HOULTON, Maine — It’s not every day that a Houlton High School alum gets a novel published.
But that is precisely what has taken place for Shonna Milliken Humphrey, a 1991 graduate of HHS. She will celebrate her first novel, “Show Me Good Land,” with four book-signing events — 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, at Cary Library in Houlton; 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, at Northern Maine Community College’s E. Perrin Edmunds Library in Presque Isle; 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 14, at Morneault Memorial Library in Van Buren; and 4:45 p.m. Friday, April 15, at Blake Library, University of Maine at Fort Kent. Each event will feature a reading, discussion and a question and answer session with the author.
“It is a bit surreal, given that I finished this novel in 2008,” Milliken Humphrey said. “It’s like showing an old yearbook for the first time and seeing reactions to something that’s been packed away. That’s one strange thing about the publishing business: The wheels turn slowly.”
Set in fictional Fort Angus, Maine, “Show Me Good Land” is the story of a small Aroostook County town struggling with poverty and loss. Loosely linked through a local murder investigation, the book’s characters navigate the ambiguous moral landscape of a decaying community.
“Evocative of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, the pleasure of ‘Show Me Good Land’ lies in exploring the personalities of the neither all-good nor all-bad characters, uncovering the truth about their lives, and eventually deciding where your own moral lines are drawn,” according to her press release.
“Show Me Good Land” is a moving, sometimes melancholy, often funny novel about family, community, loss, redemption and coming home. It has received rave reviews from prominent writers including Richard Russo, Joyce Maynard and Jennifer Finney Boylan.
“Once I decided to turn an old essay into a novel, the writing process went quickly,” she said. “Within a year of that decision, I was shopping the novel draft to a literary agent, and about six months after signing with her, I had a contract with Down East Books. The strange part is that no large publishing houses wanted the novel without extensive revisions. The universal feedback I received was that the characters were great, but to make the book a commercial-financial success, I would need to fashion it into a crime-thriller series. That just didn’t feel right, at least, not for my first book.”
When Down East Books decided to retool its fiction line and strategy, they made Milliken-Humphrey an offer for her book.
“It seemed like a great match,” she said. “I’m a Maine author, it’s a Maine story, so why not go with a Maine publisher? Plus, I had a distinct marketing advantage because of my work at Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. Staying in Maine for this project was the right decision.”
Her advice to young students considering a career in writing is simple.
“Read lots of books — all kinds,” she said. “Good writers are good readers. Also, live life. Have adventures, meet people, make spectacular mistakes, visit new places and learn to see familiar places in new ways. Perspective is everything in the craft of writing.
“Also, take classes,” she continued. “Create a community of writers. Understand the difference between having a great situation to talk about and having the technical skills to write a great story.”
One particular book she suggests for budding authors is “On Apprenticeship” by Bill Roorbach.
“I think a lot of people see the arts as a thing you are either gifted with, or not, and that’s not quite right,” she said. “People have affinities and inclinations for professions, but it also takes study and training. It’s the same for writing or any other art. I traveled, observed and experienced life for 10 years. Then I earned a graduate degree while apprenticing to some of the finest writing talents in the world. Then I spent almost seven years gaining a practical understanding of the publishing process, the market, the people and the business aspects. After all that preparation, I started to publish — and with some modest degree of success. But that success didn’t just happen in a vacuum.
“Which is a really long way of advising young writers to live life, take notes, and approach their craft like any other course of study,” she said.
Milliken Humphrey holds a master’s degree of fine arts in writing and literature from Bennington College in Vermont. The former executive director of Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, she has had her work published in literary journals, local magazines and Maine Voices: An Anthology of Maine Writers. She lives in Gorham with her singer-songwriter husband Travis James Humphrey, also an alum of Houlton High School, who will make special musical appearances at the Houlton and Presque Isle events.
For more information, contact Cary Library, 109 Main St., Houlton, 532-1303; Northern Maine Community College’s E. Perrin Edmunds Library, 33 Edgemont Drive, Presque Isle, 768-2700, ext. 2765; Abel J. Morneault Memorial Library, 152 Main St., Van Buren, 868-5076. All events are free and open to the public.