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Michael Nobel Kline: 0:00:00.0 My name is Michael Kline. I'm here with Carrie Kline in the Trustees' Room of the Concord Free Public Library. It is June 3, 2013, and a rainy morning has faired off into a beautiful afternoon. Would you please say, "My name is," and introduce yourself?
Stona Fitch: My name is Stona Fitch.
MK: And your date of birth?
SF: July 7, 1961.
MK: 1961. Maybe you should start off and just tell us about your people and where you were raised.
SF: My family is originally from Arkansas of Scottish heritage. They headed west early, intermarried with the Cherokees in that area. My father moved away from Arkansas and Oklahoma to Cincinnati, Ohio, where I was born. He moved to work for Proctor & Gamble. The headquarters is based in Cincinnati. I've lived in Concord for almost 25 years now, and I consider it my home.
MK: You came from Arkansas, did you say?
SF: Right. My great-grandfather and previous generations before that lived just outside of Little Rock. Active in the Confederacy. Then Laura, my sister, was the first of my generation to sort of head east beyond Cincinnati. I'd never been east of Cincinnati until I moved here.
MK: So what sort of people were they?
SF: My family started out mostly as cattle ranchers. My grandfather was a cattle rancher as well and a politician. He was a State Representative in Oklahoma out of Hughes County for several terms. He attended Kennedy's inaugural, one of the highlights of his life. We share the same name, my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, Stona, which means in Creek or Cherokee, it supposedly means strong-hearted. They were cattle ranchers. They worked really hard. They lived through the dust bowl in Oklahoma, and whenever we would complain about anything as a kid, my father was just say, "Don't tell me about it. I grew up in the dust bowl." So that was a pretty easy way to make us feel like we had a lot more advantages than he did.
MK: 0:02:43.3 That became the standard for him.
SF: It was a good line. I mean, because I'm a writer, I've always been fascinated by family heritage. Just to draw upon where you're from, the sort of themes that cross over many generations, and I wouldn't say that a lot of my books are autobiographical, per se. My first one was, but I just think knowing, and I was told this when I was in college. My mentor in college was a—and he still is—a writer named Russell Banks, and he instilled in me the need to know exactly where your character came from. That means geographically, emotionally, financially, socioeconomically, just to really triangulate who is this person? That's an approach I take when I write anything. You have to really know who you are writing about.
MK: So can you talk about finding the voice at the tip of your pencil point?
SF: I always wrote stories, and I veered toward journalism when I was a kid. I was the editor of my high school paper, and I freelanced for my local paper in Cincinnati, and I went on to become editor of the college paper at Princeton, The Daily Princetonian, so I always really enjoyed digging in to other people's stories and trying to tell them clearly. I also worked as a reporter for the Miami Herald and a feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News after I was out of college. So my focus early on was really getting the details down of someone else's story. But I also, I love fiction, I love dark fiction, I love mysteries, and crime books. I knew I wanted to write my own books, too, and on evenings, weekends, and federal holidays during my day job, I would start to work on a book. My first novel I wrote while I was washing dishes at a barbecue. I sent it out in a box, you know like you did in the old days before there was email, and about two weeks later I got a call from an editor at GT. Putnam's that I'd sent the box to because I found his name in the back of somebody else's book. And a thank you. So I thought, "Well, this must be a nice guy." So I got a call on the pay phone, and he said this is, "Dan Harvey from GT Putnam's. We love this novel, ‘Strategies for Success,'" and he said, "You know how about $50,000. At that point, I was making $5.00 an hour and all the barbecue I could eat, and I thought for a long time. There was long pause over the phone, and I finally said, "Listen, I just don't have that kind of money." And he said, "No, no. We pay you." And I said, "That sounds a lot better—in fact a lot better." (laughter)
So my first novel is called "Strategies for Success" about a southerner sort of lost in the East, which is very much more autobiographical than anything else I've written. And it did what books do. It came out, and it disappeared. My real work as a writer has been to continue to fight every book I've written into print, not having a huge success with my first book. I think it's been—. Yeah, I would advise that that's a great experience for any writer because it really makes you figure out whether you're going to stick with it. If you have a huge success, it's pretty easy. You know you're going to have to. But having a book that comes out and sort of does okay, but doesn't get a, doesn't become a best seller really makes you focus on your work and recognize that you have to feel compelled to tell a story late at night when you have a day job and you're tired and you have young kids. For me, I love to write. And back to your original point, I've always loved to write and as I've gotten older, I think I've gotten better at accessing imagination versus just facts.
