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Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart - Talking 'Mill Town' with Kerri Arsenault

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Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart - Talking 'Mill Town' with Kerri Arsenault (mill image courtesy Associated Press)

Mill towns. There are plenty of them here in the state of Maine, towns that sprang up around the paper mills that dotted the landscape for decades. These towns have uniquely symbiotic relationships with the mills at their centers – relationships that aren’t always fully healthy.

Author Kerri Arsenault’s new book “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” (St. Martin's Press, $27.99) takes the reader inside one such Maine town. Mexico and neighboring Rumford have been defined for over 100 years by the paper mill. Over that time, the mill has been the primary employer, providing a good living to generations of residents and serving as the economic backbone of the town.

But there are other aspects of these relationships as well, caveats and consequences that spring from the realities of the bargain being struck.

Arsenault was kind enough to answer some questions about “Mill Town,” the process of writing it and what the many complexities that come with telling a story about where you come from.


You devoted a LOT of time and effort to “Mill Town.” What was it like to undertake such a long on-going project? And why was it so important to you to tell this story?

I am a curious person, and nothing bores me as much as standing still or not having a long-term project alongside daily ones.  Also, in doing such deep research, you learn a lot about what you aren't originally seeking and you end up seeking a lot what you don’t predict you will. To me, that’s thrilling.

There are many stories in this one book that haven’t been told, or have been told incorrectly or have been misinformed. For instance, why haven’t we read much narrative nonfiction about mill towns or this part of Maine or the working-class backbone of New England? Where are those voices in literature? Where are all the stories about Acadians? Why did the dioxin story disappear when it remains a problem to this day? I feel like this book not only tells stories that haven’t been told, but is a correction to myths large and small, about Maine, about the working class, about the ethnic cleansing of Acadians, about the American Dream.

I also think there’s room in the genre for telling stories that are not less spectacular or flashy or don't make good TV news.  It’s just a matter of redefining what’s newsworthy, which I have tried to do. These kinds of stories are happening all over the world, but our attention span focuses on the shiny, dramatic things.

What was your strategy regarding tying together the various threads – your family, the mill, the water fight – as they sprang up? Was it difficult to pivot as the story you were telling changed and developed?

I used the structure of the Androscoggin River itself, because even through it diverts or eddies or takes a different path, it moves forward nonetheless. I went where the current took me, so to speak. I let each topic take as long as it needed to take and then would pick up the thread later on, which helps mirror one of the major themes of the book,  how our past is tied to our future. In fact, each chapter in the first half of the book is tied to a corresponding  chapter in the second half, so chapter 16 and chapter 1 are connected, chapter 15 and chapter 2, and so on, until you reach the center of the book, which is where my father dies. His death is not the impetus of the book; he got sick and died while I was in the midst of writing the book, so those chapters occur in the middle. And they belong there too because although his death was not the motivating factor for writing Mill Town, it certainly became a center focus in later chapters and research.

Did you ever find it frustrating to shift gears as the situation evolved? Was it hard to find narrative consistency alongside that evolution?

No. I didn’t start out with a story in mind, so I went where the situation took me … you have to be as a writer of nonfiction, otherwise, you will miss things. I don’t know if I found consistency, as it wasn’t really the goal, but the story and the structure is honest to the experience and the story.

One of the great things about “Mill Town” is how it makes environmental and health realities accessible without getting bogged down in data minutiae. You clearly spent time educating yourself in these matters. What was your process in determining how to strike that balance between numbers and narrative?

I didn’t want to distract too much from the story or go too far into details or data, but at the same time that kind of minutia is necessary and important; it can emphasize a point in the storytelling. I had some great early readers who helped me keep me on track and keep the narrative moving forward. I cut out a lot of text, probably another book’s worth. I also footnoted to keep important bits in the book, but out of the main flow. At one point, I considered writing the footnotes as a separate narrative, but then I was like, am I nuts? 

It seems like you encountered more than your share of roadblocks over the course of writing this book. Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to simply throw up your hands and walk away? Where it felt too big or too close or just too much?

Every day it felt too big to wrap my arms around. Every day I wanted to walk away. But that was precisely the thing I was trying to underline —that so many people had given up or walked away or ignored towns like these. A sense of injustice kept me motivated.

Reading “Mill Town,” I was struck by how it is both memoir and more than memoir. At what point did you know that you were writing something that would perhaps not be easily categorizable?

From the very beginning. In part, that was on purpose. I wanted to write a story that showed what it was like to be vulnerable to the ambiguities our town faced. I wanted to show the slow violence of invisible toxics. I wanted to present human experience as another kind of evidence. And although I didn’t want to write a book about writing a book, in the end, that’s what it is, too. You discover things alongside me. I don’t know what category any of these things are in. 

How do you think people from Mexico and Rumford are going to react to this book?

So far, people have been very supportive. I’m sure there will be others, like the economic developer from Rumford, who remarked that my book was “about the past” but that only shows he hasn’t read the book. If people are upset or have strong opinions about what I’ve written, I say, let’s have coffee and chat. I’m a good listener. I’m not here to judge them judging me.

Has this project left you feeling more connected to your hometown and the people living there? Less?

I feel a deep affection for the people living there, who I already knew and got to know better. My mother moved right after I finished the book in fall 2019, and I've not been back since. I’m sure it will feel different when I return.  As for the town itself, the problems run deeper than I imagined, in our DNA. So I guess I am more connected in that way, too.

What sorts of conversations do you hope “Mill Town” prompts?

I hope people will ask more questions and demand answers. Silence, as I found out, can be ruinous. And I hope people vote for leaders who prefer life over death.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 September 2020 15:51


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