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“If you’re going to grow as an author, you have to reach people you don’t know,” said Newtown author and former book coach Sophfronia Scott. That is one reason she was happy to host a book reading and writing Q&A for friend and fellow author Mathieu Callier on the afternoon of Saturday, August 8, at C.H. Booth Library.
Mr Callier, a Los Angeles author, was in town to promote his recently published collection of short stories, Loss Angeles, and to speak to the craft of writing.
According to his biography, Mr Cailler is a writer of prose and poetry. His work has been widely published in national and international literary journals. Before becoming a full-time writer, he was an elementary school teacher in inner city Los Angeles. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Mr Cailler was awarded the Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and a Shakespeare Award for Poetry. His chapbook, Clotheslines, was recently published by Red Bird Press. Loss Angeles is his first full-length book.
Ms Scott is the author of All I Need To Get By, published in 2004, and currently has a second novel under submission. She is on the faculty at Regis University in Denver, Colo., where she will teach fiction and nonfiction writing in the Regis Mile-High MFA program, beginning in 2016.
The two writers met at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier while pursuing their master of fine arts degrees. (Ms Scott received her MFA in 2014, Mr Callier in 2013.)
Although he was two semesters ahead of her in studies, Mr Callier ended up in her first two workshops at the college.
In reading each other’s works, as required through the workshops, the two writers were mutually impressed by each other’s skills.
“I was struck by his writing,” Ms Scott said, of his story “Over The Bridge,” written from the viewpoint of a 16-year-old girl. “It was done not in a gimmicky way. His writing was clean and unadorned,” she said.
Mr Callier said that he found Ms Scott’s comments to be insightful, leading to useful discussions as he crafted his stories. “I saw the level of enthusiasm she had for helping her peers. It came from a place of love, and it’s something you don’t often see in a workshop,” Mr Callier said
It is difficult to critique others’ works, Ms Scott said, in a way that is helpful to the author. Her background as a book coach, helping other writer’s improve their works, gave her an edge in that department, she said.
Mr Callier’s comments to her were particularly useful, she said, to the point that she has kept his notes from the MFA program. “He understood that writing a story is about grasping an emotion,” said Ms Scott, proven by his comments to her on the unusual story she submitted to the workshop.
“It was written from the point of view of a lime-green wig, owned by a gay guy. [Mathieu] saw that I was writing a love story,” she said.
Ms Scott found that she and Mr Callier shared the same disciplined approach to writing. Before she knew it, this young man, so different from herself (“He was born the year I graduated from high school, and he’s from L.A.,” she observed), had become a valued writing buddy.
“I was happy to find someone with that fearless devotion to writing,” she said.
When Ms Scott found out that Mr Callier was going to be visiting the East Coast this summer, she encouraged him to consider a book reading and Q&A program at the C.H. Booth Library. “It seemed the perfect time,” she said, although many might consider a lovely summer weekend afternoon a challenge to gather an audience for an indoor program.
Her instincts were correct. Nearly 20 people attended the August 8 program, a good blend, said Ms Scott, of both writers and readers.
“His book is about loss, an emotion I though would connect with people here,” Ms Scott said, whether that loss is about death, relationships, loss of self, or loss of opportunity. “I thought anyone could find a story [within the book] that they could relate to,” Ms Scott said.
Following her introduction, Mr Callier gave a brief reading, followed by a discussion between himself and Ms Scott. A second reading was followed by a Q&A opened up to the audience.
Prior to the book reading on Saturday, Mr Callier said that he hoped his stories would resonate with people in Newtown, being focused on families and loss. In a post-program telephone interview on Tuesday, August 11, he said his hopes had been realized.
“It was the best event I’ve done, and I’ve done a few,” he said, adding his praise to the staff of the C.H. Booth Library and for Ms Scott.
“The level of questions and interest [on Saturday] was great. People were very engaged,” he said, a statement with which Ms Scott agreed. She felt that many left with a better understanding of one writer’s process, and how “messy” that process can be.
Some of the conversation on Saturday centered on “Not writing what you know,” he said. “Stretching yourself is the most interesting way to keep things fresh. It’s fun to play around with writing,” Mr Callier said. He also addressed how this exercise can be as frightening as it is worthwhile for a writer. “If writing is your profession, you never want to get bored. It’s nice to surprise your reader, too,” he pointed out.
Of the 15 stories in Loss Angeles, Saturday’s audience heard excerpts from two, “Over The Bridge” and “Zorba’s,” as well as the entire reading of a very short story, “Hit and Stay.” Many of the stories in Loss Angeles were written before and during his enrollment in the MFA program, Mr Callier said, between 2009 and 2013.
“I chose these stories to read on Saturday, because I think it helps people understand the collection, and because some stories lend themselves to being read aloud,” Mr Callier said. With “Over The Bridge,” he conveyed to the audience his belief in a writer’s need to stretch.
“The title of Mathieu Cailler’s collection of short stories, Loss Angeles, sparked my interest in attending the Booth Library program focusing on this book last Saturday,” said Mary Thomas. “The program did not disappoint. Mathieu read excerpts from three of the stories, and the one titled ‘Zorba’s’ turned out to be my favorite. Any couple that has struggled over naming a newborn will recognize the dilemma. The dialogue between the mom and the dad captures many of the sentiments experienced by new parents in a humorous back and forth which culminates in a surprising solution. Loss turns out to be a gain in this story, and a memorable one at that,” she said.
“I was surprised to learn that he hand writes his ideas rather than using a computer,” said Gail Warek, who also attended the reading on Saturday. “It was also interesting to learn how he steps inside the mind of the character that he portrays. One story was from the perspective of a 16-year-old girl, and he described how he used some observations of a young girl he knew to develop the plot. All in all, it was an afternoon well spent,” said Ms Warek.
Linda Letgers also found the Saturday program of interest.
“Mathieu is a warm, wonderful writer. As a writer myself,” she said, “it was terrific to have so many of us in one room, right here at Cyrenius Booth. It is always useful and even inspiring to share ideas about process. The format he and Sophfronia set up — he would read, then answer questions, and then read — allowed us to delve into his careful craft, story by story.”
What Mr Callier hopes people left the afternoon with, is realizing that writing “is extremely messy. People see a work in print, and think the author wrote it just like that. It could not be a bigger thing than to not believe that. There’s a lot that goes into writing. If you’re scared,” he said, “and full of doubt, that’s normal. I don’t think any book has been written without those emotions.”