Interviews and Profiles of Vermont Authors

I have written a series of local author interviews and profiles for two Vermont newspapers, The Colchester Sun and The Essex Reporter. Vermont has a rich independent publishing community. Many authors choose to self-publish or choose to print their work in a small, limited-release fashion. Some have worked with historical societies and other organizations for special-interest books. Others have successfully partnered with major publishing houses and received significant advances and book contracts. Below are some recent examples of books by Vermont authors.


NPR Contributor and Former Essex Resident Publishes New Book of Essays

Published February 4, 2016

Courtesy of Tim Brookes.

Courtesy of Tim Brookes.

Longtime NPR contributor and former Essex resident Tim Brookes has recently published a second, expanded edition of his 2005 work, The Driveway Diaries, and a new collection of public radio essays, The Ghosts of Good Intentions. Told with self-deprecating humor, both volumes chronicle small-town, rural Vermont life through the eyes of an English expatriate.

After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature at Oxford—with a brief two year teaching stint at the University of Vermont in between— Brookes moved to Vermont permanently in 1980.  He has since published fifteen books and written for National Geographic, Outside, and Vintage Guitar—but if you asked him years ago at Oxford about his potential writing career, he would have laughed.

In some respects, Brookes said, attending a university steeped in a prestigious literary tradition was “great for someone’s development as a writer,” but on the other hand, “you’re filled with a sense of inadequacy because you’re constantly being told how all these dead writers are great and you couldn’t possibly be one of them.”

“It took me probably ten years of writing essentially pretentious poems and short stories to get that out of my system,” he admitted.

What was the catalyst for change? Moving to Vermont, he said.

“The thing that changed the course of my writing for the better was moving to Vermont and writing for a local newspaper,” Brookes said. “That was when I started getting a sense of what to write when people were actually reading what you wrote, versus ‘great literature’ that no one will read.”

In the mid and late 1980s, Brookes wrote for the Vermont Vanguard, the now-defunct alternative weekly that became a breeding ground for the future Seven Days.

In 1989, Brookes began writing monthly essays for NPR, some of which were also published in the Vermont Sunday Times magazine as a column. Many of his essays dealt with adjustments to rural Vermont life.

“One of the things that I discovered was that they [NPR listeners] really liked the notion of someone who was, to a certain extent, an outsider looking at the United States and American culture and commenting on it with a degree of humor,” he said.

“Especially when I was living in Essex, I was really doubly an outsider. Not only was I an Englishman but I was essentially a townie moving into the countryside,” he explained. “That was the impetus for all kinds of humor— mostly at my own expense— and a lot of reflection.”

After the Vermont Sunday Times ceased running his column, Brookes found that he missed writing about small-town life. He recalled feeling that many of those pieces were among his best work—and they seemed to have a theme.

“In particular I was fascinated by how often my driveway kept turning up, and that was the genesis of The Driveway Diaries,” he said.

Originally published by North Country Public Radio in Canton, New York in 2005, the series sold well but went out of print due to issues with the publishing company. A decade later, it seemed time for a reprisal

“When we moved back into Burlington I thought I should add in four more stories which close the book on my time in Essex, so now there’s a complete arc,” Brookes explained.

Unlike the straightforward process for The Driveway Diaries, the story behind The Ghosts of Good Intentions is anything but typical.

“I did that in an unusual way. I posted a whole lot of the essays on my website and invited people to choose which should be included in the anthology,” Brookes said.

As an exercise in crowd editing, Brookes was surprised by the “amazing results” that “changed the entire nature of the collection.”

“I had thought of it as conventionally as just a ‘greatest hits,’” he recalled, “But it became clear that people had very strong and consistent preferences. People wanted something that was coherent and about me, my family, and that English perspective on Vermont and the United States.”

Accordingly, the collection became more of an autobiography than an assortment of essays. The other crowd-based suggestion that surprised Brookes— and that he initially dismissed—was to arrange the stories in reverse chronological order. The more Brookes considered the idea, the more he liked it.

