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In new novel, Sydney Lea draws on his personal experience with addiction

Sydney Lea's new novel brings together a seemingly mismatched pair of friends in the Maine wilderness.
Sydney Lea's new novel brings together a seemingly mismatched pair of friends in the Maine wilderness.

Addiction can be a lonely road to walk. Sometimes the only way to forge a new path is to do so alongside an old friend. In Vermont author Syndey Lea’s new novel, Now Look, the Ivy-League educated George Mayes and logger Evan Butcher navigate a decades-long friendship, the ravages of addiction, and the northern Maine wilderness.

Lea joined Vermont Edition to discuss his new book and his decades-long career as a poet and novelist. He founded the New England Review in 1977 and was once a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. He was Vermont’s poet laureate from 2011 to 2015 and received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2021.

The following interview excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sydney Lea: I've been at the business of recovery for a long, long time. I'm blessed in that respect. Many people don't get the chance. I want to also talk about the spiral of addiction because it's pretty much the same across the board. I — some one of my friends said — I just got drunk the way the good Lord intended me to. In my case, drugs were not a big part of the deal either. But I've known all kinds of people in recovery, even from gambling, and the behaviors are very, very similar. And I wanted to explore those, and also to indicate that all is never lost. I mean, it can be done — although it can't be done by sheer willpower, and one needs friends and support. I imply that throughout the book.

Mikaela Lefrak: Sydney, you mentioned that you have been through recovery. You've also lost people very close to you to addiction. A cousin of yours died at the age of 31. Your younger brother, who was addicted to cocaine, died quite young as well. When you were writing this book, did you think about what spared you that path? What was different? What led you to the place where you are today?

Lea: I think about that every single day, because my brother was a magnificently generous, and big hearted young man. He died at 34. And my cousin was a delightful, witty, intelligent fellow who drank himself to death very, very young. And I often asked, why me? I'm not necessarily using this in a religious sense, but I choose to believe in grace — that is to say, unmerited favor. Somehow it came to me and it didn't come to them. And it wasn't because I was a more noble spirit or brighter or anything else. It was just some mysterious dispensation that I received and others did not.

Lefrak: I read somewhere that when you're writing, you often think about your nearest neighbor, who was a fifth generation Vermonter who died in his 90s a few years back. And when I heard that, I was so curious to hear more about this neighbor of yours, and why you think of him when you're writing.

Lea: Much contemporary poetry to me and some fiction seems somehow designed for an "in crowd," you know? You have to learn the language, and you have to learn the habits in order to enter the book. And I everything in me recoils from that. And so it was when I moved to this particular house in 1991.

My neighbor then — whom I regarded as old, though he wasn't, he was good deal younger than I am now — had very few filters. He came up to me and he said, I understand you're a writer. And I say, yeah. He said, Well, I ain't gonna read anything you ever wrote, because all I ever read is Louis L'Amour. Once you get done reading him, you don't read nobody else.

And I suspect that, except for a few satirical poems I wrote on his birthdays and things like that, he never didn't read anything by my hand. And yet, when I sat down, I'd say, I'd like to imagine if he picked this up that he'd get something out of i. He might not get the whole gamut of things that I intended, but he'd get something out of that.

That's one of the reasons that [Robert] Frost has always been my literary hero — that you can take those poems to the first grade, and you can take them to the graduate school, and the union hall, and the retirement dinner, and what have you. Everybody will be able to get something out of one of the most complex poets that ever wrote in our country.

Lefrak: You have been writing a lot recently. You've published 25 books between the ages of 40 and 81. You recently published this novel we're discussing, as well as a poetry collection and a book of essays. How much of the day do you spend writing? How do you do it?

Lea: People say, how do you have the discipline to do that writing? Writing is what I do, Mikaela. The discipline is involved in running errands or keeping doctors' appointments, which is becoming a more and more frequent habit of mine, or getting the truck's tires changed, whatever it may be. That's where the discipline comes in.

I feel an impulse to write which can be almost catastrophic. And I don't know whether it's because I hear time's winged chariot behind me, but I've never felt the impulse to write more keenly than I do right now.

Lefrak: Where do you write?

Lea: When we move to this property 30-plus years ago, there was an old hunter's camp on the property. And we moved in there with three little kids. That was an incommodious place for a family with little kids, but it now makes it a very commodious writing place for me. It has a nice view out — we have a seven-acre pond on our property and looks right out there. I see all manner of wildlife. That's the place that I associate probably more fondly with my writing life than any other place I've encountered.

Broadcast live on Wednesday, June 26, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.