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New England Writers at work

Carolyn Chute keeps distractions to a minimum

Novelist Carolyn Chute on the porch in Maine where she does the bulk of her writing. Greta Rybus for the Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Carolyn Chute lives with her husband, Michael, on a dirt road in Maine near the New Hampshire border. She has one house on her property, a second building marked “Security Office,” a multiplicity of brightly painted rocking chairs, several Scotty dogs, a well-stocked gun collection, and a cannon, but no Internet or television. Her fiction, most often compared to Faulkner and Dickens, concerns the lives of the rural poor. Her latest novel, “Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves,” was released this month.

A GYPSY WRITER: I sit on my porch to read, but I don’t always write on my property. I go to MacDowell [artist colony in New Hampshire], and I also house-sit for people. We used to have a camp down in the woods, but we took the windows out and put them in this building [the security office] because I wasn’t really getting down there anymore. I used to sit down there all day. I had to go over little brooks and things. I carried a backpack. This was back in the ’90s, when I was first starting the series [set in Egypt, Maine]. Now it’s just rotting.


A COLONY, FOUND: I spend a lot of time at MacDowell. I used to go there a lot. I would apply for six weeks, so I’d get a lot done. I haven’t applied lately, because I’m so gimped. We used to have a truck and a jeep, but we just had to give up our truck after nine years. A very nice lawyer gave us a car — he’s an activist in our community — and he had this Yaris, but I can’t go down [to MacDowell] and leave [Michael] here in the middle of nowhere. I have to have a lot of table space to spread my work out. At MacDowell, they always let me. They’re so nice to me. They have a guy there who’s so helpful. He sets tables all around for me. Nowadays, [most] people don’t need a table [to write]. It used to be that you used phone booths [at MacDowell] to talk to your relatives, but now people sit on the porch — texting, I guess — and they stopped working. Anyone who has one of those [cellphones] should be ineligible to go to the colony. They go through all the trouble of applying just to go there and look at their texts.

THE DELIBERATE TYPE: I have a woman in town who helps me [prepare my manuscripts]. I give her my edits, and she types them up for me. She has other jobs, so sometimes it takes her a while . . . my editor didn’t want to wait for that last time, so I just sent it back with notes . . . I hope she doesn’t hate me.


COOKING UP FICTION: When I’m writing, I try not to cook too much, but I feel guilty; [Michael] is the type that if you don’t cook for him, he’ll just eat crackers.

THE WAY THINGS ARE: When I’m not writing, I do a lot of research reading on the shape of civilization. Fiction can be a lot of different things . . . but I feel like it’s my job to write about the way things are.

LOOKING IN: I like starting projects in January. That’s the best time to start something. It’s so inward.


HIDDEN DISTRACTIONS: [Not having Internet or television] might not be as good as it looks, especially when your husband’s home all the time. He has three little jobs in the summer. The dogs can be distracting, too. I have to feed them. But once I get going, I would say that my distractions are a lot less than most people’s.

A LARDER OF BEGINNINGS: Right now I’m working with manuscripts that I did in the ’90s. The worst part is getting something started, but I have enough material to last me the rest of my life, so I probably don’t have to do that again. I’m reorganizing a story I broke up into smaller stories. More characters are coming out, and stuff is happening. It’s like yeast or bread dough — it tends to puff out. Once I start handling it, I don’t have writer’s block. There’s no writer’s block; there’s only distraction.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at