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West Lebanon writer collects his New England stories

  • Geoffrey Douglas of West Lebanon, N.H. sits in his yard on Friday, May24, 2019. Douglas has a new collection of his stories published in "Yankee" magazine over the past 20 years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Geoffrey Douglas of West Lebanon, N.H., has a new book out and will be doing several book events in the area in the coming weeks. The book is a collection of his stories published in "Yankee" magazine over the past 20 years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, June 13, 2019

As a writer of other people’s stories, Geoffrey Douglas must traverse the narrowest of emotional ledges.

His work for Yankee magazine over the past 20 years has taken him into a Canadian town all but obliterated by a freak accident, a Boston conference room where medical professionals weigh the options for the most critically ill children, a close-knit island community off the edge of Maine where neighbor turned against neighbor. It’s put him across the table from people reliving the darkest and most dramatic moments of their lives. It’s sent him in pursuit not just of facts but of the threads that will connect his readers to the people inside his stories.

“I like the challenge of finding the right distance from a very emotional subject,” Douglas said last month, sitting in a Concord bookstore prior to a promotional event for his new book, The Grifter, the Poet, and the Runaway Train: Stories From a Yankee Writer’s Notebook. He will read from the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Norwich Bookstore.

A compilation of 17 stories that gallop across landscapes, wander into the aftermath of tragedies and linger in the small-town locales that define life in New England and its environs, it brims with characters connected by one common characteristic.

“They’re all really ordinary people,” said Douglas, 74, who lives in Lebanon with his wife, Landon, and has written four previous books.

Those people include a jockey trampled to death by a horse at a county fairgrounds, the parents of a premature infant caught up in a battle of ethics and modern medicine and a teacher who, through building trust with her students, prevented a school shooting.

They also include a few characters from nearby locales. Only Fools Were Not Afraid, tells the story of a lineman struck by a tree in the Sunapee woods during the historic ice storm of 1998. A Voice Against Hate recounts the 2000 newspaper editorial that thrust Rutland Herald editorial page editor David Moats into the bitter debate over gay marriage and earned him a Pulitzer Prize (and includes a mention of a Valley News letter to the editor from a Lebanon mother that went global). And The Conscience of a Chief describes how the town of Hinesburg, Vt., fell apart and came together again after a local teenager driving under the influence veered off the road, killing himself and a bicyclist.

Along with everyday characters, the stories share Douglas’ deft touch and eye for detail — the pinwheel that whirs beside an infant’s grave, or the way a teacher describes the moment she knew she needed to leave the corporate world. All of the stories, too, read on multiple levels. “Anything I write has to be about more than itself,” Douglas said.

‘The Town Is Gone,’ for example, tells the story of how a runaway train exploded in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013. But it’s not just about the disaster itself. “The story isn’t the death of 47 people,” Douglas said. “The story is, what does home mean to you and what happens when it’s gone?”

In exploring such heart-wrenching themes, Douglas has his own background to draw on. The son of two wealthy New York City socialites, Douglas was just shy of entering the fourth grade when he found his mother dead in her bedroom from what he would later learn was suicide.

The story of her alcohol-fueled spiral into despair became Douglas’ first book. After working for several years as a journalist and newspaper publisher in Connecticut and New Jersey, he’d moved to Vermont and written a novel but was having trouble selling it. Then he mentioned his own life story to a potential agent. “He said, ‘Screw your novel. Give me that,’ ” Douglas recalled.

The breakthrough came at a cost. “That was very, very difficult to write,” said Douglas, recalling how he unearthed the notes his mother had written from a mental hospital before she died.

But the book, titled Class: The Wreckage of an American Family and published in 1992, helped Douglas develop skill in handling difficult subject matter.

Douglas’ next book, Dead Opposite: The Lives and Loss of Two American Boys, told the story of a 19-year-old Yale student randomly murdered on his way home from a party by a 16-year-old gang member. “It wasn’t about the crime so much as the two sides of America,” Douglas said.

To accurately tell both sides of the story, Douglas had to earn the trust of both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s families, a feat he has repeated many times over in the years since, as he visits the sites of disasters, tragedies and individual heartbreak.

Finding stories that will resonate with readers requires skill as well. Douglas remembers finding the kernel for his third book in a short article in The Boston Globe about a ragtag soccer team from the United States that beat England in the 1950 World Cup. The Game of Their Lives enjoyed widespread success and was made into a movie starring Gerard Butler in 2005.

A newspaper clip about a jockey trampled to death during a race in Northampton, Mass., led Douglas to his first story for Yankee Magazine.

“I knew the moment I read this: here was a writer I wanted to bring to Yankee,” Yankee editor Mel Allen wrote in a foreword to Douglas’ new book.

After more than 20 years as a contributor to the magazine, Douglas got the idea for publishing a compilation of his work from a colleague at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he works as an adjunct professor of writing.

Assuming he’d end up having to self-publish the book, Douglas decided to first take a shot at securing a publisher. Within 15 minutes of sending out his first query letter, he got a call from an agent.

Publicizing the book has been more challenging. Douglas recently posted a listing to the Dartmouth College job site seeking a student who can assist him with social media marketing. Douglas said he took out the ad because he realizes social media has largely replaced more traditional forms of book promotion — and falls mostly to authors to figure out on their own — but has no real knack for it or interest in learning.

Far more interesting to Douglas is the gumshoe work of finding and telling stories. And while most of them are other people’s stories, a couple of them required him to walk that emotional ledge through his own experiences.

The Night the Bandit Dog Came In describes Douglas’ return to the racetracks he used to haunt in his twenties. And Searching For Alexander tells the story of how Douglas’ stepson lost his way in the world, and eventually, his life.

In it, Douglas shares some of the most excruciating moments in his family’s life, including the days his wife spent searching the Berkshire woods where 28-year-old Alex had disappeared:

“Sometimes as she walked, she sang: lullabies from Alex’s childhood, songs they had sung together but now with the words changed to call his name,” Douglas writes.

There are lighter moments in the book and touches of humor, too, sometimes in unexpected places. After leading readers through nearly unimaginable territory in A Question of Life and Death, Douglas leaves us with the image of a couple flirting with one another, savoring hope.

And in A New Hampshire Love Story, Douglas examines the legend of an odd landmark on Route 103 in Newbury, N.H.: the hand-painted message, “CHICKEN FARMER I STILL LOVE YOU.”

It’s a simple story but, like the others, there was something about it that grabbed hold of Douglas. “I really only go after a story if it affects me,” he said.

Geoffrey Douglas will read from his new book, The Grifter, the Poet, and the Runaway Train: Stories From a Yankee Writer’s Notebook on Wednesday, June 19, at 7 p.m. at the Norwich Bookstore.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.