NEWFANE — A local librarian won a 2020 Vermont Writers' Prize for her short fiction inspired by the state constitution.
The main character in "The Key Word," by Erica Walch, is a fairly new selectwoman in Vermont named Susan, who learns to be open-minded and listen to the people — taking everyone's ideas on certain issues into account. She also learns to ask questions when she doesn't understand something.
At first, Susan believes that her idea of the town's stores being open on Sundays should be a "no-brainer." But her thinking changes when she hears some folks say that they go hunting on Sundays and that shop owners don't mind having a day off.
The key word is actually "and" — a character in the short story notes that the Vermont Constitution is riddled with it.
Walch, 51, librarian at the Moore Free Library, moved to Newfane in 2017 and is restoring an 18th-century farm and house there. She recently took the time to answer questions about her prize-winning short story, writing in general and the Green Mountain State.
Q: How long did it take you to write this piece?
A: About a month.
Q: What is the message you were trying to convey?
A: I wasn't trying to convey a message. I wrote something that I hoped reflected how government works in some small Vermont towns and I hoped that people could come away from the story with more than one idea of what happened. And if the story inspired anyone to read the Vermont constitution, that would be great.
Q: How did you decide on the select board topic?
A: The idea of "Freedom and Unity" is profound. Vermont is a very special place and this motto is a large part of what makes it so. Those three words encapsulate the state constitution, which is an incredibly well-thought out vision for society and governance. I had been reading the Vermont constitution closely, as well as books on Vermont laws and history and several "I came to Vermont from a city and it transformed me" memoirs and I believe all those influenced what I wrote.
Q: Is there a part of the story that was difficult for you?
A: Keeping it under 1,500 words (that was one rule, while it also had to be an unpublished entry and written by a Vermont resident).
Q: What could you tell me about you and your family?
A: I was born and raised in Springfield, Mass., but have also lived in England and Italy. My maternal grandfather was from Vermont but moved to Massachusetts for work in the early 20th century, like many of his generation. He moved to Hampden, Mass., and built his own house and had a small homestead farm. He was an artist and a contrarian and a nature lover and life observer, all traits that I now attribute to his Vermont roots.
Q: What are some specific things that you like about Vermont?
A: I love everything about life in Vermont. I get a real sense that people in the state actually love their neighbors in the truest sense of that commandment, and I think that may be due to the profound motto of "freedom and unity."
I have found that people are collaborative rather than competitive in professional and business settings, and want others to succeed and don't see that success as threatening. I love the entrepreneurial streak in Vermonters and that people can take risks and get up and try again if their ventures fail. I love that so many people are game for bartering and see a value in services and goods outside of paper currency. I love the way people drive by and give a thumbs up to strangers who are outside working on their property and I attribute that to a shared feeling of stewardship of the land and built environment. I love the libraries of Vermont and especially our library in Newfane. I see that Vermonters care about words and ideas and learning. I love and agree with the sense of Vermont exceptionalism, and I'm a big fan of the state's constitution.
Q: What do you like best about writing?
A: That it helps me clarify my own thoughts and explore ideas. I studied philosophy in college and I never got to an understanding of philosophical arguments until I wrote about them. It's the same way with translation (I have been an Italian to English translator). By rewriting a text in another language, I get into a deep relationship with the original. So writing is a satisfying internal intellectual process, and sharing that writing with others is a way to enter into conversation with others.
Q: What are some things you have written in the past?
A: I have published a translation of Italian writer Ada Negri's collection of stories titled "Le Strade" and also published a Nancy Drew-type mystery that I co-wrote under the pseudonym Anne Cross.
Q: Are you currently writing anything?
A: I'm thinking about the societal shifts that are currently happening and I'm reading Gothic novels (Sarah Perry and Sylvia Townsend Warner) and watching a lot of Folk Horror films (Midsommar, The Wicker Man) and I think these will probably come out in writing.