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"This theology haunts us still": a passionate email from a reader

I wrote my novel Spider in a Tree with a commitment to create characters who were eighteenth century Calvinists and also actual people who lived and died (this is true of many of my characters, but not all of them). That is one reason I love the mail below so much. I love the reader/writer's passion, and I love being able to picture her and the rest of her book club sitting around a restaurant table, taking the risk to discuss the history, theology, and stories from my novel together.  Here, with permission, is a very slightly edited version of this reader's email. I wrote some book club discussion questions for them, which I'll include in my next post. #



Ms. Stinson, I read your book with interest and delight. I grew up in a Southern Baptist home where Jonathan Edwards theology was still taken seriously. I managed to escape that over a long journey. At 75, I am a Humanist with an appreciation for the best in the mythology of the Christian faith, and anger at its misuse in condemnation of those who do not agree with the patriarchal, individualistic, and tribal orthodoxy which supports the Trumpist Republican Party. 

I am in a small book club of other grandmotherly women, all of whom still regularly attend Protestant churches except for myself, and all 7 of us have always voted Democrat. This month is my turn to choose the book and I chose your book, "Spider in a Tree." 


We meet next Wednesday night at a local restaurant as is our custom. 
It is our practice for the one who chose the book to prepare questions for discussion. Usually the publisher or author has suggested questions. In this case, I find none. I am a little uneasy about writing my own questions for fear of unintentionally offending others. They know I am not a true believer. I am sure they pray for me. 

I know this is excruciatingly short notice, but perhaps you have been asked before, and may have suggested discussion questions at hand. If you do, I would be most grateful for help. 

Again, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your historical novel which dealt honestly and compassionately with this most formative period in our nation's history. This theology haunts us still. Where I live, I see only great harm done by this threat of God's punishment with hellfire for everything from abortion to homosexuality. I believe the crusade against these two conceal the "greater sin" named before the Civil Rights era of misogyny. Condemning race mixing is no longer fashionable, but "protecting innocent babies from evil women and doctors" and "abominable sex acts" still puts copper in the offering plates. 

As you see, I am passionate about these issues. 
Thank you for your time in reading my request. 


I wish you well and look forward to reading more of your talented and inspiring writing. 



Here's a link to the Book Club Questions for Spider in a Tree

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Library as Writing Prompt

A fat, middle-aged white woman wearing black with brown hair in a bun stands on her toes on a lit glass floor between shelves of books, reaching for a book on a high shelf.
Susan Stinson in the Stacks. Photo by Jeep Wheat. 



[This essay originally appeared as part of a series about being Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, MA on LIBRARYASINCUBATORPROJECT on Mar 6, 2014. I am posting it now as I am getting ready to stop facilitating a writing room at Forbes, which I have run for nine years.  I've put a link at the end of this post so that you can find the essay as it was originally published online or read the whole series. SS]

by Susan Stinson


Prompt:  This morning, turn gently to the story. Enter into language in a way that makes room for you to follow subtle, insistent currents.  There is a tension here between perceiving, receiving, remembering and making.  Work those tensions until they yield something the work needs.

Every Wednesday and Saturday morning, I bring three new writing prompts written by hand on index cards to the Writing Room at the library.  Most mornings, I write them before breakfast, at the kitchen table or sitting cross-legged in bed.  When I get to the Watson Room, I spread the cards out on the long, beautiful table, near the foot, where the young writer who I know copies them in her notebook every week can easily reach them.  Some of the writers pick them up every time they come, and some never use them at all, but writing them is a pleasure for me.  They keep me in conversation with the experience of writing as I know it, live it, and witness it.  It is like meditating on brushes with other minds.  Maybe writing is always like that.  Maybe coming to the library is, too.

Prompt: Perhaps you've been deep in sorrows, frustrations, dreams, or all three.  Don't fight them this morning, but ride the force of them into your work.  Be as small as you are and let the feelings and experiences be as big as they are. This will connect with your work, if you let it. "Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises…" (That's a line from The Tempest, William Shakespeare.)

When Forbes library is about to close, a librarian walks among the patrons, ringing a long-handled brass bell.  The librarians have a calm, quiet air about them at this task, and the sound is beautiful.   It is the end of the day, which is both loss and release.  Sometimes it signals another a good day of work, done.   Sometimes, I leave knowing more about what I'd like to write tomorrow.

Prompt: It's the rhythm, the groove, cultivation of a new/renewed habit. Turn to the writing as if you're used to doing it. Turn with relaxed, dogged patience and a capacity to be surprised. The work is the thing, today. Do the work. 
When I first started writing this series of posts about being Writer in Residence at Forbes for the Library as Incubator Project, my most recent novel, which I worked on for ten years with lots of help from Forbes, had been out for less than a week.  Today, as I drafted this post in the Writing Room, three writers were there for the first time, one faithful participant was celebrating nearing the end of a book project, and we all bent over the writing together, whether working in the same room or throughout the building.  When I started as Writer in Residence at Forbes, I was feeling a bit isolated and discouraged about the prospects of Spider in a Tree ever being published.   Today, I feel part of a beautiful community of people who use to the library to make, research, gather, serve, reflect, play, grieve, write, read, and dream.  A friend just posted a picture of a book wrapped up in plain brown paper for a Blind Date with A Book at the Palmer Public library, with the following description: "Famous eighteenth-century theologian seeks audience for fiery sermons and inner turmoil in Northampton, Massachusetts. Members of my household with other perspectives encouraged to reply.  Must love (rhetorical) arachnids and local history!"  This is clearly my book about Jonathan Edwards and company.  I am thrilled, almost to the point of tears.  Creative, playful, engaged librarians all over the country give such lovely moments to library patrons over and over again.  What could be better for me– as a writer, a reader, a participant in my community and as a human being– than that?  What could be richer than working to help make more of those connections for other writers and readers?

