It’s unlikely many people are able to turn to a coworker and say: “Hey, let’s launch our books together.”

But that’s the literary serendipity that authors Debra Spark and Sarah Braunstein, who teach writing together in the English department at Colby College in Waterville, are enjoying.

Spark’s new novel, “Discipline,” set in Maine and based partly on the controversial Elan School therapeutic facility in Poland, came out in March. So did Braunstein’s novel, “Bad Animals,” about a small-town Maine librarian obsessed with her favorite author. So they decided to hold a joint book launch event, Thursday at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland, with fellow Maine author Monica Wood as moderator.

But the connections don’t stop there. Braunstein first taught at Colby as a fill-in while Spark was on sabbatical. They share teaching and writing perspectives with each other, and Braunstein considers Spark a mentor. Plus, they both set their new novels in Maine and were inspired, to differing degrees, by Maine people and places.

“Debra really believed in me, and I really appreciate that, so being able to share this with her is great,” said Braunstein, 47, who lives in Portland.

Looking at Maine in different ways, through different lenses, is likely to be a central theme of their joint book event. As will their many connections.


“Her book is truly brilliant. I adore it and her as a colleague, writer and friend,” said Spark, 61, of North Yarmouth.

Sarah Braunstein’s new novel “Bad Animals” is about a fictional Maine librarian who becomes obsessed with her favorite author. Photo courtesy of Sarah Braunstein


“Discipline” is Spark’s fifth novel. Her most recent novel before this one was  “Unknown Caller” from 2016, which is set partly in Maine and includes a doctor and the 17-year-old daughter he has never met. She got the idea for “Discipline,” or at least part of it, while giving a talk at a library in Bridgton in 2017. She told the audience she was working on a nonfiction book about a soup kitchen in Portland – Preble Street – where she had been volunteering and where she encountered homeless people and people struggling with addiction.

A woman in the crowd asked her if she’d known Patti Sandberg, who died of a drug overdose in Portland a couple years earlier. The audience member explained that Sandberg had gone to the Elan School, a controversial behavior modification school in Poland that closed in 2011. Sandberg was an artist and worked as a ceramics technician at Maine College of Art. In 2010, Portland Magazine had featured her as one of the city’s emerging artists. In 2015, Portland police found her dead, a needle clenched between her teeth. She was 36.

Spark researched Elan School and its methods, including humiliating and shaming students to change behaviors. She said she interviewed about 40 people who either went to or worked at the school, which was open from 1970 to 2011. So even though the characters in the book are fictional, “everything that happens in the book happened,” Spark said of the chapters set at the school.

“I had never heard of (Elan School), and it was shocking to me a place like that would still exist,” said Spark, a Massachusetts native who moved to Maine in 1995. “So I started thinking about the haves and have-nots, people at the soup kitchen, people in the art world. And I knew it was something I wanted to write. ”


Spark ended up weaving three storylines in the book: a teenager who has spent much of his life in foster care and ends up at a Maine school based on Elan; an art appraiser and paintings stolen from a Maine island home; and a series of letters from the 1930s between the painter of the stolen paintings and his wife. The artist’s story was inspired by the life and family of painter Walt Kuhn.

Much has been written about the Elan School and at least one documentary film – “The Last Stop” in 2017 – has been produced. Though the school’s methods are condemned by some students and observers, other students have said it helped them gain control of their lives.

Mary Plouffe, a clinical psychologist in Cumberland, worked at the Elan School briefly in 1980 and says Spark depicted the school, at least when she saw it, very accurately. Plouffe had contributed an essay to “Breaking Bread,” a 2022 book of food essays Spark edited, but did not know Spark was basing part of her new book on the Elan School until it was done.

“She captured the tension and energy, which was more like a reform school or correctional facility,” said Plouffe. “It was based on a model of breaking down people’s defenses, sort of like boot camp. Not a kind and gentle place. It’s not a model that worked well with everyone. ”


“Bad Animals” is Braunstein’s second novel and her first set in Maine. Her first novel, “The Sweet Relief of Missing Children” from 2011, was set in New York. Unlike Spark’s book, Braunstein says hers is “pure fiction” and the setting – a library in a small Maine town – is an amalgam of different towns and libraries around the state.


Braunstein said she imagines the town being something like Scarborough or Cape Elizabeth, small towns near Portland. But Maine’s population of noted authors are part of the book’s sense of place, and several Maine authors are mentioned by name, including Richard Russo, Richard Ford, Jonathan Lethem and Elizabeth Strout.

“The literary culture of Maine really helped inspire me and parts of the book,” said Braunstein.

“Bad Animals” focuses on a middle-aged librarian named Maeve, who loses her job when a 16-year-old girl accuses Maeve of spying on her in the bathroom. She becomes somewhat obsessed with the girl who got her fired – Libby – and repeats her name over and over as a coping mechanism.

Later, she finds out that her favorite author – the made-up Harrison Riddles – has called looking for her. She’s read all of his books and written to him several times, and now he wants her help to write a novel based on the life of a friend of Maeve’s, a Sudanese refugee. She becomes obsessed with him, too, and emotionally entangled.

A native of West Hartford, Connecticut, who has taught at Colby since about 2017, Braunstein said before moving to Maine most of her knowledge of the state came from the cozy murder mystery TV show “Murder She Wrote.” That show ran on CBS from 1984 to 1996 and was set in the fictional town of Cabot Cove.

In her book, Braunstein makes “Murder, She Wrote” part of the story. In her downtime after being fired, Maeve watches the show on TV. The show is also mentioned as a reason why some people move to Maine.

The book turns “dark and edgy,” while also being comedic, Braunstein said.

She’s hoping that the similarities, and differences, between her book’s vision of Maine and Spark’s vision, will make for some lively discussion at their joint book launch.

“We’re two writers who both look at the same place and find wildly different things to write about. I think that will be a fun thing to talk about,” Braunstein said.

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