Click here for audio. Audio file is in .mp3 format.
Carrie Kline: 00:00:01 Okay, today is the 24th of September, 2014. I'm Carrie Kline here with Michael Kline. And would you introduce yourself—your name?
Kate Flora: Oh, gosh, I always have such a hard time. I'm Kate Flora.
CK: Okay, great. And this of course—here we are in the Trustee's Room of the Concord Free Public Library. So these interviews feature Concord, but it also talks about how people got here and how Concord affects your life. So the only other question of that nature I'll ask is if you'd be willing to share your date of birth to put some of this in perspective.
KF: No problem. I've gotten old enough now—venerable in fact that—I'm 65 so—
CK: Date of birth?
KF: —7—29—49, but I have not always lived in Concord, though I undoubtedly have ancestors who are buried here, and I can't tell you who they are. Isn't that embarrassing?
CK: No, it's American.
KF: It's very American. We are very American.
CK: So why don't you start off then by telling us about your people and where you were raised?
KF: I was raised on a chicken farm in Maine, and we—my father is a native Mainer for I can't begin to tell you how many generations, but certainly well before the Revolution. And my mother is from upstate New York, which means, by Maine terms, she would always be someone from away, but I'm not. So I actually have joint citizenship between Maine and Massachusetts, which used to be one state. So, you know. How I got here into Concord or—?
CK: Maybe just a little bit more about growing up and the people around you and the chickens.
KF: Well, I grew up in a small town, very small town, probably 4,000 or 4,500 people, maybe not even that big. And my high school class was about twenty—seven, my graduating class, of which I was the valedictorian—the things that still matter how many years later.
It was a Protestant community. It was a white community. It was a rural community. It was something of an anti—intellectual community. It was a wonderful place to grow up, from a child's perspective, because back in the day before electronics, it was really, really nice to spend my time with my nose in a book or in a tree or in the pond or in the garden or just rambling with my faithful dog by my side. We had 160 acres, so there was a lot of land to ramble about, pick blueberries.
And it was really sort of a different kind of life than most of the people that I know who've grown up in more urban or more suburban kinds of places because we did a tremendous amount of farming. We prepared our food. We spent summer nights pitting cherries and cutting apples and shelling peas and blanching beans and cutting up tomatoes and shelling beans and just generally getting food ready for the winter so that it was a good, old—fashioned agricultural economy.
00:03:31 There were many years during which I did not really like chicken or eggs because they were a bit too plentiful as a child. And when I was quite young, I had a hospital for abused chickens. You know, the ones—because there is in fact a—what's the magic word?—an authentic basis for the term pecking order in which chickens will pick on weaker chickens, and so you have to remove them from the flock. And so I had a little rehabilitation hospital where I took care of abused chickens.
KF: Which is probably not one of the stories you've gotten from too many people.
CK: Neither have I heard people talk about that term agricultural economy.
KF: Well, it is—I mean, people who grew up on farms know where food comes from. They know food comes from animals. They know that survival depends on making sure that you raise and process your own food. I mean, these days I think, as a crime writer, we think of the freezer as the place where you either look for the body or the body parts, but when I was a kid, it really was where you looked for food.
CK: And what was the view of these 160 acres, maybe from the vantage of the tree?
KF: Well, I mean, it was a beautiful piece of property. It was bisected by a road, and on one side there was the blueberry field, the apple orchard, and the woods. And on the other side, there was the hayfield, the farmhouse, the gardens, and the lake. So it was on a hill. We watched—it was west facing—we watched sunsets. It was just a very, very special place. Still to my—still in my mind—where you want to live is someplace with open rolling fields and views and sunsets. And where we live here in Concord has none of those things. It's at the bottom of the hill at the edge of a swamp, but it's a wonderful neighborhood. So I grew up without a neighborhood, and now I have a neighborhood.
CK: Was it an old farmhouse or what was—?
KF: 1811 farm house that was one of—as you sort of go up the road, the family farm was here, and the houses that were built for the subsequent children were here and here. So this was—like the Hill's swath of houses. And that was—actually about four I think—so that one of the things that you know when you grow up in a small town, to some extent, which you also have when you're in someplace like Concord, is a sense of history, that this place was settled in, that this place was settled by, that the reasons that the houses are clustered in a particular way has to do with the church, that the reason that the town was settled—in the town I grew up—is that they could take canoes and boats up the river from the ocean through the lakes and continue on up the rivers. So people needed to be able to use waterways to move goods, and waterways also made attractive sort of places to—you could fish, they have ducks, you can hunt, they have—and so—
CK: 00:07:04 Did you do those things?
KF: I did not hunt. My brother did. My father did. But I did not.
But it is—it's turned out, this sort of agricultural background, this rural background, has been very helpful because the last couple of books that I've worked on, that have been non—fiction, that is, true crime, have involved the Maine Warden Service and Maine game wardens. And the game wardens are talking to me about hunting enforcement and fishing enforcement this, that, and the other. And I can actually understand what they're talking about. And when they talk about the gauge of a rifle—I don't use rifles, but at least I know the questions to ask. What are you looking for when you—? And when they tell me that we now have forensics which can identify which shotgun the wad came out of as well as which rifle barrel the brass came out of, I actually know what they're talking about. So that's very helpful. Not exactly what you would have expected, right? My mind wanders in sort of insane channels.
CK: You're doing great. I love the wandering mind. There's no such thing as a 00:08:22 (???) (inaudible) anyway, I don't think.
KF: I hope not because that's—anyway. So, no, I did not hunt. I did fish. I love fishing. I don't believe in catching fish particularly. I'm really just perfectly happy to just be. The nice thing about fishing is it's very much a just be kind of experience.
CK: Is this fishing from a boat or—?
