CHESTERFIELD — Kirsti Sandy had a friend, a dear, dear friend. Her name was Elizabeth Hatmaker. The two met when they shared an office together at Illinois State University when they were graduate students. Hatmaker was a poet and was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, at age 42. It was a death sentence, as the disease always is. She died two years later, on March 3, 2017.
There’s a note about Hatmaker in the acknowledgements at the end of Sandy’s new book, “She Lived, and the Other Girls Died,” a collection of memoir essays about Sandy’s coming-of-age.
“I thank Elizabeth, though she is no longer here to read this. I miss her every day,” the sentence reads.
Poignant. Moving. Just like the essays in Sandy’s book, which was published last year and received the Monadnock Essay Collection Prize of 2017, sponsored by Bauhan Publishing in Peterborough. (The work is published by Bauhan, and available on Amazon as well as The Toadstool Bookshops in Keene, Peterborough and Milford.)
Sandy, 50, of Chesterfield, is academic dean of the School of Arts, Education and Culture at Keene State College, as well as a professor of English there. She’s a writer of what’s called memoir, or confessional, literature, and when she’s not doing the job as dean (which she leaves at the end of the 2020 academic year), she’ll return to teaching creative nonfiction, memoir and narrative theory at the college.
This is her inaugural book, although her other essays have appeared in literary journals such as The Boiler, Under the Gum Tree, Natural Bridge and Split Lip Magazine.
“Since my friend died, I’ve started thinking about the themes of life and what the whole thing is about,” she says.
“When she was diagnosed, she was so brave; I couldn’t get my mind around how she was so at peace. I remember her saying, ‘For every single day of the rest of my life, I’m going to have fun.’ And she did, and this was the person who always had fears, anxieties, or had been down, like me.” After the diagnosis, though, “she was in love with everything all the time.”
It’s apparent the two shared a special relationship.
“When I met her, it was as if I’d known her all my life — so smart and funny, with a dry, dark sense of humor and self-deprecating. She’d dealt with a lot of trouble in her life, yet she was the more forgiving of us two. It still feels like somebody is missing every day.”
Sandy won the Northern New England Review’s 2017 Raven Prize in Creative Nonfiction for her essay “I Have Come for What Belongs to Me.” The piece is based on her last road trip with Hatmaker, when they traveled to the Bellows Falls grave of Hetty Green, allegedly the richest woman in the world during America’s Gilded Age. The Review is published by staff and students at Franklin Pierce University and features works from writers in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
Like her friend, Sandy had her own rough roads to travel growing up. Born and raised until age 8 in Lowell, Mass., she, her brother and their parents moved several times after that. They ended up on Governor’s Island, one of six bridged islands on Lake Winnipesaukee, all part of Guilford.
“I went to so many schools — eight of them from kindergarten through high school. I was always the new kid. I was part of an upwardly mobile family; my father was from a poor family — they really had nothing — and his education got him out of poverty. My mother grew up in a housing project in Lowell. She was raised by a mother who was a widow. They both had rough childhoods.”
Her mother was an elementary school teacher, her father a professor of education at Rivier College in Nashua, later at Plymouth State College.
Her parents, Leon and Pearl Sandy, now also live in Chesterfield, having followed their daughter there. Kirsti Sandy describes how her mother entertained her as a child with homespun stories based, she later realized, on literature — namely plays by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.
Growing up, Sandy now recognizes, she was suffering from the beginnings of anxiety and perhaps depression. She was bullied in school, but also admits that she was part of groups who bullied others.
“When I went to college, I suffered from an eating disorder, anorexia, which was rampant in my dorm. I was part of the party culture of the 1980s college scene; I witnessed a lot of things that were very troubling,” she says, including sexual assault, though she was not a victim of it herself.
Her book is based on these years. “All the stories in the book are in chronological sequence, but can stand alone as separate essays. It’s about the people I knew in all the schools I went to. They’re really coming-of-age stories, how I came to be the person I am, and what was the right way to live in the world.
“It’s about a lot of women making decisions about boys and men, their relationships with them, decisions they made without thinking about them. It’s about friends lost, relationships lost. In some of these stories, I don’t make the best decisions,” she says.
Hancock resident Paul Hertneky, author of “Rust Belt Boy, Stories of an American Childhood,” wrote this about Sandy’s book: “… a memorable collection. A mosaic of scenes and adventures, of friendships and fears, (it) assembles itself into a complex portrait, rendered with a light touch and a powerful awareness of evolving maturity.”
Journalist and essayist Andrew Merton, the judge for the Bauhan award, wrote: “… (it) is infused with a generosity of spirit that is most refreshing in these difficult times in which we live.”
When she begins writing an essay, Sandy says she pens a short outline initially, but, strangely, comes up with the last line first. “I start at the end and work back. I know the last line before I know the rest.”
And she doesn’t write fiction. “The people I’ve met in life are far more fascinating than anything I can make up,” she says.
“The first thing in memoir writing is you get to deal with what things mean in your life; it makes you feel you have some control over your life.”
Sandy graduated from Rivier College (now university), and then enrolled in graduate school, studying English, at Illinois State University in Normal. The university is in the dead center of the state, on land about as flat as can be found in the U.S, she says. It was a radical change in geography for someone raised in New England.
She didn’t possess a lifelong yearning to be a writer.
“I didn’t have a good experience in writing in college. I didn’t start writing until graduate school,” she says. “Instead, I was interested in studying writers — all writers. I began reading everything, from ancient philosophers” to contemporary authors. “I think what that did was help me understand myself and the things I was going through.”
However, the experience in graduate school in Illinois was outstanding, she says, partly because she was taught by, and became friends with, the then-relatively unknown writer David Foster Wallace. He would eventually become one of the nation’s most heralded authors, and his novel “Infinite Jest” listed by Time Magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the last century. Wallace, who suffered from severe depression much of his adult life, died by suicide in 2008 at the age of 46.
“He never wanted to be a celebrity, which he became. He was a great teacher, hard and tough, he cut us no slack. In his writing, he was informal in his language, but that was the result of incredible technical proficiency.”
She stayed at Illinois State University for 10 years, earning her masters and doctorate degrees, as well as teaching English. Then, she got a job as an assistant professor of English at Keene State College in 2000 and moved back to her New England roots.
She loved it here, and she and her husband, Scott Herstad, moved to Welcome Hill in Chesterfield, near the Madame Sherri Forest. The forest is named for the mysterious show-business personality Madame Sherri, who, after the death of her husband, built an unusual, castle-like home on the property in the 1920s that later burned down under mysterious circumstances.
Sandy and Herstad, a professor of English at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts, received an unexpected gift in 2010. She says their daughter, the first born that year at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, was a “surprise baby,” as they didn’t think Sandy could conceive. Betty Rose Herstad, now 9, won the 2nd-grade poetry award last year at Chesterfield Public Library.
Sandy is a self-described introvert with a taste for true-crime stories. “I love quiet, reading and writing. I’m not gregarious, although people think I am because of what I do here at the college.”
Sandy says she’s enthusiastically awaiting her return to the classroom and teaching students the skills they need to write about their own lives. And, her writing will continue, she says, regardless of which role she plays at the college.
“It’s like an artist who has stuff in their studio that they might work on later. It’s the same with me; I have a lot of last lines.”