Truth or Dare…?

Jay Parini speaks at Brownell Library on Wednesday. Photo by Oliver Parini

Jay Parini speaks at Brownell Library on Wednesday. Photo by Oliver Parini

The First Wednesdays series held at the Brownell Library drew a crowd this week. The main room of the library was packed with community members interested to hear author and Middlebury professor Jay Parini speak about the truths and dares of writing historical fiction. I sat in the back with Jay’s son Oliver; who as you may or may not know, is my partner and our photographer for the papers.

Jay grew up in Scranton, Penn., attended Scranton University and then traveled out to Scotland. After seven years in Scotland — where he earned his PhD — Jay began teaching as an assistant professor at Dartmouth in 1975. He now is a professor of poetry and English at Middlebury College.

For the 10 years I’ve known Jay, he begins every morning with a cup of tea, peanut butter toast and then off he goes to a café in Middlebury to write. Such intimacy with pen and paper (nowadays his laptop) has enabled Jay to produce more than just a few published pieces. Indeed his work is expansive and ranges from poetry to fiction to non-fiction to film.

Wednesday evening, Jay focused on the idea that as a serious author genres like “historical fiction” are nothing more than conventional malarkey. “You either write fact or fiction,” he said Wednesday evening.

The dare of writing fiction that is based on historical events is that you get to pretend like you really know what happened, he explained. “It gives you a freedom and a giddiness.”

Jay pointed to examples of fact and fiction in the books he brought with him to the library. They included: The Bay of Arrows, Benjamin’s Crossing, The Passages of H.M., The Last Station and Robert Frost: A Life.

This Christmas, Jay plans to publish a biography on the Life — that is, a biography of Jesus Christ.

“Let’s just say I’m aiming high!”

— Elsie Lynn

For more First Wednesdays info, visit