KF: This was mostly fishing—well, my brother and I—mostly it was brooks. But my brother and I one fall found a raft that had floated away from somewhere else on the lake and no one ever came to claim it, so it became ours. And so we used to go out at late afternoon, early evening, and we would pole our raft, like Tom Sawyer, out into the middle of the lake, and we would fish. And we would just fish until we—and these were all junk fish. These were not—oh, look, Ma, at my beautiful black bass or whatever. These were junk fish, and then we would bring them home and then sort of—because it was a farm, there were all these wild cats, the barn cats. They were—there was the pecking order, like house servants and field servants—there were house cats and barn cats. And we would put out the fish, and then the barn cats would come and eat all the fish. And they would be very happy. And the next morning, all the fish would be gone. It would be magical. Just dump a bunch of fish in the yard. But it was kind of really nice to be out on the lake and listen to the loons and just kind of poling along. So, yes, fishing.
CK: And people—who were the people besides your brother around you then?
KF: I had a little sister who was very sweet. And as I say, it was rural, so there was a family who lived probably a mile and a half down the road, and when we were old enough, we could ride our bikes down there and visit them. And she was one of those people who could sew beautifully. I mean, we all belonged to 4—H, and we all did—I mean, I had a sheep. And I once had to show my sheep. She was the most lopsided, horrendous, ridiculous looking animal you've ever seen. She was swaybacked, and she was just sort of rounded and homely and dumb as a stump, but—and her name was Louisa Maine Apricot, after the famous author. And I had to show her at the County Fair, so I had to shampoo her so that she didn't look quite so disgusting.
CK: 00:11:00 What kind of sheep was she?
KF: I do not know. She was the kind that had the black nose and the black feet, but beyond that, I probably knew at the age of eleven, but I can no longer tell you what—I'm sure I had to tell the judges what she was, other than a swaybacked, ornery, incredibly stupid creature who used to like to come to the back door whenever she escaped from her pen and stand there until you opened the door, and then she would run and stand in front of the oven and beg for buttered toast. We could—I could tell animal stories for hours.
CK: I'd go for that.
KF: Yeah, I mean, this is definitely Concord town history. Let me tell you about the chicken named Asa Banana who used to ride—I'm not going there.
Michael Kline: I bet there are a lot of medical or legal possibilities.
KF: I'm sure that there are.
CK: But you chose a Concord name for your sheep.
KF: Yes, of course. I mean, who did not love Louisa May Alcott. So it was—it was a wonderful—she was a good name—she was good New England literary sheep, that's what she was. A New England literary sheep.
CK: And as a child, you were already reading Concord authors.
KF: Yeah, of course.
CK: Who were you reading?
KF: Well, I mean, Little Women and Jo's Boys and—it's hard to remember any more what I used to read. I mean, I read anything I could get my hands on basically—that the librarian would allow me to read because of my age.
But my job—my first job at the age of eleven and a half was librarian's assistant. It was town where the library was open one day a week. Maybe it was open Saturdays, but Friday afternoon was when it was mostly open. And so we'd go down after school, and I would check out the books, and I would file the cards, and I would re shelf the books, so the librarian could—I think—sit and chat with the other people who dropped in. But it meant that I got first dibs after her on the new Victoria Holt, the new Mary Stewart, and the new Phyllis Whitney. So that was like fabulous. Nice job. Every week, go to the library, take out twelve books, read them, bring them back, and take out twelve more.
CK: 00:13:33 Wow.
KF: Yeah. They were little then. But even when they weren't little, that's what you did. There wasn't much to do, especially in the winter—go sledding, build snowmen, make snow caves, shovel snow, grade eggs, do homework, read books.
CK: It sounds like you were born to books.
KF: Yeah. Absolutely. Fortunately. Yeah. I mean, my parents were both great readers. And to this day, if we were looking for a house, if we were even looking for a rental, and we would go in, I would probably be not attracted to a house that didn't have art on the walls and books on the shelves. If a house doesn't have bookshelves, I know it doesn't have the right vibe, and that's—that's just instinctive. I mean, we joke in the mystery—in the writing business—about the things you can do with books, like the day that the leg snaps off your bed. Well, you bring out your law books because they're big and sturdy, and you prop it up until you have time to go buy a new bed frame. And it might be years, but—I actually joked—I've joked about making furniture out of books, because my house is full. This is—these guys are coming home from the library book sale shelf. But my house is full. Right now my house is full, and I have fifty books I have to read this year for something I'm doing. And I have no place to put them. So they're just sort of lined up along the—under the edge of the bed. And it looks completely ridiculous. But we bought—we bought a second a house in Maine for the books. But now that house is full, too. So I don't think you can have three houses for your books. I think you have to, at some point, draw some lines, but you never know when at three o'clock in the morning you're going to need a book. Right?
CK: And how does a reader, at least in your case, become a writer?
KF: Because, as a reader, I was enchanted by the thing that writers could do, which is, they could create a world so compelling and real that when I was reading the book, I left here and went there. And I always thought that that was magic. I always thought that was just the most magical thing that a writer could do was to captivate me.
And even now, those of us who do editing and those of us who teach writing, we'll sigh to each other and say, "You know, it's so hard to be a reader now because you start a book and you see what's going on or you want to pick up your red pencil." And I always say, "I want writers who will enchant me so that I don't see the bones." I don't want to see how you did it. I don't want to be thinking about how you did it. I want to be there. I want to be feeling the wind, and I want to be smelling the smells, and I want to be looking—feeling the texture of the light. I want to be in the story with the characters. I don't want to be here. I want there to be a jolt when I have to come back. And that I think is what I thought was the most magical thing that a writer could do.
I never thought growing up that you were allowed to become a writer. I mean, I really didn't know that people were allowed to be writers. I thought that writers were—like—I don't know—anointed—they were the chosen ones. That they were—you somehow had to be given some special permission in order to become a writer. But my mother was a writer, and so I watched her.
CK: 00:17:22 Her name?
KF: Her name was A. Carman Clark, C—A—R—M—A—N, and she always drew two lines under the second A.
CK: And Clark with a—?
KF: Clark without an E. And she was the kind of person who—because it was a farm and she was a farm wife and had three children and had to help my father run the business—that she would get up at four o'clock in the morning and write before everybody got up. And I think that, for all three of her children, seeing that level of dedication, seeing that this was important enough, that this was valuable enough, that this was compelling enough, to be willing to give up sleep, made it sort of a magical thing for all of us, you know? And very special. And why shouldn't it be? I mean, yes, publishers treat books like loaves of bread and writers like cotton pickers, but in our hearts and in our heads, we know that it's very special.
