Finding Home in Maine

“The woods were as dense as ever, the two-tracked lane as grassy, and the dark thoughts that had gripped him on the plane trip seemed to float up among the leaves of the trees and disappear.”  – “The Girl of the Lake,” by Bill Roorbach

Author Bill Roorbach wasn’t born in Maine, but he’s claimed it as his home.

After growing up mostly in Connecticut, he graduated from Ithaca College in New York in 1976. Later, in 1990, he received his Master of Fine Arts Writing from Columbia University. A year later, in 1991, his career brought him to Maine. He’d been hired to teach at the University of Maine at Farmington.

“I only taught there for four years,” he said. He was hired away by Ohio State University, where he later became a tenured professor. But Roorbach came back to Maine every summer, taking sabbaticals from teaching. During the time he taught at Ohio, he never considered it his home, preferring to fly home to Maine as often as he was able.

“When my daughter was born in Farmington in 2000,” he said, “I picked up this little baby and I said, ‘I don’t want you to be from Ohio.’ I quit my great job on the graduate faculty at Ohio State — I gave up full-time work, which was scary — because I thought raising her here was worth it.”

Now, Roorbach lives on a “scruffy old farm” just outside Farmington. The 25-plus years he’s lived in Maine — that includes the years he taught in Ohio — is the longest he’s ever lived anywhere.

“Western Maine reminds me of the best of the Connecticut of my youth. There’s still farms, still a sense of looking out for one another here. And summer is sweet. It is so beautiful. I love the ocean and I love the mountains. I love the farms. Maine has all the stuff I love. In a couple hours’ drive, I can see all sorts of landscapes.

Roorbach’s writing includes creative nonfiction, novels, and short stories. His newest book, “The Girl of the Lake,” released by Algonquin in June, is a collection of short stories. Roorbach says he didn’t stop writing short stories during the time that his novels, “Life Among Giants” in 2012, and “The Remedy for Love” in 2015, were published. The stories were written between 2004 and 2016.

“I’m always writing stories,” he said. A lot of them are placed in magazines ranging from literary magazines like Ploughshares to more well-known outlets such as Playboy. But when he had about 20 of them, he looked for 10 to put together, a process he described as “sort of like putting together a bouquet,” finding stories that complement each other, and then writing additional stories to flesh out the collection. In “The Girl of the Lake,” the newest story is The Tragedie of King Lear.

But the stories in the collection all contain elements of water and women in them, and he says the title story expresses something important now. “The earth and the land are in a trust — it’s our job to carry that forward.”

Some of Roorbach’s earliest published writing was about nature, and he says that the nature writer’s craft has changed. Traditionally, they describe and study and answer questions about nature, but these days, “There’s no way around being political if you’re a naturalist who is the least bit conservation-minded,” he said. And conservation is not a partisan issue. “Back in the day, ‘conservative’ meant ‘conserve things.” Which is why he argues that most Americans do not agree with President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Accords on climate change.

Roorbach says that he is not writing about the Trump administration … yet. “I suspect it will start to turn up. My work always has a quiet political core mostly expressed through the troubles of the characters.”

Roorbach attends a writing group where they gather to read and critique each other’s work. But they’ve had to institute a new rule since the election. “We’ve instituted a ‘Trump Timer.’ We only have an hour to talk about him, because otherwise, it would take over everything.”

Yet he is insistent that he isn’t thinking about politics as much as he did when he was a young man in the early 1970s. “When I was in college, the federal government was shooting students on campuses and killing them. We haven’t gotten that far yet. The horror of that as a young high school kid and then college kid, it was a terrible time. Friends were dying overseas in an illegal war and kids were being shot in the street. I don’t think things are worse now than the way things are then.”

And it’s also clear that the country has advanced since the 1970s. “In terms of environmental stuff, they’re definitely better now in many ways. But do I believe that we will go back knowing what we know now? That’s what’s horrible.”

He says the same issues confront civil rights. The possibility that things could go backward is terrible. “All the progress that’s been made since my angry days is really upsetting to see people in charge want to blow it back.”

And while he contends that it’s part of the political cycle, steps backward on these issues would be hard to take.

Elysia, the daughter born in 2000, will soon be of college-age. But unlike many soon-to-be empty-nesters, Roorbach and his wife, artist Juliet Karelsen, aren’t looking to leave Maine for a warm beach somewhere.

“I love the winters. I’m a skier. My first novel was about a downhill skier. I like Maine winter because there’s lots of snow and then lots of bright sunshine in-between. I love that,” Roorbach said.

Roorbach’s daughter has grown up just a few miles from her birth, keeping her dad’s promise to her that she wouldn’t be raised in Ohio. He says that with 6,000 people, and a university, Farmington is a lively town. He especially likes all the young people who are returning to the land, giving up modern ways of farming to go back to growing and making beautiful products.

As for his daughter?

“My daughter’s idea of a great date with her boyfriend is a long walk in the woods,” he said. “I love that.”

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