Wednesday’s Speakeasy series featured Schneider and Just

Photo by Susan Safford

A duet of Island authors performed to a full house at State Road Restaurant Wednesday, May 14, as a benefit for the West Tisbury Library. Ward Just of Vineyard Haven, author of 18 novels, whose latest book, “American Romantic,” was published in April, spoke as a novelist. Paul Schneider of West Tisbury, author of five books including the critically acclaimed “Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History” published last fall, spoke as a historian.

Mr. Just was asked to present his ideas about the life of a writer. Mr. Schneider got a big laugh from the full house when he claimed to be left with explaining “the nature of truth and beauty and truth and justice and goodness.”

Mr. Schneider, the editor of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, began: “to be on the same floor as Ward is a special thrill. He is one of my heroes, not just because he is one of my favorite writers, but he is one of my favorite people.”

Mr. Schneider gave a short description of the work involved in writing non-fiction. He told of the shelves full of books read for research, and the pitfalls of thinking there is only one view of the past.

Both Mr. Just’s book and Mr. Schneider’s book begin on big beautiful rivers, historic rivers: the Mekong and the Mississippi. According to Mr. Schneider, Mr. Just wisely figured he better get off the river in the second chapter, and finished the book in about 220 pages. “I never got off the river,” Mr. Schneider said, “and stopped around 400.”

Mr. Schneider talked about rivers as metaphor. “They represent the passage of time and the coming together of all the beginnings and trajectories on a continent. If it’s a real river, or it’s the life of a person, we imagine that they end in one place regardless of where the tributaries come from.”

Mr. Schneider said, “the challenge in writing non-fiction comes from leading a reader to a place where they can think: what if this person had done something differently? Might the outcome have been different? Even though they know the river is going to New Orleans.”

Mr. Just began his solo by saying, “someone really asked me to talk about the writing life with the idea that there might be some glamour attached. Perhaps even large sums of money. So I explained to him how it went.”

“You pick up a cup of coffee and a deck of cards and you play patience (solitaire). One, two, three games. If things are really going badly, you play four games before you sit down to write a sentence and then a second sentence and then you find that you have to go back and re-write the first sentence in order to fortify the second sentence and then you write the third sentence and then you have to go back to rewrite the first and second sentence to fortify the third sentence. This goes on all day long until late afternoon.”

He said that two and a half years later, you have a novel, and start all over again. “That’s the writers life as I see it.”

Mr. Just questioned what we really know about the lives of authors, and the accuracy of biography. “In the case of Hemingway,” he said, “if you have four wives, four wars, the Nobel Prize, not to mention the African beasts that have been slain and the birds that have been slaughtered…it’s an adventure story.”

The next Speakeasy session is scheduled for October.