New Voices event shines a light on promising debut authors

By Terri J. Huck

Phoenix Books Misty Valley’s 23rd annual New Voices event brought five up-and-coming writers to Chester, Vt., to discuss and read from their books on Jan. 28. Although the stories varied widely in style and content, they shared some common themes, including the power of love, the mysteries of language and the compelling need for connection.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s “We Love You, Charlie Freeman” is about a black family that agrees to live with a chimp and teach him sign language as part of an experiment. Greenidge said she was inspired by a 1931 experiment in which a couple raised their son alongside a chimpanzee. Stunned by the public outcry, the couple sought to distance themselves from the experiment, and the son later killed himself. Greenidge said she was intrigued by the “hubris and folly of trying to shape the natural world.” Her previous jobs at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn and for the National Park Service in Boston involved talking with people about race in American history, which is another theme of her book.

A young Lithuanian woman named Magdalena sees the truth about people written on their skin in Adelia Saunders’ book “Indelible.” The idea was sparked by archival research Saunders conducted in Lithuania. As she sifted through personnel files that might contain a handful of documents—a birth certificate, a photo with a cryptic note on the back—she wondered what it would be like if that information were visible on our skin. Saunders grew up in Durango, Colo., and currently lives in New York City, where she works for an international think tank.

Tom McAllister said the idea for his book arose during a dinner conversation with his wife. They were jokingly discussing which one of them should die first and agreed that he should because he would be less capable of coping on his own. In the course of that dinner, they began writing notes for what would become “The Young Widower’s Handbook,” the story of a grief-stricken man who takes a trip across the country with his dead wife’s ashes. He said he wanted to explore the idiosyncratic ways that grief manifests itself not in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death but a year later. McAllister lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University.

After studying poetry at Yale University, Rebecca Dinerstein received a grant to write poetry for a year. She said she was drawn to sheep and fog and the “northern dreamscape” after spending a couple of summers in Ireland and had an urge to go north. She ended up in Lofoten, Norway, 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun doesn’t rise half the year and doesn’t set the other half. “The Sunlit Night” is about two people who have fled New York City for Lofoten, where “they have come to learn how to be alone.” Dinerstein stayed in Norway beyond that initial year and learned Norwegian well enough to publish a bilingual English-Norwegian collection of poems.

Dan Cluchey is a former speechwriter for the Obama administration. He describes “The Life of the World to Come” as the story of a man who has a “sudden and unwelcome break with the status quo” when his longtime relationship ends. He is also a lawyer who is trying to prevent a client from being executed under the death penalty. Cluchey said that ever since he was five years old, he has struggled to comprehend the fact that someday he will be dead. Although the speeches he has written had many purposes, the main goal was to persuade, and his book “is a 70,000-word speech meant to persuade myself that someday I will be gone.” The Portland, Maine, native now lives in New Haven, Conn.

Misty Valley’s former owners Bill and Lynn Reed launched New Voices in 1994 and still organize the event, which also includes cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, a reception and dinner with the authors. In another unusual twist, local readers introduce each author and book at the reading.

Past honorees have gone on to considerable fame, including Dennis Lehane, Colum McCann, Arthur Golden, Gregory Maguire, Jennifer Egan and Alex Berenson. The First Universalist Church in Chester has hosted the event since the beginning, and the store donates a portion of the proceeds to the church’s building fund.

This article was originally published in the Vermont Journal.