MK: So out of the dust of these cattle-ranching people comes this compulsion to explore other people's stories and to write them, and I'm thinking, I wonder if there is a connection between that and the traditional lives of the people in your family.
SF: 0:07:43.4 Well that's a really good point. My grandfather was one of the most talkative people I ever met. He was both a cattleman and a politician and also an auctioneer. So he knew how to speak very quickly, something I have to watch in myself, because I tend to blur. He could talk to anybody. He told stories. He could get along with anybody, and he loved to tell a good story and joke. He also had a filthy vocabulary, which was always helpful to hear when you're young. I learned a lot from that. Mostly he directed his expletives to cattle. The cattle were always the recipients of the more blazing of the four-letter words. But he loved to tell stories, and has—. And I think also his father and other people I met from my family previous to that in Arkansas. They would just get together and sit in metal outdoor chairs, uncomfortable as all get out and sit. No alcohol involved and, just sit there and talk. And you could hear them from miles away. They just opened their mouths and never stopped. (laughter) My father, a very taciturn quiet guy. I think it sort of skips a generation and maybe you have to—. Maybe he was just so sick of hearing people talk he couldn't stand it. I always went back to Oklahoma and to Arkansas in summers, and I think part of that, you know, inclination to tell a story out loud, came from spending time around them. They had some fascinating stories. They all had been through a lot, and they were interesting people and really individuals. They had these great unusual American names, like mine, Stona. But in my grandfather's generation, there were, I think, 11 kids, and they were named Larken, Sterling, Thad, Rolla, O'Nell, Roe, and Roa, a set of twins, Rolla was Orval Faubus' right-hand man, so we don't talk about him much. And just a full collection. And my aunt was named, you know, Aunt Irma and O'Nell was a woman. So they ran out of biblical names, and they had used them already. So they delved into whatever they could find. So the characters you know—. I'd write my first novel. The main character's named Larken who was my grandfather's brother who lived in Arizona, and he was involved in the asphalt trade. I didn't have it all. And I used his name as my main character's name in my first novel. I gave a copy to my grandmother, and she read it—she didn't read a lot of novels—and she called me up, and says, "You know, I don't remember if your Uncle Larken did any of this stuff." I go, "No grandma, I used the name. I'm not writing a history of my Uncle Larken. (laughter) Although I'm sure it would be fascinating. So I repurposed bits of family history, and there is certainly always more to use. It comes from having that material to draw from. I think every writer has—. You're given a lot of great material by your family or some you just have to make it all up. I'm somewhere in the middle. I've got a lot of great family history that I try to pass on to my daughters a little bit here and there, not just the good stuff. And then I also feel an obligation to turn that into fiction because I think the further you get away from facts, then you can really find a richer vein of material, because it's like being limited by—. You shouldn't be limited by just what you know. You have to write about what you don't know. Frequently when you're a writer, they say write about what you know. Well you know what? I think you should write about what you don't know. What's inside your brain and where your imagination takes you, you know.
MK: Say more about that. What do you mean by that?
SF: Well I wrote a novel called "Senseless," which is arguably my hit that came out in 2011, on 9/11. I'm sorry, 2001. Came out on 9/11/2001. The day of the Twin Towers. It's about a group of amoral terrorists who will do anything. So it came out of this really weirdly resonant time, and some of the phrasing from the main character—he's sort of a shadowy figure—and takes place in Belgium. I tracked really closely to the statements from Bin Laden, to the point where when it came out in France, they printed verbatim statements from book to history. I can't obviously claim that, "Oh, I'm just picking up hidden frequencies that the world beams out." But I spent a lot of time in poor neighborhoods of Brussels and Antwerp, and felt a huge amount of anti-American sentiment. I didn't know this, my experience was not as a person living in Belgium you know, and sort of feeling like the EU, the creation of the EU was a construct of the American government, which is the theme of my book. I didn't know this at all. It's certainly not part of my heritage. I didn't grow up in Europe. Well I came back from that experience. I was working there for several months. This story just sort of arrived about an American businessman who is held hostage in Belgium, and sort of treated very poorly. But sort of having to revisit his own sins in a large and small, and having to really make a case for why he's innocent or not. That has very little to do with me. This character was 60 years old. I was 40 when I wrote the book. His politics and his experience—. He was sort of a man of the senses. It was very different from mine, and even his points of view were different. So I felt like in just absorbing the information around some other place, very alien from my own and alien from Concord, that I was able to tell a story that was more a work of the imagination. In fact, not even the imagination, but the subconscious. I came back from Belgium. One night I woke up, and this entire novel showed up pretty much of a piece. And I obviously been thinking about it here and there, but I sat down in the guest room and wrote out page after page. I'd go back to sleep, and I'd say, "Well wait a minute. There's more." Then I would drop my kids at preschool and come here to the Concord Free Public Library and sit in the reference room and write what has been called, "The most disturbing novel ever written," after having dropped by girls off and put their stuff in the cubbies and whatever. So there is such a split between my life experience and writing this book, that it was really jarring and phenomenal. Because my life was peaceful. Wonderful daughters, beautiful little school, great town, incredible library, and I sat down and wrote a book that was completely the opposite of that because that's where it forced me to use my imagination.
