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July 20, 2013

Cooperstown grad's novel is love letter to village

By Emily F. Popek Assistant Editor
The Daily Star

---- — In his novel “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Thomas Wolfe wrote of a novelist who finds that writing about his home town has so poisoned the people who live there against him that he can never go back.

Not so for Callie Wright.

The 1996 graduate of Cooperstown Central School, whose debut novel “Love All” was published July 9, can hold her head high when she returns to the village next week to read from her book — which is set in Cooperstown, circa 1994.

Wright will no doubt return to a cheerful crowd of family, friends and acquaintances when she visits the area. Never mind the fact that, when she first arrived there more than 20 years ago, she felt about as out of place as she could be.

“We moved (to Cooperstown) from Texas when I was young, and we sounded every bit the part,” Wright explained in a recent phone interview.

“The first day of school, I remember standing up in front of the class, and they would feed me words to repeat in my Texas accent,” she recalled without belying a trace of same. “All I wanted to do is fit in.”

So when a slightly older Wright heard the story of Isabel Moore, whose 1962 novel “The Sex Cure” delighted in revealing the sordid secrets of her Cooperstown neighbors, she was shocked — and fascinated.

“It wasn’t the book, so much as the story of the author daring to write this book, that fascinated me,” Wright explained. “She was immediately run out of town, and I couldn’t understand why someone would do that. Why, once you’re in, would you risk being run out? I couldn’t imagine the set of circumstances that, if I could feel like this was home, I would ever want to risk that.”

But Wright did eventually come to consider Cooperstown home, and her fascination with the idea of “The Sex Cure” stuck with her.

Moore, who was sued for libel and whose house was vandalized, once described her novel as “a sort of Glimmerglass version of ‘Peyton Place,’” adding that “it sounded like Cooperstown and it was supposed to.”

“Love All,” which Wright said took her seven years to write, looks at the scandal of Moore’s novel through the lens of one Cooperstown family, and asks the question, “What is the legacy of a scandal?”

“That was the seed for the whole novel,” Wright explained. “‘The Sex Cure’ is part of the novel, but it’s more of a device, to look at the things we inherit.”

The novel has received positive reviews from, Vanity Fair, Marie Claire and Elle, with award-winning novelist Ann Beattie calling it a “stirring, well-wrought debut,” and noting that Wright “has no trouble getting under the skin of her all too human characters, treating young and old, male and female, with a master storyteller’s equality of insight.”

None of this is surprising to Bertha Rogers of Treadwell, who mentored Wright when the author was in high school and saw in her some of the same gifts. The relationship, which was initiated by Cooperstown teacher Nick Alicino at Wright’s request, left lasting impressions with both mentor and student. 

“I loved working with Callie,” Rogers recalled. “She was a delight, so serious and dedicated.”

As talented as Wright was, Rogers was just as impressed with her work ethic as she was with her natural abilities, she said.

“She took suggestions and criticisms beautifully,” Rogers said of Wright, who would travel from Coopesrtown to Treadwell each Saturday for intensive one-on-one sessions. “The idea of somebody that young, being able to make that effort — not just willing, but eager. She had a maturity, even then, that a lot of young writers don’t have.”

And Wright recalled seeing that maturity reflected back at her in the way Rogers treated her work.

“She took what I was doing so seriously — it was so kind and generous,” Wright recalled. “I can’t say enough positive about her.”

Rogers, who is thanked in Wright’s book, saw another quality in Wright that set her apart as a writer.

“She’s got what every good writer should have, which is empathy, and she’s got it in spades,” Rogers said. “I loved the title ‘Love All.’ I know it’s the tennis term, but to me, it represents the ability to love, regardless — the ability to love, even though you know everybody’s imperfections.

Wright and Rogers will be reunited Thursday, when the young author visits Word Thursdays at the Bright Hill Center in Treadwell, a reading series hosted by Rogers, to give a reading from “Love All.” Wright will also give a reading at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Augur’s Bookstore in Cooperstown, and will make an appearance at the Cooperstown Country Club later that week.

“I’m so happy for her and I can’t wait to see her,” Rogers said.

“Love All” tells the story of a family whose members are each struggling with secrets. Chapters in the book alternate between the points of view of each, from teenage Julia to her grandfather Bob, whose own secrets were once in danger of being revealed by “The Sex Cure.”

As Wright sees it, her novel turns the premise of Moore’s pot-boiler inside-out. Where “The Sex Cure” depicts what Wright described as “a very unreal analogy of what it was like to live in Cooperstown,” using real people for characters, Wright says “I did the corollary: I wrote about a fictional family in a very real town, being very true to what it was like to live in Cooperstown at that time.”

As fictional as her characters are, the author said she has taken pains to ensure that the world they inhabit is true to life.

“The setting is, to the best of my ability, completely true,” Wright said. “I didn’t want to make up anything about Cooperstown. It’s a really special place, and I couldn’t find it in myself to fictionalize it.”

In her effort to paint an accurate picture of Cooperstown past, Wright said she benefitted from the village’s almost timeless quality.

“Once of the many nice things about Cooperstown is that it hasn’t chanegd too much, as far as the geographical setting,” Wright said. “You can’t even look at most towns and see what anybody would have seen years earlier. That’s completely not true about Cooperstown.”

The idea of home is central to Wright’s narrative. Her characters struggle with the idea of home: what it is, what it means to them, what it would do to them to lose their connection to home, and what they are willing to risk, or give up, to preserve that. 

For Wright, there is a degree to which Cooperstown will always be her home. While Wright’s family has since moved away, she said her parents and brother’s family still have homes in the area, and that she was married at her parents’ house in Springfield Center.

“I’ve been in Brooklyn for 10 years, and I don’t envision leaving, but I spend a lot of time (in Cooperstown) still, and it is still the place I feel the most known,” Wright said, “which is the best definition of home I can think of.”