THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FALL 2008
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Balancing Fact and Fiction
Journalist Betty (Thayer) Cotter '82 Publishes Her First Novel

Betty (Thayer) Cotter photo by Selena Millard It was a year of firsts for Betty (Thayer) Cotter '82. Her first-born child, Perry, began his first year at Keene State in fall 2007, and her first novel, Roberta's Woods, was published in March.

As for Perry, he loves majoring in music technology and easily adapted to the demands of college. When he enrolled at Keene State, Perry could already play clarinet and tenor sax, but during the academic year, he began to broaden his skills by taking piano lessons.

In the months following its debut, Roberta's Woods (published by Five Star Expressions of Waterville, Maine) has also achieved success, garnering good reviews, including one in Publishers Weekly that lauded Cotter for her novel's "strong character development, sensual writing, and absorbing plot."

Her friends at KSC will certainly link one character's obsession with vintage muscle cars with Cotter's own fixation, remembering her infamous cobalt blue '65 Mustang parked outside Elliot Hall, where the Equinox offices were located.
Given that Roberta's Woods revolves around a national fuel shortage, Cotter has also proved to be something of a visionary. For those of us who were classmates of Cotter's and have kept in touch with her, Roberta's Woods, set in Rhode Island, reflects the many professional and personal dimensions of her life.The timeliness of the novel's plot as well as its deft portrayal of politicians and the inner workings of a community can be credited to her being a seasoned and award-winning journalist, currently working as the managing editor of Rhode Island's South County Independent.

Cotter came to Keene State intending to major in English; however, she couldn't resist the immediate gratification that comes with newspaper writing, what she refers to as a chronic need to "do something," versus the slower, more deliberative pace necessary for creative writing. She majored in public affairs/journalism, Roberta's Woods book photothe program back then for aspiring reporters, but bolstered her degree with a hefty assortment of English courses and a relentless dream to one day write fiction.

Today, the divide in Cotter's writing loyalties is illustrated by the fact that she literally has two different desks for her work. She writes creatively at home at a desk in a small nook at the top of the stairs leading to the second floor. Her desk holds a line of photos of "the very important people I've lost": her sister, who died as a teenager, her grandmother, and her father.

At the newspaper she has her own office, its desk piled with press releases, dummies, story lists, photo lists, lists of letters to the editor, and all the other paperwork that's generated in a newspaper office. The photos that decorate the space are also different. They're of her husband, Tim, and their three children, Perry (19), Colby (17), and Mary (13).

Cotter's ancestors have lived in Rhode Island since the 1600s, and, as a result, she possesses a keen facility to reach beyond the veneer inhabited by day-trippers and newcomers. Cotter's Rhode Island is not the tourist ideal of Watch Hill, Block Island, or Narragansett Bay. Like Howard Frank Mosher or fellow KSC alum Ernest Hebert '69, Cotter is more concerned with New England's rough and tumble culture. Characters in Roberta's Woods cut lumber at their own sawmills and rebuild cars from parts they find in the town dump, and they seldom throw anything out.

Photo of the Cotters by Chris Justice
Perry with his mother near Pondside.

As in Roberta's Woods, the author's own father ran a sawmill and lived a fairly hardscrabble existence. And the setting of the novel is inspired by her grandmother's house in Escoheag, Rhode Island. It was a Cape Cod, built in 1728. Because it was also once a boarding house, the cupboards were crammed with old hotel registers and photographs that Cotter would pore over as a child while she asked her grandmother to recount stories of her family.

There is a more rambunctious side to Cotter that also resonates in Roberta's Woods. Her friends at KSC will certainly link one character's obsession with vintage muscle cars with Cotter's own fixation, remembering her infamous cobalt blue '65 Mustang parked outside Elliot Hall, where the Equinox offices were located.

As for Perry, he loves majoring in music technology and easily adapted to the demands of college.
When Cotter began writing for the Equinox, the esprit de corps found in the editorial offices among her first editors, Michael Nadeau, David Tranchida, John Kyte, and Sean Cummings, was infectious. In the Rhode Island newsroom she now inhabits, she also delights in the conviviality. Cotter says she sometimes wonders whether she could confine herself to either news writing or creative writing. She quickly puts such thoughts to rest, however, believing "we all need to go out into the world before we retreat in contemplation."

Betty Cotter's second novel, The Winters, is currently under consideration, and she's working on a third, provisionally titled The Last Swamp Yankee. In December, she'll graduate from the MFA program at Vermont College.

Patricia Ferreira is associate professor of English at Norwich University. Like Cotter, she majored in public affairs/journalism as an undergraduate and was a staff member on the Equinox.

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