CK: What was the nature of her writing?
KF: She was a garden writer—she was actually—she was a middle school language arts teacher. But she was always also a gardener. And so she was a garden writer, country living writer. She developed lots of recipes. She wrote for women's magazines. One of the reasons that—one of the ways in which chickens came in handy was that she could feed her mistakes to the chickens, because when you're working out recipes, things don't always work, especially with—she was doing bread, and sometimes the bread would be leaden, and so she would feed it to the chickens. And there was one famous loaf of bread that the chickens wouldn't even eat. And she finally had to go and bury it. But so she—and then she became like the home and garden page editor for the local newspaper. So she was writing and editing and organizing. She could do anything. She didn't know it. She didn't believe it. But she could do anything. Just pretty fascinating. And she just—they would come to her, and they would say, "Well, we have this guy who's died, and he had this fabulous collection of old farm tools. And he's left us money to set up a museum, but all we have is a building and this collection of tools." And she would say, "Okay, you pay me, and I will—and give me some help—carpenters—and I will do it." And she would research all the tools and write the history and write the wall things and figure out how to organize them according to usage of tools and age of tool and type of tool and so forth. And she set up an entire museum just because it needed to be done.
MK: How did they know to come to her?
KF: Because there weren't that many people in Union, Maine, who would have had those skills. She was—she was outspoken and not always very popular, but she was also known to be a dedicated researcher, highly intelligent person with a vast knowledge of farm life and agriculture already. So she would have been the logical go—to person.
KF: 00:20:55 Imagine trying to follow in those footsteps, how horrible that would be. She could do anything. But she was a great role model. And people don't necessarily have very many role models in this world, so if you have one, you should cherish it. She is no longer with us, and it really makes me cross because there can't be more than fifteen times a week when I think about how I need to call her up and ask her something, like what is this plant, or how do I—or what is your opinion on—or where would I look for the answer about—because it didn't matter what it was. She either knew it or—and this was all pre—Internet—she knew it or knew how to find the answer using good old—fashioned books. So it's interesting.
CK: Well, how did you navigate life in her—following in her path or creating your own—?
KF: I guess the easiest thing—the thing that made it easy was, despite her vast range of skills, she was not the least bit competitive. She was not a person who ever needed—I mean, she's sort of my role model for what we in the mystery business talk about a lot, which is the idea that you don't have to fail so that I can succeed but that we can all succeed together and that there's no—it's a huge pond and we can all swim in it. And she—she was a mentor. She was a role model. She was generous with other writers. She was always reading things for them. She was always giving them advice. She was always—and hook them up with someone who could help, an editor or a publisher or something like that. And then, you know, she didn't write mysteries so we weren't competing until she was in her eighties—actually her late seventies. We should just talk about my mother. She's so much more interesting than I am. So my mom was writing, and she'd been working on this novel forever, but she was a non—fiction writer. And the novel never really went anywhere. But she loved to read what she called murder mysteries. And she was a regular at the library and would go and get mysteries. And one day she went into the library, and she complained to the librarian at the Vose Library in Union, Maine, that she was tired of reading mysteries in which one of two things was going on: One was everybody was so fabulously rich and lived these wonderful lives, which were unimaginable and sort of unrealistic to the ordinary person, and she wanted to read books about real people. But the other thing that she really didn't like were books that were so excessively gory and gruesome that she wasn't comfortable reading them. And she pretty much—I guess she didn't—this was before the current cozy explosion.
CK: The what?
KF: The current cozy—there's an explosion of cozy mysteries now. You know, the publishers are contracting with people and giving them sort of prewritten story ideas, and then they just write the book and write the book. And they do three a year. And it's kind of like baking cookies. But there's a huge market for cozy mysteries—the cozy mystery, meaning the kind of mystery that Mrs. Clark was talking about, not a lot of gore and regular people that you can relate to, mysteries that are not involving professionals but the amateur PIs who have regular jobs and live regular lives. So she goes in and complains, and the librarian said to her—the library was teasing—but the librarian said, "Well, Mrs. Clark, if you don't like what the Vose Library has to offer, I suggest you go home and write one of your own." And so she did. And so then she came to me and said, "What do I do with this?" And I gave her a lot of advice and read it and marked it all up like she always did for me and gave it back to her.
And she had a writing group, and they managed to put together a very good mystery. And it was really fun because one of the things that she said in the midst of the process of learning how to write mystery fiction was that she had given the book to her writing group to read, and they had come back to her and they said, "Well, Mrs. Clark, we love your plot. We love your setting. We love your characters. It's your dialog we have a problem with. We don't believe that everyone in this small Maine town talks like a seventh—grade English teacher." And so that's a great story that I always tell my students. I say, "You've got to be nosy. You've got to be curious. You've got to tune up your listening ear because your job is to get out there and understand the differences among people so that you can write it. And if you're not paying attention, if you're just waiting for your chance to jump into the conversation, you're going to miss age difference, race difference, sex difference, culture difference, education difference, all of these different things that—cultural and regional difference—all the things that influence the way that we speak and communicate. And you will be writing like a seventh—grade English teacher, or whatever it is that you are, as opposed to whatever it is that they are."
MK: 00:26:21 Beautifully said.
KF: Thank you.
CK: Talk some about your own path to becoming a mystery writer and even, perhaps at some point, how—whether you use Concord in any way. Just take your time and—
KF: Well, my path to writing was the—I always wanted to write but didn't think I was entitled to. I always wanted to write but was too busy. I always wanted to write but supposed it was the magic dream and you tried it and it failed. And that's one of those things I tell my students all the time, because I teach writing for Grub Street in Boston, and I teach generally older people because the class I teach is called, "I've always wanted to write but—" And it's really a course that's designed to put Band-Aids on wounds that life has inflicted on people's dreams. So it's a really fun class. And one of the things I talk to them about is the fear of failing, which keeps you from trying. So I carried a lot of that and was an English major at Tufts.
Well, I chose an English major at Jackson because I went before Jackson was subsumed, as all the women's colleges like Radcliffe were, into the universities. But I got out thinking that an English degree was going to be useful, and the job market was not the job market that I imagined, and go into the situation where I could be somebody's secretary, and I didn't really think that that's where I wanted to be.
