Dispatches from the Real Maine
Down East editor in chief and mystery author Paul Doiron speaks with first-time novelists Shonna Milliken Humphrey and Jim Nicho
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
Down East Books released two debut novels this spring: Show Me Good Land by Shonna Milliken Humphrey and Hull Creek by Jim Nichols. Both stories take place in blue-collar Maine communities: Show Me Good Land in the potato fields of Aroostook County and Hull Creek in the lobstering world of the midcoast.
Humphrey, of Gorham, is the former director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance and holds an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Nichols, of Warren, is the author of the short story collection Slow Monkeys and Other Stories. His short stories have appeared in Esquire, Paris Transcontinental, American Fiction, and other publications. The following is an edited conversation that took place at Down East’s Rockport offices.
Paul: Can you talk a little bit about your own Maine upbringings and how they have ended up informing your novels?
Jim: I grew up in a blue-collar family [in Freeport]. My father actually went to college because he was a navy pilot. They sent him to college. But he was the first one in my family to ever go beyond high school. And then I had a grandfather who was a foreman in a shoe shop. Freeport back then was a shoe shop town, not an outletville. So that is how I grew up — some people fished; everyone hunted and shot as many deer as they could.
Shonna: I grew up in Houlton, which is about as much in Aroostook County as you can get. I’m the oldest of, I think, thirty-six grandchildren. My family is really large, and most of them still live in the County. It was a good way to grow up, I think. I am one of the first to leave and to go to college.
Paul: In 1988 the writer Sanford Phippen observed that the “Real Maine” as he understood it rarely appeared in the books being published at that time. He wrote: “After several hundred books either about Maine or by Maine writers, or by people who consider themselves Maine’s spokesmen, I haven’t forgotten, for it would be impossible, what ‘my Maine’ was and is like; but in these books I certainly have to hunt long and hard to locate that telling passage, that revealing characterization, that right bit of dialogue, that apt description, scene, or line here and there that ‘rings true’ and speaks of the Maine I know in my heart, soul, and guts; the Maine I grew up in; the Maine I both love and hate; the Maine that is in my blood and ancestry and will haunt me always.” Does Phippen’s summary still have any resonance for you in terms of the work that you read or your own impulse to write a book?
Jim: Yeah, there is a lot of fiction from people who don’t understand Maine. I think of that as sort of a minstrel show actually, where people speak in our sort of dialect. Fiction like Carolyn Chute’s really shows how people, Maine people, are just people like everyone else. They are just as smart, they have just as many dreams, you know, big dreams, not just little dreams. So I think that Sandy was really onto something there.
Shonna: I agree. There’s a weird tension that happens because of the sort of tourist Maine that we, as a culture, need to promote. We need to put that fantasy out there because that is such an economic driver for the state. But our state is more than that tourism from an arts and cultural perspective and just a general perspective. It’s more than cute, decorative lobster traps in a summer cottage. Jim’s book does a fantastic job of showing that [complexity] — the articulate, well-read anti-hero is, in essence, the real Maine.
Paul: How would you describe your Maine?
Shonna: That is a tough one to answer because the Maine that I’m from is a very rural community. It’s filled with people that, I mean, if we are talking about Carolyn Chute, I can show you Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts if you brought me up home. And that’s home, that’s the Maine that I’m from. I live four hours south now, but it might as well, in a lot of ways, be another country. That is a hard thing to define and to describe to folks: That Maine can be one state but two vastly different experiences, and that even within a small community there are these imaginary social dividing lines — and your experiences depend on where you’re raised in relation to those social divisions. It sounds like an easy question to answer, but I think it’s deceptively complex.
Jim: My Maine is mostly the rural, the brick factory along the river and the deer hanging in the yard, that sort of thing. The outdoors. . . . I have caught brown trout off my lawn for breakfast. To me that’s Maine. It is mostly rooted in the blue-collar — and the Red Sox.
Paul: You both deal with the tension between locals and people from away in your books. In Show Me Good Land, it’s more aspirational. Rhetta is a woman with an out-of-state license plate, taking pictures of the potato fields with dreams of escape. In Hull Creek, Troy Hull has a more direct conflict with the well-to-do people who are buying up his coastal town. I was struck by the similarity and I wonder where this impulse to deal with this tension as a subject came from?