MK: 0:15:16.5 What forced you?
SF: Just the story itself was so compelling to me. And it wasn't my own story. I think I was fascinated by trying to capture a character and an ambience and a world that I didn't know anything about. It's like having secret entrÃ©e into another world. I think fiction is—. From the reader's point of view, what I love about books is that they transport you to another place. From a writer's perspective, the great challenge is to create that place. It may be a place you know very well, and it may be a place you just completely make up. Every writer is somewhere along the continuum of: is this something I know well and I've been there my whole life, or is it something that I just sit down in the reference room and make up? So that's pretty much—. What I took to be my challenge with that book was I didn't have a lot of accumulated information that I was drawing on. I had to really flick that little toggle switch on your brain that clicks you over into your imagination. In my first novel I didn't do that. A first novel is usually very close to home and it's usually about the author's family when you get down to it. I think there is probably some percentage someone has figured out, but most first novels are pretty close to home. This was my second, but I'd written several in between. But I think I took it as a personal challenge to do exactly the opposite of the first one. It's always good to choose—. Each book is a new challenge. If I just wrote the same thing over and over, I would quickly bore myself and my readers. (laughter)
RK: 0:17:00.2 But it was based on this experience you had in—
SF: In Antwerp.
RK: --in Antwerp.
RK: Does this—? The really tasting in your gut, this anti-American sentiment?
SF: Well I think that, you know, I think that writers are like the canaries in the coal mine, and they tend to pick up on things a little faster because you can smell the poison a little earlier, if you're oriented towards that. I love to write books that have larger ideas worked into what would be perceived as more conventional thriller plots. Things move quickly, and there's things that happen that are plot-driven, as they say. In this case, it's about his ongoing ordeal as a hostage and ultimately his release. But throughout that time, you know what's going to happen to him, and it's all really unpleasant. So you're sort of forced to—. Actually it's a very short compressed book but, "Can I make it through this book?" I get email pretty much every week from someone who has read like half of it and thrown it across the room, then gone, walked across the room, picked up the book, read another few pages, thrown it. You know there's a lot of that because it's really a challenging book. But I just got an email today from a reader in Russia who wants to, on her own dime, translate it into Russian because she knows it has to come out there as well. So when you get notes like that, it's like, "Wow, that's a lot of work." To translate even a short book into Russian would be hard. So things like that are very encouraging.
MK: That's a lot of affirmation.
SF: Lot of affirmation. It's also 12 years since it came out. It's good to see. It has come out in 15 different languages and been made into a film. It's on its way to becoming a French graphic novel, which of course is very important to some readers. The reason I say that is that I think works of the pure imagination--nothing's that pure--it seems they tend to be the more resonant ones because they're limitless. There is no boundary of fact. You can go anywhere with it, and I love the feeling of being awake late at night working on something that I don't even know what it is. That's fun. If it's just sitting there late at night with a set of index cards with well, chapter one—this is what happens in chapter two. This is what happens. And then you might as well be—. That's more about the completion of the word versus the focus that it takes to sort of come up with something brand new, which is, "Make it new." Right? Was that Ezra Pound? "Make it new."
MK: So you studied writing at Princeton, then, did you say?
SF: I did. I went to Princeton on an academic scholarship that was designed to help people who—it was sort of a push—school for me. And I felt like a kid in a candy store. I mean it was like I had gone to a pretty good, but big public high school, and it was just an amazing leap for me. And a hard one. I was not—. I was a kid with white corduroys and looking very much out of place among these very much affluent East Coast guys that all had gone to prep school. This was back in the day. I quickly realized that they didn't have anything on me. I decided I would focus on writing for the newspaper, because that was sort of the traditional enclave for people who liked to write, and I found my home there. My Freshman and Sophomore year I was studying with Joyce Carol Oates and with Russell Banks and writers of that ilk and what an opportunity. Princeton's writing program, at that point, it's always and still is, focused on undergraduates. So as a 19-year-old studying with a writer like that, I'm still in touch with both of them. We're cohorts and they helped me found the Concord Free Press, which is our side project. A publishing house that is very different from other publishing houses. I ended up at the East Coast based on getting in to Princeton. I really never left. I worked briefly elsewhere, but once I moved to Boston, I've been here ever since.
