The Bookshelf: A "Flatlander's" Observations on Life in New Hampshire
The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves.
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This week, The Bookshelf features Brendan Smith. When you move to northern New England from somewhere else, you join a group of people known as “flatlanders.” Once a pejorative, the word “flatlander” is now a more acceptable term for folks from away and does not refer to the geography of the place those folks came from. Humor columnist Brendan Smith lives in Laconia, but he’s been a “flatlander” since he moved to New Hampshire from Long Island in the mid-1980s. He’s been sharing his observations about life and New Hampshire in columns in The Weirs Times and Cocheco Times for years, and he’s collected some of his best in Best of a F.O.O.L. in New Hampshire—that’s “Flatlander’s Observations On Life.” Take a listen to Smith's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below his book picks.
1. The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. "My favorite contemporary writer. I would choose any of his travel books as among my favorites. Theroux travels from Boston to the southernmost point of South America by train. Like any of his many travel books, Theroux never takes the tourist path but travels as an ordinary citizen of the countries he visits. He doesn’t get bogged down discussing the architecture and the landscape but the reality of the day to day of the places he visits, often as the reluctant traveler. He makes you yearn for travel one minute and then despise it the next. To not read at least one of his travel books is to miss a true American master of the craft. His long list of fiction books are incredible as well."
2. The Catcher In The Rye by J. D. Salinger. "First taken from my older brother’s library and read secretly when I was ten or eleven, it made me fall in love with books. Intrigued by Holden Caulfield’s adventures, I wanted to be like him, an older role model I admired. Reading it again when I was eighteen, I loved the book even more and wanted to write like Salinger, but I was more disillusioned with Caulfield. Reading it again in my thirties, I was more enthralled with how Salinger could write such a wonderful novel using the simplest of language while I was now disliking Caulfield. Was I becoming one of the phonies he railed against? Writing this has me ready to read it again at sixty years old."
3. The Bachelor Home Companion by P. J. O’Rourke. "I believe I first read this when I was about twenty-five and a bachelor. O’Rourke uses the gift of his humor to explain the bachelor lifestyle pretty much the way it is but having you laugh hysterically since it all seems so absurd. This book was a direct influence on me as far as his style of humor. To slightly stretch the reality of things to make them recognizable yet absurd. You don’t have to be a bachelor to read this, but if you are, or once were, don’t miss it."
4. A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving. "Irving has always been a favorite. I read this book at a time in my life when I was unsure of what I really believed in a spiritual sense. Was there a greater purpose or is it all for nothing? I won’t get into where I am today, but A Prayer For Own Meany continually pops into my head during certain situations. I can’t be sure where Irving’s thoughts were when he wrote the novel but what I took from it was something that never leaves me. When a book does that, it is amazing."
5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Series by Douglas Adams. "Adams’ imagination is almost exhausting as this “Sci-Fi” series, which pokes great fun at the genre, has more has more creativity contained in any single chapter (and sometimes in one page) in any book in this series than some sci-fi books have in their entirety. These are books that I am happily jealous of and wish I had written."
Let’s start by getting a sense of the voice you use in these columns. Could you read part of the column about going to the dump?
“A New Day at the Dump”
"When I first started writing these columns, I told of the many different cultural adjustments I learned to come to terms with in order to fit in as a flatlander who had moved to central New Hampshire from just outside of New York City.
"I covered topics like raking the roof, learning the local language and winter driving. One column I wrote back then struck a lot of nerves and received a great response. It was about a very important piece of living here in New Hampshire that I learned to adapt to very nicely.
"Now, these many years later, this way of life is about to become extinct due to the litigious nature of our fellow man, and woman, that did not exist back then to the extent that it does today.
"Of course, I am talking about the great social experience of spending a day at the dump.
"Perhaps you’ve read of the situation of a town where a few dozen folks confronted the selectmen about their new policy which prohibits dump picking.
"To those of you unfamiliar, and shame on you if you are, dump picking is where folks go to the dump with empty pick-up trucks and leave with them full of discarded objects thrown away by neighbors. Maybe some things you once admired and are now, finally, able to claim as your own. It is also a great way to recycle and, on the social front, a terrific way to bond with other members of the community as you all climb carefully together upon the Tower of Tetanus; the metal Mount Everest at the dump.
