Floating ideas with literary legend Jay Parini
Jay Parini may be one of this country’s most distinguished men of letters. But his summer study is missing a few basic implements. Like, um, a printer. And a front door.
During the academic year, Parini usually starts the day writing poetry in Carol’s Hungry Mind Café on Merchant’s Row in Middlebury. From there, he heads to class or his campus office for the afternoon. But during June, July and August, he likes to read, write and chill aboard his 25-foot motorboat, Fishin Impossible.
Although his approach to literary production may seem oddly informal, there’s nothing casual about Parini’s career: Since the early 1970s, when he began publishing in Scottish newspapers, Parini, 59, has been banging out poems, essays, novels, biographies and articles on topics ranging from small-town baseball to early-20th-century German intellectuals. Although he travels around the world giving readings and lectures, for 25 years Parini has always returned to the environs of Middlebury College, where he’s an English professor-cum-amateur-b-baller.
Eight years ago, around the time he traded his old boat for this one, he published a biography of Robert Frost that went on to win the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award for best nonfiction book. These days, he still scores book and article contracts as if they were lay-ups on a kids’ basket.
How does the writer pull it off? On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I climb aboard Fishin Impossible to find out. The journey on Lake Champlain offers a rare glimpse into the creative process of one of Vermont’s most celebrated, albeit unassuming, cultural icons.
Fishin Impossible lives on Otter Creek at Tom’s Marine Service in Vergennes. When I meet Parini there, he’s dressed in a pale yellow T-shirt and green khaki shorts. The professor’s grin stretches from ear to ear; his face is lathered generously with suntan lotion, so that some of the gunk has settled behind his ears. If it weren’t for a shiny bald spot and a pair of thick glasses, he could be an oversized kid looking for frogs. “The best thing about Lake Champlain is that there’s hardly anyone on it,” he says cheerfully, without drawing attention to the fact that it’s a weekday. “That’s OK with me!”
In high-summer style, Parini starts up the motor, then bids me pour out two glasses of iced tea. For 20 minutes, we putter down the creek — “like in Heart of Darkness,” he suggests. While he steers, I look around his cabin. On the small plastic table next to the iced tea sits a book of Robert Frost’s poetry and a thin spiral notebook. Keeping one eye on the horizon, Parini explains that he’s co-writing a screenplay about the poet’s life.
That’s just the tip of his literary iceberg. Turns out the professor has a hand in a slew of other projects. For instance, he’s working on a play, Mary Postgate — based on a Rudyard Kipling short story — and a nonfiction book entitled Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Shaped America (forthcoming from Doubleday). Another nonfiction effort, Why Poetry Matters, comes out next year from Yale University Press. A film adaptation of Parini’s novel The Last Station, which chronicles the last year of Tolstoy’s life, begins shooting next year in Russia. That flick will star — ahem — Meryl Streep and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Oh, and he has two other novels “in the vault.” One of them, called Anderson Depot, is set during the American Civil War.With the sun out in full force, we hit the open lake with our bow aimed straight for the Adirondacks. Parini steps on the accelerator, and the iced-tea pitcher goes flying, soaking the book and the notebook with Marx Brothers slapstick flair. I scramble on my hands and knees, observing, “I ruined your movie, Jay!”
“Don’t worry about that!” he shouts over the motor. “Just get a towel, will you!”
I wipe down the books, stow them in the cabin, then return to the cockpit. At 30 miles per hour, the wind alleviates the heat. True to Parini’s claim, there are only a handful of other vessels out here today, most of them sailboats. As we begin heading north toward Kingsland Bay State Park, the writer points out notable landmarks. Straight ahead is Point Bay Marina. On a bluff to our right looms a craggy mansion. “Look at that,” Parini notes, raising his eyebrows. “It’s like something out of Wuthering Heights” — Emily Brontë’s dark novel set in mid-19th-century northern England.