“Going back in time it becomes investigation and inquiry into your own life,” he explained. “In a way that’s what we all do. We ask, ‘how did I get here?’”

Like The Driveway Diaries, much of The Ghosts of Good Intentions deals with specific people and events in Essex, and on Chapin Road where Brookes lived. For some of his public radio essays, Brookes interviewed local residents and tracked community interest stories. These small town “slices of life” form the core of the collection.

The curious title, The Ghosts of Good Intentions, comes from an experience Brookes had in 2006. While in the process of cleaning his home before selling it, Brookes noticed the large assortment of debris and random objects that had accumulated on the windowsills in his living room: a sponge, an eraser, a tin of Altoids, a Rubik’s cube, lip balm, two Q-tips, numerous coins, and other common “junk” items.

Brookes writes in his introduction,To the casual ear, these may sound like junk, but I see them as the ghosts of good intentions. They were the inevitable casualties of family life. Every one of those objects had value and purpose, and was waiting in the wings of our house for a cue that never came.”

Some years later, Brookes stumbled across scores of his published essays, stored in unorganized folders on his laptop. Brookes felt a connection to his “junk” experience in his living room.

He writes,Like the debris in our living room, these had been spun outward until they had reached the windowsills of my laptop. I recognized them at once: they were the ghosts of my good intentions, my efforts to support my family and to bring tiny, curious, and revealing moments from my life to the (often bewildered) American public.”

The “ghosts of good intentions” thus became an appropriate title for the collection. But the windowsill phenomenon— “throwing out” junk, trash, and separating the important from the inessential—became a larger metaphor for Brookes.

“It’s also characteristic of the way in which I try and look at myself and my life, not too seriously and seriously at the same time,” he explained. The windowsill phenomenon, the ghosts of good intentions that we all have, became a symbol for how we reflect upon and organize our lives and memories.

Plus, Brookes adds, it forces one to have a sense of humor. “In order to avoid the risk of being a pompous jerk, maintaining that sense of idiocy is really valuable,” he said.

In addition to his public radio essays and non-fiction writing, Brookes is an Associate Professor in the Professional Writing program at Champlain College. He also founded and directs the Endangered Alphabet Project—a non-profit that brings awareness to disappearing indigenous languages. He is currently working on a novel.

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The expanded second edition of The Driveway Diaries: A Dirt Road Almanac and The Ghosts of Good Intentions: A Life in Public Radio Essays are available at local bookstores and at www.timbrookesinc.com


Local Historian's New Book Recounts Life and Times of a Vermont Civil War Veteran and Inventor

Published December 24, 2015

Courtesy of Richard Allen.

Courtesy of Richard Allen.

In collaboration with the Chittenden County Historical Society, retired schoolteacher and local historian Richard Allen has published his sixth book, Ambition and Grit: The Life of Truman Naramore, Civil War Veteran and Entrepreneur. The book recounts the life and times of Truman Naramore, a Charlotte-born Union soldier who survived the Civil War and returned to Vermont, where he raised his family, invented numerous agricultural implements, and founded several Grange chapters, among other pursuits.

While Vermont history enthusiasts, or those interested in the Civil War and 19th Century agriculture, may be especially drawn to Naramore’s life, casual readers will also find reasons to enjoy the book.

In addition to Naramore’s compelling and colorful personal narrative, Naramore’s life parallels some of the major events in 19th Century American history. Naramore participated in the Civil War, the mechanization of agriculture, and westward migration, all hallmarks of the 19th Century. Additionally, his chronic health problems and search for stability attest to the issues facing many veterans as they attempted to reintegrate into post-war society.

“Here was the impact of our history on one man and his family,” Allen explained. “The story also mirrors what some veterans are going through today, suffering from their wounds or poor health, and concern for raising a family and employment.”

Naramore was born in Charlotte, Vermont in 1838. He joined the Vermont Calvary in the Civil War and was captured in Virginia in 1864. Naramore spent four months in the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia, which is now a National Historic Site. According to the National Park Service, over 13,000 Union prisoners of war died there during the fourteen months the prison existed.

Courtesy of Richard Allen.