MK: 0:21:29.6 Wow. You mentioned the Concord Free Press. Can you develop that idea a little?
SF: Sure. Yeah. You know we talked a bit about books and how to get them out in the world, and my fourth novel is a book called "Give and Take," which is about a jazz pianist traveling around the country. It's sort of a Robin Hood rewrite in that he steals two items, two commodities, diamonds and BMWs. He sells them and gives the money away. So he's sort of a one-man economic force traveling through the country. And it's very funny. My main character is a sort of a protÃ©gÃ© of Miles Davis and people like that. He's much more of an old-style jazz player traveling this very high-end circuit, mythical circuit of lounges and clubs. So he has access to lots of diamonds and BMWs. He makes short work of them, and his nephew shows up and basically challenges his world view about sharing the wealth and hilarity ensues. And so it is a book I loved, because it was a little lighter. It didn't have much to do with me. I had been a traveling musician, but not a jazz musician. But it had some ideas about generosity that I was interested in. It was about to be published in New York. My editor left and the book was orphaned in a way that books are often orphaned in publishing. And I really had a couple choices, either to put it aside and not worry about it or try to find another publisher, which at that point was very difficult in that we had tried a lot of publishers already. This is a major house, so I wanted it to come out as edited and ready to go. So I had in Concord worked for, with, as a board member and then board director, a group called Gaining Ground, which is a farm at Thoreau's birthplace, just east of here. At that point, it's a-some-odd eight-acre plot of land owned by the town of Concord that we farm and grow produce and give it all away to homeless shelters and meal programs. So it's very much a very Concord group in that it's run by volunteers. Primarily the volunteers do all the work. We've got a couple staff people, but it's a very sustainable, very low-impact, and very high-return group. All the third graders here in town come to work on the farm. I directed it for almost ten years and loved doing it as a volunteer. And what I learned from Gaining Ground was the power of giving away something of quality for free. The produce we grew wasn't just, you know, potatoes and onions and the stuff you grow if you want to create heavy pumpkins. You know things that weight a lot? We grew, and still do, 200 to 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables, so it's the sort of things you would find in a Whole Foods, but the people that we were service had never had access to. So it was astounding, and we—. I enjoyed helping that group innovate and sort of get on its feet, and I took a lot of lessons I learned from Gaining Ground, and clearly they'd been in the back of my head. One night, I woke up, and I talked to my wife, Ann, I said, "I think we should just publish "Give and Take" the way we gave away vegetables at Gaining Ground. We'll print it up, and we'll give it away, and we'll not just do that, but we'll ask to give money to something they care about or someone in need, and then pass the book on." So it will be one of these the way people would normally deal with a paperback, is you read it, and you pass it on. But this takes advantage of it. We created this whole notion called "Generosity Based Publishing" built on the fact that books have an intrinsic power beyond just the story, and readers, I think, are inherently very generous. Four years ago, we published the book. On the back, it looks like a normal paperback as you can see, but on the back it has a statement that some people call the "manifreesto", that just says, "This novel is free. By taking a copy, you agree to give away money to a local charity, someone who needs it, or a stranger on the street. Where the money goes and how much you give, that's your call. When you're done, pass this novel on to someone else, for free of course, so they can give. It adds up. Give and Take is an experiment in the publishing community, and now you're part of it. So this book we published, and if you see on the price it says zero. So we published it, and we weren't really sure if it was going to work. I might get laughed at, or I might still be sitting on a box of these things, but it quickly got a tremendous amount of attention. We had requests from all over the world, and it raised between $60,000 and $70,000. Not for us. That was just all money that people gave away and told us about. At our website is just a long list of generosity. So we kept at it. We published two or three books a year. We've always been in the black because we keep—. Everybody gives us their work for free. We did a book by Gregory Maguire, another Concord author, who wrote "Wicked," and it was a book that was out of keeping with his normal work that is more sort of fantasy-oriented and set in Oz or what have you. This is a much more personal narrative and very funny. But each one, sort of—. We built on each one, and we can get your story down to a bookmark. You've got it down to nothing. And