ ‘Bout forty degrees, overcast, plenty a water in the ponds. Lotta hungry birds flyin’ south.”

“How about Mojo?” Ben asked. “He still up to it?”

“That ol’ dog’ll fall out dead someday pickin’ up birds,” Bobby-Ray said. His chocolate lab was getting past his prime, but he was still the best swimmer, the best finder of crippled ducks in Arkansas County.

Masons present 18 bikes (and helmets) to deserving readers

Masons from Eureka Lodge No. 84, (l to r) Bob Munchbach, Chris Ferguson, Bob Emery, and Tony Garrett-Reed, present bikes and helmets to the 18 St. George School students who won this year’s “Masonic Bikes for Books” competition.

The Charitable Foundation of the Grand Lodge of Maine sponsors the “Masonic Bikes for Books” program to encourage Maine’s elementary and middle-school students to read. This year St. George’s Eureka Lodge No. 84 was one of about 90 Masonic Lodges in Maine that awarded bikes to local students. The St. George lodge awarded 18 bikes, for one boy and one girl at each grade level at the St. George School. These students were deserving readers who met challenging personal reading goals.

The presentation was made on June 5. The winners were: Kyleigh Brooks, Simon Mann, Bentley Robinson, Gracie Sawyer, Brent Brownell, Sunshine Wilson, Zoe Hufnagel, Oliver Tripp, Tucker Bryant, Olivia Turner, Trinity Delaney, Wesley Smith, Evan Morse, Matthias McPhail, Nick Williams, Caroline Matthews, Anya Felton, Natalie Gill.

For more information see: https://www.masoniccharitablefoundation.org/programs/masonic-bikes-books/

A ‘self-taught’ painter—but also a student of the old masters

“Loose Grapes” (8×10 inches, oil on panel)

Port Clyde artist Kenneth Schweizer is now a year-round resident of our St. George community who is starting a career as a professional artist. In the artist statement on his website (kennethschweizer.com) he says, “Self-taught, my art education has been built upon years of dedicated practice, observation of nature and people, study of masters, reading and traveling.” As a “self-taught” painter in oils and producer of graphite drawings, Schweizer joins the ranks of other similarly labeled artists such as Grandma Moses, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Horace Pippin. However, the term “self-taught,” which means untrained in the classical sense, seems a misnomer when it comes to Schweizer.

Most of us on the peninsula are familiar with Schweizer’s father, Robert, a retired physician who is now an accomplished oil painter in his own right. The elder Schweizer introduced his son to art museums around the world when Kenneth was a boy. There he was exposed to many of the greatest artworks in history. When asked which of the old masters most influenced his work, Schweizer responds, “I take equally from all of them. I look at the masters, and, if you really study their work and why they were successful, you learn volumes.”

Growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, Schweizer spent his summers in Port Clyde at the family cottage. His childhood relationship to the village brought him back less than a year ago to live full-time. After he graduated from high school, Schweizer attended George Washington University to study television and radio communication. He eventually transferred to Boston University and graduated in 1993 credentialed and ready to enter the film production industry. An opportunity opened up in Los Angeles in a small company engaged in the post-production of television commercials. While there, Schweizer learned editing and eventually became an assistant editor who was well on his way to the full position. However, only in his 20s at the time, Schweizer didn’t see a future for himself in the industry and left. The next few decades were spent moving between coasts engaged in various odd jobs as the strong lure of making art full-time beckoned him. Schweizer explains that, “Painting is all me, unlike film making,” where others take on various roles that contribute to the final product. Instead, he wanted to create work that was entirely his own.

“Over the years, I’d paint here and there,” Schweizer recalls. “And, every time I got back into it I became more and more interested. It was like a ‘calling.’ ” He completed one painting at age ten, another at twenty, and more when he reached thirty. Now Schweizer paints full-time. The subjects of his creations range from still life and landscapes to imagined female figures. Although he learned traditional techniques from the works of the old masters, Schweizer departs from them through his own unique voice and style. “Art is very cathartic and enriching,” he exclaims. As he says on his website, “I strive to make art that honors emotion, beauty and sensitivity.”

Schweizer’s work will be featured in an exhibition at the Camden National Bank in Rockland during the month of July and also in a joint show with his father at the Granite Gallery in Tenants Harbor from August 1-7.

In the future, he plans to hold exhibitions at his studio in Port Clyde. As one of the newest members of the St. George art community, we welcome him! ­­—Katharine Cartwright

Cool spring dividends

Among the plants that have flourished in the long wet and cool spring we have had is the Camassia, also known as camas, quash, Indian hyacinth, and wild hyacinth. It is a North American native plant, mainly from the Pacific northwest, where it grows wild in moist meadows. It multiplies nicely and expands to fill in moist, though well-drained areas. Here it is growing next to Fothergilla, another North American native plant that enjoys the same sort of moist area.