So my course back to writing was this enormous detour, which involved getting low—level professional jobs in Boston. And at one point, I went back to work for Tufts in the alumni office. And I am long—winded, but I need 350 pages to get to the point, so—
CK: We like long—winded.
KF: Okay. So I was working at Tufts in the alumni office and discovered that—this was in the beginning of feminists and equal employment and all of those days—and we were—I discovered that there were two guys from my college class who were also working in the alumni office. They were working in the fundraising side, and I was working in the alumni relations side, but we all had exactly the same amount of work experience and education. And they were getting paid two thousand dollars a year more than I was.
So I grieved it to the university, and my job was eliminated in a university—wide staff cut of one. And so I just said, well, you know, I've got a couple of choices here. And I could sue the school, or I can go to law school and I can become the person who looks out for other people who are mistreated like this. And so I went to law school.
Got out of law school, put on my white hat, marched off and practiced law for a number of years, and then when my boys were—my second son—was born, I realized as I was—I was driving to court to have a fight about blistered paint on a tennis court. And I realized that grownups ought to have been able to sit down and talk about this and that I was being anxious and using all my energy and spending my day, with my kids in daycare, having a fight about blistered paint on a tennis court and that this was stupid and that we could—so I said to my husband, "Can I afford to stay home?" He said, "Yes." And so I stayed home with my boys, and the minute that I quit my job and I was at home with two boys, I said, "But I've always had a job. What am I going to do?"
00:29:56 And then I said, "Maybe this is the time to start writing." So I did. And then I spent ten years in the unpublished writers' corner—ten years. I am the model of Yankee stubbornness. I just—people whine and complain and say, oh, they tried to get published, it was so hard. And I say, well, yeah. So? Anything worth doing that isn't hard? No? No? Do you believe in yourself? Do you believe in your book? Do you want to be the best writer you can be? Or do you just want to be published? So, short story long, I eventually sold a book. And then another. And another. And so forth.
CK: Were all these mysteries?
KF: Mostly mysteries. One is a—I guess you would call it suspense, which is under the big tent but another piece of the big tent. The difference between a traditional mystery and a suspense or a thriller generally is that in a mystery, a crime has happened and the question is the who—done—it and the why—done—it? It's an investigation of the thing that's happened and the people and so forth. A thriller or a suspense novel usually is a situation of jeopardy in which something more dreadful and more dreadful is going to happen unless your character can head it off or someone can head it off. So, you know, the President will be assassinated or New York will be blown up. In my particular story, it's a child has been kidnapped, and unless his mother can figure out why and who and get him back, the kidnappers are going to get spooked and kill him. And so it's a race against time. It's a race against people. It's a race against—and so your goal there is to put as many stumbling blocks as possible in the path of your protagonist. You do that actually in both kinds, but this one, the goal is resolution and order restored to the world. This is head off the bad thing. I could probably do a better job of that with a whiteboard and forty—five minutes, but—
CK: No, that's great.
KF: But basically that's sort of what it is.
CK: I'm just sitting here wondering, what draws you to any of these?
KF: 00:32:22 Good and evil. Good and evil. I was a lawyer. And then for nineteen years—this is in Concord—I sat on various boards and committees. And both in my practice representing—working with abused children, chasing down deadbeat dads, representing the Maine Human Rights Commission and representing various registration boards where they were disciplining professionals, I saw people behaving badly. Lots and lots and lots of people behaving badly and really wondered about the whole question of—what is it about some people that lets them decide that they're going to divert from—that they're exempt from the social compact that we've all signed on to? Which is that you don't people. You don't steal from people. You don't do evil acts.
And of course, murder is the ultimate evil act. It's the ultimate theft. And yet people do it, and the question is why? So it's hugely a psychological and moral question. But it came out of law.
And then when I was sitting here on the zoning board, on the planning board mostly, not so much on the finance committee or on the affordable housing committee, but for years and years and years sitting in hearings, watching people come in and tell lies, and just be fascinated by it. Either the dismissiveness of the professional—I mean, we once had an architect who came before the planning—this was the planning board, I'm pretty sure—who basically said, "You know, you're a small town board. You primarily are used to dealing with little pieces of land. You know, you really aren't used to dealing with a project of this scope and may not have the capacity to—" And I thought, yes, that is a really great opener. Get up in front of the people who have the power to give you what you want, and insult them. And tell them that they don't—that they're not smart enough to understand what you're doing. And we would sit there, and every once in a while, I would even—because I have a wicked nature—preface a question by saying, "Well, since I'm just a member of a small town board and really not used to these complex proposals, can you tell me about the setbacks in that corner and its relationship to the blah—blah and the duh and the duh and the duh?" And then smile. Because I'm just a small town board person who isn't able to understand. There. Now my wickedness is on record forever.
CK: 00:35:11 Or savviness. Your protectiveness of your community maybe.
KF: Well, yeah. I mean, this is—real estate—and I did almost all land. Land is forever. Land is not who lives there now. And land is not your sad story. Land is: Is the use that you want to do or the exception that you want us to create for you an appropriate permanent exception with respect to our overall plan, your neighbors, and what's coming down the road in the intention of the people who wrote the bylaws in the first place? Interesting stuff. But it's funny because now I drive around town, and I was talking to someone the other night, and I said, "Where do you live?" "Oh, I live in blah—blah—blah." I said, "Oh, I sat on the board when we approved that." It's like—it's just like you have this sense that—I've moved on now; I haven't done that for a long time—but that for nineteen years or so, that was where I lived. I lived in developments and setbacks and parking and all the—what we should change and what we ought to be thinking about to preserve the quality and character of the town and things like that.
CK: So that made its way into your work as an artist, as a writer?
KF: Yeah, well, you know, I—my first—one of my unpublished mysteries was a zoning mystery. I did actually write a zoning mystery. In fact, there were two zoning mysteries—no, one zoning mystery, but then others where these sorts of interpersonal conflicts and lies come in to play. And—oh, actually I've got two. I have two. One is the book that I've lost. I have actually written a book that I've lost the end of, and I can't find it. It's three computers ago and three different types of storage media ago. And I thought I had it all in a notebook, and I cannot find it anywhere in the house. I can only find the draft that ends fifty pages before the end. It's so sad. But it's all about zoning. And it's all—well, it's about a lot of things.
