The Man Behind “The Midcoast”

Debut author Adam White drew from his Damariscotta upbringing to write one of this year’s most buzz-worthy books.

When Adam White was in graduate school, a professor in an early lecture said to the class, “You might need a little time away, but eventually all of us write about home.”

White had grown up in Damariscotta but left for boarding school and then college. After a stint in Los Angeles, he returned to the East Coast to earn his MFA in fiction at Columbia. He had already finished a novel—about a kid studying abroad in Paris (White also studied abroad in Paris)—but although he’d gotten an agent for the novel, it hadn’t sold. By the time he found himself at Columbia, he says, he was finally coming around to writing about the place he is from.

“My whole life had been like, ‘Well, I’m not going to write about Maine because I got out of Maine, and that’s just not what I want to do.’ But I had been kicking around the idea of this place I grew up in being interesting. I did this track where I went to a nice college and a nice grad school, and that was lucky. But then there’s also, here in Damariscotta, this other track where people just stay. Not that one is better than the other, but there are plenty of lobstermen or other working-class folks who have been here for generations. And so I started thinking about, ‘What would it take to jump from one track to the other?’”

White decided to spend the two years of graduate school writing a novel about characters named Ed and Steph Thatch. Ed is a lobster fisher who finds his way to other, more nefarious means of making money; Steph makes a name for herself running her family restaurant and becomes involved in local small-town politics. The book would eventually become The Midcoast, which was published in June of this year by Hogarth Books. A New York Times editors’ choice, it—like most novels—took much longer than White had initially hoped.

“I think it was a fine story,” he says of what he’d finished by the end of grad school in 2013. “It had the elements of crime and character. And hopefully I got the setting basically right. But it didn’t feel like I’d written a book that I’d want to read. It didn’t have the depth or voice that I was looking for. I went back in and realized what was missing was more of myself. And so I added the first-person narrator, and had to figure out how to tell the story from that perspective.”

What White added was Andrew, a kid who leaves early for boarding school, stays away for college, and does a stint in LA and then graduate school, but comes back to raise a family in Damariscotta in his 30s. “Meanwhile, life is going on, I’m teaching, I’m coaching lacrosse, my wife and I got married. We had a kid—all great stuff, but also getting in the way of making more progress. But it also ended up being, I think, what made the book. Because I ended up putting more and more of myself and my life into it.”

In the novel, Ed and Andrew knew each other in high school; Andrew worked for Ed’s family in the summers. When he comes back, Andrew is shocked to see how wealthy—purportedly through only lobsters and Steph’s family restaurant—Ed and Steph have become. Ed comes under suspicion for wrongdoing, and Andrew, an aspiring writer but mostly an English teacher, husband, and father to two young children, starts investigating and trying to write about Ed’s crimes.

This is specific to White’s experience of small-town Maine in that, especially in coastal towns like Damariscotta, there is so much wealth right up against groups of people who have much less: “Maybe you can find other communities in America that also qualify in the same way, but these are towns where you still have that kind of working-class backbone, but you also have families like mine that moved here because my dad was a doctor and had grown up sailing here and had always dreamed of being on the coast of Maine, where there was sort of a slower pace than in Boston,” White says. “Basically the whole peninsula is going to the same school. You’re all kind of in it together. Once high school rolls around, everybody’s going to the same parties, everybody’s going to the same place. It feels like a petri dish of American class issues. So you can tell those stories in just a few characters that would actually bump into each other in town.”

The well-educated Andrew becomes a teacher and a lacrosse coach at the local high school. Like many educated people of White’s generation, he’s much less well off than his parents and, in this case, also much less so than Ed. In this way, The Midcoast is a book about not only the class issues prevalent in these small Maine coastal towns but also the generational dissonance of ending up with less than what one expected.

Andrew is fascinated by Ed because he is another version of home that Andrew both understands and has never felt a part of, but also because Ed is a different version of success. “There is, I think, an element of Andrew that always wants the Thatches’ rise to be fueled by some illicit means, just because that would maybe confirm to him that he hasn’t made wrong choices. I don’t think he ever thinks he’s made wrong choices necessarily, but he can live with his life as it is. He can live with a sort of downward mobility where, you know, his dad made more money than he did. He can be good with his life. It’s just hard to see people pass him when he feels like he’s taken all these traditional ‘right steps’ to get to where he is.”

The book is especially interested in how Ed rationalizes his crimes as necessary because they provide for his family. Through this, it explores disparities, not only in how we respond to our place of origin, but also in how our origins inform the what, how, and why of what we prioritize and work to provide for those we love.

What does it mean to write about home? What would it mean to say that writers are always writing about it? Not least when so many, regardless of where they are from or where they land, feel the need from an early age to get out? The Midcoast offers an interesting answer in framing Andrew, who might not ever feel at home in Maine (and not only because his parents are from away), in contrast to Ed, who always has.

White says that, when he returns now, there are things he can love more about his home, like “seeing it through the eyes of the people that I love”: his son playing in the mudflats at his childhood home, his wife’s love of the place. His next project is “more about a character looking for home. A working-class kid gets taken in by his mysterious college roommate’s ridiculously wealthy New York family. Intense relationships ensue.”

Home is atmosphere, description, trees, and coastline, but it’s also solidity and safety, a sense of knowing and understanding a place. The Midcoast suggests that home is also other people—the ones we love, but also the ones we envy—and points to the way we are reflections as much of the places that we came from as of the people that we choose to look at, and through, to try to understand that place.

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