Odd Jobs #1: The Things A Writer Must Do (…an occasional series)

categories: Cocktail Hour


Cary Memorial Library

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!”

  1. Dan writes:

    I was standing at my condo kitchen counter in Sacramento reading my mail when it struck me to look for Lincoln Ladd once again. So I did the Google thing and there still is no email or direct link. Just tantalizing lists of his civic memberships. I have not been able to find out if he is still alive.

    But through the wonders of serendipity I did find your delightful rambles about library visits and readings in Maine. I do have a long-ago romantic connection to the little white house-library in Springvale.

    The account of your trip to Wayne and Ladd’s remarks has such a Keiler-esque flavor. We know that small town life is still full of unique and memorable characters. They just happen to go to McDonald’s for coffee.

    My connection to Ladd comes from when I was in his freshman English section at Duke while he was a grad student. He had great influence over me at a time when I was very impressed with my analytical and writing skills, but he wasn’t. Even after he found out I was a kid from Northern Vermont my arguments about my theme paper grades had no weight. That’s when I decided my future did not lie in teaching English.

    I promise to try to read some of your books. Will you come to our big city library if the Bee book club invites you?

    • Bill writes:

      I would visit any book club named bee! And the tour for my new novel, LIFE AMONG GIANTS, from Algonquin, is falling into place right now for next fall and spring. Which big city? I’m planning to go to a lot of them!

  2. Richard Gilbert writes:

    That’s so funny!

    Libraries are, or can be, such great resources. I use the public library a lot more since moving to town last year. Shortly after our dislocation, I discovered that it had not only a nice little coffee kiosk and comfortable chairs, plenty of books and magazines, but free, rock-solid internet access. Man, that was sweet after Panera’s miserly 30 minutes and having to pay at McDonalds. So the public library is buzzing, and not just with unemployed folks. Sometimes I eavesdrop on a probation officer who meets with his charges regularly at a corner table.

  3. Vince Passaro writes:

    In New York people almost never say anything about your work, never indicate they’ve read it. Or almost never. When your reputation is high, they greet you in a certain way, talk about having lunch; and when your reputation is no longer high they greet in you in another way, with the memory of your having had a reputation once. How have you been? Versus the earlier, How are you? Readers (or, frequently, collectors, who never read the books) line up to have you sign your book when you have one and they just murmur thank you for the most part. (This part is distinctly mine, I believe; even in Paris people would talk to you, Bill…. scowling French shopkeepers would open up a little, soften, reveal their large bad teeth in a smile, press upon you some ham and bread….Etc). The exceptions for me, so far as I can remember, involve people who’ve had too much to drink. “That story you wrote…” they say. “IT was, it was, well… ” they look to the ceiling, gesture, and the combination makes you think they’re going over but with the habitual hidden survival skills of the perpetually blotto they always managed to sway without going down…. At a party once, an editor pulled one of these, five minutes of actually wordless praise; another time a writer I admire said to me, “I can’t tell you now. The stuff about New York. The other stuff.” We were parting, on the street. His wife, seriously pissed, was waiting. “I’m going to write to you,” he said, pointing. “I need to write to you….” Okay, says I. Don’t worry about it. See you soon…..

  4. Tommy writes:

    Sweet story, it’s got me smilin’.

    • monica wood writes:

      Bill, I read at that same library a few years ago and had a similarly memorable experience, although LL didn’t say anything bad about my nonfiction because I hadn’t yet written any. Hah! The place was packed with smiley, thrilled people who had never hear of me, and this one guy from NYC who was visiting for the week singlehandedly bought almost every book on the table, then asked my husband if we had any of my other books in the car. The whole evening was surreal–beautiful bepearled old ladies, flip-flopped summer folk, board-member types and general-store-porch-sitter types, everyone there because AN AUTHOR WAS IN TOWN. And when they discovered I was actually FROM Maine, from a town called MEXICO, the place nearly levitated with glee. Me too.

      I mean, really: when does that EVER happen? I love Wayne, Maine.