But one of the things it's about, which is just fascinating, is a perfect Concord issue, which is the whole question of what happens when you have a—when land has become so valuable that you inherit a piece of property that there's no way that you can pay the taxes on, but you come from the family—and this goes back to my Maine roots and my farm roots—you come from a family where the land was what mattered. The land is what you love. The land is what was imbedded in your soul. And now you're just a poor young architect who's inherited a piece of property, and the wolves are circling. Everybody wants to get their hands on that for development. And you're trying to figure out a conscientious way to develop the real estate while sort of preserving the feelings that you knew your grandparents had, which is why they left you the land and skipped the last generation.
00:38:32 So there's this huge burden. You can't pay the taxes. Everybody wants it from you. And you're trying to figure out how to be conscientious. And while you're trying to be conscientious and doing the digging of test pits and all the other things to see whether it's developable, you find buried bones. And suddenly you are cascaded into two potential situations, each of which is going to screw up your life: one probably for ten years, one for at least a year. Is this an ancient burial? In which case you've got to go through every Massachusetts board that you could possibly imagine for the rest of your years because they will never make any decisions. Or is this a homicide? In which case, who is it? What's it doing on your grandfather's land? Who died? Did your grandfather have anything to do with it? And all—I mean, it's just wonderful, Concord—based plotting.
But when I wrote that earlier book, the one that was zoning but it was actually in Florida—this was before I was published and back in the ten years in the unpublished writers' corner—I was working on that book, and Jane Langton, who is one of our wonderful venerated local authors, called up and said, "I'm writing a mystery involving zoning, and I'm setting it in Concord. And I understand you're on the zoning board. Could we talk?" So Jane came to visit. We had tea. We talked—
MK: Jane Langton?
KF: Jane Langton. L—A—N—G—T—O—N, I think.
CK: Uh—hunh (affirmative). So you're having tea—
KF: So we're having tea, and I'm advising her about zoning. And then I said to her, "You know, I'm writing a mystery, and it's a zoning mystery set in Florida." And she said, "Would you like me to read it?" And I said, "Oh!" I mean, she was a real writer, right? And she was somebody I really admired. So she read the book, and she gave it back, and she said, "This is a hard world that you want to enter. I don't know if you'll get this book published ever, but whatever comes along and whatever anybody says, believe in yourself. You're a real writer."
Now, this was an incredible gift. This is the gift we try to keep giving each other. And so—and that actually—I think I first spoke to her at the Concord Author Festival and heard her speak. This is just like the greatest community to be a writer in. I mean, it's just—it's so—everywhere you go, it's like you go to the grocery store, and people—you meet writers. Or you go to the grocery store and people say, "Oh, loved your last book." Or people in town will feel free to call you up on Christmas morning and say, "I hate you. I was up until four o'clock in the morning reading your book that I got for a Christmas present." And I say, "Oh, that's so nice. I'm so glad you hate me and that you enjoyed it."
But once I was in the coffee shop, and I was wearing my unknown author T—shirt, which I like to wear around. I should have worn it this morning. And Doris Kearns Goodwin came in. And I'm standing there getting my book copied, and she's standing there getting her book copied. And she looks at me, we both look at my T—shirt, and I said, "Doris, I don't think you need this T—shirt." But that's all part of being a Concord author.
MK: 00:42:12 Doris—?
KF: Kearns Goodwin.
KF: Yeah. I mean, this is Doris, right?
KF: But that was a good writing—writerly moment in Concord.
CK: Is that part of how you came to Concord or what—?
KF: No, I came to Concord in a very sort of strange way. I was in the Maine Attorney General's office loving—
CK: In the what?
KF: Maine Attorney General's office, loving what I was doing, loved my work. But there was a man. There's often a man in the picture. You know, they're so annoying, these creatures. And he wouldn't go away, but he wouldn't move to Maine. And every time I turned around, he was on my doorstep. And finally he said, "I want to buy a house. I want to live with you. Please come back to Massachusetts." So we went looking for houses. And of course he grew up in suburbia. He lived in Cambridge. He works downtown. And he was looking in Newton and Brookline. And every time that we drove around places like that, I got carsick.
But I didn't get carsick when we drove around Lincoln and Concord. So somehow or other, we ended up living in Concord. And of course we live in like this incredible community in Concord. Concord is full of neighborhoods, and neighborhoods are fun. But I live in Conantum, and Conantum is just this incredibly cool place, which—
MK: That's spelled—?
KF: C—O—N—A—N—T—U—M. And it's actually—I think part of it came from—it's also—the corporation is the Kalmia Woods Corporation, but—
CK: 00:44:01 The what?
KF: Kalmia Woods.
KF: K—A—L—M—I—A. It's a—it's like a—there may be another name for it. But it's a little shrub that has lovely pink flowers, and there are wild ones around. There's another name for it that I can't remember.
Anyway, our neighborhood was a little MIT enclave in Concord that was built sort of against the wishes of most everybody else in town. It was—and actually my husband has a wonderful story about Conantum. He had a partner—he's a lawyer at Goodwin Proctor—and he had a partner at Goodwin Proctor who came from a very old Concord family, the Hoars—
CK: Spell it.
KF: H—O—A—R. They actually gave Great Meadows to the government. And—well, they gave—they gave Great Meadows to the government and kept the right for the father who gave them Great Meadows and his son, Sam, to hunt in Great Meadows. And every once in a while, Sam would take a gun and go out to Great Meadows and watch all the birdwatchers and duck lovers just shriek in horror and call the police. But anyway, so when Sam Hoar and his wife Martha got married, two children of old Concord families—and I can't remember her maiden name—their fathers were going to buy them some land. And they looked at the farm. I think it was the Conant farm that was—that formed the basis for much of our neighborhood, because that sheet was built of two different pieces of land. And they said it wasn't worth more than I think it was nine—eight or nine thousand dollars. And the farmer wanted eleven or twelve. So it was not bought for Sam and Martha as a wedding gift, and they ended up living up on the North Shore.
