The Seafarer Inn

Many of you already know that we lost my mother-in-law on January 27th. Here is her obituary in the Boothbay Register. The dedication in Fogged Inn, the fourth Maine Clambake Mystery, reads:

This book is dedicated to my mother-in-law, Olga Carito, the incredible proprietor of the Seafarer Inn, and the person who introduced me to Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

A life-long reader with wide tastes, Olga loved that Fogged Inn was dedicated to her. In her honor, I’m rerunning a previous post I wrote about Olga, the Seafarer, and some of her guests.

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I’ve just returned from 10 days at the Seafarer Inn in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Sitting in one of the rocking chairs on the Inn’s wide front porch watching the sailboats glide across the harbor is one of my favorite things in the world.

The Seafarer Inn

Your hostess at the Inn is my mother-in-law, Olga. Ignore the first name, which came from a novel her mother favored in the 1920s. Her maiden name, DiIanni, is much more meaningful. Like the Marchmains of Brideshead, the DiIannis of Olga’s generation are cursed with a dangerous charm, albeit in a version I like to think of as “Marchmain lite”—without the grandeur, but also with far less alcohol.

For almost 15 years, Olga has put the DiIanni charm to good use running The Seafarer as a Bed & Breakfast Inn. Often have a reserved mid-western couple hoping for a quiet night in Boothbay been surprised, after the communal breakfast and ritual picture taking, to find themselves enthusiastically hugging and kissing Olga good-bye on the big front porch, promising to come again.

Some guests go even further. Olga has a small but fanatical following who seem to like nothing better than to come, stay for several days, and do her chores for her. These guests arrive every year to wash the lawn furniture, pull the weeds, hang pictures and do other rounds of endless activity and then pay her for the privilege.

My mother-in-law Olga and my kids on the front porch of the Seafarer. 1990

We, her children, have wondered about this for some time. Appropriate to its architecture, The Seafarer is decorated in the Victorian manner, which is to say that every available surface, either horizontal or vertical, is covered with—something. We gave up moving any of this stuff around long ago (except occasionally to clear off a chair so we can sit down), because we found that liberating any space at all only created an invitation to fill it up again. Therefore, we have often been mystified by the sudden appearance something like a heavy bureau in a third floor bedroom.

“Picked it up at the dump,” my mother-in-law will proudly explain. “Solid mahogany. Can you imagine someone getting rid something like this?”

“Perhaps it was someone who already had three or four bureaus per bedroom,” my husband will suggest, gazing around meaningfully.

“How does she even get this stuff in here?” he would hiss soon as she was out of earshot, imagining house elves or magic mice.

“I think,” I answered, “It’s the damn guests.

My suspicions were initially aroused when I answered the phone at the Inn one day. “Hi,” proclaimed the chipper voice at the other end. “It’s Steve. I was just calling to make my reservation.”

“When did you want to come, Steve?” I asked.

“Second week in October, the same as always.” Steve seemed a little offended that I wasn’t aware of this. “I come every year to see the foliage and put up the storm windows.”

The Harbor

This year, I finally got the chance to catch the action first hand. While I was staying at the Inn, Al, Marsha and Miles O’Brien arrived from Peabody, Mass., for a two night stay. Olga actually closed the Inn two summers ago, but that has not stopped the most fanatical of the chore-doers from coming, even though now the place is now 100% amenity-less. For these people, making your own bed and breakfast at the Bed & Breakfast only adds to the appeal. I have to say that on the surface the O’Briens seemed like perfectly normal—even nice–people, though Miles was perhaps a bit more polite than the average adolescent dragged off to a Bed & Breakfast with no TV or internet by his well-meaning but clueless parents.

The minute they arrived, Al huddled with Olga about the to-do list. They inspected the property. He had ideas. Of course, so did she.

“Time for bed,” Al announced to his family immediately following dinner on the first night with all the anticipation normally reserved for a fishing trip or a cruise to Monhegan. “The hardware store opens at 6:00 a.m.!”

I came down the next morning to find Olga in the kitchen. “Where are Al and Marsha?” I asked.

