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Meet the Authors 

Six local writers you may not have read yet — but should

Quick, name a Vermont author. We’re guessing you said “Chris Bohjalian,” “John Irving” or “Howard Frank Mosher.” Maybe you thought of mystery maven Archer Mayor, Renaissance man Jay Parini, poet David Budbill or environmental guru Bill McKibben. Or Megan Mayhew Bergman, a Shaftsbury resident whose short-story collection has drawn raves nationwide (Seven Days profiled her last March). Finally, if you’re among the hundreds, perhaps now thousands, of Vermonters who have self-published, you may have said, “Me. And where’s my write-up?”

But not all of Vermont’s noteworthy writers have high local profiles. In this annual Winter Reading Issue, we decided to profile six with recent publications whom you may not know specifically as “Vermont writers,” or know at all. They’re following the muse in very different — and rewarding — directions.

And, yes, we realize there are many more. Watch for our reviews in the paper all year, including in our State of the Arts section.

*****

Castle Freeman Jr., Newfane, 68

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Until he moved with his wife to Newfane in 1972, Castle Freeman worried that he hadn’t lived enough to be a writer. But something clicked when he got to Vermont, and he hasn’t stopped writing since.

“I can take you to the spot, on a dirt road in a neighboring town, where I was walking a couple of days after our arrival in the state when, unaccountably, my life’s utter lack of interesting content or useful experience ceased to be an obstacle to writing,” writes Freeman in an author bio.

He was born in Texas, grew up on Chicago’s South Side and went to college in New York City, but in his novels, stories, essays and commentary — which have appeared on Vermont Public Radio and in Vermont Life and many other publications — Freeman evokes such a keen sense of rural Vermont, you’d swear he’s a native.

His latest book, Round Mountain, is a collection of 12 short stories — all previously published, some written as many as 20 years ago — about life in a fictional rural Vermont community. Freeman has long wanted to compile these stories in a book, but he couldn’t find a publisher until he connected with the Concord Free Press, which publishes free books (and e-books for sale). When readers request a free book, they pledge to make a donation to a charity or other cause. “Just for my little book, we’ve had over 200 separate contributions for Irene [recovery] and other causes,” Freeman says.

SEVEN DAYS: How does it feel to give away your writing for free?

CASTLE FREEMAN JR.: It feels good to me, because I’m getting readers, which I was not getting as it was for this book. I’m getting reviews and attention, so in that way it’s been great for me.

SD: What’s your day job?

CF: At this point my day job is freelance writing. I haven’t always made a living that way. I worked as a proofreader, a copy editor, as a regular old editor for book publishers, for anyone who would pay, really.

SD: What inspired you to write these stories?

CF: I think that the setting is paramount to me and always has been. That kind of is what got me started. I’m keenly interested in creating interesting and authentic settings for these stories. You do that not only by simple description but by the people you use to populate your stories. Everything works together to get the spirit of the place.

There’s one character, Homer Patch, who’s in all the stories. I just kind of liked him. I didn’t want to part from him completely at the end of the [first] story, so I went back and wrote some more.

SD: What are you working on next?

CF: Since Round Mountain, I’ve written a new novel. It’s very different, kind of a romantic-comedy-type thing.

M.J.

*****

Jon Clinch, Ludlow, 58

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When Jon Clinch decided to self-publish his new book, the news made it to the Style Blog of the Washington Post. The paper had honored Clinch’s two previous novels — Finn and Kings of the Earth, both published by Random House — on its best-of-the-year lists. Why, writer Ron Charles asked, would a well-regarded literary novelist turn his back on the industry?

“Big publishing has really become a blockbuster industry,” Clinch tells Seven Days, focused on finding the next Fifty Shades of Grey. “Publishers have given up utterly on the midlist writer.” Though O, the Oprah Magazine, put Kings of the Earth on its summer reading list, the book came out too late to cash in on that recommendation. “No one was talking about it anymore, and it vanished,” Clinch says. “If you’re lucky, you get a month’s worth of support [from a publisher].”

