“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” Virginia Woolf
Twenty minutes into the interview, I recognize the symptoms. They are, even to an untrained eye, unmistakable. The sparkle in his eyes. The intensity of his expression. The conviction and passion in his voice. The ardour with which he speaks of his commitment and devotion to his inamorata. This is a man deeply in love. And I am jealous. Stephen P. Kiernan is in love with words.
We are sitting at an outside table of the Three Squares Café in Vergennes, Vermont. It is late-morning on a bright and clear day in the second week of July. Small cumulus powder-puff clouds are just beginning to form in the brilliant blue canopy of the sky overhead in that curious, dreamlike way that they have in the Green Mountain State, of appearing suddenly out of nowhere. The air is comfortably warm and suffused with the scent of nearby floral blossoms, unidentifiable to me except that it is pleasing to the nose, and the occasional tantalizing smell of cooking that comes out from the café when the door is opened.
Stephen P. Kiernan, former journalist and now successful novelist, has just come off the road from a twenty-five-hundred-mile promotional book tour through New England for The Baker’s Secret, his latest novel. We had exchanged e-mails over the past several weeks and had agreed to meet. He arrived at the Three Squares on schedule, looking cheerful, muscular, physically fit (he bicycles for exercise), in robust health and carrying what he called his portable office, a leather bag holding a laptop computer and an annotated copy of The Baker’s Secret, which he uses for public readings.
He is now talking about the new book, the transition from daily journalism to creating fiction and the craft of writing.
He is now talking about the new book, the transition from daily journalism to creating fiction and the craft of writing. I have the recorder running and at one point I have to shut it off because carillon-like bells, probably from one of Vergennes’ four oldest churches, begin ringing, drowning out our conversation. He is also trying, without much success, to finish his lunch as he talks. His bowl of hearty soup is getting cold and I point this out, suggesting that we take a break so he can eat, uninterrupted. He says he doesn’t care, we are here to chat. And he is off again, caught up in the moment. I have just asked him about the genesis of The Baker’s Secret.
“You know, what happened, basically, is that my attention was drawn to D-Day at a time when I was thinking about different novel ideas. And I realized that I’d never really heard the French perspective. And I thought there might be an untold story there. So I just started doing a little bit of investigating, nothing like my old newspaper deep-dig stuff, just a bit to scratch the surface. And I found out that on D-Day, about five-thousand, two-hundred Americans died. And on that same day, about eleven thousand eight-hundred French people died. So not only was there an untold story, but it was of epic proportions. And, I’m not a guy who writes epic. I have small casts in my novels. So I tried to think about a way to tell that story.”
I had read The Baker’s Secret, thinking it an exceptionally fine novel and had marveled at how spectacularly rich it is in detail and characterization. I mention this to him and he thanks me sincerely, and it is here that he begins to tell me about the process of his wordcraft regarding this book, with the passionate intensity of first love.
“I invented a village. I kept it to the consequences of the Nazi occupation and the events leading up to D-Day. I kept it as intimate as I could, where people were literally concerned about a single egg, a third of a baguette, really on a human scale, and then there’s one moment during the battle when the camera kind of draws back and you see an epic moment and then it goes right back to the individuals again. And I’ve never fallen in love with characters so much in my life. When I was doing the research I did a ton of reading, good films, good books about this, and then I was over in Normandy, and I was in a place called Longues-sur-Mer, just outside of this town, where there is a German battlement that’s all still there, perfectly preserved.”
“What I realized was that there was an intelligence at work there.”
His face briefly clouded when he spoke about walking around the site of the World War II battlement he had seen in France.
“What I realized was that there was an intelligence at work there. It was beautifully designed, you know. I drive a German car. We know about German engineering. Here was German intellect so visible and so…brutal. And I realized that it’s part of human nature,… that wasn’t just a moment in political history,…that we are as a species, very good at instruments of war. And that was a very sobering thought.”
As his soup got colder and colder, Stephen Kiernan spoke about when and where the novel really came together for him, confirming my long-held opinion that the best fiction is saturated with personal observation and personal experience. It is much more difficult to write convincingly about anything that you haven’t seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and walked on up close and personally. He said he had started the book in Vermont before he went to France.