this is the sticker we used to put on them, it's 100 percent off. (laughter) That's the Barnes and Noble sticker with a couple extra digits, and we were just challenging. People said, "Are you trying to ruin publishing? What's your problem?" You're like the Guy Fox of publishing. You just want to set it on fire." That wasn't it at all. What we really wanted to do was show, you know what? Ten years ago we couldn't have done this. But now, because of technology, and because of the internet and because of publishing technology and printing technology, you know, writers can start projects like this. I'm not a publisher, I'm a writer. Everybody on our staff is a writer or designer. No one's a publisher. So the fact is that we were able to seize the machinery of publishing, and do something brand new with it. Because all books, no matter what they're about, are the same. You buy them, the publisher hopes to make a little bit of money on them so they can publish more books, and when you're done with your book, you probably give it away or sell it. This book and all the books that we do are little messengers of generosity. They just travel through the world, and even the ones we published four years ago, every day, we'll get a note from—they're each numbered, too, so you can tell where they've been. You know, they're still making money out there. Not for us, of course, but we're a little non-profit that, as I say, is too small to fail. You know, we really don't—. It's hard to imagine why we would quit, and anytime things get complicated or busy, we just say, "You know what? Let's just simplify it and do it another way." We're like relentless about keeping it easy to do. Because we're all volunteers. There are about 20 people, Russell Banks involved, Joyce Carol Oates, Megan Abbott, who else? Scott Phillips. It will come to me. Tom Perot—help me, wrote "Election." Tom, oh it's on the back of my—I've had a total brain freeze.
MK: 0:28:59.4 Well you don't have to recite a list of 20 people.
SF: We have a lot of people involved.
MK: They'll probably come up into your discussions.
SF: Tom Perrotta. There you go. And Francine. Other writers who are interested in trying to do something new and to take advantage of the fact, in the old days, writers just waited for publishers to call, and now we can do a lot of different things. There's writers like Ann Patchett. Started her own bookstore in Nashville. Writers who self-publish and run their own little publishing empire themselves. We're doing something that I don't anybody else is doing quite the same way, which is publishing great books and distributing them through independent bookstores and web requests and asking only that people be generous, which is--. I think most people are generous to start with. We just have to ask them to do it.
MK: Can you read us a selection out of Give and Take?
SF: Wow. That's an idea.
MK: Oh, pause, whoops.
SF: Do I need to go?
CK: No, no, no.
MK: No you don't.
CK: You're it.
MK: You're the one afternoon.
MK: You're the one.
SF: Okay. So I'll read the first, first couple paragraphs from "Give and Take," which came out for the free-press edition in 2008, and then with St. Martin's, it went onto a second commercial life in the U.S. and abroad in 2010 and 2011. First chapter: Cleveland. I pressed my fingers on the warm keys of the grand piano and hear the thrum of huddled couples and clusters of bankers anxious to be entertained. My ten-foot Boesendorfer languishes in a no-hold loft, but I put aside that, my recent memory. It's just me and the slightly battered Baldwin tonight. Two scarred night-club veterans on a low stage are world-defined by a radiant ellipse from a flickering spotlight. The slow intro to "Far Side of the Sun" always works as an opener. Within a few bars, my fingers limber, the audience disappears, and my mind floods with whatever chemical wave the body releases when at complete peace with the world. I could say more about playing the piano, of course, but one man's bliss is another man's boredom. Tonight's set merges with the thousands played along club circuits from New York to San Francisco. My left hand marks progressions of solid chords, while my right traces the melody with only minor embellishment, a straight-ahead style. Listenable and marketable. Through Malcolm, my agent, and new club in the Flats, has paid me $2,000 to play three 30-minute sets that will encourage people to buy more blue martinis, beer imported from Holland, and scallop appetizers on charred sugar cane skewers. I think of jazz the way a safe-cracker might. The right mix of familiar melodies and resonant chords sends tumblers clicking into place. Opens long-locked doors. My time at the keyboard relaxes and entertains the audience. Causes subtle shifts in their emotional coloration. The trigger is spending, tips, positive word-of-mouth that might bring others and their appetites, wallets, and credit cards to the Buck-Eye Club. When you carve the world down to its economic bones, you find money waiting in the marrow.
MK: 0:32:29.1 Wonderful.
SF: That's his 0:32:34.3 (???) (inaudible).
MK: That's a page-turner, isn't it? 0:32:32.5 (???) (inaudible).