“Marsha ran to the supermarket and Al is trimming the bushes,” she answered showing absolutely no awareness that these are not vacation activities–are, in fact, the very activities that most people go to a Bed & Breakfast to get away from.

The view from my rocker (look familiar?)

As I sat on the porch, sipping coffee and gazing at the boats in the harbor and occasionally at Al doing his Edward Scissorhands impression in the hedge, I thought I had the answer. “Ah,” I thought, “Al is one of those men who don’t know how to relax, who think puttering equals recreation.”

But Marsha put that notion to rest as soon as she returned. “I can’t get him to do a thing at home,” she said, gazing fondly at her husband who was sweating profusely while tangoing with a winsome rhododendron. “I have a to-do list and I have begged him and begged him to do just one thing on it.”

“Don’t you have to make your own bed in rehab?” my daughter Kate asked a little later. She was sitting in the rocker next to mine, painting her toenails and staring at Al, who appeared to be covered in small cuts, and, along with his hedge-clippers, was now so entangled in a lilac bush he looked like he was battling a giant squid. Kate’s furrowed brow told me she, too, was trying to understand the O’Briens.

“Yeah,” I answered, “but I think that only does something for people who are so addled they can’t make their beds at home.”

That night, Marsha reminisced at dinner. “The first time we came here was the week you opened. We were on our honeymoon. I helped you hang the curtains in the living room.”

“Is that so?” Olga replied politely.

Frankly, Marsha seemed a little hurt that Olga couldn’t remember this, but really, so many guests, so many chores…

Later, we looked at through the photo albums (assembled by guest Jeanine Weinstein, 1994-2002) trying to find pictures of the O’Briens on that fateful visit. We came up empty, though we did find snaps of the year they stained the deck.

I never did unlock the mystery of why people come to work and pay money to Olga for the privilege. Maybe it’s that deadly DiIanni charm. Or maybe their parents live far away, or are gone, and these guests want to remember what it’s like to spend a weekend doing annoying tasks with poor tools and an irritating level of supervision. Or maybe they want not so much rehab as “hab,” that feeling of satisfaction that comes from helping someone who needs the skills you have and the time you can give, and who provides friendship and connection in return.

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May Sarton … Inspiration

I hardly ever sit still without being haunted by the “undone.” I often feel exhausted, but it isn’t my work that tires (work is rest); it is the effort of pushing away the lives and needs of others before I can come to the work with any freshness and zest.

No — I didn’t write that, although those words spoke to me. I copied them into a notebook I kept 25-30 years ago and filled with inspiring quotations about writing, or life.

The woman (you guessed it was a woman, right?) who wrote those words was poet, novelist and memoirist May Sarton (1912-1995) in her Journal of a Solitude (1973).

For those of you who don’t know Sarton and her work: She was born in Belgium, and immigrated with her family to the United States in 1914, when German troops invaded Belgium during World War I. Her father was a science historian who worked at Harvard; her mother was an artist. May studied acting and writing, and her first collection of poetry was published in 1937.

Her poetry and novels and memoirs all circle around (and often strike deep at the heart of) love. Love of friends, love of country, love of nature, and lost loves. In Sarton’s case, she and her lovers were lesbian. But her books have universal appeal. I loved her novels, but especially treasured her memoirs, which she wrote after she moved to York, Maine. She wrote of being alone, of growing old, of publishing chores as well as joys, and of gardening and nature, which restored her.

It is never a waste of time to be outdoors, and never a waste of time to lie down and rest even for a couple of hours. It is then that images float up and then that I plan my work. But it is a waste of time to see people who have only a social surface to show.

Sarton’s words spoke to me at a time in my life when I felt depressed and overwhelmed by family and corporate obligations, and was struggling to write fiction. I dreamed of moving to Maine, and having hours to write. I’d been a strategic planner for a corporation; now I was planning my future, making seemingly endless lists of what I needed to do, financially, in my home, emotionally, to make the move I desperately needed. To prepare my daughters to be independent. To care for my mother, who I knew would come with me. To eventually re-learn living alone, which I hadn’t done since my twenties.