But therefore that land was bought by these sort of visionary, sort of preliminary deck house developers who were trying out these very modern houses. And I'm sure someone has come in and given you chapter and verse of who developed it. I can't remember now. But the—I can't remember whether it was the architect or the builder who killed himself. I mean, it was this incredibly complicated project, and the town didn't want it, so they wouldn't hook it up to town sewer and town water. But it was a planned community. It was a very early—very early planned community. So lots of common—lots of land held in common, lots of restrictions overall on the sort of uses you can make of your lot, and these wonderful little set of sort of interchangeable ticky—tacky modern houses, which were lots and lots and lots of windows and there were maybe four different basic types of houses that they built. Different—ones that were on slabs, ones that were built into hillsides, two—story ones, three—story ones, and two different lengths.
And it's actually sort of an architect's fascination now, because if you start with all the houses alike and then fifty—this was in the early 1950s, because I think our house was built in '53—so fifty years ago, all these houses were pretty much alike, and now they've all been redone in a million different directions or added on to. So you can sort of look and see how different architects in different eras envisioned changing these fundamental little houses.
But it was also—it was an MIT enclave. So it was professors. And so they were very sort of forward thinking. They were thinking about the tennis courts and the boat landing and the sledding hill and the ball field and the community gardens and all the different things that then became more common later on, where you would have land where people would live in clusters and then have open land.
So it's a really great neighborhood to live in because it's a neighborhood. My standard joke about Conantum is that it's the kind of place where you can always borrow a cup of scotch. It's basically—it's the kind of neighborhood where we have our newsletter, we have our association, we have our sort of neighborhood chat so that if somebody says: Who can recommend a good plumber? How do I find a painter? Have you had any experience with—what do I do about the giant hornet's nest in my yard? Can anybody identify this plant? I mean it's just neighborhoody in every possible way. And it's always been full of children. And it's just—it's a really great place to live.
CK: 00:49:04 And it still is full of children?
KF: It is still full of children. You know, there's a new generation, lots and lots of children, lots of people biking and skating and playing tennis. And they had boating day, so they were sculling on the river recently. And they have picnics and Christmas parties. And it's very old fashioned. And the traditions aren't dying.
When we moved in, we started doing it, and now the next generation is doing it, and it's just—it was a wonderful place to raise kids, especially boys, because we had two boys who liked to wander. They would dam the stream, or they would find hideouts in woods, or they would just go walking, and they would go catch frogs and snakes. I mean, I was the kind of mom who—I'd be making dinner—and one of them would walk through and say, "Hold this, Mom," and I would find myself holding a snake. So that's okay. Or, you know, where are the salamanders this year? Very good place to raise children. And Concord's a great town. The high school was incredible.
CK: How so?
KF: It's just—I always thought the teachers were really marvelous.
CK: I bet you have high standards for teachers.
KF: Well, I don't know. I don't know anything about teaching. I would be a teacher. I couldn't teach. I mean, I do teach. I teach grownups. I couldn't teach kids. It's too much of a juggling act. I'm a very solitary, stay in my room within my head person. And a classroom teacher has to keep track of too many kids and fifteen Ed Plans—you're going for help on this and you're missing and here's your homework and you should be back in fifteen minutes and where's so—and—so—it's like being a ringmaster at a crazy circus, all the while that we expect people to be able to teach. But my older son had a wonderful run at the high school I think. My younger son didn't go to the high school. But good town, good schools, love my town. And we've even got restaurants now finally, which is nice.
MK: Did it have sort of a nerdy reputation?
KF: Not—well, when I moved here—
MK: I mean, the MIT—
KF: 00:51:29 Well, our neighborhood is nerdy.
MK: That's what I mean.
KF: I mean, our neighborhood is the kind of neighborhood where every—even when we were looking at houses long ago, all the houses had computers or all the houses sort of—first of all, obviously they had books. But they had—yeah, they did have nerdy people. But it was a wonderful neighborhood because if you didn't know how to do something, you could find somebody. And we've still got just enough of that so that if I don't know how to hook up the Roku box on my TV, I don't have to call the Geek Squad. I can put out a little "help" on the neighborhood thing, and people are knocking down the door to come in and fix it.
CK: What's the neighborhood thing?
CK: What's the neighborhood thing?
KF: The lister, the chat, it's just a Conantum chat. So—but it's everything—if you want to know—if you want to give away something, if you want to sell something, if you want to find a painter, if you want to find an orthodontist, if you want to—it doesn't matter what it is—there are a hundred families on the list, and you just ask. And somebody will say, "I had a good experience with so—and—so" and "here's my upholsterer" and "here's how you build the little self—made traps with the poison that the mice will carry to their nests that will kill the deer ticks so that we can break the tick cycle." I mean, it doesn't matter—what is this plant? This week it was, "There's a big hornet's nest. What do I do?"—not "I'm going to go out and blast it with hornet killer." But then there's a long discussion of whether or not—yes, we don't like hornets, and, yes, we don't want them near our houses, but hornets are great pollinators and really important in the plant cycle. And so I will go in the night when they're quiet and gear up and move the nest to a place where it won't be so dangerous to the neighbors. I mean, this is the kind of—there'll be the life cycle of the turkey. Or how many turkey poults have you spotted this spring? Or where are the turkeys now? I haven't seen them for a while. I mean, it's like baby owls and foxes and nature watching coyotes and—it's just—everything is going on—and people are keeping little lists. So then you can say, "I forgot to write—I didn't get the final word on the electrician. Who's got a good one?" Neighbors.
CK: Conantum—how large a community are we talking about?
KF: We're talking about a hundred houses more or less—unless—that either could have been Sam and Martha's land or a hundred families' homes. It's pretty funny.
KF: Yeah. It's a wonderful place.
CK: And then in addition to this haven, you've been active on committees you say?
KF: 00:54:31 Yeah, you know, when you're young and you don't know any better and you're pregnant and you've just moved to town and somebody says, "Fill out a green card. We'd love to have you on a town board. We're looking for lawyers, blah—blah—blah." And you fill out the card, and the next thing you know, somebody's calling you up and saying, "Would you?" Now I say no, but for many years I said yes.
