'New Voices' sound off on timely topics

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CHESTER — New Englander Dan Cluchey was an Obama administration speechwriter and advisor on such issues as health care and trade when he fled the nation's capital to nurture a career penning fiction.

If only the former Washington staffer had foreseen the recent dawning of "alternative facts."

"I find it all ironic," admits Cluchey, author of the new novel "The Life of the World to Come" and one of five debut writers at Misty Valley Books' 23rd annual "New Voices" literary event Saturday.

"This is a book about a character who faces a sudden and unwelcome break from the status quo," he told a crowd at Chester's historic old stone First Universalist Parish, "and has to deal with a sense of impending doom."

When people used to ask if the novel was an allegory upon its publication last summer, Cluchey said no. Then Donald Trump won election as president.

"Now it's a rich parable," the author noted only half-jokingly as Trump's inauguration has springboarded George Orwell's dystopian vision "1984" to the top of Amazon.com's best-seller list.

Ever since Dennis Lehane appeared in 1995 before scoring his best-selling "Mystic River," "New Voices" has a long history of introducing up-and-coming names, be it Gregory Maguire, who saw his novel "Wicked" turn into a Broadway musical; Elizabeth Strout, who'd go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for "Olive Kitteridge," or Colum McCann, who'd nab the National Book Award for "Let the Great World Spin."

Cluchey took the stage Saturday with four fellow novelists boasting equally unique backgrounds.

New Yorker Adelia Saunders wrote "Indelible" after earning a master's degree from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, teaching English in Paris, assisting an agricultural economist in Uganda and reporting for an independent newswire at the United Nations.

Philadelphia native Tom McAllister drafted "The Young Widower's Handbook" (just selected by Barnes & Noble as a 2017 "Discover Great New Writers" title) after penning "Bury Me in My Jersey: A Memoir of My Father, Football, and Philly."

Brooklyn resident Rebecca Dinerstein came up with "The Sunlit Night" after traveling to Norway to learn the language and write a bilingual collection of poems ("Lofoten," deemed "exquisite" by Cosmopolitan magazine) reflecting that country's two extreme seasons: 24 hours of darkness and 24 hours of light.

And Kaitlyn Greenidge finished "We Love You, Charlie Freeman" after assisting Colson Whitehead, winner of the National Book Award for "The Underground Railroad," and visiting Vermont as a Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English scholar and Johnson State College emerging writer.

Greenidge's work, deemed "terrifically auspicious" by the New York Times, is described as a comedic yet cautionary tale about a black family that moves into a white New England neighborhood to teach sign language to a chimpanzee.

Sound far-fetched? It's actually inspired by several true stories.

"This book is an attempt to join in the conversation that the United States has had since its founding, our never-ending story and cry and argument about race," Greenidge said. "It's an attempt to make peace with the language we have now, in this moment — broken and inadequate and wondrous all at once."

This year's "New Voices" marked a change in ownership for its sponsors at Misty Valley Books. Bill and Lynne Reed, shopkeepers since 2001, recently sold the 30-year-old shop to Phoenix Books, which operates stores in Burlington, Essex and Rutland.

New owner Michael DeSanto opened Saturday's event by reporting that 74-year-old Northeast Kingdom novelist Howard Frank Mosher, who died over the weekend of cancer, just received Burlington City Arts $10,000 Herb Lockwood Prize for "having a beneficent influence on the Vermont community."

"As an independent bookstore struggling against the powers that be, we wouldn't be able to do it without someone who is as incredibly loyal as Howard," DeSanto said. "He never missed coming whenever I asked. If you want to get a real flavor of Vermont, read one of his books."

DeSanto hoped the weekend gathering would launch a new generation of talent.

"'New Voices' is a signature event," he said, "and we're looking forward to continuing the tradition."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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