How a boy saved his dad and brought together warring families.
All the time I was writing Mad Boys and The Old American 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 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 expertise. 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 elegant 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 a 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 stick, which I split down the middle. I was shocked with delight to see that the heart wood was the color the flower–purple. But it was a fugitive color that began to disappear 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 has curve in it.
Historically, mountain laurel was called spoon wood because it was hard and lovely, but also easy on the carver. Mountain laurel was Dan Dustin's favorite wood for spoon carving. After Spoonwood was published Dan and I formed talk duo for library groups, book stores, anybody who would listen to us.
Fiction writing for me 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 like my protagonist Howard Elman. After the book was finished I lost interest in guns and got rid of them. Same thing happened with Spoonwood. In the book 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.
In Spoonwood, to get away from booze and people Latour raises his infant son, Birch, in the woods; 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 and raises his child. 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.
Spoonwood won an IPPY (Independent Publisher book award) for best regional novel in the Northeast in 2006.
After I finished Spoonwood, I did a lot of writing, but not for publication. I wrote a book on fiction writing for my students. That project was spawned by the price of text books. I thought the quality of the text books on writing were okay, but way over-priced. 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.
The acquiring editor for Never Back Down was the founding editor of the company, David R. Godine, but the actually editing of the book was done by Susan Barba. I mention her because, like Michael Lowenthal, the editor of Mad Boys, she was one of my former students. Makes me proud.
These adventures in prose writing–Spoonwood, Recycling Reality (which is what I called my writing handbook), my memoir for my children, and my semi-autobiographical novel, Never Back Down–all began with a Dan Dustin carved spoon at the Sunapee Crafts Fair. Imagine that.