“I had about fifty or sixty pages written and realized that I couldn’t go any further without going there. I had to go to the place. I had worked in newspapers long enough to know that you must visit the scene of the crime.”
“I was on tour for another novel, The Hummingbird, and I went directly from the last tour event to Normandy. And I wasn’t writing during the tour, so I had these, I don’t remember exactly how many pages, and I had lost steam, was interrupted for the tour, and I thought: I may not get to do this book. The trail may get cold. And then I went over there and in Longues-sur-Mer, there was my novel. There were my people.”
They would be people who cared for their trees. And that intelligence that was so severe, was going to broil them alive.
“I looked at this orchard. The trees there in Normandy had been lovingly maintained, beautifully maintained, and I realized that that’s where my town would be and that’s the kind of people I would have. They wouldn’t be soldiers, they wouldn’t be heroes, they wouldn’t be leaders of the resistance. They would be people who cared for their trees. And that intelligence that was so severe, was going to broil them alive. And my heart’s broken for them already. That’s when I knew I had the story, I wrote this book from that moment forward in a fever. Literally around the clock kind of thing.”
Earlier, we had covered a bit of his background, his Irish ancestry and his formative years. He spoke fondly about the state he now calls home and how he came to be a writer in Vermont.
“I grew up outside of Albany, New York. And, I came to Vermont in 1978 to go to Middlebury College. By the end of my college time I knew that I wanted to live here, but I wanted to see a lot more of America and the world. And I needed to learn a trade and so on. So I was gone for a number of years and then I moved back here in 1990. So it’s home now. It’s been home for a good long while.”
During the time we spent at the café in Vergennes, he was unfailingly cheerful, positive and upbeat, a man, it seemed, with his eyes firmly fixed on life’s journey ahead. When I asked him about his time spent in newspapers as a journalist, he had to pause and reach back into his memory.
“I did it for a lot of years because I loved it. It was meaningful work.”
“I worked in a number of different places. I first worked for a newspaper in Iowa, and then I worked a lot of years for the Burlington Free Press, and since then I’ve done writings for all kinds of newspapers and magazines. They range from SPIN to the Boston Globe.”
He also spoke candidly and a bit wistfully about his time in the newspaper business, an industry that he acknowledged has gone into a decline, but that he still holds in high regard.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in an industry in contraction, but it’s not much fun. You know, you have to let good people go. You have to try and do what you did last year, but with twenty-five percent less resources.”
“You know, I miss it. But what I did, they don’t do any more. I loved it. I mean I did it for a lot of years because I loved it. It was meaningful work.”
I asked him, in moving away from journalism if he found that he had to change his pattern of writing when he went from newspapers to writing fiction; if he had to discipline himself differently when there were no people to satisfy and no deadlines to be met on a daily basis. He tossed his head back and laughed at the thought.
“It was like liberation.”
“No, no, it was like liberation. It would have been like getting paid to eat chocolate,” he said, meaning his writing fiction. “You know, how a newspaper story happens, or an editorial, which is what I did for most of those years, fourteen or fifteen, is that you do research all day, and then you bang something out for deadline. It’s probably about a nine to one ratio, maybe an eight to one ratio in your nine hour day.”
“So this is luxury, of the highest degree. Except, that now that I work for myself, I have a terrible boss.” (he smiles broadly, when he says this). “He doesn’t believe in days off. He doesn’t care if it’s Christmas, you know. He doesn’t like me to take vacations. When I’m in the fever of writing something, he’s anti-social. You know, (laughs) because the fever occurs, and you can’t let it slip away. It’s very, very rare, that I need to discipline myself to write. It’s much more the other way.”
Success as a fiction writer invariably means engaging with the corporate entity that takes your creation of words, turns it into a saleable product and distributes it to its readership. Stephen Kiernan had only positive things to say about his relationship with his publisher.
“They’re in charge. My job is to write the book. They are the experts at selling it, and they made a beautiful book. And so the production and all that, I really trust them. I trust their judgment. Because they do a great job. So I listen to those folks. It’s not like I cave in on every suggestion they have, but they don’t expect me to.”
“I love my editor. I mean people have these notions that editor and author conflict. That’s not my experience.”
