September 24, 2013

Quiet Maine author decides to speak up

Nicholson Baker joins a protest in Portland, goes on national TV and is touring to promote his new novel.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

Author Nicholson Baker, a South Berwick resident, photographed Monday, September 16, 2013,

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

But he has not given up on music.

For this book, in addition to having his character explore songwriting, Baker wrote and recorded a dozen songs. Those who buy the enhanced e-book version of "Traveling Sprinkler" will also get Baker's recordings. To some degree, they satisfy one of Baker's long-held artistic desires, though he harbors no hope of a career change.

"I am very much an amateur musician," he said. "I make the usual apologies for my own presumption."

His character's fascination with cigars also crosses over into Baker's real life. Baker began smoking a few years ago because, as he tells the story, he was struggling to write a profile of David Remnick for a British fashion magazine.

He knew that Mark Twain smoked 20 cigars a day, and he views Twain "as probably the greatest writer in American history. It took him 20 cigars a day to get there, but he got there. I could probably smoke a few. But it does stink you up."

Baker lit a cigar, and his fingers flew across the keyboard. He lit another, and the profile nearly wrote itself.

He had a new favorite drug. He kept the writing device going for this novel, and took it a step further. He wrote nearly the entire book while sitting in the driver's seat of his car.

"My Kia has the most comfortable seats. I can sit in the driver's seat all day long and write," he said. "I love the driver's seat of my car because it's comfortable and it's quiet. But when I was smoking cigars, the ashtray was overflowing. I was a mess."

He still smokes, and expressed no remorse for his habit other than his tobacco odor, which he admits can be offensive. But he still figures it's better than cigarettes.


The other element that ties the book back to Baker's life is a Quaker outlook. A few years ago, Baker and his family began attending the Dover Friends Meeting, just across the border in New Hampshire. His mother was a Quaker, and Baker attended a Quaker college, Haverford College in Pennsylvania. But he never really thought about being a Quaker.

That is, until he attended a meeting in Dover. He is an avowed pacifist and has written publicly about that aspect of his life. But the Quaker thing was unexpected and profound.

He calls himself a non-theist Quaker. He does not believe in a personal god, but believes in the inherent goodness of Quaker meetings, which sometimes are marked by still silence. So much so that the sound of a ticking clock can feel dramatic.

At other times, people stand and speak.

"My wife and my daughter went to a Dover Friends Meeting, and they came back and said, 'People said such beautiful things.' I thought, 'Wow, people just stand up and say things.' That's the kind of liturgy I like. I understand that.

"So I went, and it had the same effect on me," he said. "You are forced to be quiet, but forced to be quiet with a group of other people who are also consenting to be quiet. There is something amazingly powerful about that. It's not meditation. It's something else. They call it expectant waiting. The great thing is, the uncertainty is, the suspense is -- is anyone going to say anything at all? The pure meetings are ones when no one says anything, but I'm always terribly disappointed. I need at least one person to say something, anything. So I tried to put that in the book."


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