CASTINE — Fiction writer and Castine resident Deborah Joy Corey grew up the youngest of seven children in the rugged woods of New Brunswick. There, along the banks of the St. John River, between Fredericton and Woodstock, hard men worked the timberlands, and Corey said she and her siblings lived a Huckleberry Finn-like existence.
“We were always building something on the river or building a camp,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot of things to entertain us, so we made our own.”
Though their children roamed, Corey’s parents were always a guiding presence. Her father was a forester who knew his forests like a sailor knows his waters, and her mother was a keeper of myths and tales to tell her children.
When her parents died in 1996 and in 2002, Corey had a hard time recovering.
“I just wasn’t getting over losing them,” she said. “They were such incredible people, extraordinary ordinary people.”
Luckily, Corey’s parents had given her a few tools with which to process her grief.
“They were such great storytellers, they must have given me something to get through this, to get to the other side,” she said. “I just had to completely fall apart to go back and find out who I was, who I came from, so I could go forward.”
In early adulthood, Corey worked as an actor and as a fashion model, but she had a lifelong interest in writing. While living in Boston, she tried her hand at a fiction writing workshop at Harvard University and was immediately hooked.
“After that I was off to the races,” she said.
A fan of Joyce Carol Oates’ short story collection “The Wheel of Love,” Corey continued to pursue her passion after meeting Andre Dubus II, a famous American writer who became her mentor.
Corey and Dubus started a weekly writing discussion group, The Thursday Nighters, outside of Boston. Hundreds of writers went through the workshop, most of whom eventually had their work published.
“I learned a lot from Andre’s short-story writing,” Corey said. “At different points at different projects, I’ll find a mentor and learn from them.”
Corey started publishing her short stories in literary magazines such as The Agni Review, Ploughshares: Fiction Discoveries and The Windsor Review.
In 1993, the writer published her first novel, “Losing Eddie,” which won multiple awards and drew heavily upon her experience growing up in rural Canada.
A few years later, Corey and her husband moved to Castine, which was the setting of her second novel, “The Skating Pond.” That novel won the ELLE Magazine Lettres Readers Prize.
Despite her accomplishments, Corey found writing a memoir a challenging experience. She wrote a first draft 12 years ago and hardly looked at it again.
“I wrote it and put it away because it was so personal,” she said.
Recently, Corey felt compelled to revisit the draft.
“I just got it out and re-wrote it and said, ‘yes, this book has value to me,’” she said. “But it also has value to my daughters, because there is a heritage there.”
Published in July, the memoir is titled “Settling Twice.” Upon a tide of flowing pages, Corey takes the reader through a verbal still-life of Castine: the history of the peninsula and the cultural memories of the people living there.
“Castine was a Times Square of fishing and shipping, a harbor cut so naturally deep that it could have become similar to Boston or New York City,” Corey writes of the town in the early 1600s, “but now this once busy coastal intersection languishes in a kind of gracious limbo, never too far from the past and certainly never too close to the future.”
Corey isn’t afraid to bring some of her neighbors to life, though she changes the names of a few of them for their privacy.
Showing her time in Castine, the author describes the almost-superstitious nature with which men of the sea move around boats.
“Maybe Kenny knows all too well the proper approach,” she writes, “fearing something may be lost once others needlessly touch her, their oily fingerprints staining the gossamer forever.”
Between her slow-motion observations of coastal life, Corey weaves her memories of childhood, motherhood and the weight of the grief she feels from the loss of her parents. Soon it becomes clear that the memoir is not simply a recollection, but a reorientation, as Corey looks to set a course into the next chapter of her life.
“I want to know what my original wish was for myself,” she writes. “Because although the air is rich enough to make me feel cleansed, my soul is often cantankerous … Beneath the silky heat, I am empty without my sense of wonder.”
Now that it’s published, Corey thinks the memoir was a helpful project.
“Absolutely, it did help with the grieving process,” she said. “But I still have to be careful when I do readings because I may become like a blubbering idiot in the middle of it.”
One of Corey’s lessons for aspiring writers is to find a mentor to work with. She will lead a memoir workshop on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Blue Hill Public Library. To sign up, contact Blue Hill Books at 374-5632.
“I think it’s really satisfying to help people find their story,” she said. “And I find that most people arrive with a story in mind. It’s something they’re dying to tell.”