Elaine Ford, a novelist, retired University of Maine professor and seeker not of fame and fortune, but truth on the page, died Sunday at her home in Topsham at age 78. The cause was a brain tumor, diagnosed this year.

Poet Wesley McNair, who is writing the preface for a new collection of her short stories set in Maine to be published by Islandport Press next year, described Ford’s writing as a kind of “democratic literature” that drew him to ask her to contribute to several anthologies, including 2008’s “A Place Called Maine: 24 Authors on the Maine Experience.”

“She is one of the few writers who has been able to put into words what life is like for the sort of Mainers who stay here year-round,” McNair said. “The lifers. I wanted something of that grit, that special realism of hers, in the anthologies.”

She wrote tightly and concisely, McNair said, reworking and compressing until she found the nuance she wanted, nuance of the nature to surprise a reader. “There was no wasted space on the page of a Ford story,” McNair said.


Ford and her husband of 40 years, Arthur Boatin, were not native Mainers, and Boatin laughs about what an uninformed decision they made in moving to Milbridge in 1985 from the Boston area. “We really didn’t know Maine well,” he said. They were seeking the country, trees and inexpensive property, all of which they found. “We had no idea that even Mainers considered Washington County remote.”


But Ford warmed quickly to her new home, taking a job in the English department at the University of Maine soon after the move – she rented an apartment in Bangor and stayed there half the week. Her friend and former colleague at Orono, Harvey Kail, called her “a truly dedicated teacher” of creative writing and literature and said she was instrumental in shaping the department’s creative writing program. At Orono, she was known for her wit and her ironic take on human experience, a woman whose radiant smile provided contrast to her sharp realism on the page.

“She was both sardonic and charming simultaneously,” Kail said.

Boatin said Ford’s early influences were Thomas Hardy, Bernard Malamud and Eudora Welty. Of contemporary writers, he said, “she admired without limit Alice Munro.” She could recite whole verses of T.S. Eliot’s poetry without pause. Before her illness, she had been planning to reread a favorite comic novel, “A House for Mr. Biswas,” by V.S. Naipaul, he said.

But after the diagnosis of a terminal cancer, Ford prepared for surgery, hoping to extend her life by months. She and Boatin had moved from Milbridge to Harpswell in 2001, and in 2015 to Highland Green, a retirement community in Topsham. There she welcomed visits from all four of her still living children from her first marriage (a son predeceased her by about 15 years) and her 10 grandchildren. The surgery helped spare her some pain, Boatin said, but ultimately did not gain her time, and Ford decided to forgo chemotherapy. There were no lucky breaks in the arc of her illness. “If I had to find something good about this experience, it was the kindness of the people we encountered, and their generosity,” Boatin said.


Ford released her first Maine-set novel, “Monkey Bay,” in 1989 from Viking Penguin, and that year New York Times reviewer Howard Frank Mosher described it both as “invariably well-written” and reminiscent “of Andrew Wyeth’s stark paintings, which use the terrain of northern New England to explore a much larger emotional landscape.”


That publication, her fourth novel, marked the end of what Boatin called “this golden decade” in publishing for the New Jersey native and Radcliffe graduate. “That is not to say that she didn’t continue to write, but she was never able to have such a successful period of publishing,” Boatin said. “A lot of her completed novels were turned down.”

Among them was her most recent, “God’s Red Clay,” a fictionalized account of her ancestors in Alabama and Mississippi, who were slave owners. After research trips and a work on a nonfiction narrative about the family history, Ford wrote on her website that she was moved to write a new novel: “I’d collected such an array of good stories that my fiction-writing impulse – which had lain dormant – re-emerged.”

That book is finished, Boatin said, “but I am sorry to say it doesn’t look like it will be published,” despite having made the rounds of publishers.

“The reality of publishing is that it is really, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ” Boatin said. Ford had won a Guggenheim fellowship and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, but her sales were modest. “The publishers were always looking at the bottom line and she was never a best-seller.”

What did that winding down of acceptances mean for a writer who worked assiduously, her husband said, sitting down every day to write, sometimes all day long? Sometimes the pages were thrown away, sometimes only few words came. But she was doing what she believed in and she did not care about being a best-seller. As McNair put it, fame and fortune were never what Ford was after. “It was about words, dammit,” McNair said.

“She was a person who felt you should be active,” Boatin said. “You should be useful and you should contribute something to this world and to mankind.”


It was he who plucked her first novel, “The Playhouse” out of a drawer where she’d put the typed manuscript after an agent had unsuccessfully shopped it around in the 1970s. They’d known each other for years at that point – Boatin had been in graduate school with Ford’s first husband – and he was vested in her as a woman and a writer. He mailed excerpts out to dozens of publishers until he got a bite from McGraw-Hill.

“She was launched,” he said. “That was the thing. She had encouragement to continue.”

Boatin is working closely with Islandport Press on Ford’s last collection of short stories, “This Time Might be Different: Stories of Maine,” which is slated for release in March.

“She was never a person to complain or whine or say, ‘Why am I being overlooked?’ ” Boatin said. “If she had a disappointment, I think it was that she didn’t reach more readers. I hope that in the future, she still can.”

You can find a number of Elaine Ford’s stories online at her website, elainefordauthor.com. Her friend Harvey Kail recommends starting with “Rita Lafferty’s Lucky Summer.”


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