SF: He's a good guy, Doug Ross, the piano player. He's got an unusual economic viewpoint. Having a fast-moving book that's basically—ultimately about economics, isn't something you would normally say, "Oh, I'm going to write a book that's got underlying issues of economic theory and/or generosity and how to be a fair person in the world." But that's what I why I like to sort of encode each book with other notes that may not be that obvious, you can still read it, it's just, here's a story about a piano player who steals stuff. But underneath it, there's a little bit more going on. And that's my job to add that other stuff. Every book is different, you know? I mean, it's--. What I enjoy, taking on a new challenge. And my seventh book, which will be coming out next year in 2014, is a more flat-out crime novel, called "Third Rail." It takes place in Boston. I've lived here long enough that I can finally set a book in Boston Proper, and it's much more—. It's about a disgraced Boston policeman who has to regain his honor. But it has elements of humor in it, and at one point, he's attacked by a Henry David Thoreau impersonator. I figure living in Concord, I know what an angry Henry David Thoreau impersonator might look like. So he's trying to hit him with a stick, you know, so it's just this absurd moment. Again, would you in a normal crime novel have one of the bad guys be a Thoreau impersonator? Probably not. But I find it impossible to color within the lines of the genre. My books are always somewhere between literary and thriller, but they always have a sense of humor. Even the darkest ones.
SF: I like to think.
MK: So what you've just shown of the "Give and Take" is the Concord Free Press?
SF: 0:34:49.2 Yeah. Well I—. We published it as—. I figure when you're going to do something, you better use your own book as a guinea pig, and I did that book of my own first, and everything we've published since then has been from other authors. My own work is published right now by Houghton Mifflin. So I've got a separate career with mainstream publishing that is separate from my job as the Guy Fox of independent publishing. That's different. Luckily—I don't know—they work hand-in-hand. I learn something from publishing every time I embark on it. I love to publish books. We love the process of editing and putting them together and making them look great. If you're going to give away something for free, it has to be really, really good. Otherwise people say, "Of course it's free. It's half rotten like a bad apple." That's our whole goal, to make something that's so beautiful, when people get it, they can't believe they got it in the mail for free without even paying postage. There's some video online of just people who opened the book up and are holding it up and saying, "I can't believe this happened." It changes the way they think about things. I hope it—. Just the money we hear recorded on our site. Three-hundred and twenty some-odd thousand dollars for seven books. That's just part of it. That's the tip of the iceberg. I think what we've helped to inspire people is like, "Wow, this is a company that's not a company. It's a project that mailed me a book in Tunisia, and I got it, and I didn't have to pay for it, and I gave money to something I care about, and I gave it to my friend, and he gave it to his friend." So it's just a very different way of—. And we do mail books to Tunisia. We're very popular in Tunisia. We're also very popular among people who like to get free stuff from the internet. So it's sort of hard. You've got to filter them out. That's a challenge. (laughter) Because the world—. There's always a downside to every project. Our books also get resold by unscrupulous book dealers for $200 and what have you. Neither here or there, that's our Achilles' heel as we cannot police what happens to them. They are little acorns that can roll around and go wherever they want. It's a project that I take great pride in , but it's really a group effort among a long of people, and what I like most about it is everybody gives a little bit of time and energy and expertise and the books come out almost, not effortlessly, but without the same tumult that publishing a normal book requires. And they get attention. They get reviewed, and people love the idea of "generosity-based" publishing. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think that Concord, the place, and this ethos of the town, is very much centered on helping others and thinking unconventionally, and I think Thoreau would love the Concord Free Press. I think Emerson would like it, too. I'm not sure about Hawthorne. Hawthorne was a little bit a cypher. Louisa May Alcott? I don't know. She was sort of cranky. I'm not sure she'd like it either. She was cranky. But there is something in the water here that makes you want to do things differently. It's very supportive of writers, not just myself and Gregory Maguire, and Alan Leitman, and everybody else that's around here, but there's a lot of creative work being done here, and it's very rarely conventional. I think there's a very supportive element here. Sort of like the local bookstore and the library here really made the Concord Free Press happen. They let us do events and speeches and what have you. You know, you're not viewed as the usual oddball that most writers are when they do something unusual. It's not a quirky, zany, little project. They took it seriously and as much as it's fun, it's also an experiment that pushes the boundaries of publishing in a whole new direction.
MK: So this—. There's a community of writers here, would you say?
SF: Oh yeah.
MK: 0:39:10.2 Did I hear you say?
SF: Yeah, I think so.
MK: They are supportive of one another. Any kind of a loose association where you drink coffee together once in awhile?
