What do you do after writing a national bestseller, giving interviews to the New York Times and the Washington Post and being compared to William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor?
When Carolyn Chute, who had such jobs as waitressing, teaching and working in shoe and chicken factories, hit it big with her first novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine (Ticknor & Fields, 1985), and finally had the money to fix that clogged drain, the next step seemed obvious. She bought a big parcel of land off-off-off the beaten track and planned to hunker down for the rest of her life.
Twenty-three years later, Chute and I sit on her porch listening to the dogs bark and the wind in the trees. I apologize for getting lost on the winding roads to her place in Parsonsfield, Maine, a couple of hours in from Portland. Which country graveyard was it that marked the place where I was supposed to turn? “Everyone gets lost,” she says, waving me away.
Chute has written fiction since she was a child but the inspiration for Beans came at a University of Maine party late one night, after she had published a short story in the college literary magazine. “This guy doing poetry came over and said, 'No one's going to want to read about the people you write about. The people you write about don't read this stuff, they just watch TV.” She got over her depression and her anger about these comments—after all, she knew little about Russian life but loved Tolstoy—by starting Beans.
After five novels, Chute's writing has evolved, but her subject matter remains largely the same. She says she writes stories she thinks her husband, Michael, a blue-collar Mainer, would enjoy, in a style she can read aloud to him. Her new book, The School on Heart's Content Road (from Grove Atlantic), returns to the complicated, hard lives of the folks in Egypt, Maine—a town Chute invented, after the iconic Maine road sign that lists the distances to some of the state's more exotic towns, like China, Paris and Denmark. By releasing School soon after the reissue of Beans, no doubt the folks at Grove Atlantic are hoping Chute can recapture the critical and financial success of Beans and her second book, Letourneau's Used Auto Parts.
Never one to smooth out her characters' rough edges, in School Chute focuses on the struggles of Mickey Gammon, a high school dropout who winds up at the Settlement, a rural cooperative regarded with suspicion by the media and the outside world. The book is one of five that take place in and around the Settlement, each one revolving around a slightly different set of characters. Having started this project in 1993, all five books are now written, but Chute is still arranging and revising them. “I write a bunch of stuff, whole piles of stuff,” she says. “It's like photography—you take tons of pictures, then you figure out what you're going to do with them.”
Chute, 61, grew up just outside of Portland, in Cape Elizabeth, back when it was more of a rural farming community and less the wealthy oceanside suburb it is today. She learned early on that school was not for being creative, and, in high school she would force herself out of bed at five in the morning to work on her novels before class. “I had a lot of material, a lot of silly stuff,” she says, but she thinks that all that work helped “free her up” later on. She dropped out of high school and only later wound up at the state university, which was not the first time she eschewed the traditional path.
Not surprisingly for someone who lives where she does, Chute avoids mainstream media and popular culture, except for the occasional movie. As for her involvement with the 2nd Maine Militia (which turned up in Snow Man, Harcourt Brace, 1999), a small pro-gun, anti—big business group about which much has been made, Chute claims she's not political. “Political means you're taking a stance on how to fix it,” she says, “but I don't think it can be fixed. It's the humans. How do you fix the humans? You just have to grit your teeth and try to be good to each other. We're all we've got.”
|Gibson Fay-LeBlanc is a poet, freelance writer and executive director of the Telling Room, a nonprofit literary organization in Portland, Maine.|