Courtesy of Richard Allen.

Naramore survived, returned to Vermont, married a Williston woman, and began a family. Settling in Williston, Naramore acquired a farm and began inventing  and improving upon various farm tools.

It was one such tool, called the “stump puller” that first led Allen to discover who Naramore was.  Allen, who has lived in Vermont since 1973,  taught elementary school for 40 years and often incorporated local history into his lessons. Allen’s search for Naramore began at 2003 at the Vermont History Expo at the Tunbridge fairgrounds.

“I met a man there [Paul Wood] who had a display of farm implements patented by a Williston resident. It didn’t make an impression, and I tucked it in the back of my head,” Allen recalled.

Several years later, Allen thought of his brief conversation with the equipment collector at the fair. Allen tracked Wood down and learned from a stamp on the stump puller that the Williston inventor was someone named T.C. Naramore. Once Allen discerned that Naramore was a Civil War veteran, a “whole avenue of research” opened.

“He wasn’t someone who made headlines but he left a very public trail,” Allen said. “If you have a solider that survived the Civil War and continued to apply for pensions, you’ll receive reams of supporting material through archives in Washington.”

Vermont property records and newspaper archives, including articles written by Naramore for The Vermont Farmer, also supplemented Allen’s research. In addition to visits to the Special Collections Library at the University of Vermont and the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier, Allen traveled to the Andersonville historic site in Georgia, went to Worchester, Massachusetts to read through family records, and also communicated with a  doctoral student at the University of Michigan who had conducted research on Naramore’s family. 

Allen learned that Naramore was instrumental in The Grange Movement. Officially referred to as The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, “The Grange” is the oldest American agricultural advocacy group. It was founded in 1867 to promote education and advance the economic and social needs of farmers. Naramore helped establish local Grange chapters in Vermont.

 The Naramore family remained in Williston for nineteen years before moving to the Los Angeles, California area in 1884. Naramore had some connections there and quickly seized on the land boom occurring in Southern California at the time. He became real estate agent, though he still continued with patents and inventions.

The move was also motivated by Naramore’s poor health. Naramore always suffered from many ailments from his time as a POW.  One of the major attractions to the California area was the warmer weather and relief from the cold, damp winters of Vermont. Nevertheless, Naramore died in 1895 at the age of 57.

Despite his physical setbacks and wartime experiences, Allen’s book demonstrates that Naramore led a remarkably productive life. In fact, the book’s title is drawn from a description of Naramore given by a fellow prisoner named Walter J. Hilton, who was from Essex, Vermont. In an affidavit given in July 1881 as part of Naramore’s pension records, Hilton testified: “His ambition and grit was all that saved his life, and the wonder is that he is still alive.”

For Allen, those words appropriately described the life and times of a relatively unknown Vermont farmer whose life reflects a larger piece of American history. “’Ambition’ covers the business angle, and grit just reminds me of what he must have dealt with,” Allen said.

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For more information about Ambition and Grit: The Life of Truman Naramore, Civil War Veteran and Entrepreneur, visit the Vermont Digital Newspaper Project website at http://library.uvm.edu/vtnp/?p=3293, and the Chittenden County Historical Society Facebook page and web page at http://www.cchsvt.org/. Richard Allen hosts a book signing on Saturday December 19 from 10:30-12:30 at The Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston.

 


Sweet Pea Hits Big Time: Essex Farmers' Book Deal Is a Cinderella Story

Published November 25, 2015

Images courtesy of John and Jennifer Churchman.

Images courtesy of John and Jennifer Churchman.

One sheep on a small Vermont farm will soon be getting national recognition. Sweet Pea— an orphaned lamb who was bottle-fed by her owners, John and Jennifer Churchman, after her birth in March 2014— is the star of a new children’s book, Sweet Pea and Friends: The SheepOver. New York publishing giant Little, Brown and Company recently picked up The SheepOver as part of its Young Readers division, offering the Churchmans a six-figure advance and contracts for two additional books.