SF: It's not coffee we're drinking. (laughter) It's a lot of wine and vault. I mean, the good thing I like about it, it's not like the Concord Author Club is meeting on Friday. It's very ad hoc, and we all know each other pretty much. Some people are more inclined to socialize than others, but there's just a lot of sense that, "Oh. We're very supportive of each other's work, and it's a small enough town that you know—well, it's a small enough town that you know almost everybody, anyway." The good thing about a small town is you never get lost. The bad thing is that everybody knows what you're up to. On the bad side, people can tell, because I write late at night, my neighbors will walk by and they'll say, "You were writing until like 2:14. Maybe 2:15."
SF: "Your head was down on the keyboard. Is that the way you write?" And it's like, "I was asleep." You can see right into my house. So talk about writing is a public art, right? But you know, people, they support the books people write here. The bookstore helps launch authors from here, and I'd say it's a very ad hoc thing, but the overall theme is that writers and readers are very supportive of their local citizen writers. And that's good, because it's not like being in New York where everybody is trying to out-succeed everybody else.
MK: Is there a local forum, a local lecture series? Does everybody kind of get a fair shake?
SF: There is a Concord Festival of Authors every year that's run by—
MK: Start that again, please.
SF: There is a Concord Festival of Authors run by Rob Mitchell and supported by the library and the by the bookstore. It brings people, not just Concord authors, but other people here to town in the Fall. You know there is that event, there—. I just read with a couple of poets at a event at a church put together on shadow and light and creative work, and we read outside in the most beautiful Spring day ever, and I think that the two people in the audience really enjoyed it. (laughter) But there were three of us on stage. You just do it. You go around and you read. You go to people's book clubs. I sit in people's living rooms and talk about it. They will read my book, and I have to talk about it, which talk about—sort of the—sort of like the field work of fiction is when you're actually sitting there with readers on a very one-to-one level who have read your book. They're not just invisible faces on the comments section of Amazon.com. They're asking really tough questions, "Why did you do this? Why did you do that? We thought this part sucks." It's like—that's good to know. Not always easy to hear. (laughter) But I think there's a great sense of directness and honesty here that is both good and bad. It can be sort of brutal and be read as, can be a little sharp around the edges sometimes, the way that Yankees can be. But generally, there's a directness here that lends people to say if they like what you're doing, they tell you they like it. If they don't like it, they'll tell you that, too. Anyway, I think it's a good place to be a writer. It's also much easier to be, to live a life here that's not just consumed by writing. You're forced to recognize that, "Oh, we're out in this beautiful little town. You can't just sit away in your Brooklyn attic and do nothing but bash the keys. It's important to get out every now and then. And I try to. At least once every year or two. Go outside.
RK: Whether you need to or not.
SF: 0:43:10.8 Yeah, whether I need to or not. I like to get a little skin color. I don't want to just be paper-colored. (laughter) Like a book. (laughter) Like a really new book. (laughter)
MK: So, going back to Princeton for a minute. When you first arrived at Princeton, you were wearing corduroys and--
SF: The cheap web belt. One of those web belts. Yep.
MK: One of those cheap web belts (laughter).
CK: White corduroys.
MK: White corduroys.
SF: Really white ones. (laughter)
CK: Paper white?
SF: Yeah, that's a theme, isn't it? They were definitely non-colored white people thing. It was terrible. I probably still have them somewhere. (laughter)
CK: They're probably back in.
SF: If I keep them, I could sell them on eBay now. They would be valuable. My daughters won't want them, I'm sure. But yes. Back to your questions. I was a naÃ¯ve, young fellow.
MK: From Arkansas.
SF: Yeah, from many places, but—
SF: Cincinnati, via a long family history of whatever, rebellion, right? And I--
MK: 0:44:16.9 What was the response to—did they extend—open their arms and welcome you in.