He also dispelled the lore often repeated in writers’ circles that, in the publishing world, sparks and tension between author and editor are the norm. Not, he says emphatically, in his case.
“I love my editor. I mean people have these notions that editor and author conflict. That’s not my experience. I’ve learned a lot from the editors that I’ve had. And you know, there’s something about when you sit down and discuss your novel with your editor, at the time she has three books on the best seller list. You look at who’s on the book shelves in her office, it’s very humbling. I’m published by HarperCollins. When you walk in the door of HarperCollins, the first book you see is To kill a Mockingbird. They published To Kill a Mockingbird. And they still do, all these years later. You think; that is one of the masterpieces of American literature and that’s who publishes me?”
We got on to the topic of family and how he had managed to fit his writing life and his family life together, and make them work smoothly. It meant keeping what some people might consider odd working hours. He has two children. That very morning, he said, he had had to stop writing at seven a.m. to help his oldest son, who had just graduated from college, move into his own apartment in Burlington.
“I would work for a couple of hours and then I’d get them up, get lunches made, get them off to school, then I would go back to my desk.”
“What I did, for a long time, is that I worked during the work day and when they came home from school, I’d be with them and then after they went to bed, I would work some more. And then, after they were older and stayed up later, that’s when I began my early morning writing habit. And that turned out to be fantastic. So I would get up and I would work for a couple of hours and then I’d get them up, get lunches made, get them off to school, then I would go back to my desk. So I would already have a momentum. And I’ve kept that up now. One’s a college graduate and one is going into his third year of university and I still keep that habit.”
He told me a funny story about how his children had become well-adjusted to his early morning work schedule and also how he believed it had helped him be a better parent.
“My sons are amused when I am in the fever. If I wake up at three o’clock in the morning and I’ve got to write, I write until they get home from school. If I needed to take a nap, I would lie down wherever I was, middle of the kitchen floor, and they’d just learn to step over me. I remember one time, literally, there were some boys who came home with them from school, and this kid said, who’s the guy on the floor?, and they’re making English muffins, and my son says, oh, don’t worry, that’s just my dad. Just sleeping on the kitchen floor.”
“It meant actually, that I was able to be around as a parent. My oldest son is a musician and I’ve heard him perform tons of times. My younger son is an excellent lacrosse player and I’ve watched him play tons of times. It’s actually enabled me to be present as a parent in ways that, I think, very few men get to do. And, in my case it’s an incredible reward. That I’ve been around for my sons.”
I was struck by his humility and the respect, almost reverence, that he showed for his readers.
When he spoke about his book tours, I was also struck by his humility and the respect, almost reverence, that he showed for his readers. The tour he had just completed had him covering two-thousand, five-hundred miles on the road through the New England states. And he said it was a joy to do it.
“That tour was delightful. It meant a lot of car time, but that was OK. The privilege of getting to meet with readers, when you have such a solitary profession, is very gratifying. And privilege is really the word. People give up an afternoon or an evening to come and hear you talk about your book and read a little bit and chat with them, it’s terrific.”
The Baker’s Secret is his fifth book, and his third novel.
The Baker’s Secret is his fifth book, and his third novel. He had written two non-fiction books before making the transition to fiction. I asked him about his state of mind and if there was a line of demarcation when he chose to go from a paying job as a journalist to take up writing novels, which can sometimes be financially tenuous. He credits a good friend, novelist Chris Bohjalian, and another friend, a playwright, in helping him make the decision, during a bicycling vacation in Tuscany.
“I had this proposal out for another non-fiction book, and the bids I was getting for it were small. It would take easily a year of research and a year of writing, maybe more, and I was getting these very small offers and wondering if I’d made a mistake leaving newspapers. I was feeling very much at risk. But in the course of this ten-day vacation, these two writers convinced me that, well I don’t want to be grandiose about it, but they sort of gave me the courage to try it. And that was when I wrote (his first novel) The Curiosity.”
He spoke with increased passion and intensity about what he called “the removes” between what a journalist writes and the reading audience, and how it differs from how an audience reads fiction.
