Carolyn Chute on Tap Water, Thinking Dogs, and the Inspirational Quality of Coffee: Postcard From Biddeford, Maine

Joshua Bodwell

An audience member quickly began to gush about how wonderful and powerful The Beans of Egypt, Maine was. "That’s a crummy book," Chute responded. "I don't recommend it. Read Merry Men." (That novel, published by Harcourt Brace in 1994, continues Chute's exploration of poverty and class struggle.)

"Beans was my baby book," said Chute, bemoaning the fact that it remains the novel for which she is most known. She likened her situation to that of a young boy who builds his mother a crude wooden magazine rack. "That boy goes on to build beautiful houses, but all his family ever says is, 'Remember that magazine rack!'"

When asked about her editing process, Chute mourned the passing of her longtime editor, Cork Smith, a man the New York Times Book Review has described as Chute’s "discoverer and champion." She recounted how Smith wanted her to take the thinking dog character out her 1999 novel Snow Man. But Chute, who adores Scottish terriers, explained that Tolstoy had put thinking dogs "in those scenes in Anna K—that’s what I call it 'cause I can never pronounce that last name"—and her editor eventually acquiesced. "But I told him, 'Who cares?' Even if Tolstoy hadn't done it, why couldn't I be the first?" The School on Heart's Content Road features another thinking dog.

"But my old editor died," Chute continued, "and my new one, the young one, she’s never there," referring to Elisabeth Schmitz of Grove/Atlantic, who famously plucked Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain from obscurity. Chute, who still writes longhand—and has no telephone, much less a computer—seems genuinely perplexed by the quickly changing technologies of publishing. "I mean, my new editor gave me her cell phone number…but it makes me wonder if there's even a building anymore. There must be a building, right? I mean, for the printing presses."

In language that sounded ripped from the mouths of her fictional Bean clan, Chute went on to explain why her agent, Jane Gelfman, was so effective at handling publishers: "You don’t send out a tame critter to get a wild critter. You send a wild critter to get another wild critter."

Asked who her favorites writers were, Chute gave just one name: Anne Tyler, author of The Accidental Tourist (Knopf, 1985) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons (Knopf, 1988). "Anne is treated unfairly…as just a 'popular' writer, because her books sell well. But I think she’s very wise."

When asked, "What inspires you?" Chute paused and reflected on the seemingly unanswerable question, then deadpanned: "Coffee."

"How do you know when an idea is big enough to be a novel?" asked an aspiring novelist in the audience. Chute squinted, leaned forward in her rocking chair, and searched for the right words. "I don’t mean this to be funny," she said, "but it’s not really about ideas…it’s more about images…images beaming in."

Outside, the new moon was a pale yellow wisp in a night sky full with spring anticipation. The air was chilly, gusty. But inside, Carolyn Chute held the crowd in her unique earthy warmth.