Susan Stinson is a novelist, historical tour guide, writing coach, speaker and the writer-in-residence for the Forbes Library in Northampton. She has published three novels, and recently completed a fourth, “Spider in a Tree”, a historical novel about the life and family of influential 18th century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards based in Northampton. In 2011, she was awarded the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist prize for her “beautiful, courageous and important writing”.
As the Forbes Library writer-in-residence since 2009, Stinson serves as the curator of several public forums aimed at strengthening the bond between the public, writers and the library. She holds a twice-weekly writing room for the public at the library, moderates a panel series celebrating the relationship between local writers and local history and hosts an annual discussion on “The Writer’s Life”. The next event at the Forbes Library in the Local History/Local Writers series is on March 7th, 2012 and features writers James Cahillane, Eric Sawyer and Michael White discussing the trial and hanging of Irish travelers Dominic Daley and James Halligan in 1806 Northampton.
I recently spoke to Susan about her attempts to create and foster civic engagement at the public library, the challenges of breaking into the Pioneer Valley writer’s community and what makes Western Massachusetts such a great place to be a writer.
*This interview has been edited and re-sequenced for clarity.
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Q: Describe your work as the writer-in-residence at the Forbes Library. What are trying to accomplish, and how long have you been with the library?
A: I am trying to make the relationship between local writers and the library more active and rich for both groups. I curate a local history writing and local novelist series as well as facilitate two writing rooms, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, here at the library. I help come up with the writing workshops too. In the summer, at least for the last two summers, we host a discussion series called “The Writing Life” on issues interesting to writers who are working on long-term projects.
The first thing that I did was starting the writing room in April of 2009. The program itself was started seven years ago by a poet and fiction writer named Diana Gordon. She started the writer-in-residence program here, working with the director of the library here, Janet Moulding.
Q: What needs you are trying to fill with the local novelists series and the writer’s life panels?
A: There are multiple needs and the different events don’t all fill the same needs. With the writing room the focus is very much on the work itself. Writers of any level can come in, anyone can do it productively, and people do come in from all sorts of different levels. The status stuff, who is more published or experienced, is just out of the window and it is much more about the work.
So unlike many workshops, we don’t do critiques, we don’t respond. We hear each other and that can spark relationships outside of the writing room if folks choose. That was something that I wanted for myself and for the community and here it is. One of the reasons I wanted to do this work was that I was feeling isolated, writing by myself in my apartment, relying on the Internet for my social interactions. I really wanted to be connecting with other people.
One of the ideas for the discussion group, “The Writing Life,”was to have a conversation about the issues that come up for us as writers. But those are once a month and still a little sparse. I am not as satisfied with how those are meeting that need as I am with how the writing group is going because I feel the writing group is going really great.
The Local History/ Local Novelist series had multiple intentions: one, I wanted to talk about novelists because I feel as if the contributions of the novel were a little bit under siege or a little bit neglected. I wanted to make the case for the importance of the novel in our common life. I also noticed that there were many, many more readings for poetry than there were readings for writers of prose. I looked at the poetry-reading model to create a live presence for writers who are not writing poetry, although poets are always welcome.
Then there is the idea that we hear each other. There have been multiple readers at each event on purpose; A lot of times it has been novelists, theologians and historians on the same panel. It draws a bigger crowd, helps us in creating that community- we see each other and interact at the panels- and leads to a stimulating civic life.
One of the things that has been fun for me in curating the series has been picking the topic of the panels. The subject can build these really beautiful evenings. The writing looks different in relation to each other, the place looks different once you’ve heard writers together. So that’s how I tend to think of it, instead of who are the right writers or the most brilliant writers but more, what would they be like together in a room?
Q: How do local writers react when you approach them to be on a panel?
A: They’ve been so responsive- many, many, many yeses. One thing that I’ve been so struck with is the beautiful willingness of people who really do have national and international reputations to come to the public library and take fifteen minutes instead of whole hour and read with less-known writers or in circumstances that are a little unconventional. People are really up for it. It’s exciting.
Q: What’s the reaction been from the public?
A: People have embraced the programs really quickly and it is clear that there is a need for them. They are one of the most popular programs at the library. It’s been really gratifying and surprising how well it has worked. Part of that is, I think, is using the combination of my very specific passion for it and getting the individual writers and speakers who come to mobilize their social networks to help build the audience. It’s been a little bit of a challenge because the subjects have been so diverse but it’s been really successful. There’s these beautiful moments of, “here’s the work” and people are embracing it.
Q: As a new writer and relative newcomer to the area, I feel overwhelmed in trying to establish connections with other writers here: can’t find anyone to work with, can’t connect with the community, can’t seem to find anyone not charging for help. As someone who has been here for a while, your experience with the writer’s community must be different.
