CHEWING THE RAG WITH John Gould
Friendship, Maine — Ask John Gould if he is willing to be interviewed and he asks if he should get in two lobsters or three for your supper. Search him out at his home and you find that to him living "in town" means a mile and a half outside on a direct road running down to the ocean. Anyone can see this isn't going to be a run-of-the-mill interview. But after all, a man who has written 18 books and hundreds of newspaper columns,co-owned and co-edited the Lisbon Enterprise (a weekly newspaper), and run a successful farm isn't going to be hard to interview , is he?
His barn is one of those Maine barns that seem to grow out of the countryside. On the front, a big sign proclaims "Exhibition of Art" -- a smaller one apologizes, "Art's Day Off." From the flagpole waves the Stars and Stripes and, in honor of this British-born visitor, a Union Jack.
Meeting a writer whose work you know is always confusing. It takes a moment for the flesh and blood man to take over from your mental image of him. You just have to wait for that moment to pass. But when you meet John Gould he fits one's preconceptions so exactly that it becomes doubly confusing. There's no doubt that this is the man who has been chatting to you (or chewing the rag, if you want to sound authentically Maine -- and i am trying to) in his columns and books for years and years. Of course you know him -- and, if you don't, give him five minutes, and don't let that blue-eyed, innocent chuckle mislead you.
It is only later on that you begin to wonder what Mr. Maine himself is doing with a bubbling sense of fun, a delight in the absurd, and a citified Monty Woolley beard. You decide the New York Herald Tribune was pretty nearly right when it compared him to Will Rogers.
John and his wife, Dorothy, came to live in this house in Back River, Friendship, about 10 years ago, but they've grown into it so completely that it has the established, cherished feeling you find in houses that have been handed down over the generations. Perhaps the furniture has something to do with it. The handsome farm table would make an antique dealer drool. Obviously it is a craftsman's job -- a craftsman who knew what he was doing and had loved doing it. John made it. The same goes for the benches.
If this had been a traditional interview with a writer, it would have been conducted over lunch. But John never takes to the idea of a formal interview and Dorothy is determined to treat me as an honored guest, serving a typical Maine lunch -- fish chowder, diced fat pork, and pickles, cheese, and crackers. And, for "with-its," a real "morey" ("worth having more of"), blueberry pie. The tape recorder is definitely outlawed.
We talk about moose. John is sorry Maine allowed them to be hunted this year. They have been protected so long that to kill them is like shooting grandmother on the front porch in her rocker, he says.
He tells me how when he is hunting up in Maine woods in July he always observes Bastille Day.
"We have French toast for breakfast, and i whistle the Marseillaise and we fly the tricolor," to the delight of any French-Canadian who happens to be in the wilderness too.
I am wondering if I will remember all this and John is telling me that some boats that dock in Friendship around this time of the year are called Summer Mahogany and some aren't, and a boat its owners call Victory Chimes is known as Jingle Bells by the fishermen.
I eat another piece of blueberry pie, and John says no, he doesn't think a notebook belongs on the lunch table, either. I'm glad, because Dorothy's pie is too good to play second fiddle to my shorthand.
John says that he was born in boston but grew up in Freeport, Maine. His grandfather was a Civil War veteran with a farm in nearby Lisbon. When the farm , built by his great- grandfather, Jacog, burned down in 1945, he and Dorothy reconstructed it, building a new home on the old foundation (he wrote a book about it: "The House that Jacob Built").
"Dad had been born in that old house," John says. "One of eight children an when grandmother had her eighth child she divorced the old man. Father never sided with his father or his mother, but I got the idea the old lady felt she was too nice for a farm, but we always wondered why it took her eight pregnancies to find out.
"Grandfather's religion was brief and scattered but he was a great reader of the Bible. He liked the stories. It was his library, and he wanted me to read from it when I came over there and I remember reading the Moses story to him and didn't he laugh. He thought when Pharaoh's daughter hires the baby's own mother to care for her own baby -- and then paym her. . . . That was hilarious. Putting on over,' he says, 'chicanery.'"
"In my teens I'd go over there and help Gramps with the hay and I came to love the old farm; so when he left it I picked it up."
We've eaten everything in sight, so John takes me to his office at the back of the barn where he writes his books and his newspaper columns.The books he has Written fill two of the shelves behind us.
I look longingly at the tape recorder and I'm allowed to switch it on, though John disapproves. He blames it for the phoniness that takes hold of lobstermen when tourists thrust mikes at them.
I try to get him to talk about his writing.
"I don't profess to know too much about it and I don't think I'd have skill enough to explain it if I did. But to me a piece of well-written prose reads well aloud, so I read aloud to myself to get the sound of it and you'd be surprised how often a piece that looks all right kind of grates and. . . well you've got to rewrite it. If someone heard me they'd think I was balmy and had a cuckoo in here."
Does he worry about running out of things to write about?
He tells me how his friend John Coggswell, who wrote for the Sunday Boston Post, dismissed ridiculous questions like that: "'I work for two hours a day,' John Coggswell would say 'and that's the most I can get out of myself,' he said, 'and the world is busy 24 hours a day and I'm never going to catch up.'"
John Gould has his own way of explaining how he finds his subjects and the delight he gets in finding them.
"When we built up the Gramp's old farmhouse we kept bees and we made a lot of maple syrup and it gave me something to write about."
"We don't write books in Maine," he says in his book of reminiscences, "This Trifling Distinction." "We livem books. We go hunting and fishing, we tend out on Grange meetings, we socialize as time permits, and after we've done enough living in Maine the pile is big enough and we send it to a publisher."
Yes, he admits, he does spend long hours rewriting and rewriting. While he's about his chores he thinks about what he is going to say, next day spends an hour or two setting it down on his typewriter, shows it to Dorothy, acts on her criticism, polishes it the next day. Sometimes the day after that he throws it away and starts again.
He is in love with his craft.
Were there any other writers in his family? "Any other" is an understatement. "Everybodym in my family was a writer. My grandmother wrote 'Feeding Babies,' [he drops a thin pamphlet on my lap], my father's brother, 'A Maine Man in the Making.' My first cousin Ralph Field went to night school, decided he wanted to be a writer, and wrote 'Little Britches.'"
I would like to refill my tape recorder. John waves in mild disapproval. He tells me a joke instead. "'Dou you believe in infant baptism?' one Mainer asks another. 'Ayuh. Seen it done. Twice.'"
He says when he had his own newspaper he wanted to run part of a picture on the first page and continue it on the back page.He did too -- picture of a tower
His German neighbor, a huge flaxen giant with a guttural accent and a splendid laugh to match, drops in and John shows us some of his woodwork -- a beautifully proportioned hope chest made for the neighbor's daughter and a cradle to be lent out to Friendship babies.
The interview still hasn't develop on conventional lines but the sun is beginning to set. Boston is a long way away. No, no, I can't linger for moonlight picnics. I don't take presents, either, but all the same I find myself taking home an autographed copy of John's "Maine Lingo," two of his records, a wooden basket he had made -- and a very live lobster.