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The Brattleboro Literary Festival began in 2002, featuring Saul Bellow in his last public appearance. On the festival’s website, he wears a Vermont cap, which looks photoshopped onto his Chicago head. So the festival had an auspicious start, and it’s chugged along for 20 years. At the beginning and today, says Sandy Rouse, its founder and continuing director, the festival sought to encourage reading, independent thinking and diversity. With travel uncertain because of COVID, this year’s writers were mostly from New England, within drivable distance. The program featured 65 writers appearing at 39 events scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at the first in-person festival since 2019.

As a longtime reader, recovering English professor and recent transplant to Vermont, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with literary festivals. During my first and only personal visit to a festival in California, mobs of book-lovers descended onto the UCLA campus, disappearing the students. Any group that rallies unsettles me, booklovers included. (Yes, I’m a fun guy at concerts.) I decided that I liked my books either with students themselves or in the company of my imagination.

And yet, here I was, poised to descend on Brattleboro, past home of Rudyard Kipling, current mix of grubbiness and charm. First up for me (and my friend Margaret) would be Megan Mayhew Bergman.

Bergman read from “Workhorse,” a story focused on a daughter and father. She noted in discussion that “we shape place; place shapes us,” in what would be a common thread in the festival. She prefers short works, since longer works mean that the writer has shifts in perspective over time, making it difficult to achieve a unity of tone and purpose throughout the work.

Andrea Barrett has won a National Book Award, and her storytelling ability was evident in her reading an excerpt of her short story, “The Accident.” Like layers of an onion, the reality of an injured young woman unfolded. The story’s setting is not now, but long ago, when parts of planes had flimsy bamboo frames, and people rushed to fields to see local daredevils take off and do their gravity-defying tricks. After reading, Barrett explained the story’s genesis: a simple photo had led to a gravity-defying literary flight. Barrett noted that details in fiction could be “hyper-contemporary”—anchored too firmly in a particular time, citing a fellow writer who detailed opening an email on AOL. Both Barrett and Bergman agreed that key aspects of contemporary life inevitably appeared in fiction, but often obliquely, the looming dread of COVID transforming itself into unease that a writer might not sense is being depicted until after a work’s completion.

Fiction writer Julia Glass noted that the subtitle of her session — “Safe Places” — must be ironic: “There is no degree of privilege that makes you safe.” She read from “Vigil Harbor,” set 12 years in the future and told from eight different viewpoints (those of six town residents and two strangers). Glass noted that the U.S. withdrawal in 2017 from the Paris Climate Treaty stirred the book to life, as did her experience living in Marblehead, from which she extrapolated Vigil Harbor. “Tragedies make us optimists,” she said, giving us the resilience to move forward.

Paired with Glass, Alice Elliott Dark read from “Fellowship Point,” set in Midcoast Maine, and featuring an 80-year-old Quaker woman “finishing the job of her life.” Dark noted that the book was already roughed out in print when she changed the ending to something she now believes is integral and organic to the novel.

In a lively discussion, Glass said her own books have “delusions of War and Peace,” and that she needs to pare back her writing. Dark agreed that she, too, works this way. It’s easy, for example, to write all sorts of details into a wedding scene, but often an event’s consequences are key. Her advice to writers: “skip the wedding.” After noting that she often seeks out the 80-year-old woman at a gathering and that she’s let her hair go white, Dark observed, “So much I don’t care about any more.” This comment brought widespread laughter among a crowd that had its share of white-haired members.

Next up was lunch. My friend Margaret and I ate at The Works, lucky enough to enter a line of only five people. When we left, the line snaked out the door. (Director Rouse told me that the festival couldn’t really grow, since its current size stressed the town’s hotels and cafes to the limits.)

We returned to Centre Church where Elizabeth Nunez read from “Now Lila Knows.” The novel sprung from an incident she read about: a Black man killed by police after rendering aid to a white woman. The incident led Nunez to explore “silences that translate into cowardice.” Her protagonist in “Now Lila Knows” is a visiting professor — a person of color — who faces the challenge of getting engaged in a local dispute (based on the one that sparked the novel) or being silent, but safe.

