Robert Olmstead:
Milking his memories

An interview by Daina Savage,
April 1996

There is a "cricket with a megaphone" outside Robert Olmstead's office. Behind every sentence Olmstead speaks in an interview late one evening, the cricket chirps a regular, booming beat.

It seems as though the natural world is so inseparable from Olmstead's own that even a telephone call to the author conjures up the meadow and the small pond behind his Mount Holly home. It is like this, too, with his writing: characters so deeply ingrained in the land that their skin smells of timothy hay, their ears buzz with cicadas and their mouths taste of milk freshly dipped from the bulk tank.

Olmstead's memories are filled with days spent working on his family's six-generation dairy farm near Keene, N.H. They are days of hard labor where work is never done.

"Dairy farming has that relentless cycle," he said. "Those cows have to be milked. If you're a crop farmer you can plow today or tomorrow. If you have beef you can feed at 9 or 11. And those are hard work too. But with dairy, your cycle is wed to those cows."

These memories of living in the land have subtly found their way into his four works of fiction: three previous novels, America By Land, A Trail of Heart's Blood Wherever We Go and Soft Water, as well as a collection of short stories, River Dogs. Now the author has penned a memoir: Stay Here With Me. The memoir centers on the summer he was 18, mixed with 24 years of the memories that came after.

"I tried to make fiction out of it, but there was a lot more true than not," he said. That mix of memories forms a "slippery slope" of what's true and what isn't. And he won't fess up to which is fiction.

"Oh, it's all true," he said later. "It's in the facts where the devil comes in."

Time in the book is not linear, the chronology of events is not exact, but in a way, everything he writes comes out of what is real.

"Memory is always more true to the present mind than to the past, always more true to itself than to anything else," he writes in the memoir. "This is a story from when I was a kid and worked on the farm for my grandfather and how I see now what I saw then."

Remembrances from the past -- mornings on the farm when the day breaks out "like platinum" -- sustain him today. But he hadn't set out to write about them.

"I hadn't thought about a memoir," he said. "I was working on a couple novels at the time. Then the first three or four sentences came into my brain and one day I put them down and didn't stop."

His opening paragraph leads the reader into his world: "passing through swales of sweet vernal grass and redtop and timothy and bromegrass, plantain and burdock and stalks of mullein on hard, dusty ground ... into the spruce and hemlock and white pine ...." Higher up, "through the hawthorn and hardwood, the juniper and forest grass gave way to mats of needles and hummocks of green, velvety moss caressing the black earth."

This Adam-like naming runs through the book. There are names of breeds of animals seen at the county fair, there are lists of places to see before he dies, there is an inventory of the contents of a stranger's medicine cabinet, and there is a list of people he'd kill for and die for.

"I do that," he said. "I know of another writer who doesn't write journals or letters or diaries, just keeps lists. I think that's a more pure version of what I do."

His recordings were looked at with suspicion when he was a young man, he writes, noting that his grandfather didn't like him writing anything down because then it could be legal.

"I think that comes from a larger notion, a quite pervasive mistrust of the written word that is fairly American," he said. "The word is the Bible and the law, and most human beings who are fallible have problems with both."

Still, his grandfather, the family patriarch, wants to make a recording of his own, an aerial photograph of the farm. The summer Olmstead writes about is the year the aerial photograph was to be taken, when the burden of daily farm chores was compounded by the work to get the farm in "apple-pie order" for the photograph.

This rush to paint and tidy the landscape is contrasted with the slow decline of his grandfather to prostate cancer. Olmstead rebels against but also protects his grandfather, just as he does his father, who is killing himself with alcohol.

In the book, Olmstead's father tells him that their souls are "suffering in a kind of darkness." This suffering in darkness is the stuff of much of Olmstead's writing.

"The story of my father, his drinking, it's the only story I tell," he said. And it may continue to be the only story he tells. There is no closure for this pain. Even a visit from his dead father gives no sense of finality.

"I've found that such visitations are not an uncommon thing. But for most people it's a kind of closure. For me it's always like an open wound," he said. "My father coming to me didn't really solve anything or put anything to rest. I was just visiting with dead."

Flitting above this pain in extraordinary lightness is a story of first love, a love that remains: "every night I fold myself into her, every night she comes into my life and I feel her hand on my heart and she is saying, I am here ... I am here."

She is Afton. At 20 she is two years older than Olmstead and he writes that he was "so in love that, when we touched, my bones ached to come through my skin to meet hers."

Like his father, Afton "is in all my books" in some form. Also in all of his books are the farmers, loggers, and hired hands of his childhood home.

This memoir leaves many questions: Were the books of poetry written by the solitary pentathlete, or some one else? What happened to Afton? And what is the secret of moving the stone? But what Olmstead does answer is how to live gracefully in the face of tragedy and "things that conspire to break hearts and leave them scarred over."

Olmstead has been the writer-in-residence at Dickinson College in Carlisle since 1985.

[ by Daina Savage ]

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