Cambridge Public Library Party


By Daniel Ford

The Cambridge Public Library announced earlier this week that it is hosting literacy-themed library parties at locations across Cambridge, Mass, this summer and fall.

These parties—hosted in partnership with the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA), the Department of Human Services, and the Cambridge Public Health Department—aim to increase awareness of the library system in Cambridge, get more children signed up for library cards, and generate excitement for the library.

On July 19, the library (partnering with Agenda for Children) will participate in the Cambridge Story Walk. It will also host a party at the Corcoran Park Housing Authority on Sept. 30 that will focus on signing children up to get a library card and explain services that are offered at the library (snacks will be served, of course!).

Maria McCauley, director of libraries for the Cambridge Public Library, graciously answered a few of my questions recently about the initiative.

Daniel Ford: Where did the idea for these literary-themed library parties you have planned for this summer and fall originate?

Maria McCauley: This program is part of a national framework to encourage grade level reading through the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) who encourages member libraries to create their own local initiatives around this theme. We reached out to the CHA and they were excited to work with us.

DF: How important is it for children living in HUD-assisted housing to do so in a “book-rich environment?”

MM: Research has shown that all children thrive by living in a "book-rich environment" and the Cambridge Public Library is committed to serving all youth in Cambridge. We're especially eager to focus on initiatives that will help to close the achievement gap.

DF: How excited are library employees, as well as the local agencies you’re partnering with, to help spread literacy in a fun way?

MM: Our library employees and local partners are extremely committed to supporting literacy in fun and creative ways. If you asked our employees, I think they would say that it is programs like this one that inspires us to do what we do.

DF: Are there plans for future programs like this in the future?

MM: We're always looking for new ways to partner with various agencies and for opportunities to promote literacy. Because this is a pilot program, we will assess the program for future expansion. We're excited by the possibilities!

To learn more about the Cambridge Public Library, visit its official website, like its Facebook page, or follow it on Twitter @cambridgepl.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archive

Ghosts of the Past: 11 Questions With The Duration Author Dave Fromm

David Fromm

David Fromm

By Daniel Ford

There’s a paragraph early in author Dave Fromm’s novel The Duration, that made me think he was Writer’s Bone’s kind of author:

The coffeehouse, an anti-Starbucks catering to the same South End crowd willing to spend $5 on a latte, was the sort of place I liked to mock while still frequenting. Their pumpkin muffins were obscene—each one a boulder of orange dough, big as your head, that left oil stains soaking through the to-go bag; sometimes they dropped a few green pumpkinseeds on the top to pretend it was a salad—and I’d sworn on several occasions, usually just after finishing one, to never eat another. Course, I was about to bust into one right then. 

Mmm…pumpkin muffin…

The author also endured himself to us saying we had a “very cool website.” Fromm talked to me recently, in an attempt to “lower the cool quotient a little bit,” about finding his voice, his publishing journey, and what inspired The Duration.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer or did the desire to write grow organically over time?

Dave Fromm: Both, I guess, though maybe not in the way you meant. 

On the one hand, I was a reader when I was young and grew up wanting to be better at some of the things that “writers” seemed to do—to be imaginative, to create worlds, to express myself clearly, to be empathetic and clear-eyed and rational. I also had a childhood stutter, which, while mild, I was self-conscious about. It pushed me toward writerly observation, rather than engagement, in a lot of social situations. I don’t know if that actually made me want to write, but it seems like a nice vulnerable detail to mention.

On the other hand, I also wanted to be perceived as a writer by my adolescent peers, and especially by my female peers, because I thought it had some cachet value. Writers were obviously brooding and romantic. They had depth. I lacked a lot of things in adolescence, and depth was a big one.

Eventually, these dual tracks—the desire to develop some of the attributes that go into good writing and the desire to be perceived as a writer—came together and I figured I should start trying to write some things. 

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

Fromm: Loudon Swain, Lloyd Dobler, Robin Hood, D’Artagnon, Michael Jordan, my parents. Not in that order. 

Re: writing, my middle-school English teacher Elfrieda Pierce, my high school Humanities teacher Jim Hurley. I read a ton of fantasy as a kid: The Lord of the Rings, the Shannara knock-offs, Wrinkle in Time, Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, etc. In high school, I liked Ragtime a lot, or at least I remember thinking I liking it. I won an award that came with a biography of William Faulkner but I still haven’t read it. A college friend gave me Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby, and around the same time I was reading David Foster Wallace’s essays from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Michael Chabon’s debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and I guess those three, each in different ways, sort of opened up the world of contemporary literature for me, writing that could be funny and honest and smart and gorgeous and take these complicated ideas and present them clearly. Written by people who were still alive, and were indeed not far from my own age. Also Padgett Powell’s Edisto stories.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

Fromm: My writing process is disgraceful. I’m not very disciplined. I have two kids in elementary school, and since they’re there right now I will take the opportunity to blame them.