Many writers shy away from selling their own work, but not Clinch, who spent 30 years in advertising. Last December, he experimented with self-publishing by putting out a speculative novel, What Came After, under the pen name Sam Winston; it hit a few Amazon Kindle bestseller lists.

Clinch’s new novel, The Thief of Auschwitz, which he’ll publish on January 15, returns to a historical-lit vein. It’s an accessible, emotionally compelling tale that’s likely to appeal to Bohjalian fans. The narrator is Max Rosen, an elderly, renowned artist whose family was sent to Auschwitz when he was 14. The story of how his parents kept him alive there is a testament to the powers of both love and art.

When it comes to publishing, Clinch sees himself as the literary equivalent of a Vermont microbrewer, he says. He designed his own text and cover and “did everything except actually being the publicist, because that would just be sad.”

SEVEN DAYS: Why did you write this book?

JON CLINCH: For a long time I’ve been reading the first-person accounts of Auschwitz, like Night by Elie Wiesel. I come from a Methodist background, and my wife is Jewish. Wendy [Clinch, his wife] remembers seeing tattoos on the wrists of some of her grandmother’s friends. I wanted to understand that and deal with it. The more I read, the harder it seemed to look at, because the horror is just so great, and the tales are just so countless. You ultimately begin to think, Maybe there’s no way for me to get my mind around it. So I began to think, Maybe if I use the tools of fiction, I can find a way to write a book that will keep people’s attention on it and make them want to keep looking.

SD: Is writing your full-time job?

JC: Yes, it is. It’s a tough way to make a living, like any other kind of art.

SD: What’s next for you?

JC: I’m really busy with this right now, but I have other projects in the pipeline, including one based loosely on the story of my grandfather, who was a bad apple. It’s called The Infinite Varieties of Loss. For a book with that title, it’s actually pretty funny.

M.H.

*****

Gary Kowalski, Burlington, 58

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Gary Kowalski, former pastor for some 20 years at the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Burlington, wrote seven books — “depending on how you count,” he qualifies — before his latest, Blessings of the Animals: Celebrating Our Kinship With All Creation. Some of his works have centered on the intersection of science and spirituality, such as Revolutionary Spirits, which sought to demonstrate that our Founding Fathers’ views merged religion with the intellectual discoveries of the Enlightenment. But Blessings is by no means the first time Kowalski has focused on creatures. Previous volumes include The Souls of Animals and The Bible According to Noah: Theology As If Animals Mattered.

Since leaving the UU two years ago, Kowalski has taken temporary interim minister jobs in Santa Fe, N.M., and Sudbury, Mass. — specialized work with congregations in transition, he explains. He’s also found time to write and paint. One result is Blessings of the Animals, an engaging and often-humorous collection of essays. Some stories are anecdotal; others are scientific. Did you know, for example, that ant specimens have been discovered in amber 92 million years old? That a Buddhist beekeeper has protected his hive from disease with a meditation practice? One story is about Burlington artist Sally Linder, who painted 23 portraits of primates that died in a Philadelphia zoo and then traveled to Africa to bury the paintings. (One of them graces the cover of Kowalski’s book.)

The book’s title derives from an annual ceremony that Kowalski began at the beginning of his UU tenure in Burlington. Some people thought he was nuts the first time he invited congregants to bring their pets to church — especially given the brand-new carpet. But, he relates in the book, “The dogs do sing off-key during the hymns, but so far our four-legged guests have been the best-behaved members of the congregation.”

This 20-chapter collection, dedicated to Kowalski’s late dog, Smokey, does more than edify and entertain; it convincingly supports the author’s contention that we humans are only part of a much larger, and soulful, earthly family.

SEVEN DAYS: Several of your books focus on animals. Why?

GARY KOWALSKI: Animals or nature — the natural world in the broadest sense. You don’t have to scratch very deep to find a bit of nature mysticism in any religion. It plays out differently in different traditions, but for me it’s been more the focus of my spirituality.

SD: Will you get another pet?