CK: So what did you do?
KF: I did planning board as an associate member, and then as a sitting member. And then I did the—I mean, the zoning board—board of appeals—board of zoning appeals. And then after that, I did the finance committee for about fifteen minutes and realized it was not for me and then went on to the planning board, and I don't remember how many years I was on the planning board.
And then from the planning board, I chaired the affordable housing committee. So we wrote a plan for the town, and that was really interesting. And then I retired. After nineteen years. And stopped going to meetings. And I think there was sort of a cross—trajectory of unpublished writer to published writer, and when I was a published writer, I have to spend a great deal more time doing the buy—my—book dance in fine stores and libraries everywhere. And I'm not a very good dancer, so I have to do a lot of it. That's what I do now.
CK: What are some of the more interesting experiences on these committees then?
KF: I don't think I'm allowed to talk about that, you know?
CK: Oh, you're not?
KF: Oh, no, I'm joking.
CK: I'm gullible.
KF: Well, no. I mean, I don't know. I mean, the zoning board was a—like a little court. So that was making decisions. But of course everything we did was public, so I suppose—I mean, I don't remember anymore. It was so long ago. But there were lots and lots of different things. When Concord Academy wanted to expand, when the Fenn School wanted to expand, when people were breaking up those big farms out on Monument Street and wanted to do planned residential developments and they might have needed variance for some piece of it—a lot of the variances are the builder built too close to the lot line and now someone lives in the house, and it's a choice of get a variance or have somebody saw the corner off your house. Home occupations—are people running businesses where it's simply a very quiet home business? Or are people running business where they're actually having a lot of people coming and going and there's a lot of traffic in a residential neighborhood?
When I first got on and when we were first exploring this, we had in town the world's greatest gadfly, an English woman who lived here whose name was Anna Thomsen. And I don't know if you've done this long enough for anybody else to mention our Anna, but Anna was in real estate and Anna was—just nosy. Anna wanted to know—
CK: Anna. A—N—N—A.
MK: 00:57:40 Yeah, S—E—N—Thomsen?
KF: T—H—O—M, I think it's S—E—N. And I don't think there's a P, but I don't remember anymore. There might have been. Anyway—
MK: She was nosy.
KF: She was nosy, but she was effective, because Anna wasn't nosy for no purpose. Anna was nosy for many good civic purposes. She might have been an aggravation sometimes, but if there's a hearing and there's a psychiatrist who has a practice—wants to have a quiet psychiatric practice out of her home there at the corner of Monument Street and Barretts Mill Road in that beautiful brick house—no longer the psychiatrist's home—and she comes in and she's just applying for a home occupancy permit. It's just me. I see only a few clients there a week. And then Anna gets up to speak as a citizen and says, "Maybe we should talk about whether you're also supervising students there. And maybe we should talk about whether the students that you're supervising are also meeting clients there. And maybe we should talk about how many—who accounts for the six to seven cars that are parked there at any given time? And maybe we should talk about the fact that there are six and seven cars there for five or six hours a day, five days a week." And off she would go. And she was like that. She would snoop, but she would snoop with valuable information. And she—I mean, she was a very good training officer for learning what kinds of questions to ask instead of just taking what people said to you at face value.
I mean, I was always fascinated by the people who would come and say things like, "We want to expand our restaurant in West Concord, and there isn't a parking problem. And we have brought a traffic study, which we have hired this corporation to do for us. And here's the traffic study, and it shows that these three mornings, there were no traffic problems and there were open spaces"—and all the numbers—and it was a beautiful traffic study. Beautiful. Very professional. However, it was a traffic study done in West Concord in the morning in August when there is no traffic in West Concord. It was not done in the late afternoon when everybody's running errands. It was not done when the restaurants were full of customers. It was not done when the restaurants and the stores and the market were full of customers. It was not done during a time of year when everyone in Concord is actually home. And so, you basically—you've got to know this stuff. You've got to know that you're living in a community where there are seasonal variances and that—you've got to know your town. And they will think that you don't, or they will think that you're just not even going to think about it. It's this kind of thing. So there's a lot to be said for time in grade. One of my favorites—
CK: For what did you say?
KF: The time in grade. Being—sitting on the bench long enough to have seen enough things to know what questions to ask and what might be—
CK: Time in grade?
KF: 01:01:09 Time in grade. It's like—it's like how long have you held the job. It's a military thing.
CK: Sitting on a bench—
KF: You know, you're sitting there. You've been in the job long enough to know the things that happen and that you need to know. And you only learn that by doing it. One of my favorites was out in—oh, dear—it's not Pig Farm Heights—it's—that's Catarina Heights built on an old pig farm. Let's build mansions on the pig farm. It's the one that backs up to it that's off from—oh, dear—gosh, I can't remember the name of the road. It's a little spur road. Anyway, big mansions, big houses. A woman comes in and of course there are these—there's a protected pond on the land, a little vernal pool—a little vernal pool, but she wants to fill it in. She wants permission to fill the pool so that her—her yard will be smooth and green and won't have a wetland. But the smooth green yard has this protected wetland where little frogs go to lay eggs in the spring and hatch more frogs, and we protect those. It's a perched wetland, which means you've basically got a ledge, and there's just a little hollow in the ledge that fills with water in the spring. And her reason for wanting to fill this is that she has children and she's afraid they'll fall in the pond and it's a danger to the children. Okay? There are two questions you need to ask, because on the face of it, doesn't that sound like a sympathetic case for getting rid of this dangerous pond right next to your house? Except that, the pond is only about four inches deep and her children are all teenagers. But on paper, an amazingly sympathetic case.
CK: No brainer.
KF: No brainer. The poor woman and these tiny toddlers falling in the pond and drowning.
