There is no other way to understand the breadth and depth of the Sag Harbor literary scene than to read the authors who created it.
Or, better yet, interview them.
Over the last two months, Emerging Technologies Librarian Arielle Hessler sat down with nearly two-dozen writers, a pair of musicians and one artist — all with connections to Sag Harbor, and a reach far outside it — for an inside look at their process.
She recorded three-minute anecdotes and spoken passages, edited and compiled them into a literary audio tour for the John Jermain Memorial Library, as part of the Cultural Heritage Festival this weekend.
It was a crash course for the recent Sag Harbor transplant, she explained, who has worked at the library for just six months by way of Stony Brook University. Not only has the librarian gotten more acquainted with the village, she said, but also its local authors.
“I’m kind of behind and out of the loop, so it’s helping me get into the loop a little bit more. It’s nice getting to know everyone and it’s an honor doing it, too,” she said. “These people are so well spoken — obviously, they’re authors — but it’s really great getting to hear the stories right from them, and not with the book as the meeting between you and them, as the artists.”
The theme of this year’s festival, “The Stories That Shape Us,” naturally lent itself to the library, explained Eric Cohen, coordinator of technology and media. Surrounded by local stories of all kinds, the John Jermain staff tasked themselves with finding a way to share them.
Library Director Catherine Creedon had an idea.
“She said, ‘I see headphones hanging from the stacks, and people walking up and listening to things as they move around the library,’ like the old music store chains,” Cohen recalled. “We thought, ‘Well, that sounds kind of cool,’ but it turned out to be incredibly impractical.”
Proving too cost prohibitive, the library settled for MP3 players, hooked up to headphones and loaded with readings and interviews, each of the 24 stops corresponding with a new spot in the library — be it fiction, non-fiction, picture books, art books, children’s literature and even the classics, read by library staff.
“You may not want to do it all in one shot!” Cohen laughed. “In a couple places, we salted it with people who are no longer with us, like Herman Melville. I read a passage from ‘Moby-Dick’ and Arielle’s reading a passage from ‘Travels with Charlie’ from John Steinbeck.
“From the point of view of the festival, we want to expose people to the real deep wealth of storytellers that exist in their community,” he continued, “and some of the really interesting work these people of doing.”
At first, Hessler was one of those people herself, she admitted, staring in disbelief at the list of authors attached to the East End, including the likes of Billy Baldwin, Kate McMullan, Joe Pintauro, Alexandra Eames and Emma Walton Hamilton.
“Emma went through her picture books with me and pointed out the drawings of Sag Harbor. She even pointed out some of the people — a store owner, for instance — who is actually someone who lives here,” Hessler said. “For that one, we might try to print out or at least have the book open to those images, so they can look at them while she talks about it. It’s so amazing.”
The Sag Harbor Express’ own Kathryn Menu will represent all periodicals, while musicians Inda Eaton and Caroline Doctorow hold down the musical fort.
“Caroline’s is a little longer than everyone’s because we also have a collection that was donated by her father [EL Doctorow], called ‘The Doctorow Collection,’ and it’s a series of all classic books,” Hessler said. “She talked about her family living out here and the library, and she talked about a specific song about the Big Duck. Inda Eaton talked about recording her most recent album, “Shelter in Place,” in her house because she wanted an authentic feel.”
In her recording, author Carol Williams dives into the inspiration behind “Bringing a Garden to Live,” which was simply walking around Sag Harbor, and Alex McNear discusses the editing process of the “Butternut Lake” books by her sister, Mary McNear. Some authors chose to read a passage from their work, including Lou Ann Walker from “A Loss for Words,” an autobiographical account of growing up with deaf parents.
“As a child, she thought her parents were secretly faking being deaf and they were really secret agents,” Hessler said. “So she reads about a series of tests that she performed to test to see if her parents could actually hear. And then she found out when she was older that her sisters all performed the same tests at different times thinking the same thing, so that was really sweet.”
On Friday afternoon, Hessler had just wrapped the last interview, and was waiting on two more from authors in Manhattan, she said.
“I knew this was a big artist area, but I didn’t realize the extent. I really didn’t,” she said. “At another library, I don’t know if something like this could have happened.”
Pick up an audio player from the main desk and tour the John Jermain Memorial Library while listening to local authors discuss, or read from, their work on Saturday, May 4, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, May 5, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Sag Harbor library, located at 201 Main Street.
Authors, musicians and artists include Inda Eaton, Herman Melville, Allan Kronzek, Patty McCormick, Emma Walton Hamilton, Billy Baldwin, Christian McLean, Kate McMullan, Alex McNear, Renee Shafransky, Suzanne McNear, Susan Merrell, Caroline Doctorow, Michael Shnayerson, Kathryn Menu, Lou Ann Walker, Jack Bishop, Carol Williams, Tom Clavin, Scott Chaskey, Alexandra Eames, Tucker Roth, Joe Pintauro and John Steinbeck.
For more information, call (631) 725-0049 or visit johnjermain.org.