Updated: Apr 25, 2022
William Carpenter grew up in Waterville, Maine, graduated from Dartmouth College, and earned a PhD at the University of Minnesota. He taught at the University of Chicago, then returned to Maine to help found the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, where he taught for 48 years. He is the recipient of the Pablo Neruda award, the Black Warrior award, and the AWP award in poetry. His previous novels are A Keeper of Sheep, set on Cape Cod in the 1980s, and The Wooden Nickel, set in a Maine Coast lobstering community. He and the writer Donna Gold live in an old coastal inn and spend summers exploring Maine islands in their family sloop, Northern Light.
With the recent release of his latest novel, Silence, Carpenter answers your questions regarding his writing process, his career in education, and the themes featured in his book.
You’ve taught a myriad of subjects over the years at the College of the Atlantic, including literature, creative writing, history, film, poetry, and Maine mythology. Which was your favorite and why?
Two of my favorite courses were called “Aesthetics of Violence” and “The Turn of the Century.” “Aesthetics of Violence” focused on the human capacity to transform violence and terror into works of art, beginning with Aristotle’s theory of tragedy and Rene Girard’s theory of sacrifice. Is violence always the opposite of beauty or can they both be present in the same act? At the time anyway, I believe this was a unique course in American colleges; though a friend offered a version of it later at Dartmouth.
The second favorite was a contemporary history course called “Turn of the Century” that we offered between 1999 and 2010. It covered the transition between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including 9/11/2001 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. I asked my students why they weren’t protesting the Iraq invasion the way we protested Vietnam. Their answer was, “they’re not drafting us anymore.” I realized how clever the government was in covering up the war by using an “all-volunteer” army drawn largely from volunteers from the working class and not the colleges. It also further divided the country in ways that are echoed in the book and continue to be played out today in politics.
Those two courses eventually led to the novel Silence, which examines the effects of 9/11 and Operation Iraqi Freedom on two young people from different social backgrounds on the coast of Maine. I used an offshore island to focus and intensify these two events and show how they impacted even a remote rural state.
You write both poetry and novels, which do you prefer and why?
I started off writing poetry, but my poems got longer and longer and eventually outgrew the page and became novels. For what I had to say in terms of class conflict in Wooden Nickel and Silence, I prefer the novel because its multiple characters allow you explore the relationships between people as well as their individual lives. I realize I carry the habits of poetry into my prose. My characters use a lot of metaphors to examine their inner thoughts and motivations.
This book deals with PTSD. How did you research it to write so authentically about it?
I was teaching the Turn of the Century class in 2003 when the US invaded Iraq on the pretext of “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Every morning we discussed The New York Times in a state of outrage and disbelief at the approach of war.
What we could not predict was the extent of traumatic injury American soldiers would carry home, particularly in rural and working-class areas like ours that supplied the bulk of military personnel. Maine soldiers have suffered disproportionately from the “forever war,” with the 7th highest military casualty rate in the US, and the 7th highest veteran suicide rate. These figures have not declined as the wars tapered off. Starting in 2007 veteran self-harm has climbed every single year. This era in history came home to me personally when I lost one of my closest friends in 2012, a USAF veteran, a pilot, and poet, to whom the book is dedicated.
I began collecting and reading oral history and personal narratives from returning veterans. Finally, I brought these stories home to the setting of a Maine island and the character of Nick Colonna.
Why is Thoreau such a central motif in the book?
Thoreau is the way Nick’s teacher, Stan Fischer, reaches out to his former student. Stan gives Nick a copy of Walden in which he has deliberately marked a series of passages calculated to help him through the healing process. He knows Nick is determined to suffer in the isolation of deafness as self-punishment for living through an event that killed the rest of his crew. Thoreau was also in mourning for a brother’s death when he took to the woods and he offers an instruction manual for living a full life in silence and solitude. Stan Fischer was a draft dodger in the Vietnam days, so he has his own survivor’s guilt that some kid was killed instead of him. He thinks he can redeem a questionable decision by helping Nick. Thoreau believed that the deepest truths can only be reached by turning away from language and conversation and listening to the quieter voices inside. He also foresaw the downfall of nature from commercial exploitation, which leads Nick to question his role in developing the resort.
What parallels are you trying to make between the losses of war/combat and the loss of family/nature?
Such a great question! The two principal characters, Nick and Julia, are brought together by recent traumatic losses in their lives. Nick’s country was invaded and attacked and then he lost his hearing in an explosion that killed his closest friends. Julia first lost her father to a heart attack, which led to a nervous breakdown, and she now faces the loss of her father’s unspoiled island to commercial development, as well as a rift with her own family. Both of those losses are caused by human greed: her brother-in-law’s greed for a profitable resort and her country’s greed for fossil fuel and wealth that would come from placing Saddam Hussein’s oil fields under American control.
Nick also fears another kind of family/nature loss as he strives to protect the remains of a buried prehistoric settlement he has discovered under the island’s subsoil. As caretaker of the island, he feels responsible for protecting this lost community so they can remain in peace.