Monica Wood keeps the roots that she puts down.
Other than during college, she has lived in two places: In the western Maine mill town of Mexico and in Portland. Now 60, she was born and raised in Mexico. For the past 38 years, she’s lived in the same house in the Nasons Corner neighborhood of Portland.
It’s the only house she has owned, and the one she shares with her husband, Dan Abbott. They’ve been married 36 years. He’s from the neighboring town of Rumford Point. They met in 1976, when both found themselves cast in a community theater production of “The Music Man.”
Consistent. Stable. Solid.
Those words also describe Wood’s life and her career as a writer of all things Maine.
This state is full of writers. Some native, some from away. They all write from different levels of experience, knowledge and familiarity. But few write about Maine with the ingrained authenticity of Monica Wood.
The Maine she writes about is not cute. It’s not romantic. It’s not even necessarily beautiful. But neither is it backwoods depressing.
It’s just real.
“The scenes that she has been given to work with here in Maine are excellent,” said her writing friend Hannah Holmes of South Portland, “and her ability to paint this particular and peculiar culture is a real gift.”
The idea that she is a writer of Maine and not merely a writer from Maine is something that Wood herself only recently has come to accept.
“Maybe my job has been to be the person who writes about Maine,” she said. “I don’t think of myself as being a Maine writer or a regional writer, but maybe that was my mission the whole time, to come to the point of writing about my roots and this part of Maine that isn’t known to the rest of the country.”
SUCCESS IN FICTION AND NON…
Wood has written a half-dozen books and is beginning to take her Maine to the stage. She is working on a play that will bring to life characters from a favorite book of hers, “Ernie’s Ark.”
The book that brought her national attention came out in 2005, “Any Bitter Thing.” It’s a novel about loyalty, betrayal and false accusations in the Catholic church. She sold about 80,000 copies, and garnered great reviews.
The book that earned her beloved status in Maine is “When We Were the Kennedys,” her memoir from 2012. The book recounts Wood’s Catholic upbringing in Mexico, the death of her father in 1963 when she was in fourth grade, and life in a mill town during labor unrest. It’s about life before and after the end of innocence.
Chris Bowe, co-owner of Longfellow Books in Portland, said “When We Were the Kennedys” will become the best-selling book the store has handled. It was on the store’s best-seller list for 72 weeks and is still selling.
It will sell more than anything in the Harry Potter series, more than Richard Russo, Richard Ford or any other book by any other writer from Maine, England or anywhere.
“It was a book she was born to write,” Bowe said.
Humbled by the support, Wood likens the success of “When We Were the Kennedys” to her family rooting for her. That’s how she feels about local booksellers and local book buyers. They’re on the sideline cheering.
The best compliment anyone has paid to Wood — there have been many — came from a stranger who pulled her aside after a reading of “When We Were the Kennedys.” This was right about the time the Hostess baking plant in Biddeford closed last year.
The woman told her, “If I hadn’t read your book I would not have given a thought to the families that lost their livelihoods.”
Wood attributes the popularity of “When We Were the Kennedys” to the book’s central theme, which is loss – the loss of a father, the loss of a cash-cow employer, the loss of friendships to labor strife and, ultimately, the loss of a town and a way of life.
“Loss is a universal theme,” she said. “And the loss of American manufacturing is very personal.”
Wood has been writing for about 30 years. Despite what Bowe said of her, she was not born to write. It has come through hard work, discipline and introspection. And to be sure, she has experienced professional failure, with books languishing unsold and publishers backing away from her.
She works hard at writing still. Nearly every day, she gets up and goes to work in a studio out behind her house, though she gives herself weekends off, and jokes, “I keep banker’s hours.”
As she began honing her craft, she was part of a group of friends that called itself the Ladies Toast and Boast Society. It included women active in various Maine media. She and Holmes were regulars.
Other than being active in media pursuits and being female, the only membership requirement was answering the question: Red or white?
The ladies referred to themselves as a group brain. It became a place where the friends could bring professional questions, seek advice and counsel, or just talk.
“She’s a natural teacher,” Holmes said, “which is to say she’s a meticulous listener, a natural analyst and quick and precise with her impressions.”
All of which make her a great writer, Holmes added. “She is very forgiving of others, but relentless with the standards that she wants to meet for herself,” Holmes said.
Wood considers herself a social person. She loves going out to eat, and counts among her favorite restaurants Bibo’s Madd Apple Cafe on Forest Avenue and The Cafe at Pat’s Meat Market on Stevens Avenue, which is near her home. She goes to the gym twice a week. She and Abbott do not have kids and are active in the lives of their nieces and nephews.
TWO PROJECTS IN THE WORKS
Wood is juggling two projects. She is writing her next novel, which she calls “The Morning Chorus.” It’s about a 104-year-old woman and her friendship with a 42-year-old guitar player. They become friends after the guitar player’s son dies, and the dad honors his son’s good-deeds pledge by doing chores for the woman every Saturday.
The other project is a script for the play “Papermaker,” which Portland Stage Company will produce a year from now in its 2014-15 season.
The theater company workshopped the play last week as part of its Little Festival of the Unexpected.
The play is based on an earlier novel, “Ernie’s Ark.” It takes place in fictional Abbott Falls, Maine, and is about two families who collide during a strike at the local paper mill. One is the chief executive officer’s family, the other a striking worker’s.
“Ernie’s Ark” remains a personal favorite, Wood said. Writing the play allowed her to revisit the characters “who always felt the most real to me. I felt like that book had the most of my real me. I never felt I was done with those characters, but I never felt they belonged in another full-length novel.”
It’s the characters that make Wood’s novel sing, said Cathie Pelletier, a writer from Allagash. She became a fan after reading “Ernie’s Ark” and has become a friend.
“I felt immediately that this was another writer working out of my neighborhood and tough times,” said Pelletier. “Gone were the fancy ocean homes, beemers and arguments over whether to serve Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio with lobster. It was my Maine, even if it was 400 miles down the road from me.”
The success of “When We Were the Kennedys” gave Wood the opportunity and confidence to return to “Ernie’s Ark.” She wrote the script for “Papermaker” while on her book tour. She often returned to her hotel room exhausted after readings and found that writing pages of dialogue was like sitting in a hot tub.
She hesitates to call playwriting easy, but found it “much easier than a novel – a million times easier, because it’s all dialogue.”
“My books are very layered,” she said. “The characters are psychologically complex. In a novel, you get at that through description, and there’s so much else you can say that is going on in the interior lives of a character. In a play, you have no access to those interior lives. It’s all dialogue, and dialogue is my favorite time of writing novels.”
Mad Horse Theatre Company hosted a staged reading of the play in its By Local series in January. Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart picked it up after hearing the buzz.
For last week’s Little Festival, Portland actor Daniel Noel played Ernie, a millworker whose wife is dying of cancer. Noel called it a dream role, and is lobbying to play Ernie when Portland Stage produces the premiere on its mainstage next spring. Ernie is “a real guy’s guy, very straightforward and nothing sentimental,” Noel said. “He is very much like so many of our fathers.”
Noel has experienced four moments in his life as an actor that caught him in an emotional, personal way. One was last week when he was reading Ernie’s role during rehearsal. Another was a few years ago when he was doing a staged reading of “Any Bitter Thing.”
“Monica has this way of capturing this whole family dynamic, the personal relationships and how real people interact that people anywhere can relate to. But it’s so Maine specific that people in Maine can really relate to it,” he said.
“Her writing is an immediate reflection of who she is.”
At least in terms of her enthusiasm, Wood still feels like a beginning writer. She described the feeling of success as “exhilarating,” especially considering she’s experienced failure.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: