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Cottage Industry 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:38 pm

Cornelius Eady and Sarah Micklem have a busy address book. There’s their tiny apartment in New York’s West Village; South Bend, Indiana, where Eady commutes to run Notre Dame’s creative writing program; and twin cottages on a hilltop near Cairo, New York. Side by side, compatible but self-contained, the cottages offer an apt metaphor for the marriage of two working writers.

Eady’s seven books of poetry include Lamont Prize-winner Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, Brutal Imagination, and Pulitzer finalist The Gathering of My Name; he’s also an Obie Award-winning playwright. His latest book, Hardheaded Weather, opens with twin epigraphs from Ezra Pound (“Make it new”) and James Brown (“Make it funky”). Eady does both, and he makes it his own.

Micklem is a fantasy novelist whose earthy, remarkable debut Firethorn earned glowing reviews and a Locus Award nomination. Wildfire, the second volume of her trilogy about a headstrong woman amid warring clans, will be published this month.

Today is the couple’s 31st anniversary, and they’re unwinding at their upstate getaway. “When we get up here, we immediately slow down,” Eady says. “It’s the porch effect.” After a realtor showed them the vacant cottages in 2001, they returned several times before making a bid. “We’d bring coffee and sit on the porch,” says Micklem. Eady adds, “We were afraid the sheriff would show up and say, ‘Who are you?’” There’s a subcutaneous tension in his laughter, recalling his poem “Recycling,” in which “a middle-aged black and white couple” get the once-over at a Catskill dump: “Anyone with eyes can tell / We’re a story that couldn’t have / Originated around these parts.”

A big man with a world-warming smile, Eady sports waist-length dreads bundled into a ponytail, elegantly long nails, and horn-rimmed glasses. He’s wearing a blue workshirt, dark trousers, and slippers. Micklem is dressed almost identically–a fact that amuses them both when they notice—but her sandy hair is a foot shorter than her husband’s. She’s clear-eyed, quick, and light, self-effacing but quietly confident. In conversation, they listen respectfully, trading licks back and forth like a jazz duet.

They met in a ’70s-era free school in Rochester, Eady’s hometown. Micklem was born in Virginia; her family moved several times before settling in upstate New York. A restless student who “hated high school,” she savored the chance to mainline sci-fi novels in place of conventional classes. Eady transferred midyear and spent his time writing poems and songs, playing drums and guitar with a short-lived rock band. Micklem also wrote songs; Eady calls her the group’s “hidden genius.”

After high school, Micklem started writing a science fiction novel that opened, like Firethorn, with a young woman living alone in the woods. Having assayed a three-day vision quest in the Adirondacks at 16, she rented a cabin 10 miles from the nearest town, with no car. Eady would visit, bringing groceries and Stevie Wonder tapes. “He was my lifeline,” she says. “That was probably when I fell in love with him–I just didn’t realize it at the time.” (Eady was dating someone else, which “helped put up the wall in my mind.”)

The summer after her first year at Princeton, Micklem’s former bandmate came for a visit and, she says simply, “It shifted.”  They married soon after. Eady’s writing career was the first to take off, though he’s also supported himself with a series of teaching jobs. Micklem found full-time work as a graphic designer, but even when she wasn’t actively writing, Firethorn’s world was marinating inside her head. “For a long time, this was a hobby, a world-building hobby,” she says. “I’d think of weird things on long drives—what are their books like? I want them to have writing, but not like ours. What do their maps look like?”

At a writers’ conference, Eady met workshop leader Abigail Thomas and knew he’d found the right midwife for his wife’s book. “The big reason I finished was Abby,” Micklem concurs. “I learned to go in, go deeper, look around.”

Though she’s always her husband’s first reader, Micklem doesn’t always share her work in progress. “I don’t read everything Sarah’s doing, but I hear about it all the time,” Eady says, and she laughs. “Mostly whining,” she says. She admires his equanimity. “Cornelius doesn’t agonize over process, he doesn’t complain when he’s not writing, it’s all fine. He doesn’t seem to envy other people.” But, Micklem says, “He’s a binge writer. He goes at it and stays at it, he forgets to eat.”

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