"Old bicycles, tools, golf clubs and possibly antique weaponry from the Middle Ages can be found, dusted off, brought home, cleaned, sharpened and ready to live yet another day. Perhaps even one unrecognizable metal object welded onto another unrecognizable metal object to create something that never been seen before, but is still very practical.
"The new policy against dump picking stems from a recent fear of liability now facing towns. It is brought on by lawsuits by folks who seem to be looking for more than just good junk when they go to the dump."
And it goes on to describe the details of the lawsuit, your opinions on that. You’re nicely combining a little bit of news and a little bit of commentary, and of course a lot of humor. I can’t help but think of Dave Barry, the syndicated columnist who wrote in Miami. Is he an inspiration?
Actually he’s a great inspiration and I’d welcome that compliment. Things he did, I’ll admit, some of the style he used, I’ve taken upon myself, because I’ve found it works so well. One of the things I always appreciated is how he’d talk about something and then maybe make a list and use maybe the first two which made a lot of sense and then the third was totally ridiculous. I often steal that approach myself. Big inspiration to me, Dave Barry.
I wanted to ask you about another thing that appears in several of your columns, and that’s F.A.T.S.O, the fictional group, Flatlanders Adjusting to Solitary Oblivion. Tell us about F.A.T.S.O.
Yes, well, after I lived here, one of the toughest seasons to live here in New Hampshire, for anybody, you come in the summer and you think it’s a beautiful place—it is a beautiful place—you decide you want to move here, you finally move here, and boom, winter comes. This one, not too much yet, but some have really been bad. So as I learned to adjust to winter here in New Hampshire, after a few years I decided I needed to help other flatlanders adjust, so I started F.A.T.S.O., a winter support group, twelve-step program for those folks from away, who need some support to get them through those first winters. You know, if people can contact me secretly, I won’t let on who you are. It’s kind of a secret group.
And the word “solitary” seems a little tongue-in-cheek because I imagine your column brings together a community of flatlanders—people working together to get used to the climate and culture of New Hampshire.
When I first started writing these columns in 1995 the term “flatlander” was sort of looked on as a slur, and I took it on myself to have some fun with it, and once I started to use it, a lot of folks came out of the woodwork, wanted to claim they were natives. If you’re not born here, you’re not a native. Over the years, I’ve had quite a following, and people are now proud to call themselves “flatlanders.” I’d like to think I’m part of that.
By the time I moved to northern New England permanently—I moved to Vermont six years ago—that was the time I first flatlander, and it was not used in the pejorative sense.
The natives use it secretly and whisper it behind our backs about us, but I hope I brought it to the forefront, tongue-in-cheek mostly. People from away have fun with it. And it’s mostly poking fun at myself because I have had a tough time adjusting here because I’m not a handy person. That was the basis for many of my stories. I’m learning to adjust and do a lot of things that come easily to most other people.
What is the essential handy-man or –woman skill that someone moving to New Hampshire is going to need?
You need to know how to use a screwdriver.
They don’t teach you that in Long Island?
Well they do, but unfortunately I really wasn’t paying attention at the time. Yes, there are people on Long Island who do know how to do it, but I will admit that not all flatlanders who move here are as inept as I was, but I think New Hampshire people are a lot hardier and they like to do a lot of things themselves. My tenant is, if something needs fixing, and you can afford to do it, hire somebody else to do it.
You’ve been in New Hampshire for several decades now.
Do you still feel like a flatlander? Do you still feel like an outsider?
I’ve just turned 60, so half of my life I’ve been in New Hampshire. I feel much more at home, but I’m still not very handy. It’s—I feel more like a New Hampshire-ite, and sometimes I have that native attitude that, when people move here, you know, all of a sudden there are ten people at a stoplight in the summer and you get upset, but then you forget about where you came from, the Long Island Expressway, getting caught in a two-hour traffic jam because a tractor trailer turned over. So having those old New York thoughts help me relax a little bit in the busy times here, but I get upset with some of the flatlanders, so to speak, coming to visit us in the off-season or in the good season here, that I have to keep myself in check on those things, definitely.