SF: (laughter) Well, it wasn't going to happen. I didn't expect—. I had spent the summer working in the oil field. I had sideburns down to my chin. I still had crude oil under every fingernail. I couldn't get rid of it. I was wearing a pair of boots that looked like they were made out of oil, they were so dirty. This was—. When I cleaned up, I wore the white corduroys. But generally, I just looked like Johnny Paycheck or something. I looked like a complete hick. I was driving a—just this terrible car—a Chevelle that looked like it was always going downhill. It was like a race car thing. It was really ugly. And then I traded it for a bright blue Ford Pinto that looked like—. So ugly it was just unbelievable. Anyway. There, where everybody's very conscious about the esthetics of how everything looked, I looked like the thing that didn't belong here. Some people pointed that out. People are generally, I think--. People when they're going to college, they're so lost in their own bubble of narcissism, that they didn't bother to break through my bubble of narcissism. We were just all there as free-floating, sort of like bubble wrap. All there together in our bubbles, but not trying to pop each other. We left that to somebody else. I felt welcomed by the institution in that it was a very, had a great history, and I love history. I sensed that--. They throw you in your little gothic dorm, which at that point was probably drafty and nasty. This was before they fixed it up. You'd find some student had carved his name in 1842, with a diamond into one of the window panes. You know, you'd say, "Well this place has been around here a long time. I should probably not break that window when I throw things." But I also felt, it also fostered a very strong sense of rebellion in that I didn't really go for the status quo. There were still all-male eating clubs there that were very fancy, very skull and bones sort of things, called Ivy Club and Cottage Club, and I shaved my head and went around Sophomore year through the process by which you join these all-male eating clubs and wrote a scathing article about how they treated people that did this stuff. It got picked up by the New York Times and was one of the elements that helped bring those clubs down. So I felt that was one of my jobs. I wrote a story about a woman that had been sexually harassed by one of my own professors, and he was thrown out. So I was there as sort of a gadfly to the administration. I would say I'm not communicated with very regularly by the Trustees of Princeton University, and that's okay. I admire them for what they are, but during the time I was there, it was in transition from sort of old-school to a much more diverse, much more open institution that it is today, and I'm one of the recruiters for—. I only recruit students from Lowell, because I think the people in Concord and the expensive towns and suburbs have all the resources they need. But I serve as their liaison to the city of Lowell, and I've met some of the most fascinating, most ambitious and intellectual kids I've ever met out of Lowell. I try to do what I can to answer their questions and point them toward Princeton, because they should go there.
MK: Are you okay?
MF: Yeah, I'm okay. I've just got a daughter. I got a daughter appointment in a few minutes.
MK: Okay. Well—in the other—
MF: I can text her.
MK: --the other half of that question. Was there any of the same sort of dynamic when you arrived in Concord?
CK: 0:48:11.0 Wait a minute, we're hearing this.
SF: Let me answer this. This was off. I don't know why—let me do this. This makes it even double-secret off.
MK: So the question was, was Concord waiting for you with open arms?
SF: (laughter) Well that's a different question, yeah. Concord was very welcoming. I wasn't from here and a lot of people have lived here for generations. I didn't feel like an outsider. I felt very welcome. I felt like it was a friendly little town. I instantly loved West Concord where we live. A slightly different entity than Concord Center, but we just felt very much at home here right from the start. Yeah, we quickly found friends and places we loved here. It was more welcoming in a way that is sort of surprising in that it has a long history and a lot of people tend to live here for generations. There are people whose families have been here for three and four generations or more. But, there wasn't a lot of judgment about how new or old you were. I mean that. I would say if I felt like we were frowned down upon as carpetbaggers. At this point, we've been here 25 years, so it starts to add up. I think you have to be here for 25 generations before you get to get invited over to dinner, but I'm working on it—I'm working on it. Over for a patriot's pie, or whatever they eat, that's served at the Colonial Inn.
MK: Give us a concluding remark or two, and go get your daughter.
MF: A concluding remark. Yeah. In conclusion, I think that my work as a writer is part and parcel, and my work as a citizen. I think you have to just be someone who is open to doing things in your community and helping out in any way you can. I think that writing is one way that you create something for the world, but there are a lot of other things you can create for the world. You can create a great start-up company. You can come up with a brand new medical device or something. I think there's a lot of things that people create, and I think it's very easy as a writer to start to think, "Well the only thing we can create is a book." And we live in an era now where the form and function of the book is being questioned and evolving, and I thing that's really important, because there's a lot more to a book than just the old-style sit down and read the book and then put it away. I feel like the entity that is Concord is very welcoming of creative individuals who are coming up with ideas for not just stories, but just different ways of doing work. Different ways of living. You know we've banned individual water bottles here, making us both the laughing stock and the envy of lots of the U.S. because it seems like a small thing. But maybe it's really important, and if we're the first to do it—you've got to remember—this is where we took the crazy act of shooting at the British which no one else really thought would be a really good idea. But once we did it. It seemed to have caught hold, and they're not coming back. It's a place full of a little strong streak of individualism and rebellion. I guess that maybe that's part what I really feel when I live here.
0:51:48.5 (end of audio)