The stakes are high when a big company proposes a regional shopping mall in Darby.
The New England town has the power through its institution of town meeting, the beauty of its landscape, and the enduring qualities of its architecture to shape in a good way the identity of its inhabitants. These values are put on trial at town meeting for a vote. That's the premise behind Whisper My Name.
The plot plays out through the eyes of Reporter Roland LaChance, Farmer Avalon Hillary, and the Trust land conservancy founder 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. 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.
Whisper My Name is the novel that I am least satisfied with, and yet in the end it was the book that for better or for worse sent me on a career course.
The inspiration 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 her face was perpetually dirty and it appear that she never put a comb through her blond hair. And makeup or lipstick? Perish the thought. She seemed to be too young and inexperienced–and no doubt underpaid–to do her job well. I was vaguely attracted to her in the way that men are attracted to vulnerable women. You want to protect them at the same time that you believe (in your secret heart) that you can dominate them.
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 mysterious and sometimes wacky way of creativity, the pulp mill drama, the dirty girl, my retro ideas of male-female attraction, 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.
Evolving? Yes. If I may digress, just as the human body is constantly changing, so is the mind and, it follows, the self. Know thy self? Can't be done. By the time you figure out who you are, you have evolved into a new self and from that perspective you are evaluating the ghost image of that old self. Corollary to the Uncertainty Principle?
I'd already published two novels. Nobody was asking me to publish a third. I put that pressure on myself. I usually write an elaborate day in the life of my protagonist before embarking on the actual composition of the novel and even before I have 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, LaChance, the protagonist, remains the weakest part of the story). However, the experience of writing the book remains as a bad memory. It's the only book I've written that wasn't fun to make.
Despite all the anguish I had writing Whisper My Name something happened toward the end of composing it that led me to a fateful decision. It's a rather long story.
The story begins with an idea I came up with when I was a news 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, nor access to their sources. The result is that you only write what the candidates tell you in interviews and by reading their position papers. The only news you can provide your readership with that is unique is the local reaction.
There were a huge number of candidates on the Republican side: Former Governor Ronald Reagan of California; former CIA director and United States Representative George H. W. Bush of Texas; Representative John B. Anderson of Illinois; Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee; Representative Phil Crane of Illinois; Former Governor John Connally of Texas; Senator Bob Dole of Kansas; Former Special Ambassador to Paraguay Ben Fernandez of California; Former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen; Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota; Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut.
Democrats included Jimmy Carter, President of the United States; Ted Kennedy, U.S. senator from Massachusetts; Cliff Finch, former governor of Mississippi; Jerry Brown, governor of California.
Among the Republicans my personal favorite was John Anderson. Among the Democrats it was Jerry Brown. Still is. I think Brown would have made a great President.
The big question: who would be nominated and who would be elected?
My goal was to scoop the big media outlets in picking winners for the nomination and then election. Reporters get criticized for spending to much time writing about who's ahead and who's behind. My feeling is that covering "the horse race," as it is known, is a good idea because it is another way to read the mood of the country. The mood of the country: That's what I was really after.
Local was the only edge I had over my competitors–New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Time and Newsweek, and of course the TV networks.
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 his or her 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.
I remembered that Carter, though he was a liberal 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 the cue I was looking for as the 1980 campaign was gearing up in the late spring of 1979 was strangers at a political rally. I knew by sight all the regulars of all the factions. Kennedy 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 replace Carter on the ticket.
Then Reagan arrived in Keene for a campaign stop at Keene High School. One thing that clicked with me is that 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. Of course one could argue that Reagan because he had been an actor drew crowds because of his celebrity status. Well, Paul Newman, who was a much bigger deal as a celebrity than Reagan ever was, arrived in Keene to support Democrats and did not draw anywhere near the size crowd that Reagan did. Furthermore, in follow-up political gatherings I saw people at Reagan functions where Reagan was not present that I had never seen before. 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.
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 what the future held for me. Was I going to be a loser or a winner?
I took the technique I devised as a reporter (studying the local reaction to candidates) and applied it to my own career. 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.
!36 Ernest Hebert Darby Chronicles
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; a few educated readers of New England fiction; and probably the biggest group, 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. I avoided hot-button issues of the day: war, race, gender, nouveau riche money, soft core porn, celebrity, religion. (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 women.
Upon realizing my 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 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 some 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 stand. 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 had I something to give to the world through my words and imagination.
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. It was fun dreaming up scenarios for best-seller novels, but when it came down to doing the actual writing I couldn't do it. I could only write my kind of book.