Parini doesn’t live in a spooky English castle, but he does exude a palpable literary mystique. Though born in gritty Scranton, Pennsylvania, he’s spent many years of his adult life living in the U.K. and Italy, all the while rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s most renowned authors. Back in the early ’70s, for instance, he studied with the Scottish poet and essayist Alastair Reid while completing graduate work at the University of St. Andrews. His neighbor in Italy was the American writer and social critic Gore Vidal.
Now, having established himself as a prominent wordsmith, Parini appears to get more speaking offers than a presidential candidate. The author, who still writes on literary topics for the London-based newspaper The Guardian, recently toured Belarus, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Israel as a U.S. State Department-sponsored lecturer on American literature and writing. Next year, the government has arranged for him to talk in Morocco. “I’ve always been a little peripatetic since I was 19,” he says modestly as we catch a mooring in Kingsland Bay.
In spite of his internationalism, however, Parini remains . . . well, a guy who grew up in Scranton. Once we’ve caught a mooring in Kingsland Bay, he changes into a pair of goofy red swim trunks emblazoned with little anchors. We dive into the lake and float around for 40 minutes, neither of us attempting much more than pseudo-doggie paddle. “When I’m swimming, I feel like I’m part fish!” he jokes at one point.
That may sound silly coming from a guy who has been on the fiction jury for the National Book Award. But for this writer, kicking back isn’t merely a distraction from the real world. Handing me a microbrew back on the boat, Parini explains that “creative leisure” is a vital ingredient in his creative stew. Just like a café, this boat offers time and space for inspiration to bubble up. “Frost once said that he was very lazy, and that it was the only way he could get anything done,” Parini explains. “I could never get anything done if I didn’t have an immense amount of free time.”
That doesn’t mean all his days are “productive” in the conventional sense. As we sip our drinks on this sunny afternoon, Parini pauses to ogle a polished wooden motorboat that’s moving across the harbor. Gazing at the antique craft, he confides that sometimes he’ll spend hours reading boating magazines here in Kingsland Bay. “There are whole days when I just sit here,” he says. “I’ve never made a big distinction between work and play. If I’m not enjoying a class or a novel I’m writing, I’d do a terrible job of it.”
At first glance, Parini’s worldly and small-town sensibilities might seem diametrically opposed. Not so. In spite of a busy travel schedule, he makes a point of staying connected to this region. Why Vermont, of all places? Parini has always enjoyed what he terms “town life.” And he says this state feels most comfortable to him precisely because it’s the least American of them all. “For the most part, I’m turned off by the commercialization of America and the right-wing politics,” he admits. “I can’t even read the papers . . . Even The New York Times gives me a lot of trouble.”
Though Parini might be tempted to tune out entirely, in the tradition of so many other disillusioned American writers — e.g., fellow boating enthusiast Ernest Hemingway — he says he never will. A vocal opponent of the Iraq war, he feels “a duty to contribute to the [public] discourse in any way I can.” That explains why he periodically takes breaks from his various literary projects to contribute to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vermont Life magazine and Vermont Public Radio. “I’m always complaining about American intellectual life,” Parini adds, “so I’d feel like a hypocrite if I didn’t have an oar in the water.”
Fortunately for this thinker, literature — like his boat — offers an easy escape from world events. As the sun starts to drop behind the Adirondacks, Parini gushes about the power of the written word, but in a tone that’s still conversational and unpretentious. He recalls escaping from Scranton through the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. Here on the boat, he’ll pick up Walt Whitman and be similarly transported to other landscapes and mental climes.
Meanwhile, it’s about time to head home. Just before he asks me to retrieve our bowline, he gestures at a nearby outcropping of rocks where a woman in a bathing suit has been reading a book. “It’s the universal library — a phrase of Borges’,” he reflects. “We carry [literature] in our head. Reading allows us to travel constantly.”
Parini smiles, then finishes his thought. “The experience of swimming and then lying on a rock on the shore,” he points out, “hasn’t changed for over 10 centuries.”