“You write a story in the newspaper. You go to the governor’s news conference and the governor says: we’ve got this new transportation idea. You have a remove from the governor. While you are taking notes you are thinking of the people you can call who will disagree with him, and that will tell you about the story you’ve got to write. So there’s another remove. Then the story appears in the newspaper and the reader says: oh, that’s Kiernan, he doesn’t like this governor, so there’s a remove. The story is in the Burlington Free Press and that’s Liberal, so there is a further remove, so there are all these removes.”
“When you write fiction, there is NO remove.”
“When you write fiction, there is NO remove. You are inside the heart and mind of the reader, this other human being. There is a vivid dream that happens in their mind and when they go to sleep, they put something in there and go to sleep, and the next day, a day later, three days later, they open it up at that one sentence, and they are back in the dream, that’s how much you’re inside them. And that is such a privilege and such a responsibility, and it’s so damned rewarding. And so part of why I take the risk…oh boy, I am carrying on here …”
At this point he stopped speaking and laughed self-deprecatingly, looking slightly abashed, perhaps because of how much of himself he realized he was revealing to me, a relative stranger, who was recording it no less. But all I felt was admiration (and truth be told, a pang of envy again) for his openness and candour. I told him so (not about the jealousy) and encouraged him to continue. He did so, slightly more subdued, but still with a conviction that left no doubt about his sincerity and commitment to his wordcraft and his readers.
… throughout the interview, he emphasized the reader experience as being paramount…
When he spoke about taking a risk writing fiction he meant not just the financial risk of leaving a journalism job with a regular paycheck, but also the risk of moving from literal to figurative wordcraft. He spoke about the risk of giving himself the freedom to imagine the story fully, to write it fully and to play with language. And throughout the interview, he emphasized the reader experience as being paramount; in his words: “The profound experience of the reader.” So it is the risk, perhaps (although he didn’t say this, it’s my interpretation) of the work becoming so ethereal that it could be misunderstood.
“Part of why I am going out after the risk is because they let me in. And that is such a sacred thing. I want to give them the riskiest, the most courageous thing I can do. And it’s because of that, because of how readers respond, and write me, and come to my events, and let the story live in their minds. It’s just black marks on a white page. One of my books is translated into Japanese; they’re not even black marks I understand, but somehow this becomes living beings in their hearts and minds.”
I asked him if he was currently working on another novel and he said yes, but, unlike The Baker’s Secret, which he had visualized completely before he wrote it out, he didn’t have this new book fully mapped out in his mind.
“…like my other novels, the essential character is a strong-willed woman, that seems to be what I write.”
“I can’t talk about it too much. Mainly because I haven’t found a way to talk about it. What I can tell you is that, like my other novels, the essential character is a strong-willed woman, that seems to be what I write. It’s not a decision I make, and this one is much more of an adventure. The Baker’s Secret is a war story. It is really about people in a small realm, trying to be as compassionate and creative and as cunning as possible to help each other survive. The thing that I am writing now literally involves sailing around the world. And no, (he laughs) I am not going to get to do that in my research, unless my publisher really comes up with a huge advance, no, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
He also sees his next book as being more than twice as long as the one that was just published.
“The Baker’s Secret is 90,000 words. Now I want to write a 200,000 word story that literally involves the whole planet. And, I don’t know If I can pull it off, or not. But I feel like, that’s where you go. You go to the new, to the risk.”
I am ever conscious of the window of time that we have because he had said that he was going to meet up with his friend Chris Bohjalian right after this interview so that they could go bicycling. I think I have time for two more questions and I go back to something that is fundamental to successful writers; work habits. Does he set a goal for a daily word count? And what does he work on, a computer, a typewriter, or does he write his work out in longhand?
“I don’t set a minimum word count…”
“I don’t set a minimum word count, and here’s why. When you work in newspapers, the deadline and the space are commands. They’re commandments. You get eight-hundred words or eleven inches or whatever measure your newspaper uses, and you’ve got to have it by five-o-five. There is a story flow that’s going on and you get this much space and this much time. Go! And so what happens is, there’s no time to say: oh it’s not very good today. Oh, my prose is clunky today. Oh, I’m not feeling inspired today. It’s got to be done. It’s got to be that many words in that amount of time. You do that for enough years, and it becomes habit.”