I do listen to music. For what it’s worth I listened to a lot of Bob Schneider and The Avett Brothers while writing The Duration. I don’t outline very well. It almost works in reverse—I’ll write a chunk and then try to diagram what I already have, and it’s usually a totally screwy diagram, it’ll look like a M.C. Escher diagram, with stairs going nowhere and a flock of birds, and then I’ll try to use that to make sense of what I’m trying to say.

When I can get sort of inspired by something, sometimes momentum will take over and I’ll have a really good run of weeks or months of writing at set times, or in pockets of time late at night or what have you, and I’ll be able to generate a bunch of stuff. That’s what happened when I wrote The Duration. I started it and stuck with it through the first 10,000 or 15,000 words, and then it started to roll and it was all I could think about. I’d even have dreams about it. When it was “finished,” I wrote a collection of nonfiction and a YA novel and then a movie treatment and I was like I am the baddest badass on the planet. I am a machine! And then I got off track and I haven’t really written anything good since early 2015, other than a couple of dope tweets and status updates. Part of it was the publishing process, doing edits to The Duration, building social media stuff, time spent working on something from the past to make it better rather than generating new stuff, even if that new stuff would invariably be crummy. And part of it was laziness.

But recently I got a story idea, and I am going to nurture that idea like a baby bird.

DF: How did you develop your voice? Are you able to slip into it during the writing process or is it something you find while you’re editing?

Fromm: I developed my voice by listening to myself talk and then asking myself, “What would this guy sound like if he was smarter and/or funnier?” I’m only half-kidding. In The Duration, the narrator sounds like a version of me, but a younger, wilder and more heartfelt version. He’s sort of angry and sort of fearful and covers it up with blustery adolescent humor. In this case that voice came pretty easily while writing and part of the struggle in the editing process was not to lose that voice while patching various holes in plot and motivation and stuff. I don’t know what will happen in the next novel, if there is a next novel. There’s an older novel, still in a file, with a main character who also has a voice like mine. It’s starting to feel creepy.

DF: What inspired The Duration?

Fromm: The Duration was partially inspired by a true story from my Western Massachusetts hometown about a touring circus elephant that died in the woods in 1851. The elephant, whose name was Columbus, was so big that the circus folks left him where he fell, and the woods quickly swallowed up the body. He’s never been found, although some folks are pretty sure they know where he is. The idea of this exotic secret buried in a small New England village, and of local kids looking for it, is sort of the first-level plot device in the novel.

The second-level plot device (what does that even mean? I don’t know) is about how certain formative childhood relationships—with close friends, with events, and even with an environment—stay with us our whole lives. How we never really lose them.  I started writing The Duration shortly after my wife and I moved back to Western Massachusetts after seven years in California and I started reconnecting—painfully, joyfully, unsettlingly—with the touchstones of my youth. 

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—ends up in your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?

Fromm: I don’t know. A lot, probably. I mean, you work with what you have, what you can feel, right? You steal little pieces here and there. A guy has a great nickname, a woman has a funny habit that suggests something about her inner life. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are smarter and funnier and more interesting than I am, so I borrow a lot. It’s tricky, though, because whenever you use a real-life detail in fiction, the person whose real-life detail it is is implicated, even if the character goes in an entirely different direction. 

But, I mean, isn’t every character a version of the author? Even the bit players?

As far as development goes, I guess I try to figure out who I need, what function each character plays, and then try and imagine them as real people. I read something that the writer Steve Almond said once about loving your characters, and I guess that’s not, like, mind-blowingly original advice, but it’s always helped me when I’m working out a scene, to try to empathize with each character and their inner motivations for doing something, so that they become more than just devices. On that front, a helpful exercise has been writing nonfiction pieces and then sending them to the people mentioned in them for editorial feedback. I had a few essays about high school girlfriends and the process of sending the essays to them for review was really helpful in terms of seeing multiple perspectives. Also, terrifying.

DF: How long did it take you to write The Duration and what was your publishing journey like?

Fromm: I feel like I’m still writing it, or I would if I could. I’m glad it’s out of my hands.

