BRATTLEBORO — Local author and naturalist Sarah Cooper-Ellis would be the first to admit that she couldn't have done it alone.
Her first novel, Landing, forthcoming this month from Levellers Press, is a late-life love story set in Vermont against the backdrop of small-town gossip and family intrigue. Although Cooper-Ellis has been writing most of her life, she would never have had the courage to finish and publish this book without the support of many writer colleagues.
“When, after my first husband died, I returned to Southern Vermont after living elsewhere in New England for a long time, I discovered that there was an amazing writing community around Brattleboro,” Cooper-Ellis says. “Working with other writers, I explored ways of writing that took my work to a new level. Through them I learned how to figure out what I wanted to say. Without these writing people in my life, Landing wouldn't have, if you will, landed.”
Landing explores the new life of retired schoolteacher Meredith, whom Cooper-Ellis characterizes as a “survivor of tragedy and bad choices.” Meredith has almost given up on love when she moves back to the small Vermont town where she grew up to help in her family's maple syrup business.
After “a series of enticing detours and blind alleys disguised as payoffs,” Meredith ultimately finds new meaning in the hills and forests of her childhood, as well as an unlikely relationship that offers an enticing potential for the kind of love for which she's been searching.
'Lyrical and articulate'
Kate Gleason, author of Measuring the Dark, writes, “Landing has gorgeous writing, compelling characters, and is rich in insight into the human condition, especially the female conditions and family dynamics. The writing is beautiful, fresh, insightful, poignant, just brilliant!"
Warren Perkins, author of Putrefaction Live, agrees: “Cooper-Ellis has written a quiet, contemporary novel, both lyrical and articulate. Landing brings alive the New England landscape and its inhabitants.”
Like her heroine, Cooper-Ellis grew up in a small Vermont town, Putney. There, she attended The Putney School, where her father taught English. She has a bachelor's degree from Lesley University and a master's degree in biological sciences from Smith College.
Although Landing is her first novel, Cooper-Ellis has published essays and features in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, The Commons, and Write Angles Journal and has contributed to Forests in Time, Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society, and Ecology.
For most of her professional life, Cooper-Ellis focused on two rather diverse specialties: early childhood education and forest ecology. She has lectured on the development and care of infants and toddlers in group settings for New Hampshire Association for the Education of Young Children, and on mosses and forest history for the Ecological Society of America and the conference on Eastern Old Growth Forests.
“You could say that my interests are people and plants, and how to rear them,” Cooper-Ellis says. “I think both are reflected in my novel.”
While pursuing her professional careers and raising a family, Cooper-Ellis quietly worked on her craft of writing.
“I began writing shorter pieces which I never tried to publish,” she says. “I just put them away thinking they were not good enough. I worked on Landing for seven years before I considered it finished.”
Cooper-Ellis had always dreamed of becoming a writer.
“I think that desire came from my father,” she says. “He too wanted to be a writer, but his career teaching kept him too busy.”
Her father encouraged Cooper-Ellis in her literary passion. “He gave me serious books to read when I was quite young,” she adds. He made her feel writing was important.
Taking the plunge
Cooper-Ellis too found her professional life kept her from spending as much time on writing as she would have liked. However, when she retired she found herself with a lot of time on her hands, so she decided to work up the courage to “just do it.”
One event was pivotal in her decision.
“I attended a school reunion and met an old friend from college, who told me he went to Vermont to get an MFA in writing,” says Cooper-Ellis. “He wrote a novel which I read and found to be very good. I thought to myself, 'Wait a minute, both of us were in English classes together. If he can do it, so can I.' That lit a fire for me to try to do what I always wanted.”
Once she got going, Cooper-Ellis wrote about three times as much as could find its way into one book.
“I found out that editing is the hardest part of writing,” she confesses.
Cooper-Ellis finds herself mostly influenced by women writers.
“When I first began writing, I deliberately tried to write like a man, because I thought that was the way you should write,” she says. “But increasingly I found myself drawn to the voices of female writers. I felt compelled to read what I was living. I was struck by early English novels by Jane Austin and George Eliot. Modern women writers like Margaret Drabble also were big influences.”
'I poached my own life'
Cooper-Ellis concedes that Landing is a semi-autobiographical novel, and therein lies the real challenge.
“You could say I poached my own life for this novel,” she says.
Yet so much is also different from her experiences that she does not want readers to think that Landing is her story verbatim.
“Like my own life, the novel is a story of transition,” she adds. “Like me, Meredith returned to her hometown where she is able to see the changes that have affected her community after many years away. People who know me think therefore that this is my story. But it must be emphasized that this is a work of fiction. People want to guess who the characters in Meredith's community might be in real life, but a one-on-one correlation can be problematic.”
Cooper-Ellis's background in natural science informed her descriptions of the natural world in Landing.
“In the novel, I reflect on how the landscape has changed after coming back to her community when she is in her 60s,” she says. “Landing is a story of memories, and time and again I contrast what Meredith sees and feels now with what she saw and felt when she was younger.”
Cooper-Ellis chose to self-publish Landing, which seemed a reasonable option to her since, these days, an author too often has to promote her book herself no matter who puts it out.
“I quickly decided I did not want to take control out of my hands,” she explains. “I could afford to do it this way, so it seemed the best plan for me. I worked with Levellers Press in Amherst, Mass., and the process was delightful.
“I could hire my own editors, work with the design and packaging. For instance, for the cover of Landing, I was able to use a woodcut made many years ago by an artist in my community of the very maple syrup farm which is featured in the novel. It was those kinds of touches that made the novel my product from beginning to end.”