“So one of the great things about that is now there’s never been a discussion of writers’ block. I put my butt down in a chair and get it done. But it also means that there are days that I write junk. And it’s OK. Because I know I can re-write it. Where I never could, in all those years in newspapers.”
“And it turns out, I love re-writing. And so, every day, I begin by re-writing what I wrote the day before. And that either means that I get to the blank page and I have a head of steam and I’m in the dream, and it’s feeling good or sometimes I don’t even make it to blank paper. So revision is part of it. I don’t set a word count because some days I write like a newspaperman. I’ve got my words written. I’m out of time. And it’s junk. But I want to be completely free to throw that away.”
He had shown me the leather bag with the laptop earlier, so I had qualified my question about his working tools by acknowledging that writing in longhand or with a typewriter were anachronistic, fully expecting a short one or two word response, but his answer surprised me.
“I would love to write a book on a typewriter because it controls your tempo, in a way. But I write on a computer unless I have something that’s really not working and that I’ve tried a bunch of times, and then to slow myself down, I will write in longhand. Very often, when I am re-writing a scene, I will try it different ways in longhand. But I would say that ninety percent of the time I am at the keyboard.”
“I still write like a typewriter guy in the newsroom, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!”
Here he tells me that it takes three-thousand hours, give or take, to write a novel and shows me his laptop.
“If you look you can see that some of my keys are worn down. Because I still write like a typewriter guy in the newsroom, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!”
We both have a laugh at this. I shut the recorder off, satisfied, and certain that we are out of time based on his need to meet up with his friend for the bike ride. He is aware of it too, but, ever gracious, he asks me to turn the recorder on again. He knows that I am a Canadian. He wants to add something.
“I didn’t write a battle novel because the battle has been spectacularly well portrayed in many books, in many unforgettable films. But it’s important to note the unique role of Canada, on D-Day. And I’ll start with the day itself, when they had some difficulties, so they got a late start. And six-hundred and sixty, I think, young men died that morning. Hitler spent four years building the Atlantic Wall. And the Canadians were inside of it in two hours and forty-five minutes.”
He goes on to show me a number of images taken on Juno Beach, historical photos taken on the day of the D-Day invasion and current-day images. He notes Canada House, the first house in Normandy liberated by Canadian troops on D-Day, now still standing and dedicated to the memory of Canadian sacrifice there. He also dispelled the hearsay that is often perpetuated that the French are not grateful for the Allied landings on D-Day.
“There is this whole myth that the French people are not appreciative of what the Allies did, and it is utter nonsense.”
“There is this whole myth that the French people are not appreciative of what the Allies did, and it is utter nonsense. Every high school kid in Normandy has got to do a project on D-Day before he can graduate from high school. Everywhere I went, when I said I was an American, researching the French experience on D-Day, a free glass of Calvados. One hundred present of the time. Just because I was doing that research. The French are deeply, deeply grateful.”
I’ve shut the recorder off again. There seems to be nothing much more to say and he ends the interview with good manners and class.
“Forgive me. I need to get changed now. Before Chris comes. He’s painfully punctual. I’m late for everything.”
I thanked him and muse on his last words as I make my way back to the car. “I’m late for everything.” I doubt that. I suspect he is just being self-effacing, as he was from the time he first sat down.
My wife Martha and I are now off to have lunch at the Red Mill Restaurant, a recommended spot on a Lake Champlain bay, a few minutes from downtown Vergennes. The restaurant is nestled alongside a grass airstrip. If you were so equipped, you could fly in there in a light aircraft to have lunch or dinner. My kind of place. Perfect.
The setting is picturesque and the restaurant atmosphere most agreeable. The lamb burger is excellent. The beer refreshingly cold and malty.
Martha has called The Baker’s Secret: “The best book I’ve read this year. It’s unusual to find a book that lacks nothing, but this is one.” We sometimes disagree on a few things, but agree on a great many more. On the merits of The Baker’s Secret, we are in precise alignment.
During lunch I reflect on the novel, the interview and the man who is Stephen P. Kiernan. I put aside petty feelings of envy and jealousy. I raise my mug of ale in tribute and toast, and we clink glasses in a proper and respectful salute. There is something selfless, almost noble, in the actions of a writer who considers his responsibility to his readers as being a right and fitting duty. REG
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