The initial drafting process was relatively quick, maybe six months? After that, I sought feedback from a few writing friends, which necessarily takes a while because you can’t just drop a first draft in someone’s lap and be like get back to me in a week? They have their own lives and their own work and all that. But they gave me some really helpful feedback, then my agent did, and then we submitted to publishers.  That process also takes a while, and the whole time you’re thinking “no news is good news, right?” But not always. Maybe a year went by? I didn’t have much success with the larger publishers and after a while I just started asking my more successful writer friends what their publishing experiences had been like. One of them, Jim Ruland, had recently published a wonderful debut novel called Forest of Fortune with a smaller publisher called Tyrus Books. He recommended them highly, but they were closed for submissions. So Jim actually emailed the publisher to see if they’d be interested in taking a look at my story. Obviously I’m naming all my future children after him.

Once I hooked up with Tyrus, the publishing journey was smooth sailing. They’ve been great—organized, encouraging, responsive, personal, and really sharp. I feel like I’ve lucked out at every turn.

DF: Most of the authors we talk to prefer to leave the discussion of themes to their readers, but were there any specific themes you wanted to explore while writing the novel?

Fromm: Well shit, now I feel like I should leave the discussion of themes to my readers too. But there’s probably only going to be, like, 10 of them, and I feel like I’ve already asked too much of them anyway.

I wanted to explore the sort of continuity that develops for people at a time and a place. In my case, the continuity is with the area I grew up in and the people I grew up with. It’s more than friendship, it’s a sort of kinship and sense of belonging, for better or worse. My characters, like the town they return to, carry and are nourished by the ghosts of the past and have to figure out how that translates into their ability to go forward, to go on.

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next for you?

Fromm: I’m shopping something right now that’s a real departure from The Duration, so it doesn’t exactly feel like a “next” thing, but fingers crossed. It’s YA-ish, I guess. A story about an orphan girl who discovers that her grandfather was the last in a long line of pirates and sets out to return his ill-gotten loot. I wrote it for my daughter, who’s only five now but will someday be forced to read it. I’m also starting to work on this new idea, which, at least today, has something to do with a middle-aged guy who starts to fear the approach of some metaphysical enemy, so he takes up CrossFit. It’s fiction.

But first I’m driving out to Monson to pick up some beer.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

Fromm: Oh, man. So leery of offering advice because, like, what do I know? Focus on being a writer and don’t worry about being an author? That’ll come, or it won’t. You probably won’t make much money, so if you need that maybe go a different way professionally? But don’t give up? Is that too cliché? Keep working, keep being a decent and generous human being. Engage with the world? Do dumb shit. Read whatever you like to read? Question your motivations? Believe in karma? Make good friends?

DF: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

Fromm: I hate eggs.

To learn more about David Fromm, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @dfro.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

New England Narrative: 9 Questions With Author Jay Atkinson

Jay Atkinson (Photo credit: Paul Bilodeau, Eagle-Tribune)

Jay Atkinson (Photo credit: Paul Bilodeau, Eagle-Tribune)

By Daniel Ford

As a relatively recent transplant to Boston and Massachusetts, I've done my best to immerse myself in the history of the area. Books like Stephanie Schorow's Drinking Boston, Nathaniel Philbrick's Bunker Hill, and Brian Deming's Boston and the Dawn of American Independence have given me a crash course in New England lore. (For the record, I was born and raised in Connecticut, but spent considerable time in New York City.)

Author Jay Atkinson's thrilling nonfiction narrative Massacre on the Merrimack matches those historical tomes in both substance and style. Hannah Duston's capture and daring escape from her Native American captors not only proved to be a harrowing tale, but also shed light on the political and sociological issues facing early North American settlers.

Atkinson talked to me recently about his research process, journalism, and the inspiration behind Massacre on the Merrimack.

Daniel Ford: What came first, the love of history or love of writing?

Jay Atkinson: I’m not a professional historian, or even an academic, really, though I’ve been teaching writing at the college level for 20+ years (the last eight at Boston University). I’m just a storyteller. My eighth grade English teacher, a very nice fellow named Andrew Melnicki, told me after class one day that I should consider becoming a writer. That surprised me, since I come from a blue-collar family and was, eventually, the first one to go to college. I had always loved reading stories, and there in junior high set out to learn how to write them. Hannah Duston’s ordeal is a great story, and that’s what drew me to it.

DF: Since you’ve also worked as a journalist, and currently teach it at BU, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism. Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

JA: I don’t know exactly where journalism is going, but I’m certainly interested in finding out.

