Author Spotlight: Anne Nesbet

Anne Nesbet’s mom told her stories. Ones of growing up in an orphanage run by her grandmother in Springvale, Maine, in the 1940s. Ones of growing up poor. Ones of family secrets.

Her mother passed away 21 years ago, but Nesbet has found a new way to connect with her: through writing.

Nesbet’s latest book, “The Orphan Band of Springdale,” is a fictionalized middle grade novel based on her mother’s life.

“This is sort of a unique experience — I started off thinking of my mother as a child and instead was writing about my fictional Gusta who happened to have a lot of the familiar traits I loved about my mother. Not just the bad teeth and bad eyes but the [desire for justice],” Nesbet said.

But the characters diverged and became their own people.

“Gusta is definitely her own person. Quickly she wasn’t my mother anymore. She was her own person,” Nesbet said.

In the novel, Gusta is an 11-year-old girl traveling north from New York to her grandmother’s house in Maine with her father. But when the two get to Boston, her father puts her on the bus and vanishes, leaving her to find her own way. It’s 1941 and tensions are on the rise in Europe. Meanwhile, small-town prejudices are rampant in Springdale, where her grandmother runs an orphanage out of her home. As Gusta settles into town, she finds that life isn’t quite as she saw it before and her family has some greater secrets than she could ever have imagined.

To develop the story, Nesbet traveled to Maine to research.

“I went to the Sanford Historical Society and read through the Sanford [newspaper] … I found so many amazing things from that newspaper,” Nesbet said. The newspaper included school notes, a column where schools shared what students were working on. Nesbet said that was an “amazing resource.”

She walked away with so many stories, she had to decide “what kind of stories were rising up from that historical context.”

Nesbet says that it was a long and complicated process but eventually the book started to come together with bits of the history forming a compelling story.

“I noticed when I was going through there were these competing ads from the two big dairies in town,” Nesbet said. That ended up being the basis for a subplot about dairy wars in Gusta’s classroom, where the children of competing dairies tried to one-up each other.

The process of writing “The Orphan Band of Springdale,” bought some clarity about things she’d been told about her family history. Nesbet’s great-grandmother’s home still stands in Springdale. “One of my cousins sent me photos of what it looked like back in the day,” Nesbet said.

Among the stories her mother had told was about a family member having a child out of wedlock and that being the impetus for creating the orphan home her grandmother ran. Nesbet located her great-grandmother in the census. In the column where employment is described, it read “children’s boarding home.” That’s when she realized that story was true.

Writing for the middle grade market is something that Nesbet has fallen in love with.

“When I first started writing, I thought I would be writing for grown-ups. I wrote a couple of science fiction novels but they never got picked up by anybody,” Nesbet said. Then she discovered that she loved the stories on middle grade bookshelves.

“One thing is this is the age when people read books and the books go deep into their meaning and become so important. There’s this heightened sense of responsibility in writing. … You want to make the book as worthy of that as possible,” Nesbet said. “And then the kind of stories you can tell for this age are very complicated but on the other hand not yet the romance of the next age up. It’s all about adventure and discovering the world and seeing things through new eyes.”

Nesbet takes that responsibility seriously, doing thorough research for her historical-based novels.

Nesbet’s previous book, “Cloud and Wallfish,” was also steeped in research — though Nesbet began the research long before she knew where it would go. She was a graduate student conducting research in East Berlin in 1990 when her research began. She took detailed notes about everyday life there and accumulated a box of material that she eventually used as a basis for beginning her novel.

“Cloud and Wallfish,” is about a seemingly normal family that suddenly moves to East Berlin one afternoon. Noah Keller’s life is turned upside down as his parents tell him his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn 11. But he can’t even ask about this shocking revelations because in the time of the Cold War, the walls really do have ears. Their new life is filled with rules, secrets and questions. The plot is filled with intrigue, espionage, friendship and family.

As for her next book, Nesbet is digging into the world of silent films and film noir.

“The next thing I am working on is a book set in the serial film craze of 1914. At that time there was just this upsurge of this new form of film where they would have a young woman undergo harrowing adventures and at the end of those films she would be left — sometimes quite literally — on a cliff,” Nesbet said.

In the book, a child star turned serial star gets mixed up in some trouble while filming an episode. When the staged kidnapping turns into a real kidnapping, she and her co-star must use adventure skills to save themselves.”

“It’s actually been really fun working on that particular book.”

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