Loving someone means helping them to be more themselves, which can be different from being what you’d like them to be, although often they turn out the same. 

Through her memoirs I saw May Sarton struggling with the physical world. Chipmunks dug up her daffodil bulbs; her back ached when she worked in the garden she loved; reading to audiences across the country exhausted her. I saw her balancing her grief when her favorite cat killed one of the birds in her yard that had delighted her. I felt her tears as she remembered past relationships that, she admitted, she had not handled well, and therefore lost. I wondered with her who would drive her to the hospital, if she should become ill. I rejoiced with her at summer days, and envied her habit of drinking champagne every afternoon.

Because if not now, then when?

May Sarton had a stroke in 1990, and required a nurse. She could no longer garden, or walk with her cherished dog to the sea. But she still loved the coast of Maine, and her home, and, when she could, she continued to write. She dictated her final journals. She still drank champagne in the afternoon.

She died of breast cancer in 1995, three years before I moved full-time to Maine.

Shortly after I settled my mother and I into my family’s home near the Sheepscot River, I read in a local newspaper that the content of Sarton’s home (except for her literary work, which was deeded to a library) was being auctioned. My mother was ill; I couldn’t attend. But I smiled as I read a listing of what she had left, and saw it included an untouched case of champagne.

She never deprived herself of what brought her joy. She had a life well-lived.  An example to me, and I believe, to all of us.

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Lies, Damn Lies, and Alternative Facts

“Writers are liars, my dear, surely you know that by now? And yet, things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” –Neil Gaiman

I hear this idea a lot from people, that fiction writers are all liars and that therefore we have it easy because we just make things up. And it’s hard in the current climate not to think about truth and lies and facts and alternative facts (whatever that means). But acknowledging something is a lie implies there are facts, that there is truth, a view of the world or a situation or a person that we can, if we don’t agree on it, recognize it as factual. (Maybe she meant counterfactual facts.)

Read Ursula Le Guin on alternative facts.

Writers lie for these reasons: to entertain, to instruct, to display, to explain the world as they see it. What a writer cannot do, and what our esteemed—and steamed-up—chief executive is doing, is create stories from a vacuum, from unprovable assertions, unrecognizable emotions, and unbelievable characteristics. What writers are required to provide in their lies is verisimilitude—the art of being believable.

I write, in Solo Act and in other places, about the city of Boston and it is my Boston. Sometimes I add a street where there is none, sometimes I describe the city as it was in 1969 and sometimes as it is in 2017. But I’m very careful not to put a 14,000 foot mountain within sight of downtown or set the Pacific Ocean on the city’s west flank.

There’s sometimes a tendency in fiction to go the other way, to overspecify and hew to a line of accuracy that would torture a research librarian. It’s one of the reasons I find it so hard to read someone like Tom Clancy, who is specific about the armaments and vehicles practically down to the millimetric measurements of the wheel nuts. It feels a foolish consistency and obscures the fact that the characters are so thin. For the interesting lies are all about characters, people, not the caliber of a machine gun.

On the other hand, I do cross my own line. In my latest novel, Hide the Cat, a character talks about wanting to visit the Uffizi. In Rome. Leaving aside the question of whether I knew the Uffizi was in Florence, two people came up to me after a recent reading to correct the story. But both of them, in different ways, understood that I might have put that misunderstanding into a character’s mouth as a way of displaying her ignorance or her innocence about other parts of the world.

For people writing crime fiction, the insistence on accuracy over verisimilitude quite often revolves around firearms. I know more than one crime writer who’s gotten a message from a reader to the effect that “Well you know your guns, so you must be all right.” Elmore Leonard famously had a character in one book click off the safety on a revolver, thereby generating all kinds of fervent commentary. He should have known that his readership, Westerns and thrillers alike, would comprise a disproportionate number of gun aficionados. And he never made a similar mistake again, hiring a retired Florida law enforcement official to read his drafts for firearm accuracy. (At least I think that’s the story—I could be lying.)