When I see students getting their news from Twitter and other online sources, I tell them to start reading The New York Times every day and forget about the Web. I hope they listen, since the sort of in-depth, professional, intelligent reporting done by The New York Times (and other longstanding print/Web publications) is so superior to Internet-based junk that it’s not even worth talking about.

One of the most entertaining stories I have worked on (and I’ve been lucky enough to have a few that were pretty exciting) was my winter canoe trip down the Merrimack River for The New York Times. Last March, for the second time, I traced Hannah Duston’s route back to Haverhill after she and two companions killed ten of the Abenaki, scalped them, and stole one of their canoes.

DF: Narrative nonfiction has been a healthy trend for history in the last decade. What made you decide to go that route with your own work?

JA: Well, I write fiction, too. As a matter of fact, the next book I publish will be a work of fiction, and I’m currently working on a novel. Over my career, I’ve been a student of narrative writing—how it works and how it’s done. That’s what interests me most of all, whether its narrative nonfiction like Massacre on the Merrimack (Globe Pequot, 2015) or a historical novel like City in Amber (Livingston Press, 2005).

DF: You tell a really poignant story about what inspired you to write Massacre on the Merrimack. Could you share that with us, and explain how your hometown/state shaped the narrative?

JA: My hometown, Methuen Mass., was part of Haverhill until 1726. I grew up hearing Hannah Duston’s story, and always had it in the back of my mind as I progressed as a writer. It’s got everything a good story demands: compelling characters, violent conflict, adventure, a series of dramatic events and reversals, overarching tragedy, vengeance, and triumph. As a storyteller, what’s not to like?

DF: What was your research process like for this book, and what’s your research process like in general?

JA: I spent three years on the book. The first year, I was often in the Haverhill Library Special Collections room (where they have a jumble of Duston ephemera that’s never really been catalogued, but was invaluable once I sorted through it), Haverhill Historical Society, and Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, Mass. A wonderful Nevins reference librarian named Maureen Burns Tulley was instrumental in researching and shaping Massacre on the Merrimack. I dedicated the book to Maureen, in the name of librarians everywhere.

The second and third years, I continued my research in various libraries, but also took my investigations outside, into the woods and onto the rivers that Duston knew. In my opinion, Hannah’s story is really about the beauty and danger of the New England landscape.


DF: Historians often debate about whether or not to use “politically correct” language when writing about the pre-colonial period. Does one use Native Americans or does one use “Indians/savages/etc.” Massacre on the Merrimack features the latter, and I was wondering if you went back and forth at all about that issue or you felt like your story needed to be rooted in the language of that time.

JA: Since in the narrative chapters of the book I was using what you could call Creative Nonfiction technique, I was limited to what I considered to be the prejudices, preconceptions, and preoccupations of the time period. To change the language to reflect current social mores would have seemed false to me. As a writer, my interest begins and ends at the level of the story, and telling it the way I did was the most honest way to do service to that.

DF: What really struck me about the book is that while Hannah Duston showcased extreme bravery and flintiness during her ordeal, her neighbor Goodwife Bradley exhibited the same traits multiple times! How fun was it uncovering these other stories during your research?

JA: I think the chapter that you’re referring to, which is entitled “The Fate of Other Captives,” contains the most interesting material I came across in my research. It fits with Hannah’s story, but is remarkable in its own way.

DF: You’ve written other nonfiction, but this book seems more personal based on your proximity to where the events take place. What’s next on the horizon for you and do you feel daunted at all about tackling another subject?

JA: Personally, I have no shortage of stories or story ideas, just a shortage of time. I’m happiest when I’m working on something.

DF: What’s your advice to up-and-coming authors and historians?

JA: All I can say is what my mentor at the University of Florida, the great Southern Gothic novelist Harry Crews, said to me when I finished my creative writing degree: “Son, go fix your ass to the seat of the chair, and get to work.”

To learn more about Jay Atkinson, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @Atkinson_Jay.


Blue-Collar Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Diana Sperrazza

Diana Sperrazza

Diana Sperrazza

By Daniel Ford

There’s nothing better than promoting books based in your own backyard!

Author Diana Sperrazza, who was raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in West Springfield, Mass., recently talked to me about her journalism career, the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture, and the inspiration behind her debut novel, My Townie Heart.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or is something that grew organically over time?