Just now, when I got up for a drink of water, I ran into Elise Bernier-Feeley, the Special Collections librarian, who was marveling over a nineteenth century newspaper article about turkeys in the snow.  (It was good, but I won't give it away.)  She told me that she'd go try to find a book she knows that includes a great section on seventeenth century barrel-making, which I need for my next novel.  When I finish this, I'm going to go out into the welcome, warm February day and sit for a minute or two on the bench beside the library with my feet on the doorstep from the house that Jonathan and Sarah Edwards lived in on King Street.  I like having my feet on something old, ordinary and useful for a while.  I like how Forbes honors the histor(ies) of its community while throwing its very heavy doors open to all kinds of creation.  The library is itself is a prompt: to write, to read, to make, to work to stay open to ideas, people, and aesthetic experiences.   I love thinking about libraries all over the country doing that within and among their own communities, and what fantastic art is coming from that for all of us.

Want More?
·       Check out what Forbes Library is up to on Facebook and by following @ForbesLibrary on Twitter.
·       Learn more about Susan and her work by visiting her website and following @susanstinson on Twitter.

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[Inspired by many years of pool parties in fat liberation contexts -- and specifically NOLOSE -- I wrote this short short at least fifteen years ago.  Social media is buzzing about fat pool parties right now because of a scene in the television show "Shrill," which is based on a book of essays by Lindy West. ETA: The episode itself was written by Samantha Irby.  The buzz made me want to send this back out into the world."  Susan Stinson]



Once a year, fat women drink a swimming pool. We always go to the same hotel, a dumpy little franchise with a parking lot full of seagulls and a musty smell. Half of the ice machines are always out of order, but the hard-pressed management has been responsive to our desire for privacy. They allow us to cover the windows with brown paper and close the pool to other guests after midnight. They used to be less willing to indulge our reluctance to hire a lifeguard, but now we request a local who is one of our own.
She tells us that other members of the staff have theories. Some say that with so many fat women in the pool, there is simply no room left for water. Others imagine something more dramatic: a splash like a tidal wave. No one straight out asks the lifeguard what happened, so she leaves them to their rumors while they take down the paper and refill the pool.
We drink it together, all at once. Some worry about getting sick, and, of course, some do, but -- sick or not -- we are made clean on the inside, where it counts. The chlorine is powerful, so strong that it fades the colors in our suits. We buy new ones every year. These are beautiful suits, specially made for us. One is a blue that starts dark at the curve of one hip then gets lighter and brighter, becomes a cloud over the breasts, and reaches darkness again at the strap. A summer day and night of a suit. Or orchids, hot and loud, splashed over one with a tiny skirt. Tankinis, boy shorts and aquatards with long zippers. A memorable Grecian thong. Yellow and green striped tanks and hot pink bikinis. We robe for the event. The hotel provides small towels.
As we prepare, there are nervous giggles. Shoulders hunch. We shed glasses, room keys and cover ups on plastic lounge chairs. There are enough of us to circle the pool. We do a concentration exercise in which each of us points two fingers to her own eyes, then points the fingers at the eyes of the person next to her. Now, no one laughs.
We lie flat on our bellies on the blue painted concrete edge. The pool is very full. One by one, women begin to drop into the water. Some are seasoned leaders. Others are shy girls wishing to submerge. Our largest go in early for the sake of volume. No one drinks until the water begins to spill over the pool's lip.
When it happens, the swimmers howl and swallow. The rest of us reach into the water, motioning it towards us with great wet swoops of our arms. We lower our faces and open our mouths. Then we drink. As the water level drops, we lean farther out. Women go on falling into the water. Some slide in, or, carefully, jump. We float, slurping like thirsty animals. Some of us lick each other's skin. We stay away from the suits, which are, in general, conservatively cut. Some of us stand in the shallow end and bend to drink. When the water is low, some kneel. We lap until our faces are pressed to the damp blue bottom. Then we turn on our backs and stare at the ceiling, sated. The smell of chlorine remains undiminished. Whenever one of us is ready to leave, we give her a boost to climb the delicate silver ladder out of the pool. If anyone doesn't want to risk the ladder or can't reach it, she moves to the shallow end where we lift her out, supported by nothing but scented air and the muscles in our willing arms.
copyright Susan Stinson, 2005
Previously published, Lambda Literary Journal

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Library Writer in Residence Posts at Library as Incubator Project

In 2013/14, I wrote a series of blog posts for the Library as Incubator Project website.  They were all about the experience of being Writer in Residence at my local public library, Forbes Library.  They were intended to encourage other public libraries to develop writer in residence programs. 


The Writer in Residence program at Forbes Library is still going strong. 



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Mass Humanities Blog Posts

Here is a link to posts by and about me on the Massachusetts Humanities blog, The Public Humanist.  Topics include teaching fiction writing, reading Henry James, fiction as misdirection, and the 18th century theologian as slave-owner. 

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