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Debut novel 'Liquid, Fragile, Perishable' explores how fictional Vermont characters collide

Carolyn Kuebler's 'Liquid, Fragile, Perishable' explores the interlocking relationships in a small Vermont town.
Carolyn Kuebler's 'Liquid, Fragile, Perishable' explores the interlocking relationships in a small Vermont town.

As anyone who lives in a small town knows, the lives of the town’s residents often overlap and intersect in many different ways. In a new novel, the interlocking relationships of teenagers, newcomers, and longtime residents play out over a year in the small fictional Vermont town of Glenville.

Middlebury resident Carolyn Kuebler, editor of the New England Review, is the author of "Liquid, Fragile, Perishable." Vermont Edition producer Andrea Laurion recently spoke with Kuebler in our studio.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Your novel begins in May, and as we're speaking right now, it is gorgeous outside. When it comes to Vermont, it's often images of autumn or winter that tend to come to mind in popular culture. So I'd love to hear why you chose to start in the month of May.

May is an amazing time in Vermont. In fact, the other day I was saying to my husband that I think May is the perfect month. May and September are really where it's at for Vermont. I love all of the seasons, but I think May has this particular fresh start feel to it. I even make one of my characters say that it's free heat for everyone. There's that relief you get when you don't have to put a coat on and it never gets old going outside without a coat putting on your bicycle and being warm.

Liquid, Fragile, Perishable is told through multiple perspectives. I have to ask, how did you keep track of them all? [Both laugh] All their comings and goings! Did you have a chart?

I did. I had more, but I narrowed it down a bit, so there are only 10 of what I would call my speaking characters. Those are the ones who do not have a first-person point of view, but it's kind of like having a first-person point of view. Those are the main characters of the book and they are all they're all connected, so none of them is completely separate from the others. I felt like I had a visual map in my head of the town. So I had a little pencil sketch on the bulletin board that I kept, and I knew where everybody lived, and I knew how they were all joined together and how they would meet throughout the novel.

I wanted to ask you about that town, Glenville, Vermont. It's fictional, but is it a stand-in for any particular town?

It's a conglomeration of different towns. I wanted to do all of it. I wanted them to be able to walk into the river, and I'm thinking of the New Haven River in Bristol, also the swimming holes near Middlebury at the Middlebury Gorge. I was thinking of Ripton and East Middlebury, but I was also thinking about other places I've gone camping and other places I've gone hiking. I wanted to put it all together in one, so I made up this maybe quintessential small town in Vermont, but it's definitely fiction.

The changing natural world is a character in itself in the book. I'd love to hear where that came from, and how you decided to approach that as this character without a face.

I think when you're in a state like Vermont, the weather is so important, and it is something you just can't ignore. You're right there in it every day, whether you want to be or not. That's a part of it. But I think a lot about how much Vermont has changed just in the past 20 years since I've moved here, and how so this book is really probably set more like around 2007. I know when I first moved here, we used to have a lot more days that were negative 30 that you would just have that frigid, frigid cold. And I feel like that's kind of it's kind of dissipating, things are changing fast and the the flooding has been so intense. I think even if you're not in Vermont, you're going to be affected by the weather, by climate change, and by the things that are just not how they used to be.

One of the things that struck me about the book was the way the characters who are newcomers to Vermont collide with those whose families have been here for many generations. Could you talk about the ways class, history and family play a role in the novel?

Those are such important things. I think that people think of Vermont, there's a little bit of mystique about the state. People think it's so beautiful and it's true, and I think there's no billboards, there's no garbage. Well, some of that is somewhat true, but there are also all the same problems that you're going to have everywhere else. And I think class is a huge one. I think that there's so much misunderstanding and so much resentment and people have different ways of making meaning. People have different ways of finding work and finding love and all of these things. I think class informs so much of it, especially what kind of work you're going to do. I don't think that there's any work that can't be noble work. We need everyone to do all the things that they do to make this place work. But I think that Vermont does have a little bit of a greenwash over it that makes people think that it's just an idyllic place to be, and it's just as complicated as anywhere else.

Broadcast live on Thursday, May 23, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.