Tunbridge Writer Jeffrey Lent’s New Novel Depicts Chelsea-Like Town

  • Photographed at his home on May 11, 2107, Jeffrey Lent, of Tunbridge, Vt., is the author of the new novel "Before We Sleep." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Photographed at his home on May 11, 2107, Jeffrey Lent, of Tunbridge, Vt., is the author of the new novel "Before We Sleep." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Photographed at his home on May 11, 2107, Jeffrey Lent, of Tunbridge, Vt., is the author of the new novel "Before We Sleep." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2017

Jeffrey Lent, bearded and flanneled, stood on his hilltop patio in Tunbridge on a recent Thursday morning and lit up a cigarette.

“Thank God I live here,” he said, alluding to the distance he feels between his home turf and current political affairs. “I feel so much more state security than if I lived in, I don’t know, North Dakota.”

This rural Vermont landscape, where Lent, 58, traces roots back to his childhood in North Pomfret, is also the backdrop of his latest novel, Before We Sleep, which came out earlier this month. The novel’s protagonist is 17-year-old Katey Snow, who steals away from her home in the fictional town of Moorefield, a dead ringer for Chelsea, one night in 1967 to probe into the shadow hanging over her parents’ marriage. 

Inside Lent’s study, which is cozy, rustic and lined with carefully curated book and CD collections, he shared what he called his “developing theory” on how the Colonial history of northern New England shaped a distinct literary sensibility.

“For a couple hundred years, northern New England — especially all of Vermont and northern New Hampshire — was the ‘unknown territory,’ ” Lent said.

European settlers, many of them Catholic or Puritan, not only lived in fear of the harsh environment and perceived threat of Indians, but also struggled with “that whole question of God and predestination and whether acts you did in this life had any sort of impact on your afterlife. What a horrifyingly terrifying mindset to have lived with,” he said, shaking his head in emphasis. “But I think that one of the residual things from that period was northern New England kind of becoming the ‘land of the strange.’ ”

He cited Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen King, and some of the poetry of Robert Frost, as luminaries of that “strange, dark” literary history.

“And I mean, I’ve written some pretty strange stuff about northern New England myself,” he added. “I guess it sort of opens up a territory for me where I feel a little more comfortable exploring that weird stuff, and spend less time worrying if I’m a sociopath.”

Basing his novels in such familiar terrain allows him to ground his imagined worlds in something real, without weighing down his creative process with research.

“The greatest danger with too much research,” he said, “is that you end up writing a manual, instead of a novel.”

Music — a major connective thread between Katey and her father, Oliver — was another topic on which Lent conducted research with deliberate restraint. Oliver, a war veteran, is a fiddle expert, but Lent said he studied just enough about the instrument to ensure he was using the correct terminology. And when deciding which songs would play on the radio during Katey’s odyssey, he perused the top albums from the mid-to-late ‘60s.

“Those are the sort of details I want to get just exactly right,” he said. “The rest of it has to be kind of a combination of geography that I know and can visualize, but that isn’t a depiction of a real place.”

Beacon Hill, for example, despite being an actual geographic location in Chelsea, appears quite different in reality from how Lent writes it in Before We Sleep. The only similarity is “that it rises up out of the village,” he said.

Instead of steeping readers in research, he prefers to steep them in a fleshed-out world of his own invention: In Before We Sleep, Lent backtracks several generations in Katey’s family to contextualize the strained relationship between Oliver and Ruth, Katey’s mother. For Lent, this is what a novel should provide for its characters: context.

“I’ve read them, and I read them, but novels without this family history, it’s like, what, were these people just hatched? Did they just appear?” he asked. “I’m always irritated in novels when it’s just one generation being depicted. Those, I think, tend to be written by people in their 20s and 30s, who haven’t quite figured it out yet.”

As far as Lent’s own family history goes, he said his father was “kind of an odd duck” in that he chose to spend his time in the company of retired farmers who could remember rural life in the 19th century.

“He just liked them,” Lent said. “He spent all his time hanging out with the old herdsmen, and ended up farming with draft horses, and he just kind of missed, intentionally, the whole petrochemical agricultural life.”

Lent remembers accompanying his father to some of these visits. Because of this early exposure, Lent grew up with “one foot in the 19th century,” he said.

But he also grew up in an America in which the national wounds of World War II were still fresh.

Though his own father had just missed the age cutoff to join the war, “I grew up with kids whose folks had fought,” Lent said. He’d known amputees and burn victims, and had heard about the people who you couldn’t approach quietly from behind.

“We think of that Greatest Generation as having gone off and fought the Good War, and then come home and pulled up their bootstraps and got on with 1950s America,” he said. “But a tremendous number of those guys were severely damaged. There were suicides.”

Before We Sleep’s Oliver Snow is one such haunted veteran. He returns from the front lines a scarred and silent man, whose fiddle becomes his preferred vehicle for emotional expression.

The residual afterlife of war is a familiar theme in Lent’s work. Two of his previous novels, A Slant of Light and In the Fall, examine the lingering trauma of the Civil War, and he believes that such bloodshed is inextricable from the American identity.

“You can certainly write a novel that doesn’t have war in it, but there’s really been no time in this country when we haven’t been either recovering from one, or about to enter into one, or involved in one,” he said. “You can ignore it, but it’s part of the fabric of our life and our history, and our whole humanity for that matter.”

Coming of age during the Vietnam War, as Katey Snow does, also marked him. He was 12 when the shooting at Kent State University occurred, “old enough so that I was horrified.” And when the countercultural movement swept through the nation, Lent “was a very full participant in that activity, in all the greatest extents that I could be,” he said.

Lent said that readers who also lived through that time will recognize their own experiences in Katey.

“I’ve found that people who are my age or older really feel like Katey is absolutely spot-on,” said Lent. “People who are younger, who grew up only knowing about the ‘60s, tend to see it more as cliche. But that’s because we’ve got a layer of cliches out there already.”

Looking ahead, Lent plans to further mine his “weird New England” heritage. One of his upcoming novels is set in the aftermath of the 1816 “year without a summer,” when a volcanic eruption in Indonesia produced such extreme climate change that New England experienced snowfall and killing frosts through August. The novel will follow a pair of teenaged siblings on their quest to track down a sociopathic serial killer who capitalizes on the widespread panic during this time and “disguises himself as a simpleton,” Lent said, adding that he envisions the final product as a “perfect sort of Trumpian novel.”

The serial killer, of course, heads north. “I don’t quite know what happens next, but it’s enough for me to be really excited about it,” he said. “That’s what I do. I just take a touchstone in reality, and see what happens with the rest.”

Jeffrey Lent will read from, discuss and sign copies of Before We Sleep, which was published by Bloomsbury and came out on May 2, at the Norwich Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. Admission to the event is free, but organizers recommend calling the bookstore at 802-649-1114 to reserve seats, as space is limited.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.