GK: No, my lifestyle hasn’t enabled me to do that. I am more of a dog guy, though we had chickens before chickens were cool.

SD: What’s your next project?

GK: Nothing in mind. I might write about children.

P.P.

*****

Robert Belenky, Hanover, N.H., 81

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During and following his long career as a child psychologist, Bob Belenky has been a traveler. His journeys to Russia and Haiti, in particular, were so frequent that a number of children in both those countries called him “Grandpa Bob,” he says. The trips weren’t casual vacations; Belenky’s objective was to “learn how young people may be helped to grow up when natural families aren’t available,” says the bio on his website.

In other words, he visited a lot of orphanages and other alternatives to family homes — some good, some horrific, Belenky elaborates in a phone interview from his retirement community. His travels, generally with Mary, his wife and colleague of 50-plus years, resulted in a number of books and hundreds of photographs — nearly all focused on kids.

Now Belenky has penned an entirely different kind of book. Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise sounds like it could be about any number of things, until you read the subhead: Jewish Agricultural Settlements in Ukraine During the 1920s and 1930s. The slim volume is not only a very specific slice of history, it’s a memoir. Belenky’s father, a Russian Jewish émigré to the United States, was involved in a progressive group in New York City that brought tractors to Jewish farmers learning to work the land in collective farms post-Russian Revolution. They were “not Bolsheviks or Zionists,” Belenky writes, “but rather non-ideologically committed poor people seeking a better life.”

The lives of these farmers, and of the Americans who helped them, may be little known except to specialty historians and the families involved. Belenky heard his father’s stories while growing up in New York in the 1930s and ’40s in his own progressive and humanistic family. His objective — to record the memories of elders who survived the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, the Holocaust and World War II — is etched here in poignant detail.

SEVEN DAYS: Why did you write this book?

ROBERT BELENKY: The motive was very personal — it really had to do with my aging. Not only with my life but all sorts of ancestors. The most dramatic chapter for [our family] was the early Soviet period, when my father played a role in the Jewish farm settlements.

SD: Do you write for a living now?

RB: [Laughs.] If I did, I’d be dead of starvation. I write because I like to travel, and I take notes. I probably have a couple thousand pages of ideas written down, mostly ideas about how we could treat children at risk in the U.S.

SD: What will you write next, then?

RB: I’ve started, but don’t know if I’ll live long enough to finish. I want to pull together things from my experiences, partially about education, but also about human services, corrections and psychotherapy. Somewhere in there, I think there’s a message about how we could do things differently.

SD: How would you summarize that message?

RB: If someone asked me what I’ve learned, I’d probably say something like: “Be nice to children.”

P.P.

*****

Dayna Lorentz, South Burlington, 35

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Dayna Lorentz’s first young adult novel, No Safety in Numbers, has an irresistible premise. On a busy Saturday, a bioweapon begins releasing a deadly virus through the air ducts of a shopping mall. When authorities quarantine the complex, teens find themselves trapped inside.

No Safety kicks off a trilogy, which means Lorentz’s transformation of Anytown Mall into Lord of the Flies is just getting started. This isn’t the first time she’s turned disaster into a thrilling narrative for young readers: She started her publication career with Dogs of the Drowned City, a trilogy about the canines left behind in Hurricane Katrina.

Lorentz was an attorney in New York and worked as a law clerk in Chittenden Superior Court when she first came to Vermont, but since 2009 she’s been “a pet owner, a parent” and a writer, she says. (One of the lead dogs in her books is closely based on her own.) As a writer for kids and teens, she notes, she visits schools and stays in touch with her readers; last summer, a reading of No Safety at Shelburne’s Flying Pig Bookstore was mobbed. “Being a writer is more than just me alone with my books,” Lorentz says. “It encompasses all those aspects of reaching out to your readership. That’s been a lot of fun.”

SEVEN DAYS: Why did you write this book?

DAYNA LORENTZ: I was in a mall near where my husband and I were living at the time in New York, and we went to see a movie late at night. We were coming down the escalator, and they’d shut off the lights on the lower levels of the mall. There were people on these dark floors, just cavorting in the darkness, basically. It felt unsafe. I went home, opened a file on my computer and started making frantic notes on this idea.

