April 21, 2013

Succeeding as a novelist – in a big way

After working as a musician and a college professor, Bill Roorbach's current career 'really takes off,' thanks to 'Life Among Giants.'

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Bill Roorbach, who has lived in Farmington full time since 2001, gave up his college teaching career in 2009 to concentrate on writing. That work paid off with the novel "Life Among Giants," which has earned acclaim since its release in November.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The book tapped a vein of creative energy. Roorbach feels ready to let the artistic juices flow.

"There's going to be a series of really great books," he promised.


Roorbach has lived in Maine for more than two decades. He and his wife, Juliet, came here in the early 1990s so he could teach at the University of Maine at Farmington. He loved the job, but stayed only four years. In 1995, Ohio State University hired him away.

It wasn't a mistake to go to Ohio; Roorbach thrived there and had a great job. But the couple missed Maine.

They always knew they would come back, and kept their farmhouse in Farmington for that day. It came in 2000, when Elysia was born.

They wanted to raise their child in Maine, so in 2001, Roorbach quit his tenured position at Ohio State and moved back to Maine to live full-time.

For a while, he commuted to Worcester, Mass., to teach at Holy Cross. Then in 2009, he gave up teaching for good to concentrate on writing and country life.

Roorbach has 16 chickens, and surrounding farms are populated by bison and sheep. He cross-country skies all winter long, and has an unfiltered view of Derby Mountain off the back of his property.

His sugaring house-turned-writing studio is modest in size and pretense. He apologizes for the "classic Maine siding" of Typar house wrap. "I'll get to it soon," he muses.

A few days before this interview, a skunk let loose below the studio. Roorbach hoped it wasn't a metaphor for things to come.

That's not likely, said Poires, who has just received an early version of Roorbach's next book, another novel.

"There is just such exuberance in the way he writes and the characters he creates. He has a very personal style," she said. "His sentences have a different rhythm to them than I am used to.

"It's almost like he can create really long sentences, but you are never stopped by the fact that he is doing that. He takes you right along through them with him. It's like having a conversation, but with music to it at the same time."

Roorbach feels grateful that so many people are interested in his book. At stops all along the way, he has read for and talked to people who know "Life Among Giants," who have read it cover to cover and asked tough questions. In Miami, a Dolphins fan challenged Roorbach's characterization of Coach Shula.

"It's been really exciting. There's nothing more fun than having a gathering of people who have read the book and are excited to meet you," he said. "More and more people have actually read it, and that feels great."

Equally gratifying, the success of "Life Among Giants" has led readers into Roorbach's back catalog, to his nonfiction titles, "Summers with Juliet" and "Temple Stream: A Rural Odyssey," and to his only other novel, "The Smallest Color," from 2001.


After he turned "Life Among Giants" over to Algonquin in 2010, he went quickly back to the sugar shack to get going on the next project.

He had to test his theory about creative energy, and he admitted feeling terrified, beset by a fear best described as, "What do I do next?"

He decided on another novel that's much shorter and focused than "Life Among Giants."

He found this one easier to write, and satisfying on a different level. Whereas "Life Among Giants" required a lot of work -- a lifetime of work, really -- this one came much more easily.

He figures he's maybe just a late bloomer.

He spent his 20s in a band, and didn't get serious about writing until he enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University when he was 33.

But he never gave up his goals or dreams, even when he felt the pressure of society "to do something more conventional," he said.

"I wish I could go back and tell myself, 'It's going to work out. It's going to be OK.' "

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:


Twitter: pphbkeyes


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