A: I think that is a very common experience and, to tell you the truth, it’s different and it’s not for me. There is a beautiful tradition of writers supporting each other in western Massachusetts but it is a hard community to enter. But I also think that people’s experiences vary because there are writing groups that have been around for years and years. Some people have community that they’ve had for twenty or thirty years.
One of the reasons I started working at the library is that I need more writer community. So I set out to create that for myself and for other people in a way that would work for me. I have long relationships with a lot of writers in the Valley and they are so beautiful. I mean, Sally Bellerose, is a writer that I’ve worked with very closely for more than twenty years, it’s probably more like twenty-five, and she’s just published her first novel and it is fantastic. There’s such utter joy at seeing the whole long difficult journey and then see it successful.
I have a double reaction to that question because I am always looking for more too. I’m not, right at this moment, in my ideal writing community idea of support but at the same time I know it’s here. I want to keep trying to find good structures to help facilitate that for people working at every level. It’s important to me because I think it feeds the writers, it feeds the community and it’s good for the library. There are just so many benefits to doing it. The only reason not to do it is that you end up spending so much time facilitating between writers that you are not paying attention to your own writing. That’s the danger.
Q: What makes it tough to break into the writers’ community here?
A: There are probably a few different factors. One, if you’ve got a position at a college, then you circle around those academic centers. You are usually very busy and might not be talking to writers who are not tied into the academic life. I also think it is true what John Crowley said at the last reading when we started talking about this, that some part of it is the nature of the work. We writers often work by ourselves, and often need some piece of our work to be in solitude and quiet. So that makes us less inclined to build communities.
And it’s hard especially if you are not looking for a workshop model, if you are not looking for a teacher, and you are looking for other people whose commitment level and experience matches your own. That can be really hard to find.
I think it is another thing too: a lot of the writers who live here focus much of their work lives in other places or if they are at one of the colleges or institutions, they go elsewhere in the summer. So it can be a little slow to coalesce. I think it is also has to do with, this is a little hard to describe, but I grew up in the West and the New England character, well, there’s not this same tradition of openness like in Texas, say, “you are welcome to come on in.” Regionally, it’s a little bit slower to build connections here.
Q: On the plus side, I was surprised to find such a strong literary tradition and so many well-known writers working in the area. Does the community at large here in the Valley recognize that or is it a secret within writers’ circles?
A: The amazing depth, richness and range of the truly fantastic writers at every level, from very young people who are just starting to people who are incredibly well-established is underappreciated. I think that Western Massachusetts is just a little bit used to it in a way because of the deep literary tradition here. We don’t always value that network in the way that we could. I grew up in unincorporated Araphahoe County, Colorado so I notice the difference.
Q: As someone who is working with the literary community here in the Valley, what do you see as it literary strengths? Or is there too much diversity in writers, style and genres to pick just one?
A: There’s a really great tradition of women writers here. That continues to be true. There are people doing really exciting, innovative work with historical writing. Sabina Murray is a great example of that with her most recent book, “Tales of the New World.” But also Brian Kiteley, who read in the series last year. He teaches at the University of Denver, so he doesn’t live here anymore, but he grew up here. He wrote a book called “River Gods” that’s all about Northampton. It’s just a fabulous blend of history and imaginative leaps and is very innovative in form. It is brilliant.
Q: For people like us, who don’t come from an area with a rich writing tradition, this place seems really incredible. What is about Western Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley, that fosters such a strong literary tradition?
A: One of the qualities of Western Massachusetts is that this is a landscape that has been reflected on. It’s been looked at. So when you are here, at least I do and I think a lot of us do, you feel the relationship with those earlier threads of thought just by walking around. I mean, Emerson wandered through and Henry James did his first serious fiction here.
Also the Puritan and Calvinist roots contribute. Those were people who very much valued literacy and valued the Word and the Scripture. The colleges have been places were women were getting higher education very early on here. There is just a great tradition of valuing learning and that’s very rich for writing. Long cold winters don’t hurt.
Q: I think that there is also an openness here that might not exist in other places. Basically you can be whoever you want to be here.
A: It’s evolved imperfectly. It’s something that I have seen changes with over time. This area has a great tradition of moving towards openness. I say that but the next evening (March 7th, 2012 at 7:00 PM at the Forbes Library) in the writing series is about a less glorious moment in Northampton’s history. Two Irish Catholic travelers were convicted of murder and hung in 1806 before a crowd of fifteen thousand people at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was very strong in this area. It is very likely that they were not guilty. So it is not Paradise here, even though it’s called Paradise City. But it does have a tradition of progressivism and moving towards more inclusion and I value that greatly.
I think that we can continue to apply that openness better if we know about things from history, and we discuss them. It’s important for me to say, if I am talking in relation to the library, people of all backgrounds and all perspectives are very welcome to these events.
*Photo by Jeep Wheat