categories: Cocktail Hour
One of the pleasures of being a writer in Maine is that you get invited to read at Libraries in small towns and very small towns up and down and across the state. Reading in Presque Isle some years ago made me realize for the first time that you can drive six hours from Farmington (which has, by the way, a gorgeous, diminutive Carnegie library, solid stone) and still be in Maine. Quebec City is closer. Boston. Many of the smallest libraries are open but a couple of hours a week—enough time on a Sunday morning for the kids and the big readers to get their stack of books for the week, then shut the door again, occasionally even lock it. Bigger small towns have surprisingly active libraries, often open six or seven days a week, evenings too, longer summer hours, serious collections gathered by 150 or 200 years of head librarians, sometimes funded by old-line endowments, as often funded by scarce town resources and private donations, which tend to grow and dwindle in unpredictable spurts, thus the unpredictable staffing, the collections with bigger holdings for boom periods, thin holdings for poor.
It’s seven or eight years ago now that I got a formal fountain-pen letter from one Lincoln Ladd, who was on the board, he said, of the Cary Memorial Library in Wayne. Wayne, Maine. I do love saying that. Lincoln Ladd. I do love saying, that, too. He was well known to me, and well known in Maine, on the boards of several colleges and Maine Public Broadcasting, a genial older fellow with a wonderful old-fashioned writing style. They couldn’t offer me much in the way of pay, he said, but he could guarantee a good group for a Sunday Afternoon Meet a Maine Author chat, and all the cookies and cider I could eat.
Wayne is on Androscoggin Lake, not an hour south of here, and it would be a nice drive, repayment in any case for all the kind things libraries have done for me my whole life, including the legitimizing of weeknight dates in high school, but also buying my books and keeping them well past the sell-by date (such that one of the great joys of my writing life is possible: the letter (now email) from a reader in Montezuma Kansas, say, or Walla Walla Washington, who has found one of my books while haunting the stacks, and just wants to say hello and thanks these fifteen years down the road). Also, it’s nice to be wanted, an honor to read in Wayne or anywhere.
The Cary Memorial Library is one of the really nice ones, a brick building surrounded by venerable sugar maples and stonewalls, built fairly recently , 1938, by a coalition of community-minded book lovers. Because of the lake, there’s a critical mass of summer people with money, and because of the long history of the library, an even more critical mass of local residents with a strong interest in keeping it going.
On the appointed date, I pulled up a few minutes early, all my wrong turns behind me (MapQuest a thing of the future), marched to the front door with my box of books under my arm, nice roomful of mostly older and even elderly faces, greeted acquaintances, signed a few books, greeting the librarian, accepted a formal handshake from Lincoln, a tall fellow with a fine head of white hair and a well-set jaw, warm smile, several compliments on various of my most obscure essays, a real reader! We set up a few of my books for sale on the mantelpiece in what can only be called the living room (fireplace, paned windows, braided rugs) and it was time to begin.
Lincoln said a few kind words in introduction, noted whatever my biography was at the time, and added a personal note as a fan: “As you can see from the books he has kindly placed upon our mantelpiece, Bill writes both fiction and nonfiction. I love Bill’s nonfiction, I love it dearly, and I think you will love it, too. His fiction, however, is not so good, in fact, I don’t like it at all. And now, here’s Bill.”
I’d been planning to read fiction—my story “Big Bend” in fact. I got up there and laughed and said thanks and that I’d try to redeem the reputation of my fiction, and it was all in good fun, though Lincoln Ladd was unsmiling–he’d just been stating the facts.
And so I read. Afterwards people came up for autographs and offered me the promised cookies and told me about their sons and daughters who were writers, and told me about other writers they’d met (Stephen King and Eudora Welty among them, in case I thought my presence was very special). A very elderly woman waited her turn patiently, finally was able to waver close to my ear and whisper. She said, “I’m so very sorry about Lincoln’s introduction. I don’t think it came out as he intended. But in any case, whatever he meant by it, I just want to say that I have read everything you’ve written, and I think your fiction is absolutely wonderful! Delightful! Lincoln is simply wrong. It’s your nonfiction that’s no good!”