Shonna: My entire book started as a nonfiction essay about potato picking, and so that part is drawn from life because I did pick potatoes. I wasn’t very good at it. It was hard work, and I didn’t last very long. There was this sort of voyeurism that happened where people would just stop along the side of the road and watch us work. I imagined what it would be like for those people and what they saw when they saw all the kids picking in the potato fields. I actually did see the potato harvest on a calendar in the airport one time, and I thought, wow, that looks really beautiful and lovely but that wasn’t really my experience with it.
Jim: For me it was working for the air service [in Owls Head] and flying both fishermen and summer people out to the [Penobscot Bay] islands — I have worked at either restaurants or airports for a long time. There is always that tension between wealthy people who share the same ground as people whose ancestors settled it and maybe who can’t afford to live there anymore. And you read stories about a fifth generation home that has to be sold because the family can’t afford the taxes. To me that’s a very sad and troubling thing.
Paul: I would describe both your books as literary books in the sense that they are both highly entertaining, but they are also aspiring to tell some essential truths about the human condition. They don’t pander to clichés or stereotypes or cheap plot devices, that sort of thing. Not that there is anything wrong with those! I say that as a mystery writer. But it does make me wonder who your influences were for your books?
Shonna: That’s an easy one for me. John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. That was my goal. I wanted to write a Cannery Row story but set in Aroostook County.
Jim: My literary heroes are kind of the line from Jack London through Hemingway to Tim O’Brien.
Paul: Both your books are funny in different ways. Troy in Hull Creek doesn’t crack jokes, but he has a wry point of view. And Shonna, in your book, the incidents are funny. I’m curious about how you look at writing humorously about characters without condescending to them. It’s difficult if you’re standing outside of those characters not to be seen as though you are making fun of them.
Shonna: You have to laugh. An aunt once told me that you might as well laugh as cry because either way it doesn’t change the circumstance. So, if you can find something to laugh about in tragic or unfortunate circumstances, then I think your day is just going to be a better one.
Jim: Actually, that harkens back to your earlier questions about people from away writing about Maine people. They don’t get how witty and funny blue-collar Maine people can be. It’s more of a caricature, I think. There is some really witty stuff said hanging around the dock or the potato field and the wrong outsider happens to walk by. One day when I was a kid in South Freeport, I was fishing off the dock, and we had a tourist ask what the kids were catching there and one of them said harbor trout, which is basically a turd floating through the water. Everyone laughed, and the tourist said, ‘Oh, well, that’s nice.’
Shonna: I think the humor comes from people, people that you know kind of shooting the shit. They are talking about their lives, they are telling funny stories, and they might not have the craft to write it all into the space of a book, but it’s just hilarious to hear. I mean, I have uncles who I almost pee myself laughing when they tell their stories. So I think there is a natural humor that just happens.
Paul: To different degrees, crime and drugs are similarities between your two books, although you deal with them a little bit differently. How did you come to see those threads as Maine societal problems that you wanted to deal with as a novelist?
Shonna: Again, it’s a different sort of lifestyle when you go into the rural communities, and some things are a given that might not be a given elsewhere. My husband, he is a musician, and he plays at this one Biddeford bar and very often they’re celebrating someone’s release from jail from a DUI charge or they are having a send-off party because that person is going into jail for their DUI charge or something similar. It’s a reality for so many people in these rural communities, and they are not all these horrible, evil stereotypes.
Jim: Well for me it’s merely flying smugglers back and forth to the islands. It exists, it’s there, and it’s sort of an obvious thing that Troy would have a friend who might be an outlaw and who might influence him when he’s in danger of losing his home. It’s definitely a part of the reality.
Paul: Every writer has a different process. How and where do you write?
Shonna: Every morning, I try to write first thing at the computer in my office. It’s not really glamorous or dramatic, but if I don’t do it first thing in the morning, then it probably won’t get done.
Jim: I write whenever I have a day off, and it’s in the morning. Usually, I get up quite early, I’m up at 5 a.m. or so. I try to write for long stretches of time, and then occasionally I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and have to change a paragraph or something before I lose it.
Shonna: What’s your next project, Jim?
Jim: A collection of short stories.
Shonna: Same theme?
Jim: Not that I recognize so far, but I have a few of them published. I have eight stories done, or almost done, and I’ve got to start sending the rest of them out. What about yourself?
Shonna: Well, a bunch of projects actually. A sequel to this book, hopefully. But the one that’s taking up my time now is a book about the Russian mail order bride industry. The biggest importer of Russian brides is headquartered in Bangor, Maine — 460,000 male clients. Bigger than the population of Miami.
Jim: So people order up a Russian bride through someone in Bangor?
Shonna: Sort of. It’s like online dating but for a very narrow clientele.
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro