2016-02-25 / News

Facts make Thornton teacher’s fiction believable

By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer


David Arenstam, an English teacher at Thornton Academy and chairman of the Technology and New Media Department at the school, has published three short stories that are available at Amazon.com or Nonesuch Books, where he’s pictured here, in Biddeford. (Courtesy photo) David Arenstam, an English teacher at Thornton Academy and chairman of the Technology and New Media Department at the school, has published three short stories that are available at Amazon.com or Nonesuch Books, where he’s pictured here, in Biddeford. (Courtesy photo) SACO — A Thornton Academy English teacher is fulfilling a lifetime dream of being a published fiction writer.

David Arenstam’s three short stories – “Running Through Snow Showers,” “Blink” and “The Valley of the Living,” published by Bryson Taylor Publishing of Saco – are now available in local bookstores and on Amazon.com.

Arenstam said he was encouraged by a writing teacher at Harvard, where he received a graduate degree in journalism, to publish his short stories.

“I wanted to write stories that were centered around what I think of as the canons that are taught in school – science, history, math and literature,” Arenstam said. “It was fun for me. I had to learn a lot about the subject matters themselves, to make them believable.”

Arenstam said “Running Through Snow Showers” and “Blink” were science-based stories while “The Valley of the Living” is a fiction account of a true historical event.

In “Running Through Snow Showers,” the world is contaminated with radioactivity after a nuclear power plant in Japan malfunctions and the life expectancy of humans is reduced to little more than 35 years. In “Blink,” a high school English teacher explores human cell regeneration and a possible breakthrough that could have an effect on aging and disease.

“The Valley of the Living” is set during Vietnam War and inspired by Russ Warriner, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Old Orchard Beach. The story is a precursor to Arenstam’s first novel, “Homecoming: A Soldier’s Story of Loyalty, Courage, and Redemption,” which will be released around Memorial Day.

Arenstam, who is a contributor to the Courier, interviewed Warriner for a story on a POW-MIA event that Warriner was organizing in Old Orchard Beach, and soon realized there was more to Warriner’s story than could be told in a news article.

“After talking to him a few different times, I realized there was a story to tell,” Arenstam said.

For almost a year, Arenstam met with Warriner weekly over coffee to talk about Warriner’s experiences in the war. The result is Arenstam’s novel, which although fiction, references events that “are 100 percent accurate.”

Arenstam said writing fiction requires significant amount of research and is not just the domain of the imagination.

“The description (of a fiction writer) is that you sit down in front of a computer and it all starts pouring out of your head,” he said. “I also spend an inordinate amount of time researching. Research is part of the fun to make sure places are right … Part of it comes from my journalism background. I want to be accurate.”

Arenstam said Warriner gave him the coordinates of the helicopter crash Arenstam wrote about in “The Valley of the Living,” and Arenstam even looked up what the weather was like on the day the Battle of the City of Hue occurred in February 1968.

“It goes back to, as a writer, you want to be a good storyteller. For me, part of that is to be accurate,” Arenstam said. “I kind of laugh when students look at me and say, ‘Which parts are real and which parts are made up?’ If you can’t tell, I know that it’s a good story.”

Arenstam said he teaches his students to learn about the lives of authors to get an understanding of their works.

“Sometimes, if you study a writer’s life, it’s not only really interesting, but you also learn more about their work because their lives intersect with their work. It’s just natural,” he said.

In Arenstam’s work, living in coastal towns and his experience as a Coast Guardsman is reflected in his stories with an appreciation for life on and near the ocean. In “Running Through Snow Showers,” the main character is a lobsterman.

“Running Through Snow Showers” has been nominated for a short fiction award by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.

Arenstam said his service in the Coast Guard, and his son’s service in the Army, has given him a deep respect for military servicemen and veterans. In writing “Homecoming: A Soldier’s Story of Loyalty, Courage, and Redemption,” Arenstam said he wanted to make sure his characterization of the servicemen was not only respectful, but accurate.

That’s where Warriner and his friends were very important in helping Arenstam, by reviewing the book and letting him know if his portrayals were accurate.

“If you boil it down, the story is really about the crew of four men in Vietnam,” Arenstam said. “During the Tet Offensive, which was one of the most horrific parts of the war, when North Vietnam really pushed to invade the South, the aviation crews were flying, really literally, around the clock.”

Arenstam explained that every 100 hours, an airworthiness inspection was required of the aircraft. Warriner, who was the chief for his crew of four, was called to perform an inspection when his crew was called to action and another crew chief was assigned in his place.

“The crew took off, got in trouble and went missing, and meanwhile, Russ is back at the base and he never knew what happened,” Arenstam said.

One of the survivors was a co-pilot who was captured by the North Vietnamese, and held captive for five years, Arenstam said.

While interviewing Warriner, Arenstam discovered that Warriner was going to reunite with the co-pilot for the first time in more than 40 years.

“I asked (Warriner), ‘I don’t mean to intrude, but can I come to the airport?’” Arenstam said. “It’s a natural end to the story. To me, it’s sort of a big deal.”

Arenstam said while he was waiting with Warriner to meet a man Warriner hadn’t seen since the helicopter crashed, he realized that the reunion meant a lot to them, but it also brought emotions home for him.

“It was poignant for me because at the time all this was taking place, my son was in Afghanistan,” he said. “It was helpful for them but it was certainly helpful for me.”

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