CK: 01:03:19 (???) (inaudible)
KF: Yeah, well, you need to know that you might not—you need to know what the mystery writer knows: people lie. Or they shade the truth. I mean, I once went—I once had somebody who didn't get what they wanted and got sued. And we're sitting in the courtroom, and this woman is on the stand. She has actually appealed our decision. And there was a guy who has long since moved away, but one of those sort of courtly, wonderful, old—fashioned gentlemen, and guy named Dick Blackburn. And Dick Blackburn was as courteous and professional and aboveboard as a human being could possibly be. So this woman is sitting on the stand saying, well, you know, this whole process had been so intimidating to her—Mr. Blackburn had been so frightening and so harsh in his questioning—and so—and I'm sitting there, and I'm thinking, how can she in good—well, she was coached by a lawyer—but how can she in good conscience sit there and make those kinds of representations about a person who would bend over backwards to make you feel comfortable under any circumstance. It was outrageous. That kind of thing happens. So people lie. It's very interesting.
CK: It sounds like such good fuel.
KF: Oh, everything is, you know? All you really need to—they always say, to be a writer, all you really need to do is survive high school. And it's true.
CK: 01:04:55 Committee work sounds like—
KF: Committee work—but you always got to work with such professionals and such great people. And it was such a collaborative process. And I think it has become less collaborative. I think we live in an age where people don't have the same sense of: you might disagree reaching your decision, but once you reach a decision, you all own it. That's what consensus is all about. And I see less of that than I used to, but I was—I had the good luck to serve with incredible people, really lovely people.
CK: You see less of that—
KF: I see less—I see more—just as I was going off, I began to see more of a tendency of people, if they didn't win, never being willing to let go, constantly trying to revisit the things that were already decided. And, first of all, you never get anything—it's kind of like congress, you know? It's like people are much more—can be more silo-ed. They can be more unwilling to be open minded and certainly unwilling to reach a consensus and live with it. You don't always win. You don't always get everything you want. So what?
CK: So that's a change in Concord committee work.
KF: That's a change that I saw. You might talk to twenty other committee people, and they might disagree with me, but that's something that I saw.
CK: What other changes do you see in the community?
KF: I don't know. I mean, now I'm getting old so I'm becoming less—we have a house in Maine now, so we go back and forth. So I'm less here than I used to be. So I don't have—and I'm not sitting on boards. I mean, I think one of the changes I see is the sort of what's happening with the schools and the school committee, and the school committee being sort of alienated or alienating other segments of the community and not sort of—not actually acting in the best interests of Concord and the town. And there's an awful lot of people who feel that way, that we're just seeing people not getting along, people not working together and not sort of taking the pulse of the community, people sort of forgetting what their role is.
CK: Which is—?
KF: I would say if you're—that your job, as a school committee, is to make the school finances run well, make the schools be the best possible schools that they can be for our children, and to provide the best and most cohesive staff that you can, I think would be—but I'm sure there's a mission statement. Everything has a mission statement these days. We didn't used to have mission statements. I mean, actually it was easy when you were on an appointed zoning board because you've got a whole set of rules, and the planning board and the zoning board always had a set of rules that you worked by. It's a little different, I think, for other places where you don't have fixed, voted rules that you're enforcing. I don't know.
CK: What about the built environment? Have you seen—are there visible changes there?
KF: 01:08:28 Oh, yeah. I mean, you know—well, there's a couple of things. From the affordable housing standpoint, where I last lived, one of the things that we said to the town in that report is that it's really important to get out ahead of the rising prices in town in order to provide diversity of housing stock and diversity of housing affordability by preserving in some way, either buying up—attaching some conditions and reselling—or by doing floor area ratio—ratio of floor area to lot size—to preserve those small houses, because they're the only affordable housing in Concord, that and some of the condo communities. And so take a look at making sure that those don't all become tear—downs and those lots don't become mansion—ized. And that's what we're seeing, and we're seeing a lot of it. We're even seeing houses in my neighborhood torn down.
And it's a fairly early trend right now, but the houses that we all live in are real pieces of junk. But they're very sweet little houses. But you change the character of a neighborhood when you start knocking down little houses and building million—dollar houses. You just—you have to, because who wants—who has a million dollars? What are their values? Are they going to be as invested in the community? Are you driving out age diversity? Are you driving people out of their houses? All those kinds of questions become really important in terms of what you create by what you enable. Didn't you love that sentence?
CK: It was great. Well, we can't stop there. I mean, who cares about diversity? What's the value?
KF: Oh, I think—I mean, I find diversity in the schools annoying sometimes, but I think diversity in communities is terribly important just for how we think about—how you get—diversity of economics and diversity of everything else leads to diversity of opinion. And you don't want—I mean, Concord's always been a town that's full of opinions. And it's always been a radical respecter of opinions. This has been a place where people could have opinions and go—I mean, we've got Thoreau. We've got Longfellow. I mean, we've got—what's his name?—and Mr. Emerson, as we always call him. So we've got people who were thinking a lot, and maybe not mainstream thinking. And non—mainstream thinking is something that we really want to encourage in Concord.
But also we want different kinds of people to be able to live here. I mean, if the only people who can live here are people who are bankers and brokers and lawyers and doctors from downtown—who work downtown—then we have a different community than if we can have our teachers and our firemen and our older citizens and our farmers and all of those kinds of things going on here as well.
We just—we need a community—community is built of different characteristics. It's not built of uniformity. I mean, we're looking at a country out there that people tend to increasingly want to live where people think like them and are like them. And we didn't used to do that here. And I'd just as soon we didn't do it. I mean, in my neighborhood, we've gone from—we still have a huge sort of Prius—driving, community—gardening, solar—paneling, green kind of community. But we also have an awful lot of Mercedes and BMWs and Audis and—things are getting awfully high end. And it's easier if you have economic stability to buy your way out of things instead of—what's the right word?—work together to solve things. At least that's my opinion. Clearly. And we're supposed to be opinionated here in Concord, right?
CK: I love that.
MK: Fabulous. What a fabulous ending.
CK: Beautiful. That sounds like a conclusion to me, but if there's more—
KF: Good. That's fine. I'm all out of words. I already started out with an interview first thing this morning, and I don't talk much, so this is probably as much as I'll do for a week.
CK: You laid out just beautiful words, beautiful concepts, really important I think.
KF: You're very kind. I appreciate that. I once got to interview a poet—
CK: Do you want this on?
KF: No, no, this is just talk. I got to write a—
CK: Thank you.
01:13:39 (end of audio)