Differences cut across not just time, but place. Nunez told a funny story about her younger sister — “of a certain age,” but sexy, who enjoyed wearing a clingy dress and strolling about in town. When visiting New York City, she donned the dress, strolled about and was met with silence. “What’s wrong with the men here?” her sister exclaimed. In Trinidad, she couldn’t walk a block without men giving her what she heard as sounds of admiration and appreciation.

Tom Perrotta, paired with Nunez, said, “if you’re not stepping into dangerous territory, you’re not doing anything interesting” in writing. OK, then — I’ll offer this confession: I didn’t know Perrotta, his novel “Election” or even the film. A simple online search reveals a Google-size gap in my cultural experience — like being absent for all of 1999.

Perrotta read from “Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” which updates the Tracy Flick/Reese Witherspoon story in “Election.” (That story — as everyone now knows — depicts a hyper-ambitious, competent young woman, undermined by men, a story that has had a shift in sympathies over years, from the men’s to the woman’s point of view. The novel depicted more ambiguities than the movie, perhaps not surprisingly.) Tracy, in the new novel, is a high school assistant principal, and she decides to go after the retiring principal’s position. Perrotta read from sections of the novel in which the pension-protecting current principal wants Flick to talk to a young female teacher whose attire is transparent enough to reveal her nipples. (Not a subject usually discussed in this venue.)

We left that church, strolled around town and then made for another church. Andrea Cohen had emailed me before the festival, recalling a previous appearance from five years ago “reading from the pulpit of a very impressive church. And feeling like I should have had a sermon.” Here she was again. Many of her poems were funny and aphoristic. Here, for example, is one she read:


It’s an extreme

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sport––like in-

door beekeeping.

She had another poem that I can’t quote because it’s unpublished and Cohen asked me not to try to transcribe it. I’ll call it “The Bee Poem” and for now it exists beyond the edge of the world in all its poignancy. (This is why you need to go to festivals, people, to hear and see things you wouldn’t elsewhere. Preliminary advice from a novice festivalgoer.)

Her longest poem centered on a found wallet and its contents. I can’t do justice to the details, which were by turns surprising, funny, mystifying and poignant — suggesting the strange truth that our identities are encapsulated in this mundane object. By this point, Margaret was closing her eyes to allow the words to wash over her, Cohen’s poised delivery transporting listeners. After reading it, Cohen told us that the actual owner of the wallet came with his father to pick it up. He said something like, “gee whiz, thanks.” Cohen decided against sharing the poem with him.

Nathan McClain had a wife and baby in attendance, and the baby is clearly an orator in the making. Part of McClain’s reading centered on a series of poems framed by his experience of being an alternate juror. That alternate status — of observing but not being allowed to participate in rendering judgment — served as a powerful metaphor for African-Americans in American society.

It was now 5 p.m., and Margaret and I trekked away from church and across town to hear the New Yorker Cartoon Panel. Predictably, the venue was crowded, making it warm and stuffy, and we missed the opening, so I was stuck peering around obstacles and heads, trying to make out the captions for cartoons and wondering just what people thought was so funny. So am I an unreliable narrator for this event? Maybe. Also, the Oyster Bar up the street beckoned. But who could pass up New Yorker cartoons, personified?

Sadly, no helpful thought bubbles popped up above cartoonists’ heads, nor did captions appear below. I guess these people were: Hilary Price (moderator), David Sipress, Ellis Rosen, Harry Bliss and Sofia Warren. Hilarity ensued. Panelists charmed the audience.

We learned that Warren, Rosen and other cartoonists texted, talked and informally collaborated; Bliss talked to his family and a good friend in Sausalito. Bliss liked his dog’s point of view. Sipress talked to no one. Sipress’s therapist and his wife (two different people) could detect when he was lapsing into a cartoon and would ask him to stop. (He wouldn’t.) Bliss started with images (he had wanted to be a classical artist); captions (if they came) would come later.

