The sign outside State Road Restaurant last Wednesday night said Go Bruins. The parking lot was overflowing and yet upon entering there was no hockey to be found. Instead, there was a crowd of people talking about writing and literature. There was also a large blueprint of the new West Tisbury library balanced on one of the tables, the headline of which read Phase 1, Spring 2014. A wish list of plants covered the left side of the blueprint — bluestem grass, Joe Pye weed, goldenrod, native ferns, fall asters and swamp milkweed.
Hunter Mormon, chairman of the West Tisbury Library Foundation, addressed the crowd, assuring everyone that the plants had been ordered and would soon be going into the ground. “They just haven’t been paid for yet,” he said.
Enter the writers Ward Just and Paul Schneider, the draw that evening to raise money for landscaping at the library. The event was part of the Speakeasy series of library benefits held over the past few years at State Road Restaurant, where authors chat in a relaxed setting over a glass of wine. Mr. Schneider asked for a beer.
Tonight it was nonfiction, Mr. Schneider, going mano-a-mano with fiction, Mr. Just, who has actually worked in both genres, a switch hitter of the pen and able to hit for the fences in either form. The two men settled in at the front of the dining room, seated on stools by the large stone fireplace while everyone took to their chairs. The restaurant had become a makeshift lecture hall, standing room only.
Mr. Schneider spoke first saying that it was “an extraordinary honor, and a frightening honor.” He was more used to speaking as an in-law at the dinner table, he said. He also suggested that everyone “please direct your questions to the legend to my right.”
Mr. Just acknowledged the compliment by saluting his friend with a tip of his wine glass.
Mr. Schneider is the author of five books of nonfiction. His most recent, published last year, is Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History. He is also editor of the Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.
Mr. Schneider said he was a member of a book group with some of the men in the room, including on occasion Mr. Just. The group read both fiction and nonfiction, but he said that discussions surrounding nonfiction books, “were just not as good as fiction.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that about Harry Truman. That is about the end of the conversation,” he said, referring to nonfiction. And yet, he then went on to talk about the writing of nonfiction in a way that brought it to life. He pointed to a stone wall outside the restaurant saying that the large rocks represented all the facts but that the nonfiction writer must then dig in to find out “the little odds, ends, buts, and what holds it all together.”
“For me, it is researching and finding the voice to the story,” he added.
When Mr. Just took the stage he began by praising Mr. Schneider’s latest book. “It was a book of exploration with some really lovely scenes with him and his son,” he said. “I urge everyone to buy it.”
Mr. Just then said that he had been asked to talk about the writing life, which he would gladly do.
“I think they had some idea there was glamour and large sums of money involved,” he said. “But really it’s a game of patience. You sit around for a few hours and then write a sentence. Then in a few more hours you write a second sentence. Then you rewrite the first sentence to fortify the second sentence. This goes on all day long until late afternoon. Then at the end of the day you erase all the adverbs. Finally you have a clean piece of paper with the fortification of a battleship. And two and half years later you have a novel. And then you start all over again. That’s the writer’s life.”
It’s not usually the stuff that makes for interesting anecdotes, he said. “Unless you are Hemingway, who had four wives, four wars, not to mention the slaughtering of all those beasts. Then you’ve got an adventure.”
Later Mr. Just did admit that during his years as a correspondent for the Washington Post, he covered three wars, but that he had "unfortunately never slaughtered any beasts." But he has written 18 novels, in addition to his nonfiction work. His most recent book, American Romantic, was published in April.
At the end of the talk there was time for questions. Someone asked Mr. Just why he had switched from writing nonfiction to fiction.
“After Nixon and Viet Nam, my thirst for fact had vanished,” he said. “I was finished as of 1969.”
Much of his fiction, though, does use that era as a starting place. American Romantic begins in the early stages of the Viet Nam War and then travels in and out of Washington for the next several decades.
At the end of the talk Mr. Just ducked outside for a cigarette. Old journalist habits die hard. He stood by the door with Mr. Schneider, the two writers saying goodbye to neighbors and fans, when a couple introduced themselves to Mr. Just. Their names were Peter and Magdalena Clyne and they were visiting from Maryland, they said. It was their first time on the Vineyard. But they had followed Mr. Just’s career for a long time. Mr. Clyne had grown up in the same small town as Mr. Just, Waukegan, Ill. In fact, he had lived in the same house as Mr. Just, moving in shortly after Mr. Just’s family moved out.
“When we read in the paper that you were speaking I had to come and meet you,” Mr. Clyne said.
As the sun set, the two men from Waukegan talked for a bit about the old neighborhood, the street they had both walked upon each day as young boys and the house they came home to after another day of childhood adventures. The moment felt like a bit of fiction, the coincidence almost too hard to believe. And yet the facts were there, plain as day.