The Bookshelf: Ernest Hebert on Poetry, Prose, and the Music of Everyday Language

Nov 23, 2017

Ernest Hebert is best known for his novels. His first book, The Dogs of March, was published in 1979 and cited for excellence by the Hemingway Foundation. It was the first of seven novels in his Darby Chronicles series, which painted a vivid portrait of working class life in rural New Hampshire. 

(Scroll down to the end to read Ernest Hebert's top five reading recommendations.)

Now the 76-year-old Hebert, who retired from teaching at Dartmouth College a few years ago, has published something new: a collection of poetry that includes some of his own artwork. It's called The Contrarian Voice.

Down in the basement of his and his wife Medora's modest red cape in Westmoreland, N.H. is where Hebert keeps his writing studio. "This is where I work," he says. "The rest of the house belongs to Medora."

The floors are concrete, and it's slightly colder here than it was upstairs. The windows offer a view of Hebert's woodpile, stone walls, and a forest of red oak, birch, and beech trees. He says he loves the view.

"But I don't look at it," he says. "Because when I'm working, I don't look want to look at the view. So I have my equipment faced away from the view."

Now that he's retired, he spends more time down here, writing, editing, and drawing—working from five different electronic devices. "And I move back and forth from the supine position on my couch to my chair that I slide back and forth."

"Why do you use so many different devices?" I asked. 

"Because I'm crazy," he replies.

I couldn't help but laugh. "No, really."

"No, I mean, really," Hebert says. "There's a kind of madness to the way I work. And you know, the minute things aren't going well, I change my equipment."

When he's plotting a novel, though, this is not the place. He gets in his car and he drives.

"Usually by the time I get to New Mexico, I have a plot. I drive all day. I used to talk into one of those old push button tape recorders and now I use my phone."

At night, during these journeys, he writes notes based on these tapes. He doesn't keep these tapes, by the way. I asked—because how cool would that be, to hear Ernest Hebert thinking out loud about what happens to Howard Elman, the man at the center of the Darby Chronicles?

Hebert's most recent novel, Howard Elman's Farewell, was published a couple years ago, but Elman hasn't gone silent. Hebert's new poetry collection has a variety of poems written in Elman's voice. Some of these poems appeared in his novels.

"I actually came of age as a poet at Keene State College," Hebert says. "I remember reading a poem by T.S. Eliot called “Preludes” that had a profound effect on me. I thought, this poem has made me feel like a better person. If I could do that for other people, my life would have some meaning. That’s when I became a writer." 

Ernest Hebert in his basement writing studio at his home in Westmoreland, N.H.
Credit Peter Biello

NHPR: What do you think it was that drove you to write this collection of poetry?

Hebert: What drove me to write The Contrarian Voice is what I see as the decline in the fortunes of ordinary working people. My father was a millworker. My mother was a nurse. I never had a middle class job until I was thirty-one years old and went to work at a newspaper. Before that, I did all these menial jobs. So many of my mentors were working people, especially working men. And I’d seen this decline in their fortunes—both financially and in a lot of other ways.

How do you know when the story you want to tell is a poem as opposed to a piece of prose?

When I start to write, I tend to do it intuitively and sometimes, even when I’m writing fiction, I will break up the language into lines like a poem and then eventually put it back into paragraph form. Sometimes I’ll be talking and I’ll write something, or I’ll hear something, and it’ll sound like verse.

I was interviewing a guy once. He was a gardener and he had a strong New Hampshire accent and he said, “I like rocks, and I like rocks of some size.” Well, if you analyze that, it’s a perfect anapestic line.

Anapest would be, duh duh DUH. I remember the word Tennessee as being an anapest.

“I like rocks, and I like rocks, of some size.” It’s quite beautiful to hear that common speech from people.

You’ve been writing about New Hampshire in your books for years. What do you think it is about New Hampshire that makes it such fertile ground for storytelling?

Well, I don’t know. I think I’m mildly agoraphobic. When I leave New Hampshire, I feel unsettled. When I was in graduate school at Stanford—you’d think that Stanford would be this great place and California would be this warm, sunny place. All I could feel was homesickness. There was an ache to it.

You’ve written this book of poetry. Are you still writing prose?

I am. I have two projects I’m working on now. But I don’t know if I’m going to try to publish them, or if I’ll even finish them before I kick the bucket. It takes me a long time to write a book.

I write fast. I used to be a newspaper reporter. I can knock it out. But to get it right, time has to go by. I work literally all day. I write and I draw and I write and I draw. I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want to travel. I have no hobbies. I just want to do what I want to do until they take me away.

Ernest Hebert's Top Five Reading Recommendations

1.   Postcards by Annie Proulx. “Annie Proulx is my favorite living writer. Postcards was her first novel. It's a story of decline. Her next novel, The Shipping News, which has a similar track as Postcards, is a story of ascendancy. A stroke of good (or bad) luck can make a life.”

2.   A Reckoning by May Sarton. “When I was coming of age as a writer in the 1970s I wanted to write about the secret interior life that almost all of us lead and that often comes into conflict with our day-to-day life. A Reckoning showed me the way.”

3.   The One-Way Bridge by Cathie Pelletier. “I loved this book, because I recognized the characters, so North Country in their sensibility, good people, but stubborn and contrary to a fault.”

4.   Continental Drift by Russell Banks. “This is my candidate for the best novel of the 20th Century.”

5.   More Spit Than Polish by Florence Tolman. “This is a memoir by a Nelson, New Hampshire woman writing about her mother-in-law, Sarah ‘Sadie’ Tolman, how one woman's savvy and spirit transformed a small, New Hampshire hill town. I have a soft spot in my heart for this town, because three of its people, Newt Tolman, May Sarton and Lael Wertenbaker, were mentors to me. It was Sadie who created the conditions to bring a literary flowering to Nelson, and Florence ‘Floppy’ Tolman who told the story.”