Price cited a helpful heuristic for her, involving a folded-up sheet of paper and opposing situations and qualities — that was too funny and clever for me to remember. Someone — Warren, I believe — drew a cartoon, with two animals behind bars looking up at a sign beyond. The caption was something like: can’t wait until we escape this oos. At the risk of killing the humor, this one involves inversion of letters and the convention of cartoonists transcribing lettering backward.

After Oyster Bar drinks and sustenance, I wove my way homeward. By now it should be apparent that my method was haphazard. Although I regretted that I couldn’t observe more talks throughout the day, I was like museum-goer after two hours: sated with beauty. Even though I didn’t know most of these writers’ works, I could enter into the discussions and readings as I wanted, just as in a museum I could pass over works that didn’t engage me. The works could — and did — stand separate from these discussions and readings. The festival was engaging in and of itself, and if I went on to read, say, “Vigil Harbor,” which now intrigued me, that experience could stand on its own or perhaps tie into the festival. In any event, the festival seemed less like a rally and more like a gathering.

On Sunday afternoon, novelist Jennifer Haigh read from ”Mercy Street,” her seventh and latest book. The roots of the novel are from Haigh’s experience volunteering at a women’s clinic, passing by protesters weekly to enter. She began to wonder what the effect must be on daily workers. She wrote the novel well before the Supreme Court made the novel’s varying perspectives on abortion especially timely. She didn’t outline the novel (a recurring and surprising m.o. for the conference), writing instead one or two key moments and following the consequences. Before writing, though, she writes voluminous entries about characters, so she comes to know them. Just as she knows her brother well and can predict the sorts of thoughts he might have in a given situation, so, too, she comes to know her characters. For one character who opposed abortion, she drew on people she knew in Appalachia, where she grew up. (Haigh’s scheduled co-panelist Ann Leary was unable to attend, her husband having contracted COVID.)

The last panel of the festival for me featured two Vermont farmers who anchored novels in nature. Nathaniel Ian Miller, who wrote “The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven,” raises cows outside of Montpelier; Brad Kessler, who wrote “North,” raises goats in Sandgate, on the smallest goat farm in the state. (He dropped off two wheels of goat cheese at the Co-op before his talk.) Not surprisingly, both see a link between culture and agriculture, with both needing to be informed by, as Kessler said, “landscapes, seasons and soil.” Kessler would go further and say there is “no such thing as nature writing, just writing.”

In 2012, with a new move to Vermont, a wife and new baby, Miller upped and went to the Arctic Circle on a two-week fellowship. He had in mind to write a survival story modeled on explorer Roald Amundsen. While there, the small group was dropped off in an isolated spot near the North Pole, where the only structure visible was a hut — temporary home for the group — built by a trapper and trader named Stockholm Sven. While other artists busied themselves taking pictures and listening to weird arctic noises, Miller, the only writer in the group, became fascinated with the notion of living in this remote spot, trying to capture signs still visible in the cabin of Sven’s existence. Amundsen became Stockholm Sven, and in turn, “The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven.”

Kessler’s novel is set at the time Trump becomes president. An undocumented Somali woman seeks to flee the country (the common jest of the time an urgent quest for her), making her way northward through Vermont toward the Canadian border. There, her life becomes entangled with an Afghan war vet and a monk. The Somali character is a composite of people Kessler knew in Africa and the Somali community in Burlington.

So with that exotic tale, the festival was at an end.

I’m left with a whirl of images, emotions and thoughts conjured up by impressive writers, talented journeyman actors collected for a one-time performance, now off on their own separate paths. Audience members dispersed, too. And new journeys await, this time in books. I’ll leave the last words to Nathaniel Ian Miller, who noted something astounding, almost in passing. His novel, “The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven” received 200 rejections before it received one true acceptance. And here he was, reading at the Brattleboro Literary Festival.