Q&A: Kathryn Olmstead
Kathryn Olmstead is a former Bangor Daily News columnist and editor/publisher of Echoes magazine, based in Caribou, Maine, which she co-founded in 1988. For 25 years she served on the journalism faculty of the University of Maine in Orono, and the last six of these as associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, American Journalism Review, The World and I, Maine Townsman and Islandport Magazine. She also co-authored a World War II memoir Flight to Freedom: World War II Through the Eyes of a Child with Bangor portrait-photographer Philomena Baker, published in 2013.
Before joining the University of Maine faculty, she was a correspondent for the Bangor Daily News, editor of the Aroostook Republican in Caribou, an agricultural columnist for regional and national newspapers in Vermont and Kansas, and a district representative for U.S. Senator Bill Cohen. A native of Battle Creek, Michigan, she earned a B.A. in English from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and an M.A. in English and education from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She taught English and journalism in Wisconsin and New Hampshire before moving to Maine in 1974.
Q: What has been the most gratifying part of being the founder of Echoes? What has been the most challenging part?
A: Nurturing and showcasing writers, like Glenna Johnson Smith, was gratifying. I loved helping people tell stories that might not have been recorded otherwise. Seven Echoes writers compiled materials published in Echoes into books. Seven other writers and photographers published books they might have published anyway, but gained confidence and visibility when their work appeared in Echoes. I loved receiving the abundance of letters from readers. I loved editing, page design, and seeing each issue of the magazine come together. I also enjoyed delivering the magazines to about 90 stores every three months (between St. Francis and Sherman in Aroostook County and between Bangor and Ellsworth in central Maine). As I went from having to explain the magazine to being welcomed as a familiar face, store owners and clerks became friends, as well as sources of material for columns. Challenges included saying “no” to writers whose work we did not accept, maintaining a consistent advertising sales program, and paying bills
Q: What can people find in Aroostook County that can’t be found anywhere else?
A: It would be bold to say Aroostook County has anything that could not be found elsewhere, but among the things in the County that are rare or disappearing elsewhere are:
Enough snow to cross-country ski into late April, often sharing trails with moose, deer, fox, and grouses, and occasionally fishers, martens, lynx, and bobcats.
A dark night sky with a canopy of bright stars and planets on clear nights.
Silence in peaceful wilderness.
Panoramic landscapes, where acres of fields meet the sky and you can see for miles from high hills.
Safety; many residents don’t lock their cars or homes.
Genuine kindness, generosity, and desire to help anyone in need.
A sense of place and heritage that binds County people together no matter where they go.
A tradition of hard work, resilience, ingenuity, and independence.
Pride in cultural and agricultural heritage.
People who celebrate snow and share an appreciation of the beauty of winter.
Q: What qualities attract you to true stories rather than fictional ones?
A: As a writer, I write non-fiction because I love interviewing people, telling their stories and learning all they have to share. As a news reporter, I had to get the facts right, so I did not develop the imagination for making things up. I have thought about trying, but there is so much bad fiction out there, I worry about adding to it. As an editor for Echoes, we did not have enough space for fiction. It was not a literary magazine. The few fiction pieces we chose helped express the theme of valuing rural traditions.
Q: With so many back issues of Echoes, how did you narrow down what stories to be considered for the book?
A: The task of deciding what stories to republish seemed overwhelming. There was enough material for several books on topics featured in the 117 issues published between 1988 and 2017. Three people made that task both possible and enjoyable. Kristine Bondeson of Woodland, Cynthia Edgecomb of Limestone and Kenneth Hixon of Westmanland devoted hours and hours to reading past issues of Echoes and joining me to discuss which stories best capture the sense of place, the life, and the culture of Aroostook and appeals to a broad audience.
First, we read all the stories by some of the regular writers. Then we read stories in different categories such as farming and cultural heritage. If we came upon a story we liked that did not fit into a category, we listed it as a “random possibility.” Finally, we did a final sweep of all the issues for stories we might have missed. Those that earned “instant unanimity” among the four of us in our bi-monthly meetings went on an “A” list. The remaining stories went on a “B list.” The process was not perfect, but we did our best.
Q: As a writer yourself, what is your writing process? How do you come up with your story ideas?
A: Ideas for stories are everywhere, especially in conversations with friends, events in the community, and publications. I keep a file of story ideas and clippings that might inspire stories. I take copious, hand-written notes during phone and face-to-face interviews. Then I review, and sometimes type-up my notes, as soon as possible and list the things I want to include. I work hard on the lead that sets the direction for the story and I often know how I want it to end. As I write, I check off items in my notes and key quotes as I include them. I revise and revise, depending on the deadline, and try to have at least one or two people read a draft.
Q: Why do you write?
A: Everybody has a story that is not only interesting, but also important for family and community history. Some people are reluctant to tell or even acknowledge the significance of their stories. I feel privileged if I can bring those stories to light so they can be shared and appreciated.
I also write to learn, to share, and to entertain. Almost every story involves some kind of research and I lose all track of time in the searching. Sometimes I just want to make sense of or give shape to my own experience in a way that resonates with readers, and perhaps makes them smile. I like sharing experiences and observations that tickle and intrigue me.