David Carkeet's visit to Kingdom Books yesterday opened some great windows into his choices in writing his new crime novel, From Away. I especially liked his explanation of how he chose the opening moment of the book, when Denny Braintree, a model railroads fan "from away," slides off a highway during an April snowstorm (and yes, we had snow here for the past two days -- but for those who asked, the daffodils did survive, as shown for this week in our big photo above).
"I chose April because I wanted both winter and a bear," Carkeet revealed. Only in that so-called spring month in Vermont could he package the two conditions.
Actually, "From Away" started as an attempt at nonfiction by Carkeet and his wife, a couple of years after their 2003 move from St. Louis, MO, to a Vermont town close to the state capital of Montpelier. Their learning curve was steep and sometimes hilarious: figuring out whether to hire someone to plow the driveway in winter, managing wood acquisition/storage/burning for heat, confronting annual invasions of ladybugs, finding out that mice invade the car -- one popped up in the cabin as Carkeet was driving! -- and how to ban them, and mastering some of the local lingo. Carkeet is himself a linguist and taught the pleasures of language at college level, so even the phrase "from away" delighted him ("where's the noun, the verb?").
But this long-time novelist found the rigors of nonfiction less enjoyable than he'd expected, and as the abrasive but ultimately likeable character of Dennis Braintree formed, he kidnapped his own title and ran off with it to the landscape of this mostly merry caper novel. Much of his commentary around reading from the book yesterday reflected on the possibility of change for the socially sad Braintree. And the book lovers here responded enthusiastically to the humor and warmth of this author and his work.
However, he's back to the genre now, and bringing it the maturity and complexity of someone who savors life and its ironies, coincidences, and fresh phrases. It's good to have that trained set of Carkeet ears exploring Vermont now -- and playing with this distinctive region within his mysteries and his take on what it is to be human. I thought of Carkeet as a neighbor of mine paused to say hello today and noted, standing in a puddled driveway under the cloudy sky: "Nice morning. It's not snowing."