Diana Sperrazza: Journalism was really my first real calling and it was a strong one. But eventually I wanted to tell stories that were more personal. I was very specifically interested in the influence class has on how a person makes her way in the world. I left my job as a producer at CNN so I could do the low residency MFA program at Bennington College, where I did their nonfiction track. The only thing I could possibly imagine writing then was a memoir. But by the time I had finished writing my thesis, I was getting sick of talking about myself. I also began to doubt my own life was interesting enough to sustain a book. So I tried writing fiction that was influenced by my own life but told a more dramatic, bigger story. After a while, I knew it was the way I wanted to go. That said, I’m still getting used to the idea of actually being a fiction writer. 

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

DS: I remember reading all of Jane Austen as a child and young teen. Then there was this blackout period in my adolescence and early adulthood where I didn’t read fiction at all. I thought only nonfiction stories were worth anything. Once I began to write, I happened upon Russell Banks and Dorothy Allison and felt the truth behind their fiction and it changed how I thought about things. 

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

DS: I write intuitively, like I’m listening for the story inside of myself, but it sure wouldn’t look that way to an observer. I wrote My Townie Heart in bed with the television on (the sound was turned down) tuned to reruns of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In a way, she kept me company. I also like to write in noisy coffee shops. Perhaps it’s the result of all the years of working in news, but it’s hard for me to work if it’s too quiet. I enjoy feeling the buzz of others around me.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

DS: I’m almost 61 years old, so I was drawn to journalism back in the late ‘70s, in that heady post-Watergate time. I really did believe it could change the world. It seems incredibly naïve now to have placed so much faith in that institution, but back then, being a journalist was about having a higher calling and working to reveal the truth so things could be made right. These days, the news business is more involved with making money, often at the expense of just about everything else. There is still some great and courageous work being done out there, but it’s harder and more dangerous that it was when I was doing it. 

DF: What inspired you to write My Townie Heart?

DS: I was tremendously moved by the movie, “Mystic River.” Someone in my extended family was attacked as a child and I witnessed for myself how it changed everything. I went right out and read Dennis Lehane’s book. I was struck by how the blue collar characters were like the people I had grown up with and in my heart, I knew I had to write a story about them and about myself too.

DF: What made you decide to set the novel in the 1970s?

DS: So much changed in that era! Certainly it all started in the ‘60s, but it took the ‘70s to metastasize those changes, for people to feel them in their daily lives. So suddenly feminism, drugs, the counterculture, eastern spirituality—all of that became a felt reality, even in more traditional blue collar neighborhoods.

DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?

DS: Certainly I wanted to talk about trauma, and how and if you get over it. But I also wanted to talk about class. For the record, I don’t view those two subjects synonymously. Everyone is vulnerable to trauma. But if you grew up blue collar, you were probably told to quit your whining if you had problems, that it was better never to mention that your parents hadn’t finished high school (never mind college), or about how you had to work in a factory in the summer to pay for school. If there was violence or alcoholism in your family, you were supposed to cope and bury your shame. On the other hand, you also learned how to be self sufficient, how to work hard because no one was going to hand feed you anything, and, if you didn’t fall into the tempting traps of envy or bitterness, you gained a sense of your own integrity, because whatever you’ve done in the life is truly yours, not propped up by someone else’s efforts or money. I wanted to take those subjects out of the closet.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?

DS: Most of the characters in my novel are composites of people I knew in certain periods in my life. Some are made up completely. Laura’s character is emotionally true of me. The details are invented, but the major themes are not: I am from a blue-collar neighborhood in West Springfield, Mass., and my father was an alcoholic. I had no sister, but I have two brothers. I had a hard time with college and left. The counterculture had an enormous impact on me. I got overwhelmed and agoraphobic as a young woman and had to work very hard, mostly on my own, to recover. I moved to New Mexico for a new start and went back to school, but I studied journalism, not law. I think my characters come together in my subconscious, where the real and the imagined can comfortably co-habitat.

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

DS: I’ve started writing another book, but am not going to say much about it yet. I’m still feeling my way with the story, but it’s about a middle-aged man who also has class issues. 

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

DS: A number of years ago my writing partner, Janice Gary (author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog-walking and Deliverance) heard this lecture at an AWP conference by Walter Moseley. He had just written his book on how to finish a novel, and he said that you have to work every day on your writing, even if you only visit it and read over the previous day’s work; you have to keep the connection current and alive. It was the best advice either of us had ever heard and both of us managed to finish our books. He was also the one who introduced me to the idea that writing comes out of your subconscious. It’s like a pipeline you have to keep open and clear.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself? 

DS: I love the Showtime series “Ray Donovan,” but I don’t talk like that. People from western Massachusetts sound nothing like people from Boston. Totally different accent!

To learn more about Diana Sperrazza, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @mytownieheart.