'Funny works. If you can make people laugh, you’ll get them to listen'
Peter Gould reads a passage from his new novella, “Marly,” during a recent interview in Brattleboro.

'Funny works. If you can make people laugh, you’ll get them to listen'

Peter Gould’s characters in ‘Marly’ tackle climate change, find each other, and listen for catamounts

BRATTLEBORO — Author, performer, teacher, and theater director Peter Gould dons purple spectacles and leafs through his newest book, Marly.

More books - his and other authors' - sit in a stack on the table in front of him. He has more books in his rainbow striped satchel on the floor by his chair.

He reads from Marly, a novella in one voice.

An unnamed man narrates the story. He is having a too-early-for-the-mid-life crisis when he meets Marly, a deep-thinking, independent, polysexual ecologist.

The narrator is out of his element with Marly. Through his discomfort, bumbling through the dark, getting dunked in a waterfall to remove his aftershave, and turning his car keys over to Marly, he gains a new awareness of the environment around him.

The environmental challenges facing the planet are no laughing matter for people like Gould who care for the planet's future.

But as Marly's narrator quotes his teacher on page 5:

“Funny works. If you can make people to laugh, you'll get them to listen.”

Gould said Marly grew out of a workshop assignment at the Wildbranch Environmental Writing Workshop in June 2011.

He credits his interest in environmental issues to his wife, Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro.

“She's my consciousness in that respect,” he said.

Her work, specifically on climate change, seeped into Gould while he was writing a young adult novel, Write Naked.

Burke's work awoke in Gould the desire to focus on environmental writing. In 2011, he attended the Wildbranch workshop taught by Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.

According to Gould, Steingraber is a bigwig in environmental circles. Her leadership led to New York state's ban on fracking.

The second or third night of the workshop, Steingraber - perhaps out of desperation - implored the students to write something funny. Everything the students wrote about the environment was earnest and heavy.

“Peter,” Gould remembers Steingraber saying, “You can write something funny."

Gould sat outside watching his classmates trudge past with scowls. Steingraber's assignment had caused the serious students a serious case of “brain freeze.”

And then, a voice. It popped right into Gould's head.

“It was like magic,” Gould said of how the narrator of Marly popped into his mind.

The type of man who spoke to Gould, in the way only characters speak to their authors, was strange and inappropriate in Gould's opinion.

Gould felt he must apologize to his loved ones for creating a wise-cracking, energy corporation PR shill-ing, inappropriate kind of dude.

The narrator of Marly differs from the characters in Gould's other novels such as Write Naked or Burnt Toast.

All those characters have been “really nice,” and “soulful,” Gould said.

For six months, whenever he sat to meditate or “to get spiritual,” the narrator started jabbering at him.

“Oh no, not you again!” Gould thought.

Gould said he stuck with the character because the narrator insisted he would become a different person after meeting Marly.

“I'm going to grow with your help and with Mollie's [Gould's wife's] help,” the narrator insisted.

Gould hung in there.

Rereading the latest rewrite of Marly, Gould found himself laughing.

“He made me laugh again,” Gould said.

While the main narrator tells the story in Marly, it is ultimately Marly's story, Gould said.

Marly is “obviously the person in charge,” Gould said. The reader only sees Marly through the eyes of the male narrator and never hears her dialogue, but Marly is the protagonist. She is the one who has the power to initiate the story's actions and events. She is the one to trek deep into the Vermont woods at night with the narrator in tow.

And he is willingly led, Gould said.

Gould rewrote the text carefully to ensure readers understood and correctly interpreted Marly.

“It was a game,” he said of the rewrite process.

Any ambiguity about her is intentional, he said of the final draft which will appear in stores Nov. 6, according to the book's media kit.

The story flashed across Gould's mind like a screenplay. All the information and emotional resonance is carried in the narrator's dialogue or speeches.

Writing Marly in one voice, all in dialogue, harkens to Gould's experience in the theatre.

When Gould and creative partner Stephen Stearns of Gould & Stearns performed together, they gave a routine a year before committing it to a paper archive, Gould said. The time allowed the act and dialogue to sink into their muscle memory.

When the duo wrote it down, it was “very David Mamet style” containing the speakers' every pause, um, and verbal tick.

