Wilmington Novelist Mines Her Life, And Her Hearing Loss, To Tell Stories

Jan 1, 2016

Writer Laura Stevenson has written two works of fiction inspired by her own life in Vermont. One of her books drew on the very personal experience of losing her hearing. 

Stevenson started spending her summers in Vermont when she was 5 years old. At the time her family had bought an old farmhouse as a second home in Wilmington. 

"If I could really tell you how I felt about Vermont, I wouldn’t have to write books. I write books to figure it out," she says during an interview in her home. 

Her most recent book is Liar From Vermont, whose protagonist Peggy spends her summers in Vermont and then returns to Michigan in the fall, just like Laura Stevenson. And like the author, Peggy rides a horse around the countryside and loses her mother when she is a teenager. 

"When you write something that’s autobiographical, if it’s going to be authentic – even if it isn’t true – you have to re-experience the emotions," says Stevenson. "There were parts of Liar From Vermont that took me weeks to work through." 

In the novel, Peggy sees more and more farms replaced by second homes. When Stevenson first came to Wilmington, there were four homes on the road where her family’s farmhouse is located. But now there are 22. 

"That’s a change in real estate on the scale of what happened when the settlers drove out the Indians," she says. "It’s an immense change!" 

"When you write something that's autobiographical ... you have to re-experience the emotions." - Laura Stevenson

The changing Vermont landscape is also a theme in Stevenson’s novel, Return In Kind, which features a college professor named Eleanor who loses her hearing and resorts to cleaning houses to support herself. This is a trauma Laura Stevenson knows first hand. The author started going deaf when she was 29. She says it was terrifying. 

"I remember realizing what was happening when I went to the Bach B Minor Mass and I couldn’t hear it. I got one more hearing test. I went to Mass General Hospital and was told, “There’s nothing we can do for you, it’s just bad luck.” 

In 1983, Stevenson quit a college teaching job in Massachusetts and retreated to the family home in Wilmington. She was 35 at the time and a single mother to boot. Despite her PhD in Elizabethan history, Stevenson had to resort to cleaning the weekend homes of out-of-state skiers to make ends meet. 
 

In Stevenson's most recent book, the protagonist Peggy spends her summers in Vermont and then returns to Michigan in the fall, just like Stevenson herself.
Credit Courtesy

"It made me feel ashamed," Steven says when asked what the experience was like. "Not of cleaning houses, but of not having really been aware of all those other people who had to clean houses. And I learned some very interesting social things. There were plenty of guys who wouldn’t even glance at Professor Stevenson but who will make a pass at the cleaning lady. And I hadn’t realized that was true until I realized that was something I was going to have to deal with."

In 1986, Stevenson was hired to teach writing at Marlboro College. The school paid for typists and court reporters to transcribe faculty meetings and classroom discussions so that Stevenson could fulfill her duties and participate in the academic community.

John Sheehy, a professor of writing and literature at Marlboro, worked closely with Stevenson. 

"Deafness makes some people uncomfortable. Some people among her colleagues had trouble communicating with Laura and that really frustrated her," he recalls. "She told me once, 'When you’re deaf, it’s easy to disappear. And the only way you’re not going to is you just have to put it out there.' And she got her idea on the table. She was not going to disappear." 

"She told me once, 'When you're deaf, it's easy to disappear. And the only way you're not going to is you just have to put it out there.' " - John Sheehy, Marlboro College professor of writing and literature

Despite her deafness, Stevenson had little difficulty communicating with her students, who type on a wireless keyboard that displayed text on her laptop screen. The process slowed down conversations but had an unexpectedly helpful educational effect. It turned out that the ability to go back and review their exchange helped students reflect, Stephenson says. This dynamic is at play in Stevenson’s novel, Return in Kind, where the deaf protagonist Eleanor asks a man to communicate by writing on a pad of paper. 

Stevenson is finishing another novel, a murder mystery set in England, and she already has an idea for her next book. 

"The next one, which is waking me up at night, is going to be back in Vermont," she says. "Which is where I think I belong."