SD: What’s next for you?

DL: The sequel, No Easy Way Out, comes out in July 2013. It was a bear to write, and it’s very intense.

SD: Why do you write YA?

DL: I went to an MFA program [at Bennington College] and studied adult literary fiction. Then I discovered, on my own, YA writing. It was not what quote unquote “writing” was supposed to be. YA was open to things like novels in poems, novels with drawings or sketches. I thought, Here’s a branch of publishing where they’re really interested in new, crazy stuff. It’s just an exciting place in publishing.

M.H.

*****

L.E. Smith, Brookfield, 62

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In 1972, Burlington’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception burned to the ground. Here’s how L.E. Smith describes that in his new novel from local micropublisher Fomite Press, Travers’ Inferno: “The roof went undulant, molten, timbers screamed in turbo-burn as windows shattered in the draft, a kaleidoscope of colored glass filled the air...”

Vivid prose like that anchors this novel inspired by a real series of suspicious fires in the Queen City. Smith’s protagonist, Travers Jones, already has “ecclesiastical pyromania” on the brain when he stumbles into Burlington. Raised by a fanatically Catholic mother, Travers experiences epileptic seizures in which he sees his dead father, a reputed arsonist. Is our hero destined to be “Travers Jones, church-burner”? Or to discover the real perpetrator of the crimes?

Like his novel, Smith’s stories in the collection Views Cost Extra are wildly, often brilliantly verbose. He didn’t get his way with words in an MFA program.

“Not a good high school student” by his own admission, Smith devoured the books of Henry James and Anthony Burgess as a teen. His adult training for writing encompassed a wide variety of jobs, including delivering mail in rural Vermont. “You have to try different lives and experience different things to discover what a multiplex world we live in,” Smith says.

SEVEN DAYS: Why did you write this book?

L.E. SMITH: I lived in Burlington in the ’70s. I hesitate to say there’s a lot of me in it, but there’s a lot of you in all the stuff you write. I was working in a restaurant [Carbur’s] late at night. I hung out at Nectar’s and met all these crazy characters. This was the original Nectar’s, before it got spiffed up. It was not a fancy town back then. It was a wild place. Punk music was starting to kick disco around. Someone set fire to these churches, and they never really found out who did it.

SD: Is writing your full-time job?

LES: I’m a retired English teacher. I figured enough is enough; I just want to write. Now I tutor at Vermont Technical College with the TRIO program in the afternoons and write in the mornings.

SD: What’s next for you?

LES: I have a novel coming in the spring [also from Fomite] about the murder of John Lennon in New York City. I was working as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum when Lennon was shot.

M.H.

*****

Read more

Round Mountain by Castle Freeman Jr. Published by the Concord Free Press. 181 pages. Free at concordfreepress.com/roundmountain.

The Thief of Auschwitz by Jon Clinch, unmediated ink, 258 pages. $16 paperback, $9.99 e-book. Publication date: January 15. Clinch will read on January 19, 7 p.m. at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center; and sign books on February 16, 2 to 4 p.m. at the Book Nook in Ludlow.

Blessings of the Animals: Celebrating Our Kinship With All Creation by Gary Kowalski, Lantern Books, 158 pages. $15. Kowalski will read on Thursday, January 10, 7 p.m. at Phoenix Books Burlington.

No Safety in Numbers by Dayna Lorentz, Dial, 263 pages. $17.99.

Travers’ Inferno by L.E. Smith, Fomite Press, 278 pages. $15. Also: Views Cost Extra, Fomite Press, 186 pages. $14.95. Available from local bookstores and fomitepress.com. Smith will read on January 15, 7 p.m. at Next Chapter Bookstore in Barre.

Collective Memories of a Lost Paradise: Jewish Agricultural Settlements in Ukraine During the 1920s and 1930s by Robert Belenky, Maddoggerel Publications, 140 pages. $14.95.


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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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