This Cinderella story is quite unusual for self-publishing authors, said Elizabeth Bluemle, co-owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne. Bluemle had never even heard of the couple when John came into the Flying Pig this October, SheepOver in hand.

“We sat there and leafed through it, exclaiming over it. Some customers got interested and loved it, and wanted to buy it right away,” Bluemle recalled. “So we took a bunch of copies and I said to him [John] ‘I don’t know if you realize how just unusual it is.’ And I said I’d love to blog about this for Publishers Weekly.”

Bluemle’s post caught the attention of Brenda Bowen, literary agent at Sanford J. Greenburger & Associates. Bowen thought the pictures were “incredibly adorable” and after receiving an email from the head of her agency about the book, contacted the Churchmans directly.

“We started talking and I became their lit agent. Ten days later I sold the book and two more to Little, Brown Young Readers,” Bowen said.

The editors at Little, Brown said they would print the book, as is, within weeks. The book will hit store shelves in early December. That timeline is nearly unheard of in the publishing world.

What made the book an overnight success, according to Bluemle, is the professional quality of the images. The Churchmans used photographic collage and illustrations in a “magical, mysterious way” that “elevates this adorable, kindhearted story about a sheep and a farm, and it takes it to another creative and artistic level,” Bluemle said.

“I had never seen a picture book with that technique used and I’ve been a bookseller for 20 years,” she said.

The Churchmans also operate a branding company called Brickhouse Studios, so they had the marketing and business savvy necessary to package their story.

Bluemle said, “John’s background in graphic design made his visual presentation impeccable, and often that’s where self published books fall down.”

Bowen agreed. “It was really thoughtfully made, the illustrations were beautiful, the text was lyrical and well told,” she said. “There wasn’t much to do, like with some self published projects that needed a lot of editing. It was already together.”

The story was inspired by real-life events on the Churchmans’ 25-acre “picture” farm in Essex. John is a stock photographer for Corbis and Getty Images, and has also photographed for Vermont Life. “The primary product [of the farm] is pictures that I make, so ultimately the animals are there as models for me,” he explained.

The animals include sheep (who keep the pasture down and fertilize the gardens,) chickens, geese, ducks, and turkeys— none of whom are slaughtered for meat. The Churchmans are also working toward creating a fiber farm to sell wool.

The operation is “small and sustainable,” according to John.  The couple constructed their barn from wood on their land and use wood to heat their home. They also installed solar panels and grow their own produce in a garden.

In this bucolic setting one winter day, Sweet Pea, a newborn lamb, injured her rear leg and became ill. The Churchmans were alerted to the crisis by one of their border collies.

“Sheep can go down, get sick and die pretty quickly,” John said, “She had gotten ill and had a fever, but we got the vet there, and she saved her life.”

To celebrate, the couple hosted a “sleepover” with their animals in their barn. And so, the concept of “the sheepover” was born.

John frequently posted pictures and updates about the farm animals, and Sweet Pea had gained a Facebook following prior to the event. When her followers learned that she had recovered, and heard about the animal slumber party, many suggested the Churchmans turn the tale into a children’s book.

“Jennifer and I said well, it’s January, which I find to be a creative time. So we said yes we would do it,” John recalled.

They launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a small batch of books. In February, John began work on the photo illustrations, while Jennifer crafted the text. The two worked as a team, offering feedback on the other’s work, completed the book by June, and shipped it to the printer in July. They received their finished product in mid August and began selling it to local stores. Then, of course, things picked up fast.

“It’s just such a warmhearted book, you just have to hand it to someone,” Bluemle added. “Adults love it as much as kids do, which I think is a great sign of a picture book.”

Bowen agreed. “This is a book that could last for generations.”

For now, the Churchmans continue to enjoy their first success and attend to the farm, while also working on their next books. The second book, The Brave and Mighty Finn, will focus on another lamb, while the third installment, The Adventures of Laddie and Maisie Grace, will feature the Churchmans' border collies.

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Sweet Pea & Friends: The SheepOver, by John and Jennifer Churchman, will be available from Little Brown Books for Young Readers in early December. $17.99. John Churchman will have a book signing on Saturday, December 19, 1 to 3 p.m., at Frog Hollow in Burlington.


