We’re delighted to welcome Susan Stinson back to the LAIP this week to continue her series on her experience as the Writer-in-Residence at Forbes Library! Susan’s latest novel was released by Small Beer Press just last year, and she’s served as Writer-in Residence at Forbes since 2010.  Forbes’ program is a fantastic model in that it leverages the library space to support both the resident and the greater writing community. Read on to learn more! ~Erinn

Works of Jonathan Edwards on the Forbes shelves. Photo by Jeep Wheat

Works of Jonathan Edwards on the Forbes shelves. Photo by Jeep Wheat

Writer in Residence at Forbes Library: Collections

by Susan Stinson

There is so much life in the library, and my relation to its people and collections has brought so much life to my work.

It was the collections that brought me to a deeper relationship with Forbes Library in the first place.  I had grown up loving my trips to the library with my mother every week, but as an adult writer committed to supporting small presses and independent bookstores, I had a practice of buying books, and used the library less frequently. But then, eleven years ago,  I started researching my novel about Northampton in the time of eighteenth century preacher Jonathan Edwards. Forbes was the first place I went.  The collections at Forbes shaped my book in profound ways.  Now, the Writer in Residence program influences the collections, as well.  At every point, my relationship with the books and other holdings at Forbes library is now also a relationship with inspired, adventurous librarians there, as well.

Elise Bernier Feeley at work with Forbes' Special Collections

Elise Bernier Feeley at work with Forbes’ Special Collections

In my own work, I started with the books on the shelves. I was shy about asking for help in my research, for reasons that are hard to get back to now, but, I think it was because I was tentatively exploring a new idea, and the whole thing felt fragile.  Although this was my fourth novel, I had never worked with librarians before. So, before I made an appointment to speak with Elise Bernier-Feeley in Special Collections, I read. I later learned that it had been Elise who made sure that Forbes had copies of most volumes of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, building on the work of earlier librarians at Forbes. All I knew when I started reading was that I could easily find and check out much wonderful work by and about Jonathan Edwards on the main floor of the library.

Once I met Elise, the warmth and passion with which she greeted my questions and, eventually, drafts of my novel has continued to inspire and sustain me over many years of work. Elise plays a central role in the world of JE scholars by welcoming those interested in his years in Northampton to Forbes with tremendous energy and knowledge. One of the very special things I find in encounters with Elise around Jonathan and Sarah Edwards is how tenderly and thoroughly she loves them and their stories. Elise engages with the Edwardses on intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels in a way that is beautiful for any writer to witness. She showed me primary sources:  a letter, a page from an account book, a copy of the seating chart of the meeting house, a gorgeous old map annotated by an nineteenth century local historian, a sample of JE’s grandfather’s handwriting. She guided me to the best secondary sources on many aspects of JE’s life. And she told me stories that shaped the way I approached the book, and are now shaping the way I’m approaching the beginning of a new novel. (Knock wood, no jinx.)

It feels to me as if [the librarians] are amazing, living, breathing parts of the collection.

Julie Bartlett Nelson and Susan Stinson with Edwards materials from Special Collections  Photo credit Jeep Wheat

Julie Bartlett Nelson and Susan Stinson with Edwards materials from Forbes’ Special Collections. Photo by Jeep Wheat.

Julie Bartlett Nelson is the Archivist to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library & Museum and the Hampshire Room for Local History at Forbes. That’s the only presidential library at a public library in the country. Julie is another talented librarian who has made the the resources of the library more available to me, including images that were used to illustrate a chapter of from the novel when it was published in Early American Studies. Julie also was enormously helpful during my prolonged yet panicked work on getting permissions for work I quoted in the novel. Both Julie and Elise have spoken more than once in the Local History/Local Novelists series, which is a Writer in Residence program. It feels to me as if they are amazing, living, breathing (and, in Julie’s case, baking) parts of the collection, themselves.

Working with [librarians] has helped me get a broader, more nuanced appreciation for the range of books and stories that people love. I can feel that lived understanding influencing my work that ways that I can’t yet describe.

Lisa Downing, Director of Forbes Library, and Susan Stinson. Photo by Bonnie Burnham.

Lisa Downing, Director of Forbes Library, and Susan Stinson. Photo by Bonnie Burnham.

There are several ways that my work as Writer in Residence shapes the collection now.  The most important one is probably the most informal and organic. I work closely with Lisa Downing, the Assistant Director of Forbes, another outstanding librarian. We talk regularly, read each other on social media, and I share good news with her. Because many of my friends are writers, and I actively work to help let people know about new books that big media might not be covering, Lisa sometimes learns of books like this one from me that she might not otherwise hear about. She also orders the books of writers who speak in the Local History/Local Novelists series. This helps make sure that writers who live in our area or are writing about subjects of local interest are well represented in the collection, and it also helps make their work visible to patrons. In turn, working with Lisa and the library has helped me get a broader, more nuanced appreciation for the range of books and stories that people love. I can feel that lived understanding influencing my work that ways that I can’t yet describe.  When I’m at the library now, I don’t feel shy.  I feel like part of an ecosystem.  Trying to describe the feeling, I’m getting images of the barnacles that live on whales, hanging on, going deep and travelling far.  There is so much life in the library, and my relation to its people and collections has brought so much life to my work.

 

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Susan Stinson photo  by Jeep Wheat highresolution (2)Susan Stinson is the author of four novels and a collection of poetry and lyric essays.   Her work has appeared in anthologies from Ballantine Books, NYU Press and Scholastic Books, and in many periodicals, including The Common, Early American Studies, and Kenyon Review. She has received numerous awards and honors, including Lambda Literary Foundation’s Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. Currently Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, she is also a freelance editor, a writing coach, and regularly gives cemetery tours. Her most recent novel, Spider in a Tree (Small Beer, October 2013), is about eighteenth century Northampton in the time of theologian, preacher and slave-owner Jonathan Edwards. Alison Bechdel has called it “a revelation.”  Spider is also a Publishers Weekly pick as one of the  “Big Indie Books of Fall 2013.”  Susan can be found at home online at susanstinson.net. 

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