Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tell Me a Story: Clavin Fisher & Stephen Minot

 (From The Way-Back Files – The Farmington Valley Herald,
                                        1980 - 81.) 

Early in my career, I had the good fortune to interview two very fine, thoughtful writers: Clavin Fisher (1912 – 2006) and Stephen Minot (1927 -2010). They were incredibly kind and supportive, and they quickly became part of my stable of regular interviewees. This quote by Elizabeth Goudge, herself a wonderful spinner of tales, sums them both up for me: 
“For storytellers know what is the source of the misplaced admiration; they as well as actors, clowns and conjurers, are the public entertainers, and from the dawn of the world the entertainers have been placed upon pedestals because they can amuse the world, make it lay aside its worries for a whole hour as it watches players upon a lighted stage, or forget its pain as it holds a book in its hands and cries aloud like a child at night-time, “Tell me a story. Light the candle and tell me a story.” 

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His enthusiasm for history and local legend dominates the conversation. And you quickly get the feeling that Clavin Fisher writes his historical children’s novels more for himself than for anyone else.

Fisher, who lives in West Simsbury, Connecticut, casually dismisses his work as “junk.” He has always been a writer but “a sort of frustrated one,” he says in that gentlemanly self-deprecating way of his. “I’d had success immediately, which ‘got’ me.” He’s referring to articles that he wrote for Our Navy and Boys’ Life back in the 1940s. The need to earn a living after the war put that dream on hold, however. Only when he retired from the Aetna Life and Casualty insurance company in Hartford was he able to purse his pet project: a children’s novel about Simsbury’s involvement in the Revolutionary War.

A Spy at Fort Ticonderoga started out as a story for Fisher’s own children, Peter and Wendy. It focuses on a young boy named Davy Holcomb, who accompanies his uncle, Captain Noah Phelps, on a spying expedition for the Connecticut and Massachusetts militias. And it has enjoyed a steady popularity with young readers as several thoroughly dog-eared copies in the local library testify.

Davy is fictional, based on the writer’s son Peter. “I wanted people to believe that he [Davy] was a real person,” Fisher says. By using a common New England surname like Holcomb, he hoped to make the boy even more “believable.” But the story itself is based almost entirely on fact. The plan to capture Fort Ticonderoga, a British stronghold on Lake Champlain, was developed by the Connecticut Committee on Safety, a forerunner of the present state legislature. At the time of the war, it served it served as a sort of transitional government.

Fisher tells me in detail how the expedition left Hartford for Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1775. Phelps was considered “a logical choice” for a leader: as a teenager, he had spied for the British during the French and Indian War. He’d also been with General Jeffrey Amherst’s troops in 1759, when the fort was originally taken from the French: his inside knowledge of the fort and his skill as a spy were “critical to victory.” Apparently not overly concerned with self-glorification or prestige, Phelps relinquished his command – first to Captain Edward Mott of New Preston, Connecticut and then to the joint leadership of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold.

“The Connecticut and Massachusetts militias were almost entirely responsible for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga,” Fisher says seriously. “The Green Mountain Boys played only a small part in it.” He goes on to explain how after the Revolution, an enterprising journalist interviewed a number of veterans and compiled these “exclusives” into a book, complete with battlefield sketches. The interviews with Allen and his Green Mountain Boys are “quite revealing” as to how much of a part they actually played in that victory. A priceless find by any historian’s estimation, the book became one of the main sources for A Spy at Fort Ticonderoga.

Fisher has an ear for a good story, and he brings some of his best stories along with him for the interview. One involves a notorious Tory colonel named Philip Skene, who owned what amounted to a “little kingdom” in New York State – 50,000 acres of land complete with mills, a general store, and a small fort, which was captured by Captain Elisha Phelps (brother to Noah) before Ticonderoga was seized. It had to be. “It would have been a dagger in their backs if they hadn’t,” Fisher explains.

Skene and his family were taken prisoner and marched down to Connecticut, but they left something behind: the crudely mummified body of Mistress Skene. Phelps and his men learned that the dead woman had enjoyed a substantial yearly income, which was to last, according to the legalese of the day, “as long as she remained above ground.” Eager not to lose the income, Skene had her mummified. “I don’t know how true this next part is,” Fisher remarks, “but they say he used to hold her hand whenever he signed the money receipts. I wanted to use the story in A Spy at Fort Ticonderoga, but I couldn’t because it was a children’s book.”

