By Kelly Stewart
In December of 2016, MFA alum Kerri Arsenault sold her narrative nonfiction book, What Remains: A Community, A Paper Mill, An Inheritance, to Picador USA. The book, about Kerri’s home town, Mexico, Maine, has been a long time in the making – about twelve years – and everything she’s done in the literary world since she began working on the book has been in an effort to put the best version of her hometown’s story into the world.
In 2005 and 2006 Arsenault spent several months as a freelance writer in the occupied Palestinian territories and used that work toward her Masters in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Malmö, Sweden. Along with working on her book, Arsenault currently serves on the National Book Critic Circle board and her series, “Interview With a Gatekeeper,” is featured on Literary Hub. Her book reviews have appeared in various publications and an excerpt from her book appears in the 2017 spring edition of Freeman’s. In the fall of 2017, she will work as New England Sectional Editor for Jewels of the North Atlantic and Arctic, a magazine based out of Iceland. She graduated from the MFA in Creative Writing Program with a focus in nonfiction in May, 2015.
Here’s a look into our conversation about her upcoming book:
Kelly Stewart: First off, congratulations on selling your book! What were the emotions like when it was all said and done?
Kerri Arsenault: It’s a relief and exciting because my agent, Sarah Burnes, and I worked so long on this proposal. We worked on it since the day after I graduated for a year and a half.
KS: Do you feel more pressure in your writing now that you’ve signed a contract?
KA: Yes, there’s more pressure, but it’s a good burden. Not only to write the book, but also, I feel responsible to all the people who supported me throughout the years in working on it.
KS: How did earning your MFA at The New School help you sharing your story?
KA: I believe writing is a collaborative process, something I learned when I lived on a Caribbean island, where, despite lots of free time, an ocean view, and no real responsibilities, I got little writing done. Living on an island was claustrophobic enough, but living on an island with no writers, no bookstores, no books in English, no readings or literary events, felt like I lived in a special kind of hell, one made of scuba divers and tourists that came and went with the tide. I had no idea if my story was interesting enough, if there was an audience for it, or if my writing was good enough. I had no context, no feedback, no tribe. I applied to The New School hoping that the writing program would help provide those things; and it did!
KS: What was one of the key things you took away from the program and put towards getting your book published?
KA: Write, revise, repeat.
KS: I can definitely relate to that! Now let’s talk about the book. You mentioned it’s about your hometown?
KA: Yes, and it’s not just any working class town; it’s about paper mill town where I grew up and where three generations of my (Acadian) family worked. In short it’s a place, like many places in America, where disenfranchised people face injustices that the more prosperous usually do not. It’s also a story about people: ordinary folks who populate such town and the choices they make. Sometimes that choice is a Hobson’s Choice: meaning a choice between something (a job, money) and nothing (no job, no money). Meaning: you suck it up or go jobless. The book will focus on people who live there and will hopefully illuminate how we define our landscape and how it defines us.
KS: How long have you had this idea of turning your hometown into a book?
KA: My husband and I, because of his job (in the Coast Guard), moved every two to three years and every time we did, we met new people: friends, neighbors, colleagues, diplomats, business owners, homeless people, world class skiers, part-time terrorists, and so on. One of the first things people usually ask is, where are you from? The conversation usually goes something like this:
Me: “I’m from Maine.”
Them: “I love it there. I went to camp, skiing, to the ocean, Acadia National Park, wherever, when I was a kid or last year.”
Me: “I’m not from that part of Maine.”
Them: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Inland. Toward New Hampshire and Canada. In a paper mill town.”
At that point, they seem confused and I’ll tell them that people who are from Maine can’t afford to live on the coast or go to summer camp like they did, or that my town is dying as fast as the people in it. That taxes are high, mosquitoes are rampant, and the paper mill smells like rotten eggs. Disappointment would ruin their face. I would then feel obligated to cheer them up, defend Maine, and resurrect it from the silo I just put it in. It was a nice place to grow up! I would say. That mill put me through college! The people are great! And so on. So at its simplest, the book is a defense and a critique of the Other Maine, the one you don’t see on tourist brochures. It’s not a story I ever wanted to write, but it kept insisting I write it because I’ve not really read anything like it, like my experience.
KS: Who have been some of your greatest inspirations over the years?
KA: As far as books, I was inspired by Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which addresses, in part, social inequalities, global change, and how landscape defines us and vice versa. The Maine Woods by Henry David Thoreau always hovered in the back of my mind as I wrote, a prescient voice in the wilderness of man’s imposition upon nature. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is the mothership of all scientific/literary journalism texts impacting the environmental movement inspired me even before I began working on this book. Carson questioned the tenets of civilization and insisted we care for the environment. She used ordinary people (birdwatchers) to provide anecdotal evidence of environmental toxins. She also made it clear, regarding the pesticide DDT, that gross negligence shouldn’t be the only standard to judge disasters by. It’s the little things that count. I also carefully read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, who proved a mash-up of characters, history, reportage, science, and personal reflection can propel a narrative. I love Joan Didion’s Where I Was From because of her reckoning with “home.” In this book, she tries to separate fact from fiction, truth from myth. She wrote: “This book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely.” I get that.
Specifically, I was enormously influenced by John Freeman, Suzannah Lessard, and Zia Jaffrey, my New School workshop teachers, who pushed me creatively and intellectually. Their faith in me gave me faith in myself and my writing. All of my classmates did too. Without their feedback and criticism, I would be lost. I wouldn’t have a book to write. They were tough customers!
KS: Finally, what were some of the greatest challenges you faced in putting this book together?
KA: While I was attending The New School, my father was diagnosed with lung and esophageal cancer. I had already been driving back and forth to Maine to do field work for the book, but suddenly, my reportage became very personal. It was brutal physically and emotionally to be researching environmental toxins and see my father affected by them. My father died the day after Christmas in 2014 and I graduated the following spring. I was exhausted. Thankfully, I was buoyed by my colleagues at The New School.