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William Carpenter


William Carpenter

My father was a college teacher but in those days faculty salaries were pretty monastic so I grew up in working-class neighborhoods. In Watertown we lived near the train yards and I hung out with a gang of kids who used to hitch rides on the boxcars being shunted back and forth. One day we got caught and I showed up at home in a police car. Then, in the fifth grade, we moved to a mill town in central Maine. Most of the neighbors were taught by nuns in the parochial schools. I was the first protestant they'd ever seen, and they had to ask the mother superior if they could play with me. "You can," the nun told them, "but don't get too attached to him. He'll be going to hell."

My summers took me to another world, thanks to a grandmother who had an old house on Cape Cod and arranged a shore cottage for us right on the tide line. My grandfather was a refrigerator repairman winters but in the summer he was a professional sportfishing guide with a powerful 22-foot inboard skiff, the "Nike II." We would go out trolling for stripers off Nauset and in the Cape Cod canal. Nobody in my high school ever read a word they didn't have to, but my summer friends were boarding-school kids who were reading Salinger's Nine Stories, Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, Shaw'sMan and Superman and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. I kept reading till I got a Ph.D in English and a teaching job at the University of Chicago. It was the worst possible time to start an academic career. My students smoked dope in class and showed up naked in the cafeteria line. They left for Canada, faked psychoses, shot up and starved themselves to avoid the draft. My office building was occupied by the SDS. The high point was teaching Tolstoy's War and Peace five years in a row to anyone that would listen.

I had been reading Loren Eiseley and Rachel Carson, and I fled east with my young family to help start an environmental college on a Maine coast island. I started writing poems and published 3 poetry books in the 80's, then wrote my first novel, A Keeper of Sheep, about a college girl dealing with the AIDS crisis. Meanwhile my son had gone off to college and I started another family in another home, this one on the water overlooking Penobscot Bay, in year-round contact with the boats and mariners of the Maine coast. I started reading sea stories to my young son, winters in his upstairs bedroom and summers in the cozy forward cabin of our boat. After working through theAeneid and the Odyssey it seems natural that I tried my hand at my own story of a sailor toughened by years at sea and faced with the sirens and sea monsters of his time.

My favorite late 20th century novels are American Psycho and The Satanic Verses, and behind them, 100 Years of Solitude and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Their brand of surreal and grotesque comedy seems like the best route through and the complex negativities of our era. At the moment I'm working through the novels of the Egyptian writer Naguib Mafouz. A lot can be learned about the present world from Mafouz' insights into Islamic family life of a few generations back.

WILLIAM CARPENTER teaches literature at the College of the Atlantic in Maine. He is the author of three books of poetry and a previous novel, A Keeper of Sheep.

William Carpenter

Books by William Carpenter