Even without this story, A Spy at Fort Ticonderoga (which was, at one point, on the New York State school program’s suggested reading list) is still a wonderful read. Fisher has a gift for making history very real to his young readers. “I get a kick out of reading and re-reading the letters kids write me,” he says happily. “One of the youngsters wrote to me that I seemed to know so much about Benedict Arnold that I must have just talked to him.”


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A sharp intelligence and an equally sharp sense of humor characterize Stephen Minot’s conversation. Hunting words is definitely his delight: a well-turned phrase or image has him practically purring. So we go off on a word expedition. “That’s good,” he says when I quote from a review I’ve just read. And it isn’t even about one of his books. He just knows a good figure of speech when he hears it.

Writing has always been a major part of his life. In addition to several novels, he has written a number of short stories and a textbook, Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. “I wrote my first novel when I was 16,” the Simsbury, Connecticut writer recalls. “I didn’t finish it, but I started it.” He laughs genially. “You see, if you do become a writer, then people will say that you knew what you were meant to be at an early age.”

There’s more to him than that, though. Minot, a former associate professor of creative writing at Trinity College in Hartford and winner of a National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) creative-writing fellowship, is deeply concerned with socio-political issues, and that concern shows in his writing. Back in 1966, fiercely opposed to the war in Vietnam, he ran for Congress as a third-party candidate. His slogan? “Why not Minot?” He didn’t win, but the political activist in him didn't disappear either.

Surviving the Flood (Atheneum), his latest novel, is essentially a “re-telling of the whole Noah story from the view of his son Ham, age 900, looking back to his youth,” Minot explains. “It’s a ‘now-it-can-be-told’ expose of what really happened on the Ark, an ‘if-you-ever-wanted-to-know’ piece. It has some of the comic elements you might expect on a boat with a lot of people who don’t get along with each other and a lot of animals who don’t get along with each other.”

There is, however, a darker side to the novel…disquieting “suggestions” about “who are the fortunate, who are the unfortunate, and how the survivors should look upon the latter.” It is, to Minot’s way of thinking, a particularly “telling theme” for the 1980s, when people are dying in underdeveloped, politically unstable countries. “The novel is essentially comic, but there is this other side which keeps it from being a Mel Brooks screenplay. Every time you read the newspaper, you see this relationship between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, both on a domestic and an international level.”

For Minot, it’s a matter of re-visioning. The Noah’s Ark story always appealed to his imagination, but it struck him as being way too short. The idea of that many human beings attempting to survive this apocalyptic flood in a wooden boat, no matter how large, was one that “called out for enhancement.”

But he’s quick to point out that he’s not the only one who has thought that. Artists over the centuries have paved the way with their imaginative illustrations, some of which appear in the novel. “If you look at what the artists have done with the story, you see that it is in the common possession of us all, similar to the Greek myths, which do not belong to the Greeks or pagans alone any more than a Biblical story belongs solely to Christians.”

Several enthusiastic reviews have already appeared. “He [Minot] makes legendary figures long since assumed to have been frozen in stone come marvelously to life in a way that will horrify Biblical literalists,” a writer for the Dallas Times Herald observes. “Surviving the Flood is sure to make their hit list and that is enough to recommend it.”

And that, to Minot, is probably one of the most satisfying accolades of all.

4 comments:

Samantha Mozart said...

T.J., the stories you have told here about these two writers, the stories of their lives and the stories they tell are real treasures. Your profiles spill over with such a bounty of spellbinding doubloons contained in so few words. Stories within stories. I love this kind of storytelling. Beautifully written. Thanks for pulling them out of your Way-Back files. I wish I had known these two men; but I can read their books.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Samantha! Both Clavin and Steve have been on my mind for some time now: they were so genuinely supportive of me as a reporter just starting out. Every young writer needs someone like them rooting her on.

Gwynn Rogers said...

T.J., Both writers that you described sound fascinating. I did have to chuckle at Minot's way of reviving the biblical characters.

Clavin must have really enjoyed bringing his historical characters to life through his son. Plus, I chuckled when a child wrote that Clavin must have known Benedict Arnold.

You have a delightful way of showing the life and personality of the writers you interview. I learn from your blogs. Thank you.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Gwynn. Despite their differences in style, they shared a gift for storytelling. I don't know if they actually knew each other, but I like to imagine them sitting down to coffee and conversation in town. It would definitely have been a conversation worth sitting in on.