When a writer’s first novel is published, it is a time of celebration, surprise, back-slapping. It is also a time of shifts in consciousness. Now the writer has a book on the shelves in a bookstore. Now the writer signs books, gives readings, talks about the craft. Now the writer has been accepted in society as Writer and can safely say, “I am a writer.”
Cynthia Thayer certainly would say just that — and out loud. But it’s more likely that she would have to augment any one-word description of her career with another list of careers. Yes, she is a writer and has had short stories published in magazines, and a first novel, called “Strong for Potatoes,” is available this month from St. Martin’s Press.
But Thayer, who is 54, meets all of the requirements to be a Renaissance woman. She and her husband, Bill, own and operate Darthia Farm, a small organic operation down a long driveway in Gouldsboro. Depending on when you show up there, you can see lambs, fresh vegetables, jams, flowers or wreaths.
If you show up in the middle of winter, though, you’ll have to walk deep into the house to find Thayer hard at work.
The back room where she does her writing is cramped, but it’s cramped in a homy way. There are five chairs and a couch, all of which are draped with sheepskins and blankets. Family photos and paintings crowd the walls. Thayer sits in a central chair, one that easily pulls up to a computer or whirls around to greet a knock at the door. She wears thick wool socks, and a heavy wool sweater over a skirt. She offers tea, shortbread and muffins, then recedes into the chair ready to talk about her work.
“We do a million things and that’s why I like the farm,” she says. “I get bored easily. By the time I get bored, it’s time to move on to the next thing.”
That’s not too different from the examples her parents set when they were in the thick of their careers back in Nova Scotia, where Thayer grew up with three younger siblings. Her mother was a clothing designer, her father an opera singer and choral director, so Thayer would have seen an early pattern of project-oriented work that infiltrated family life.
She speaks perfunctorily of her parents, says she knows their flaws and that the dysfunction of her own family has helped her as a writer. She’s quick to confess that it was a family life she would flee through marriage to a man with whom she had two children and then divorced. Afterward, as a single mother, she went to Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts to earn degrees in English. When she met Bill, a special education teacher, they married and bought an old farmhouse in Massachusetts. In a year, they had fixed the place up so that it was worth twice the price it cost them. When they sold it, they bought the place in Maine, left their teaching jobs and moved north to begin a more organic life.
In addition to running the farm, Thayer also joined a regional bagpipe group and taught adult ed classes at a nearby high school. Several years ago, a creative writing class was such a success that Thayer formed a writing group from it. The members began meeting once a week in that little back room of hers, and before long, she had a novel in her hand.
“There are some writing groups that are touchy-feely and this is not one of those groups at all,” says Thayer, who still hosts the group each week. “We really want to be professional writers, so we want to improve our work.”
Peggy Bryant, a writer and group member, listened as Thayer read chapters of the book for two years. Then Bryant made a bold suggestion. Throw out the first three chapters, she said.
“She was telling too much and it was better to let that information come out gradually,” Bryant explained recently during a phone conversation from her home in Winter Harbor. “I was immediately entranced by her work as a writer. She doesn’t put on any airs. She tells it like it is. We felt a lot as we listened to this book. Cindy does everything with a bang. She doesn’t do anything half-ass. And everything she does, she does well.”
The group was surprised that Thayer, having faced a fair share of rejection notices, persisted in sending out inquiries until she found an agent who then sold the book within two weeks. A coming-of-age story about a girl whose twin dies in infancy and whose parents run an emotionally unreliable household, “Strong for Potatoes” is set in Maine and dips heavily into local color for themes of Indian culture, craftsmanship and rural life.
Kirkus Reviews compared the story to works by best-selling author Barbara Kingsolver, but criticized it for having a “plot that does a lot of heavy lifting to get the story off the ground.” The book also was selected by Barnes and Noble for its discover program.
Personal awards came much sooner. Thayer belongs to a grass-roots group of spinners and weavers that meets every Wednesday in members’ homes. As they spin wool, they also spin out the stories of their lives — the births, deaths, joys and dynamics of their homes. Sometimes, Thayer would bring chapters of her book to share with the spinners. She would pass out copies during the weekly meetings and her friends there would take them home to read.
When Thayer finally received a box filled with copies of the shelf-ready editions of “Strong for Potatoes,” she took them to the Wednesday spinners. The other women in the group lined up and made Thayer practice signing copies.
The group recently gathered with their spinning wheels in the kitchen of Kate Henry in Southwest Harbor. Thayer was not present because she and her husband had left for a holiday retreat on an island in the West Indies.
“One of the things we do very well is support each other,” said Susanne Grosjean, a spinner from Franklin. “All you have to do is mention a new project. We were especially interested in what Cindy was doing because it was entertaining and it was a good story.”
“Our part was as moral support,” Henry said. “We were so excited to hear about her successes and progress and letdowns. It has been total, unconditional support. We’re charmed by her stick-to-itiveness and rigor.”
As with the business she runs from her home, Thayer also takes on a leadership role with her spinner friends, said Molly Birdsall, who founded the group more than 20 years ago.
“Cindy is a real doer,” said Birdsall. “We have the utmost respect for her. She has a lot of native talent.”
The spinners aren’t without criticism, however. For some, the book had too many graphic sex scenes. But even with those, the story secures Thayer’s spot as the literary member of the group.
Back in her writing room, Thayer speaks in abrupt, bold sentences. As her friends noted, she is direct, swears, doesn’t hold back. Her tone is the same for talking about the development of a character as it is for revealing her suspicion that her father had an affair with James Joyce’s son or about the tragic death of her granddaughter more than a year ago. She laughs about showing up in New York City in her very best clothes and still feeling out of place in a cosmopolitan setting. She wonders what an upcoming tour will be like for her and if readers will get the message of “Strong for Potatoes”: “That you can deal with s—. I think a lot of people are thrown easily by life.”
Thayer is working on a second novel now. This one is about a deaf boy who is sequestered for many years in an inner room of a family home.
“This book is really bizarre and I can’t really help it,” Thayer says.
Out in the fresh air, Thayer points to the sheep, the workhorses, the chickens and border collies that populate the farm. Her son, his wife and their daughter also live on the property, as do apprentices during busy seasons. It’s a busy life. A constant life. A writer’s life.
Cynthia Thayer will read from her new novel, “Strong for Potatoes,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, at Borders Books, Music and Cafe in Bangor.