Jeffrey Lent, bearded and flanneled, stood on his hilltop patio in Tunbridge on a recent Thursday morning and lit up a cigarette.
“Thank God I live here,” he said, alluding to the distance he feels between his home turf and current political affairs. “I feel so much more state security than if I lived in, I don’t know, North Dakota.”
This rural Vermont landscape, where Lent, 58, traces roots back to his childhood in North Pomfret, is also the backdrop of his latest novel, Before We Sleep, which came out earlier this month. The novel’s protagonist is 17-year-old Katey Snow, who steals away from her home in the fictional town of Moorefield, a dead ringer for Chelsea, one night in 1967 to probe into the shadow hanging over her parents’ marriage.
Inside Lent’s study, which is cozy, rustic and lined with carefully curated book and CD collections, he shared what he called his “developing theory” on how the Colonial history of northern New England shaped a distinct literary sensibility.
“For a couple hundred years, northern New England — especially all of Vermont and northern New Hampshire — was the ‘unknown territory,’ ” Lent said.
European settlers, many of them Catholic or Puritan, not only lived in fear of the harsh environment and perceived threat of Indians, but also struggled with “that whole question of God and predestination and whether acts you did in this life had any sort of impact on your afterlife. What a horrifyingly terrifying mindset to have lived with,” he said, shaking his head in emphasis. “But I think that one of the residual things from that period was northern New England kind of becoming the ‘land of the strange.’ ”
He cited Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen King, and some of the poetry of Robert Frost, as luminaries of that “strange, dark” literary history.
“And I mean, I’ve written some pretty strange stuff about northern New England myself,” he added. “I guess it sort of opens up a territory for me where I feel a little more comfortable exploring that weird stuff, and spend less time worrying if I’m a sociopath.”
Basing his novels in such familiar terrain allows him to ground his imagined worlds in something real, without weighing down his creative process with research.
“The greatest danger with too much research,” he said, “is that you end up writing a manual, instead of a novel.”
Music — a major connective thread between Katey and her father, Oliver — was another topic on which Lent conducted research with deliberate restraint. Oliver, a war veteran, is a fiddle expert, but Lent said he studied just enough about the instrument to ensure he was using the correct terminology. And when deciding which songs would play on the radio during Katey’s odyssey, he perused the top albums from the mid-to-late ‘60s.
“Those are the sort of details I want to get just exactly right,” he said. “The rest of it has to be kind of a combination of geography that I know…