So, my point? Sure, sweat the details. But the whole damn story is big lie anyway. And what’s the mark of a good liar? That you believe him (or her). No amount of attention to detail, for example, will overcome a tendency to put people into situations their characters wouldn’t take on or transgress the laws of physics (unless you’re writing science fiction). And even then, you’d better make it believable. The last thing a reader wants is to mistrust you.

Of course we’re liars, for goodness’ sake—we’re making stories up. But our lies don’t hurt people, deny them humanity or basic rights, try to set a 14,000 foot mountain in the middle of Boston Common. We want to be good liars: good in the sense of competence, that our lies are believable, and good in the sense that our motives are clean. We are not lying to you for any other reason than to entertain. We are trying to give you something, not take away.

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Weekend Update: February 4-5, 2017

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Dick Cass (Monday) Lea Wait (Tuesday), Barb Ross (Wednesday), Brendan Rielly (Thursday) and Maureen Milliken (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

 

 

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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Bright Lights! Red Carpet!

By Brenda Buchanan

Nine wonderful actors brought the work of five Maine crime writers to life Monday night in front of a nearly-full house at Portland Stage Company.

It was an absolute blast, the tonic we all needed on a cold January night.

Scenes from my first Joe Gale book, Quick Pivot, Gerry Boyle’s Straw Man, Paul Doiron’s The Poacher’s Son, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One Was A Soldier and Chris Holm’s entire short story Eight Pounds were given staged readings by an enthusiastic and talented troupe of actors.

The marvelous actors. Andrew Harris standing, and seated, left to right, Bess Welden, Courtney Cook, Whip Hubley, Ross Cowan, Elizabeth Freeman, Daniel Noel, Christopher Davis and Hannah Cordes. The set in the background is for Arsenic and Old Lace, PSC’s current mainstage production.

The program. A keepsake, for sure.

Several of the actors are professionals—members of Actor’s Equity Association—who are Portland Stage Affiliate Artists. The others possess impressive resumés from their work at Portland Stage and other area theaters. To a person, they did a superb job.

Julia, who studied theater as an undergraduate, observed after the performances that a staged reading is a true test of an actor’s chops. Without costumes, props or sets, the audience is fully focused on the actors and their ability to inhabit the characters. And inhabit they did.

In the case of Quick Pivot, Whip Hubley became dogged newspaper reporter Joe Gale and Courtney Cook really got into the skin of Joan Slater, the wistful former lover of Joe’s late mentor, Paulie Finnegan.

Yours truly with Actor Whip Hubley, who read the parts of both my newspaper reporter protagonist Joe Gale and Julia’s police chief Russ Van Alstyne during the staged readings.

I can’t even describe the thrill I felt when the actors read the words I’d written, and how rewarding it was to hear the audience react. It was equally exciting to watch the actors perform passages written by Gerry, Paul, Julia and Chris, four writers I hold in the highest regard.

As writers, the task of preparing scenes for submission was a lesson on the difference between writing for readers and writing for performers. We were asked to submit two or three 10-minute-long, dialogue-heavy passages for the director’s consideration, each with two or three characters.  The work needed to be adapted for the stage by trimming out the words, phrases and sentences that would bog down the dialogue. It was a bit of a challenge to adopt a different mind-set, but the payoff was tremendous.

Left to right, Paul Doiron, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Chris Holm, me and Gerry Boyle.

Enormous thanks go to Director Eileen Phelan, who proposed the idea of staged readings back in November. Her discerning choice of scenes and skill matching actors to parts was critical to the evening’s success.

Chris Holm had us all cracking up during the post-performance discussion with the audience.

Bess Welden of Portland Stage, who acted in Paul’s and Julia’s scenes, also did a great job moderating the post-performance discussion with the enthusiastic and engaged audience.

This was the second collaboration between local crime writers and Portland Stage.  Last year several authors took part in an audience talk-back after a production of PSC’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. This week’s staged readings took the relationship a step further, and there’s already talk about doing it again next year so more crime writers can experience the thrill of watching their characters come to life on stage.

Bright lights, red carpet? Bring it on!

 

 

 

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