PHOTO: Anne Cox

The column I thought I’d never write

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Bunchberry

When it comes to nature observation, I know I have my biases. I mean, we all do. There are times when we become engrossed and see little beyond what we are looking at. These are not bad moments by any means. When watching birds it can be easy to overlook a fern fiddlehead unrolling, or to miss a population of springtails migrating. I accept this about me (and also about you) and feel comfortable with this understanding. There is simply just too much going on to observe it all.

At the same time, I try keep myself open to just about everything in nature. I like to think that I am never “not into something,” but rather that “I am not into that yet,” if you know what I mean. Just waiting for the hook, but in reality some parts of nature just take longer to get into. An example of this, for me, is flowers.

I have always had a distaste and distrust for things that are revered largely based on socially accepted aesthetic principles and judgments. Probably connected to listening to Frank Zappa at an early age. Anyway, I put flowers in this category. It’s not that I hold “being pretty” against a flower, but there has to be more—a tasty fruit, a cool association—to get my appreciation. (What a flower snob I am!) Learning about a flowering plant through research can be enough to break this perspective and yes, my new macro lens has helped morph my view of flowers.

Take the ubiquitous bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), for example. A member of the dogwood family (Cornaceae), this ground cover adds a delightful mix of green and white through the coniferous woods on the peninsula each spring. Bunchberry plants can be so numerous in an area that at times it may seem like a mini dogwood forest has formed a second canopy under the (relatively) giant spruce and pine trees. Well, these little bunchberry plants grow off a perennial woody rhizome (creeping rootstalk) and a single rhizome can send up clone plants that may cover several yards of the forest floor. When you see a carpet of bunchberry it may represent just a few individual plants! Now that is cool.

As if that weren’t enough, it ends up that bunchberry flowers themselves aren’t white at all. The white you see are four “bracts,” which are structurally similar to leaves. The flowers themselves are tiny, green and clustered in the middle of these bracts. While taking a closer look at these blooms over the last few weeks it’s been impossible to ignore how plentiful ants are on bunchberry. Whatever the attractant may be—odor, nectar, pollen, or those wacky bracts—having ants associated as (potential) pollinators seems like a funky twist on the historical process of creating the next generation. Ants are cool, good to get them involved.

Pink Lady’s Slipper

It’s hard to think of a more aesthetically pleasing, native wildflower than the orchid Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), or “PLS.” With varying shades of magenta, Lady’s Slippers are fun to search for and a treat to find, scattered along the Town Forest Loop trail off Kinney Woods Road (and along the roadside as well). As a rule orchids are cool, but PLS have a special mystique about them rich with rumors of rarity, endangerment, and even extinction (I was once told by someone that they were extinct, even though we were standing beside a small group of PLS.) Regardless of where the truth lies, its best to leave any PLS you find alone. You see, however “pretty” a PLS flower may be, the plant itself is dependent on a symbiotic, mycorrhizal relationship with a Rhizoctonia fungus. The plant provides sugars for the subterranean fungus in exchange for nutrients. PLS seeds contain no food tissue for its seedling and thus the plant’s success is completely dependent on an early connection with this fungus. This unification is required for the PLS to begin the years-long growth process it takes before the plant even thinks about producing a flower. There is a lot going on with that plant!

Starflower

And then there is the starflower (Trientalis borealis) of the Myrsine family. An early- season bloomer, this flower can be found abundantly along any trail and seemingly within any woods in St. George. And yet, an internet search turned up a little juicy information on this plant, other than that the genus name refers to the height of the plant (a third of a foot). The starflower doesn’t produce nectar, which itself is pretty cool. Instead it attracts pollen eaters to disperse its pollen, and a macro view shows how the flower is organized. Starflowers have a tall pistil (female part) in the flower’s center, surrounded by eight stamen (male parts). The stamen are arranged to maximize the distance between their pollen-producing tips (anther) and the pistil tip (stigma), thus reducing the chance of self-pollination. A dorsal view of a starflower shows this formation as wheel- or octopus-like. This view itself deserves some respect.

Upon finishing this column I’m starting to recognize that maybe I like flowers more than I knew. I’ve always liked trees, as they are places for birds to nest and for mushrooms to grow underneath, so it’s not like I have been anti-plant or anything. Come to think of it, carnivorous plants have a special place in my heart and those parasitic plants lacking chlorophyll are pretty awesome too. I am starting to understand, though, that maybe flowers have moved out of the “not into yet” column for me. And that if part of this change is inspired by taking closer looks at stamens and stigmas, well then so be it. Of course, there is always something cool going on with each plant and species. But the bottom line is that a flower’s job is be attractive. And there is nothing wrong with appreciating a job well done!

See you out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen