A CONVERSATION WITH MONICA WOOD
Monica Wood and Bill Roorbach met more than ten years ago at a writers’ conference in Maine, Monica’s home state, where Bill had just moved. They were born two days apart, which coincidence probably does nothing to explain their affinity. Recently, they taught together at a Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance weekend retreat at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle. Mornings before their respective workshops, they’d sit on the rocks over the ocean and look for migrating waterfowl and other
birds—not much luck, gorgeous September days, lobster boats working just offshore, waves breaking on the rocks, Monica in khaki shorts talking excitedly with her hands, listening carefully, too, Bill in worn-out Teva sandals, the two of them watching the water. Their conversation, by turns serious, boisterous, and intimate, was interrupted by frequent bursts of laughter, and punctuated with thoughtful silence. The subject was birds, and Monica’s newest book, Ernie’s Ark.
BR: What kind of binoculars are those?
MW: Swift Audubon, 8.5x40. The only drawback is weight.
They’re especially good for low-light conditions, unlike those
overpriced lightweights you’ve got.
BR: Hey, these are Swarovskis!
MW: I know. I just said that because I’m jealous.
BR: Well then, let’s trade.
They trade binoculars.
BR (looking through his new binoculars, enormously pleased
with them): I think that’s Barred Island over there. I saw a
shrike there once, perched up on top of a little spruce tree,
looking for a meal.
MW (looking through hers, unhappily): The first shrike I ever
saw showed up on my porch two seconds after a goldfinch hit
the window. I’d been birding about, oh, two months, and I
thought: Aww, look at that nice mockingbird coming to help the
poor little goldfinch. Then the “mockingbird” grabbed the
goldfinch and took off to impale it on a thornbush.
BR: Jeez. That reminds me: how was your book tour?
MW: Exactly like yours, I’m guessing. Zero to ten, but you can’t
predict which stop’s going to be the zero and which is going to
be the ten. I did a talk in Brunswick, Maine, that was very
modestly attended, but there was a man in the audience who
looked exactly, exactly, exactly like Father Bob, an uncle of mine
whom I totally adored. He’d been on my mind lately because the
novel I’m working on now has a priest character who was born
from my memories of Father Bob. This man in the audience was
smiling at me with Father Bob’s face, so I went over to him
before the reading to thank him for coming. He put out his hand
and said, “Monica, I’m your cousin.” I nearly fell over, because I
knew he had to be one of the Sturtevants I’d heard about in
childhood—their mother was my mother’s favorite aunt. Sure
enough, that’s who he was—Father Bob’s first cousin and virtual
twin—and I was so happy to meet him! He smiled all through
my talk, and really, it was as if Father Bob, who died before I
began to publish, were there in the flesh, saying, Good job,
BR: Well, see, good things come out of book tours. And
people must have enjoyed your readings tremendously. Ernie’s
Ark is such a wonderful collection of stories. It’s much more
than the sum of its parts. I mean, each story is complete and
satisfying on its own, and brings to life these unforgettable
characters, but together the stories make a transcendent
portrait of a town, as well. Is Abbott Falls anything like your
hometown of Mexico, Maine?
MW: It started out that way—as a composite of Mexico, and Jay,
where my brother lives, and Westbrook, where I worked as a
guidance counselor for eight years at the high school. But soon
enough the place became Abbott Falls, and the real-life
touchstones dropped away, revealing a place that, I hope, lives all
on its own.
BR: Oh, it does—I feel as if I’ve been there. Where did the
name Abbott Falls come from?
MW: I named the town for my parents-in-law, Midge and
Herman Abbott, who are two of my favorite people. They live in
Rumford Point, which is just up-country from Rumford, which is
across the river from Mexico. All one place, really. Dan is from
BR: Now, who is Dan?
MW: My husband, Bill, you clown. Dan Abbott. You know him
well. Anyway, naming the place after them seemed appropriate. I
think they were pleased.
BR: Okay, I’ve got something. What’s that? See it, just to the
right of the sailboat out there, full sail?
MW: Common loon. If I can make it out through these
binoculars of yours. You were saying? About my fabulous book?
BR: Well, it is fabulous. Was any one of the stories harder to
write than the others?
MW: “At the Mercy” was the biggest stretch—I’d never gotten
into the head of a CEO. “Take Care Good Boy” was the most
technically challenging, because I had to make solitude seem
interesting and forward-moving. “Visitors” took the longest
because there were so many people in it at cross-purposes. But
honestly, none of the stories seemed hard. This was the easiest
writing I’ve ever done, a total joy. I was so relieved and grateful
to be doing stories after the long slog of a novel. You’ve done
both—you know exactly what I mean.
BR: Was any one of the stories easier to write than the
MW: Though “At the Mercy” was a stretch, it was also the easiest
to write. Once I had the guy’s voice, I had the story.
BR: Few parents of multiple children will admit to having a
favorite, but most do. Who’s your favorite character in
MW: I’m awfully partial to Francine.
BR: Oh, I am too.
MW: She’s such an outsider, so full of yearning to be something
she’s not, and yet she’s essentially comfortable in her own skin.
“Solidarity Is Not a Floor” is probably my favorite story in the
book, because I got to know Francine very well while writing it.
She’s the one I wish were an actual person. I think she’d like me.
I miss her a lot.
BR: Is she someone who will stay in Abbott Falls?
MW: I doubt it. I’m not sure I’m finished with her, in fact. I see
her all grown up, inhabiting her own novel.
BR: Let’s talk about Ernie. He’s so loving and gentle, but all
that is layered on top of this boiling anger, too. And I love
the way he appears throughout the book, shown from
various other characters’ points of view. Here’s what I’m
curious about: did the book start out as a planned, nine-story
thing, or did it happen accidentally?
MW: Pure accident. The title story was the first story I wrote,
having no clue it would beget my third book of fiction. I’m
grateful to Ernie for that. The way he first arrived was this: Every
day I used to see a man walking a tiny dog—you can’t even call
it a dog, it’s more like a mouse with DNA problems—past my
house, and I got to noticing older men all over the place, walking
little dogs. I mean, they were everywhere: old guys with wee
dogs. What gives? I asked myself, and finally concluded:
widowers. The image of Ernie walking his wife’s dog is the only
thing I had when I started. His other problems—the strike, his
son, the ark—came later, as I put together a life for him from
that one image.
BR (with a sigh for Ernie and all the widowers of the world):
My own favorite story is hard to pick—but I loved “At the
Mercy,” which you’ve said was a stretch for you—it seems
daring to move into the point of view of a corporate CEO, to
show (and you do it convincingly) his problems, his
humanity. Why are the rich and the big shots left out of so
much serious contemporary fiction?
MW: Because most people, writers included—maybe writers
especially—identify with the losers, the outsiders. This guy’s a
winner, an insider, and I really like that he doesn’t apologize for
it. Yes, he accidentally bumps up against his emotional ineptness
in the situation I hand him—but he doesn’t turn into somebody
else as a result. The guy didn’t get where he is by being a
BR: It strikes me that there are some very hot political issues
lurking throughout these pages—is politics something you
consciously engage in Ernie’s Ark?
MW: There was a strike in Jay, Maine, in the late eighties that
went for months and months and tore up families and ruined a
lot of lives for a very long time. When I was a kid there were
other strikes, and talk of strikes; the very word had a way of
quieting a room. But the book is not about the political
ramifications of a strike; it’s about life behind and beyond and
between and inside the strike. Though the town becomes a
character in one sense, its inhabitants are what animate the
proceedings. The strike is a powerful vehicle for people to show
their true colors, but I didn’t include it as a device; it doesn’t
exist as a separate entity; it is woven into the lives of the
characters. The weave is tighter for some than for others, and for
certain characters—Bruce Love, for example—the strike makes
no impression whatsoever.
BR: May we talk about the ark?
MW: It’s hard not to. The ark shows up someplace in most of the
stories, and comes to mean something to several of the
characters. I think Ernie himself doesn’t know why he’s building
it, except that it’s an impulse he can’t refuse. Perhaps it’s his way
of channeling a potential for violence that too many others have
discovered in themselves. That the ark is physically imposing is
important to me: I want it to be outsized, both as an artifact and
a metaphor, though at the same time I hope I was careful enough
not to get carried away with the symbolism.
BR: That’s one of the pleasures of the book—the ark is so
real, and sits there quietly through every story, at its various
stages of completion. To your credit, I never once thought of
it as a symbol as I read, though thinking back it does assume
proportions in the book befitting something so big and
MW: And Ernie’s building it is an act of desperation, of
communion, of hope, of despair. It worked on many levels for
me, which is why so many stories resulted from it. Ernie
understands that the town will never be the same after what’s
happened, so he’s determined to survive, whether he knows it
consciously or not. It’s significant that he doesn’t think twice
about his ability to build the ark. My favorite line in the book is
this one: “Ernie figured that Noah himself was a man of the soil
and didn’t know spit about boatbuilding.”
BR: I love that line, too—it does so much duty, for one thing
showing us the workings of Ernie’s mind. He’s rejecting
things spiritual at the same time he’s longing for them. Also,
the line is just plain funny. Here’s another line I like: “ ‘It’s a
boat,’ Ernie said, ‘a boat filled with leaves.’ ” And the book is
full of other great lines and paragraphs, lovely lyrical
passages. How important is language to you?
MW: Language gives life to mere story. Language animates and
illuminates, allows the specific to become universal, allows the
ordinary to glow. It can be simple or complex, polite or violent,
depending on what the story demands. I’m one of those writers
who take forever to get a first draft down, revising relentlessly en
route. People ask me all the time, “Why not just write ahead to
the end, then go back and revise?” I’ve tried. I can’t. Language
itself is what leads me through the story. When I revise a
sentence or paragraph or scene twenty times before proceeding,
it’s not because I’m stalling, or blocked; it’s because the language
itself lights the way for the next moment in a story I don’t know
the end of. In the end, of course, I have to throw away a lot of
good, worked-on, polished stuff, which kills me, but I don’t
know any other way to pin down the story.
BR: Ernest Hemingway in a letter to Dos Passos said
something like, “We can tell how well we’re writing by the
quality of the stuff we’re throwing away.” But he was
probably drunk. Is Ernie’s Ark a novel in disguise?
MW: Nope. It’s exactly what the cover says: stories. My editor,
Jay Schaefer, and I were in total agreement here. I hate this new
“novel in stories” designation.
BR: It’s not so new!
MW: Still, I like to know how to approach what I’m reading, and
I want my readers to enter my fictional world wearing the right
shoes—you’re not hiking Everest, you’re taking many short trips
to the store. The pleasure of connected stories equals and often
surpasses the pleasure of the novel, but it’s a completely different
reading experience. I’d hate to have someone buy this book
thinking it’s a novel. Talk about your bait and switch!
BR: Do you keep a regular writing schedule?
MW: I do. I’m a drone. People ask about my work schedule and
I have to start making things up to sound halfway alive.
BR: Your little writing house is so cool. I love the way you
step down off the deck there in back of your house, across a
little patio, and through the door into your writing world. Do
you ever feel isolated in there?
MW: Hell, no! Dan says the welcome mat should read GO AWAY,
because it’s all woe unto those who dare enter. It’s my favorite
spot on earth. I still have the nicest memory of its beginning,
looking out the window and seeing Dan and my old friend
Patrick Clary digging up the backyard—by hand. I felt like quite
the queen bee that day, let me tell you, two big strong men
digging a foundation for my studio.
BR: That Dan is a sweetie. And you were actually very nice
showing me the place, that time, but you weren’t working.
What was that blackboard you have in there—all kinds of
strange notations on it?
MW: It’s a whiteboard, actually. Probably it was filled with endof-
day notes to myself about where to begin the next day—
which page or character or scene to tackle, a fragment of a
sentence to start with. It’s hard to sleep otherwise.
BR: Whom do you read?
MW: You. Really.
BR: Nice try, sistah. But I’m not giving you back these
binoculars. Now really, your house is filled with books—are
there one or two favorites you could mention?
MW: I have so many favorites! There are so many magnificent
writers out there. Let’s see. Favorite classic: Middlemarch. Favorite
contemporary novel: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Story collections: Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever, Ron Carlson’s News
of the World, Antonya Nelson’s In the Land of Men, and, really,
your Big Bend was my favorite from last year, and I’m not just
saying that because we’re sitting on this long drop of a cliff.
BR: Do you even think reading is important to anyone but us
MW: Us? Meaning “us writers”? No way. I got a letter last year
from a woman in Oregon who told me that reading my novel My
Only Story to her mother after her father’s death helped them
grieve. It was the first time they’d ever really talked; they needed
the book as both a bridge and a shield. Can you even imagine
how that made me feel? I was bawling my eyes out. Reading
Long silence, the ocean smacking the rocks, seagulls calling, wind in
the trees behind Monica and Bill.
BR: Okay—what’s that big bird by the point there—it keeps
diving—there it is—what is that thing? I’m going to say it’s a
MW: Loon, Bill. Same one.
Monica takes advantage of Bill’s diverted attention and lunges. She
successfully recovers her binoculars, hands Bill back his own. He
reluctantly takes them. More silence, as Monica and Bill scan the
whitecaps with their properly respective binocs. Everything seems
clearer to both of them, suddenly.
BR (still searching the ocean): Have you ever fallen in love
with one of your characters?
MW: So far I haven’t created anybody I could actually live with.
BR: Has one of your characters ever fallen in love with you?
MW: I’ve been stalked, but that ain’t love.
BR: You’ve talked about a novel you’re working on, starring
priests. Is it your next project?
MW: “Project.” Yeah, I’ll say. It’s a mess right now. I’d like to
throw it over this cliff. I can’t talk about it.
BR: That’s always the way, isn’t it? But eventually they get
done. Your books have been translated into several languages—
what’s it like working with translators? How do the books
look with foreign titles?
MW: One language, at least for now: Italian. I met my translator
in Verona, a beautiful woman with a great heart. It was like
meeting a sister, or long-lost friend. She’s the only other person
on planet Earth who worried over every word of my book, just
as I did. I’m hoping for a French translation. That would be the
pinnacle of my career, honestly. I’m a hopeless Francophile.
BR: Well, we better go teach. What are you doing today?
MW: I always start with technique; I figure the inspiration is up
to them. Today I’m using big posters on which I’ve written the
same scene in different points of view: omniscient, third-person
limited, and so forth. It helps them see the subtleties in narrative,
and reinforces the gravity of proper technique. I love this lesson:
I wait for the “Aha!” Don’t you love beginners? They remind me
how much I love writing.
BR: Okay—that’s a California condor. I’m sure of it, Monica.
MW: Loon again, Bill. Sorry.