Longtime Colchester Resident Publishes New Novel

Published November 12, 2015

 

Jim DeFilippi, a resident of Colchester for nearly forty years, recently published a new novel, Blight New York 1955. The novel centers on how violence against three women claims other victims— family, friends, loved ones, lovers, perpetrators, and even strangers. The story takes place during a one-year period in the small, fictional town of Blight, New York.

DeFilippi, 71, was born in Duck Alley, Long Island, NY and moved to Colchester in 1973. He and his wife lived there until moving to Salem, Massachusetts in 2012. DeFilippi was a teacher of English and journalism at Winooski High School for nearly thirty years.

During his teaching career, DeFilippi also published numerous crime novels, volumes of poetry, and humor books. Throughout his life, DeFilippi has participated in workshops, speeches, and presentations about writing,

In the 1990s, DeFilippi published several novels through major publishing houses like Harper Collins, including the well-received Blood Sugar. In recent years, however, DeFilippi made the switch to self-publishing.

Self-publishing used to be viewed as an author’s “last resort” and was generally cautioned against. Many believed self-published books did not carry the same legitimacy as ones published through traditional means.

Yet, the practice has gradually become more accepted and popular. With the advent of Amazon’s Kindle Direct publishing and other e-book services, authors are able to produce and sell their work quickly.

For some authors, like DeFilippi, the ease of publishing and having control over their work can outweigh associated negativity.

“This whole ‘print on demand’ and e-books is the best thing to happen to writers since Guttenberg and the printing press,” DeFilippi believes.

DeFilippi has previously made his books available simply in PDF form on his website, but has recently published via Brown Fedora Books.

He concedes that he has certainly not “gotten rich” from self-publishing and that most are not likely to. Regardless, he maintains that the practice still greatly benefits writers.

“The whole publishing world is changing, I think for the better. I think it’s just great. It’s immediate, the royalties are good, and you get control of your product,” he says, adding, “the only thing is, a million people are doing it, and there’s competition.”

DeFilippi describes his style as “80% crime novels, though some are humorous.”

“I don’t know why, but I tend to bounce back between goofy and serious books,” he says.

His new novel is entirely serious, however. The plot centers on the aftermath of murder and other acts of violence committed against three different women, and how their stores are connected.

“It looks like a series of short stories but you realize it’s all one big story, even though there are three acts of violence,” DeFilippi explains.

“I try to show that violence against women has always been part of a society, it has happened throughout our history,” he says. “Obviously the damage done to the woman is horrible, but what I try to show that violence just spreads out. It goes to her family, her friends, the people she loves. It even goes to the perpetrator, to strangers.”

“What I tried to do style-wise what get it to its sparest form,” DeFilippi explains, “I tried to walk into each scene with a black and white camera and just record what happened.”

He decided to try this approach to resist the urge to “over-write” the story. “So often, most writers are such egotists, me included. It’s ‘oh look at me, what I can do with these words.’ So, I tried to cut back on that and just writing plots,” he explains.

DeFilippi estimates that he completed the manuscript in six to eight months. He presented many chapters to his Salem writers group, as well as writer friends, for editing and advice.

“I one of the writers who likes to have the plot worked out,” he admits, “but on the other hand, it’s always twisting and turning, so it’s a malleable plot.”

An author’s work is rarely finished, however. Fresh from finishing Blight, DeFilippi is already at work on his 19th publication, he says.

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Jim DeFilippi’s new novel, Blight New York 1955, is available at amazon.com


Tales of Life in an Essex Doctor's Office: Daughter Publishes "On Tuesdays We Iron: Memoirs of Ione Lacy Keenan" 

Published October 29, 2015

Burlington resident Kathleen J. Keenan has published a collection of her late mother’s memoirs of life in Vermont. On Tuesdays We Iron: Memoirs of Ione Lacy Keenan is a collection of stories taking place largely in Essex, covering Lacy Keenan’s childhood, marriage, work in a medical office, and retirement.

