To learn about syrup, ask Whynott

Emerson prof. writes new book on New England’s sugar season

by Tori Bilcik / Beacon Correspondent • April 2, 2014

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Douglass Whynott has written many books about New England, including his latest, The Sugar Season.
Douglass Whynott has written many books about New England, including his latest, The Sugar Season.

Douglas Whynott is quiet. He stands at about 6-foot-4 but he’s one of the most soft-spoken writing, literature, and publishing professors at Emerson. He is a writer, storyteller, pianist, and mentor.

When he’s not teaching at Emerson, Whynott is a narrative nonfiction author, or a literary journalist. Whynott attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, earning a BA in journalism and English in 1977 and an MFA in fiction writing in 1985. Since then, he has published five books over the last 23 years, all of which explore some aspect of New England living and culture. His most recent book, The Sugar Season, sheds light on the underappreciated maple syrup industry.

Maple syrup is a product that many New Englanders, like Whynott, hold close to their hearts, but oftentimes know very little about. With a mission to educate his readers about the industry through his book, his notes totaled 400,000 words across 980 typed pages, and approximately 30 hours of taped interviews, he said. 

By June 2013, Whynott turned this research into a book of about 300 pages packed with anecdotes, statistics, and analysis written in a straightforward, digestable way. His words bring the reader to the sugarhouses, making the importance of maple syrup a relatable topic for anyone.

“Doug is somewhat shy,” said fellow UMass Amherst graduate and Emerson professor Mark Leccese. “But he can make connections with people. He really has an ability to connect with people because he is genuinely interested in how other people live and what other people do.”

After three years of research and almost a full year of writing, Whynott’s conversationally written, first-person account of his findings have earned him an overwhelmingly positive response, and media recognition, from WBUR to CBS.

“Good things have happened with my other books, but this has been quite a bit more,” Whynott said. “I guess it’s because the maple syrup industry is kind of iconic in North America, and people don’t know that much about it. So I’ve kind of opened it up in a way by looking into it.”

Living in southwestern New Hampshire, Whynott says he was inspired to write The Sugar Season after the Asian Longhorned Beetle was discovered in Worcester in 2009. According to Whynott, the invasive species attacked maple trees, and 20,000 were cut down as a result. He said he knows first-hand how seriously New Englanders take their maple syrup, so the invasion hit especially close to home for him.

With the help of maple syrup entrepreneur Bruce Bascom, the main subject of his book, Whynott learned the ins and outs of the industry, and just how economically important, and fragile, the maple syrup business is.

Leccese said that he loved the book and it deserves all the attention it has received.

“It was entertaining, and I learned a lot,” he said. “All of us want to be in the hands of a master storyteller, and Doug’s a master storyteller.”

After teaching at Columbia University and freelance writing, Whynott joined the Emerson staff as a professor in 2000, and became the first tenure track hire in nonfiction writing. He was the MFA graduate program director from 2002 to 2009, and by the time he stepped down as the director, the program was recognized as one of the best in the U.S.

Now, Whynott teaches nonfiction writing courses for undergraduate and graduate students. Last semester, junior writing, literature, and publishing major Michelle Morisi took his intermediate nonfiction writing class. Whynott was then working on his final draft of The Sugar Season, so he used his experience to offer advice about the writing process with his class.

“I remember him stressing that the book writing process can take time, even if it’s an idea that you have brewing inside you now.” Morisi said, “It might not be 10 or 15 years until you have the opportunity or it becomes clear as to how you’ll go about writing it.”

Leccese said that he knew of Whynott as one of New England’s leading long form nonfiction writers before meeting him. But once Leccese came to Emerson and realized they were colleagues, Leccese decided to read Whynott’s work. Then one night, Leccese ran into Whynott at Four Burgers. They sat together and discussed the research Whynott had done for The Sugar Season in its earliest stages. Leccese knew then that he wanted to read it.

“I’m a New Englander,” Leccese said. “I’m a maple syrup snob. I order my maple syrup from a sugar house in Vermont. I was really eager to read this book because I know how well Doug writes, I know how well Doug tells a story…and I know how well he understands New Englanders.”