In the opening chapter of her new book, Montpelier author Fay Webern reveals to the reader, in frank language, the devastating origins of her given name. And throughout the rest of the book's 42 chapters, the 89-year-old writer conjures up a clear picture of her family life and the warm, creative, resourceful people who resided alongside them in the Utopian housing community known as Lavanburg in 1920's New York City's Lower East Side.
Webern recently spoke to VPR about the book, The Button Thief Of East 14th Street: Scenes From A Life On The Lower East Side 1927-1957 published by Sagging Meniscus Press.
After a career in publishing that honed her skill as a technical writer, Webern said she didn't begin to write down her stories, anecdotes and memories of her time living in Lavanburg Homes until the urging of her nephew and her joining the Gotham Writers Workshops. The building she grew up in had also met the fate of a wrecking ball and she wanted to preserve the place and her memories of it through writing.
"I wanted to honor the streets. Keep the memory of them alive," Webern said.
Her career as a science writer taught her to write "carefully and slowly and get everything correct," Webern said. And what she learned at the writers workshop in New York City changed her writing style entirely.
"I did not know how to write in the first-person at all," she said. "I thought that you had to 'be there.' But then I learned ... that you could take the part of the narrator and the participant and that set me free to write about my mother's stories, how she earned a living, Lavanburg and what a success it was," Webern said.
After retirement and studying non-fiction writing, she said she came to Vermont after her daughter attended The Putney School and fell in love with the state and its people. She moved to Montpelier and after several years met local photographer, musician and producer Peg Tassey. One day, Webern showed Tassey the story she had written explaining her name's origins.
At the urging of Tassey to share her writing with the world, the two began a collaboration that led to a series of YouTube videos - filmed and edited by Laura Fillbach at ORCA Media in Montpelier - of Webern reading chapters and stories and eventually led to the book itself.
The book can be pre-ordered through Fay Webern's website. Webern will hold two local readings and book signings for The Book Thief on Monday, Dec. 12 at The Light Club Lamp Shop from 7 to 8 p.m. and on Friday, Dec. 16 at The Vermont College of Fine Arts reading room at Noble Hall from 7 to 9 p.m.