Keenan—not to be confused with State Legislator Kathleen C. Keenan of St. Albans— found her mother’s collected writings in 2013 after she passed away.

“In her later years she went to memory writing classes, so a lot of the stories were assignments she was given from a prompt,” Keenan explains.

Keenan, 66, says her mother had already written the book she had hoped to write, it just hadn’t been printed yet. In fact, Keenan says most of the family did not know these writings existed.

Keenan decided to self-publish the collection through Red Barn Books, a division of Wind Ridge Books in Shelburne. She stresses that none of her own writing appears in the book. Keenan says she attempted to keep her mother’s original writing intact, while still checking and editing dates where appropriate.

Ione Lacy was born in 1921 and grew up in Windsor, Vermont. Following her graduation from the University of Vermont in 1944, she married fellow UVM grad and newly-commissioned Army Lieutenant Edward A. Keenan, Jr. MD.  

In 1947 the Keenans opened a new medical practice in Brandon, and in 1951 moved to Essex Junction, where they lived for 67 years. Edward Keenan Jr. died in 2011, and Lacy Keenan died two years later.

Lacy Keenan had a love for reading and writing, both poetry and prose. Keenan says it was her mother’s lifelong passion for storytelling and sharing her unique experiences with others that eventually led to the creation of the book. Lacy Keenan worked as her husband’s office manager for forty years, meeting many of his patients and coming to know them personally. Many of those stories feature prominently in the collection.

“Because my father was a doctor, he saw thousands of patients, and in those days medicine was not as impersonal as it is today,” Keenan explains. “I think a lot of people in this area who knew one or both of them who would be interested [in the book.]”

The book’s title is drawn directly from one of its chapters. Written in June 1987, the excerpt recalls the day Lacy Keenan retired and her husband’s medical practice was closing. In the chapter, she describes the process of ironing hospital gowns, as well as her memories of her time with patients.

Keenan says that hospital gowns, “or what we now call ‘Johnnies’” were previously constructed from paper. Believing that the paper gowns were too sheer and poorly made, Lacy Keenan decided to make cloth gowns to offer patients more privacy.

“She washed them and ironed them before she put them in the drawers for patients,” Keenan explains. Lacy Keenan constructed, repaired, and laundered the gowns for the duration of her time at the medical office.

The chapter begins by observing that a mechanical, rote task such as ironing can allow the mind to consider more philosophical pursuits. Lacy Keenan describes the practical steps of ironing, interspersing her directions with the larger theme of the joys and sorrows of practicing medicine:

“You iron the twill ties first, then the slash facing and the front facing. Then you tie the back ties to hold the slash together, and put the shoulders over the end of the board. And as I tie the twill and smooth the plisse, I think of the mothers-to-be who have worn these gowns – some excited and thrilled at the prospect of the new life within them, but others tired and discouraged to have the doctor confirm what they have suspected because money is short right now and there’s hardly enough to go around as it is. I think of the worried and anxious who have discovered a lump, or have experienced bleeding, and now they sit on the end of the examining table, their fingers twisting nervously, the unbidden tears streaking their faces as they wait to hear what they have come to learn. Sometimes there is calm reassurance but, sadly, sometimes their fears are confirmed.

Parts of the collection also draw on Lacy Keenan’s remembrances of growing up in Winsdor in the 1920s and 30s, while other chapters recount family outings.

“In 1953 my father was recalled to active duty, and we went to Pearl Harbor for 19 months,” Keenan recalls. The family also embarked on a 30-day trip of the national parks in the west, so the collection includes stories from that journey. Some of Lacy Keenan’s poetry is also included.

Kathleen Keenan taught in Bennington and St. Albans schools for 17 years before becoming a meter reader for Green Mountain Power for another two decades. Now retired, she has time to honor her mother’s memories through these literary pursuits. A second volume titled What God Has Done With Me: The Faith of Ione Lacy Keenan is forthcoming this winter.

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To purchase On Tuesdays We Iron: Memoirs of Ione Lacy Keenan, visit amazon.com and other large retailers.