The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features Edie Clark, who has been writing for Yankee Magazine for years, sharing her observations about gardening and life. Her new book, As Simple as That, is a collection of her essays, many of which appeared in Yankee Magazine. Take a listen to Smith's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below his book picks.
Edie's Top 5 Book Recommendations
1. Independent People by Halldor Laxness. "An epic novel by Nobel prize-winning Halldor Laxness, the novel, published in 1946, presents a sprawling life story of a strong creative man who works his way to free himself of debt and own his own land, still a scrawny living but it is his. An indictment of materialism and capitalism, the book reveals the hard work necessary in a harsh and demanding landscape. Wit and irony season the book against the backdrop of Iceland’s challenging landscape. Grim and beautiful."
2. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. "Poignant novel about the friendship between two couples. The husbands are colleagues at a university and the couples often summer together at a cottage in northern Vermont. The tale spins from the time they meet in 1937 until the painful death from cancer of Charity, one of the wives. The book explores life in academia, the unique friendship of two couples, the exquisite beauty of a Vermont summer, and the crushing reality of the death of one, after a long friendship."
3. This Old Man by Roger Angell. "Angell is known for his sports writing in The New Yorker but this is a collection of essays about living and aging to the fullest–Angell is now 92. Moving and real, these essays take you to Maine and New York City, insights into his stepfather, E. B. White and many other literary lights."
4. One Man’s Meat by E. B. White. "The fact that this collection of essays from The New Yorker has been in print for 57 years should say it all. Essays of broad scope and wise grasp sashay through the Maine landscape and lend his keen observations of life along the way."
5. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. "A novel of harsh landscape and difficult lives and relationships. Quoyle, a third rate newspaperman, retreats from a painful and unpleasant marriage and returns to his ancestral home on the stark coast of Newfoundland. He takes with him his two daughters and all the resentments. What emerges is magical and darkly comic. Brilliant."
Tell us about how you started writing these essays.
Well it was 1990. The editor—he wasn’t the editor at the time, we were colleagues, we were both senior editors at Yankee. My husband had died, and I was on the road a lot, and he thought it would be really nice if I had something I could do at home, at least until I got past the initial mourning. So he suggested that I write this column. I mean, it wasn’t up to him, but we proposed it.
I had never even thought of being a columnist. To me, it meant being really prepared, having a stash of subjects ahead of me as I went. But I plunged into it. At first, his only guidance was that it would be about my garden. I loved gardening, but I’m not an expert gardener. I’m not like these master gardeners with the perfect hedges and flowers with the right number of petals and so forth. So we started with gardening but it spread out to be almost anything you could think of, so long as it was rooted in my place, which at the time was in Chesham, which is a little village part of Harrisville. And then, through a series of circumstances, I moved to Mary’s Farm.
And so your book is divided into two parts.
That first place where you started.
It was called, “The Garden at Chesham Depot.”
And then “The View from Mary’s Farm.”
And now it’s just called “Mary’s Farm.” I guess they don’t need anything more.
So you wrote a lot about gardening, heavy on the gardening when you started, then you branched to other subjects.
You write about your husband’s truck, and about being in the state of Georgia during a New England snowstorm. It seems like, in each thing you describe—whether it’s gardening or travel or a truck or cellar (not a basement, a cellar)—you’re describing some essential element of what it means to be not just a New Englander, but what it means to be alive. Is that what you set out to do?
Not at all. I really, especially the first years, I was kind of winging it, you know? It was money. Hating to make that bold statement, but I love it, I love to write, so it’s the perfect place for me. But I didn’t—I wasn’t that purposeful at first. I didn’t really know what I was doing at first. I just—I’d think about rhubarb. Well, I tell my students, you know, writing is about discovery, so if you start out with rhubarb, you’re going to end up in a much loftier place, but you have to start out with rhubarb first.
Rhubarb being this particular metaphor, for writing.
A little bit, you know.
I love the ease with which you dig up these metaphors. Eggplant, for example, turns into this metaphor for having hope. Trying to grow an eggplant in New England is almost a fool’s errand, but sometimes, sometimes you get an eggplant.
Yeah, this year I had the best eggplant year ever, but you know, it’s not that that hot of a summer, I think you need a hot summer for eggplant, but I can’t explain it.
My experience reading these essays—they seem to dangle at the end in a way that encourages contemplation. I may have asked this in a different form already, but is this something that you planned, or…?
A lot of people ask about my endings and again, I can’t explain. I kind of know when I’m finished. And that’s with my journalism, too. I’m not, you know—I’m not going like John Irving, who says, “I write the last sentence first, and then I write the whole thing.” I could never do that. Good heavens! But when it feels right, it’s right, and I do know that feeling. It’s almost the same, like, these essays are practically all 600 words, and I don’t have to look at my parser, I just know when it’s 600 words. Not that it’ll end up being those 600 words, but I just have a feeling about it when it’s over. That’s what I wanted to say and it’s done.
You wrote a little bit about being alone. And I’m wondering if, you know, you wrote about in 2007. Nine years later, are you still alone?
I am. Probably always will be. I’m just used to it and just very happy in my home, this beautiful farm, looking out on Mount Monadnock. I have Lyme Disease, so I’m a little bit disabled, which makes being alone a lot harder, so, I don’t know about that. I go day to day.
And how does it influence your writing, being alone?
Oh, it’s perfect. I mean, you know, I certainly was able to write when Paul was alive because he was such a respectful, appreciative person to be with. He loved my writing, and I would always read him what I had written and I would take cues from the way he listened. He probably was very subjective, he seemed to like everything.
That’s the kind of editor you want.
Yes, you want those readers. Yeah, I can’t really see another life than what I have, but I guess I may have to think about anyway.