The same quality of short lines and a lot of white space on the page is seen in Marly.

As a stutterer, Gould said he struggled to find his voice. As a young man and writer, he assumed he'd never write dialogue because he had no ear for it.

One of his early works, Burnt Toast, about a commune inspired by his time at Packers Corner in Guilford, contains very little dialogue.

He jokes there's about six lines' worth of dialogue in Burnt Toast.

Over the convening 30 years between Burnt Toast and Write Naked, Gould has developed a confidence with dialogue, thanks to his work in the theater.

Marly, then, represents a full slaying of the “can't write dialogue” dragon.

Gould and Green Writers Press Publisher Dede Cummings recently completed a readers' guide to accompany the book.

One question about the narrator is, is he reliable?

“The short answer is yes,” Gould said.

A reliable, trustworthy narrator is paramount for Gould. He thanks Karen Hesse, a local author and an early reader for his works-in-progress, with instilling this quality in his characters.

“When my reliable narrator flag is tripped, I pretty much close the book,” Gould said.

The narrator, while reliable and honest to the reader, is not always honest with himself in the early part of the novella.

Marly makes him shed his own artifice, Gould said. In time, he admits the truth of who he wants to be.

But the reliability inherent in his personality encourages Marly to be honest as well, Gould added.

Gould said he purposely kept the book short, at 90 pages. As fun as it is, he acknowledged that readers can take a one-voice narration for only so long.

“I'm really asking the reader to supply a lot here and to work hard,” Gould said.

The ending of the story contains some ambiguous ideas regarding the health of Vermont's wilderness and return of the catamount, according to Gould.

In the book's press kit, Gould gives the old school technology of paper-and-ink books a new school concept calling it an “interactive book."

“My advice to the reader? Get comfortable, pour yourself a local beer, and read the whole thing out loud. Choose a name and an appropriate voice for the guy. You'll have to fill in everything she says, and wait while she says it, but, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with an interactive book, is there? Right. That's what I thought, too."

The first draft was easy, Gould said. The rewrite required more effort.

“It took time to make it simple,” he said.

He had a blast punctuating the piece. Three dots after a phrase represented a short amount of time for example.

“Sound effects are good. Silly sound effects are better,” is a motto that has guided Gould's work in the theater and in writing.

Mind you, the punctuation designed for a verbal conversation, rather than to satisfy the grammar police, nearly caused the book's proofreader fits.

Despite the humor in Marly, Gould doesn't want people to assume it is lightweight.

He is passionate about reversing climate change. The movement to reverse it may not achieve success if it's not more careful about the energy systems it puts forward as alternatives to fossil fuels, he said.

Gould said many environmentalists who, while committed and righteous about solving climate change, also know that the end doesn't justify the means. Slapping any old alternative energy - like wind turbines on a fragile ridge line - won't win the hearts and minds of climate deniers or the general public.

Gould said he does not want to be the spokesperson for the anti-wind movement, the GOP, or a website like Victims of Industrial Wind. He wants instead to spark lively conversations.

He adds, he opposes the Lowell Wind Project.

Nowhere during the Lowell project were Vermonters asked to make a sacrifice of a fragile ridge line to make the lives of fellow Vermonters better, Gould said. Instead, the state is losing land so a corporation can export 90 percent of the electricity generated by the wind turbines out of state.

How does Marly differ from Gould's earlier works?

“It's funny,” he said.

Marly is “beyond quirky” and in a structure rarely seen outside of plays. Marly also has no description. Most of his other work contains a lot of description, Gould said.

“Your current book is your current book and they're all different,” he said.

Each book involves new ways of thinking, voices running through the writer's head, and a new style, Gould continued.

The novel Gould is working on now is told from the perspective of a 16-year old girl.

Gould said he loves writing more than holding the completed book. Writing is an adventure. His heart pounds, he gets “whacked in the head by unexpected characters."

“I'm glad the ideas keep coming,” he said.

Gould said he is grateful to Dede Cummings and Green Writers Press for publishing Marly.

Gould published Write Naked through a major publisher based in New York. That publisher didn't care about the book, Gould said. Cummings cares about writers, the environment, and supporting the local community.

Gould will hold the first of many book launches for Marly on Nov. 20 at 118 Elliot Street.

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