Arts & Leisure

Two local authors release new must-read novels

On a book tour, they are the authors — with their shiny new novels, radiating the word “published!” to all the awestruck novices. But here, they live across the bridge and over the fields — they are all that and more; they are our neighbors. Isn’t that wonderful?

This time around our local celebrity authors are Weybridge resident, Middlebury College writer-in-residence, and National Medal of Arts recipient, the poet and novelist Julia Alvarez; and Middlebury resident, New England Review editor, and 2022 recipient of the John Burroughs Award for Nature Essay Carolyn Kuebler. 

“The Cemetery of Untold Stories” by Alvarez was released on April 2, from Algonquin Books. This book centers on the celebrated writer Alma Cruz, who inherits a small plot of land in the Dominican Republic, her homeland. It is there that “she has the beautiful idea of turning it into a place to bury her untold stories — literally,” reads the novel’s description. “She creates a graveyard for the manuscript drafts and the characters whose lives she tried and failed to bring to life and who still haunt her.”

Kuebler’s debut novel, “Liquid, Fragile, Perishable,” will be released this month from Melville House. It’s described as “a vivid and moving portrayal of the intricate web of relations and fate in a small New England town, told with interlocking storylines in a unique and mesmerizing voice of uncommon power.”

These two authors will appear on the Town Hall Theater stage together this coming Wednesday, May 8, at 7 p.m., where Kuebler will be moderating a Q&A with Alvarez about “The Cemetery of Untold Stories.” This event at the Middlebury theater is free and open to all, but you must register (townhalltheater.org). 

“I am delighted beyond measure not only to have a literary icon like Julia Alvarez as a member of my community, but also to have the privilege of producing an event like this: pairing a novelist of international renown with one on the cusp of a promising writing career of her own,” exclaimed Becky Dayton, owner of The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, who is presenting the May 8 event. “That these two accomplished, brilliant women will appear together to discuss Julia’s new book and its place in her impressive bibliography — in our hometown theater, and as each others’ neighbors with a long history of mutual personal regard — is of great satisfaction to me. It is the best of both worlds: that of the wider literary landscape and our little, tightly knit community.” 

In an attempt to get to know these authors a little better, Alvarez and Kuebler took the time to answer three absurdly open-ended questions. It was nearly impossible to fit their thoughtful and eloquent responses into this tiny space, so below you’ll find an abbreviated version. Come to the May 8 event to hear more!

What was your creative process like writing this book?

Alvarez: “On a Sunday in October 2021, well into a second year of the pandemic, in the incipient stages of a new novel, I woke up to a total retinal detachment in my right eye.” 

With the help of prism glasses (used to reduce the doubling vision in her “good eye”), Alvarez was able to dust off the novel she had started. 

JULIA ALVAREZ
Photo / Corey Hendrickson

“Every day I sat down to write was a gift I hadn’t expected. Every character was endlessly fascinating, every image I could captivate, every sentence I could manage was a petite miracle. I couldn’t drive myself like before, working six, seven hours, and then putting in a few more hours on book biz. Now, if I only got an hour — the eye strain told me when I’d had enough — I was grateful and longing to reenter the work again. I was back where I had started as a young writer, in the play and delight of the writing itself. Not without its accompanying frustrations and self-doubts (I was still me, after all) but it was a rebirth. ‘And now in age, I bud again. / After so many deaths, I live and write,’ writes the poet George Herbert. Resets are necessary throughout a writing life, but especially after a lifetime spent in a craft when one can become jaded and wearied and stale.”

Kuebler: “I’ve started and stopped many novels and stories over the years, and have finished a few, but this is the one that has given me the most sustenance, and the most pleasure. It’s the one where I figured out for myself how I wanted to write. You’d think having been an English major in college (1990 Middlebury College grad) and then being an editor for so long that I’d know exactly what to do. I’d been studying hard, it should come easy! But the only way out is through, as the saying goes, and I only learned how to write a novel by writing one, from beginning to end and back again. And once I really dug in and got going, I had a blast. It kept me going, it’s like it gave every aspect of my daily life, a fairly quiet and repetitive life in small town, a stronger sense of purpose and beauty and meaning and even love — for my life, for this place, for the people around me. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. I’d have been a much grumpier person without this novel in my life, no matter what happens to it now.”

Why do you write?

Alvarez: “As I enter the late chapters of my life, I want to understand this new landscape of growing old, especially growing old in a craft I’ve dedicated my lifetime to practicing…

“The Canadian critic Constance Rocke recently coined the term ‘Vollendungsroman,’ for this type of novel, which serves as the bookend to the Bildungsroman, the novel about growing up, coming of age. Vollendungsroman is the novel of growing old, and now especially welcomed that we are living longer and that our boomer readership is hungry to explore this new stage of our lives. Rocke notes that many new novels are addressing this ageism in fiction whereby elders are relegated to the background.

“So many of us boomers are still vibrant, and want a nuanced, complex and adventurous life… It’s a phase of life that merits its own attention… I read to understand; to make meaning in my life… and if I find gaps in the bookshelves — silences — I find myself hungering… then I write them myself.”

Kuebler: “I started writing in childhood, ferociously in those little diaries with the lock and key, where there was never enough room. I wrote because life itself was too much — too much excitement, confusion, fear, joy, beauty, all of that, all going by so fast. The desire to make something more than a messy diary came out of my love of reading. I was driven to emulation, as they say. I needed to do it myself. Reading has since the beginning given me the most immediate access to the world outside of myself, but also the world inside of myself. Music can hit those emotional chords more directly sometimes — I wouldn’t want to live without music either — but reading and literature offer a more sustained experience, tend to have more to say about the specifics of daily human life, and can make something out of nothing. And writing is something you can do for cheap. You don’t need expensive supplies, tools, luthiers … you do it with the stuff you already have and anywhere you go. You just — just? — need time. An absurd amount of time. 

CAROLYN KUEBLER 
Photo /  Karen Pike

“This book comes out of a lifetime of watching and listening and wondering what on earth are other people are thinking. What’s it like to be someone else? Imagining requires a stretch beyond the self but also into the self. I’m always interested in the pain and joy of others, how they find it, how they lose it, how they are connected, often without realizing it.”

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

Alvarez: “I want people to connect with the stories and move through this landscape of rich and interesting storytellers; and realize the stories are all around them. The stories are powerful, but the community around the cemetery is just as important. I, Julia Alvarez, AKA Alma, AKA Scheherazade, may not be the one to tell the stories, but they will be told. Narratives can weave around us.

“I also want readers to enjoy themselves. The book may challenge, trouble, and delight… I want readers to enter into that creative space. A book is only half written when you write it; when a reader reads it is when it comes alive.” 

Kuebler: “I want people to take away a stronger sense of love for their community and the people around them, all of them, not just the people who think and look like they do, or the people who have achieved impressive things. I want them to take away that you don’t have to be rich or famous or important in any other way to have a story that has beauty and tragedy in it. To get some pleasure from reading, for sure, but also maybe to get a sense of humanity as a single, many-armed organism, or like a stand of trees bearing up under difficult conditions. And yet we’re all stuck with our individual egos, our need to make something of our own lives, or just to make a living.

“As the world becomes less inhabitable and more volatile we’re going to have to realize that it doesn’t work to just be in it for ourselves. It really never has. I think a lot more people are starting to question the ideal of rugged individualism that this country in particular was built on. 

“I’d also be happy if readers just rode along on the waves of the story for a while, like sitting in a canoe on a breezy day, bobbing up and down on the rhythm of the language.”

Editor’s Note: Both novels are for sale at The Vermont Book Shop in downtown Middlebury and at all fine booksellers.

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