Stephen P. Kiernan: Finding his muse in many genres

Courtesy photo
Stephen Kiernan writes with his cat Maple keeping him company

Many Vermonters remember Stephen Kiernan as a journalist, based on his 11 years of work at The Burlington Free Press, but these days he makes his living as a novelist.

Kiernan, 58, was a bit of a late bloomer in the fiction world. His first novel, “The Curiosity,” was published five years ago, followed by “The Hummingbird” in 2016 and last year’s “The Baker’s Secret.”

The latter has been the biggest commercial success, recently out in paperback and having appeared on the New England Booksellers Bestsellers and Indie Next lists. Publisher HarperCollins has signed

Kiernan on for another two novels, the next expected out in 2019.
Kiernan uses the word “grateful” often when he speaks of his career.
“I am astonished and delighted that this how I make my living,” he said.

Although his writing career began in journalism, Kiernan has been writing fiction since he was a teenager. After obtaining degrees at Middlebury College and Johns Hopkins University, he spent five years at IBM, years when he would get up early to write.

Deciding to focus on writing, Kiernan went back to school and got a master of fine arts degree at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Kiernan subsequently got a job with the Daily Iowan and began to freelance for a variety of publications, including Spin magazine.

A desire to return east led to The Burlington Free Press, where he was business editor, then editorial page editor, then an investigative reporter.

The newspaper won the George Polk Award for Kiernan’s series about lax enforcement at the Vermont Medical Practice Board.

Kiernan admits he misses journalism. “It was really exciting work to do in Vermont,” he said. “You can find experts who talk to you and our problems are more solvable (than in big cities) because they are on a human scale, so it was extremely rewarding.”

In addition to his novels, Kiernan has written two nonfiction books, including “Last Rites,” which deals with end-of-life health care issues. Kiernan has become an advocate in that field and has spoken all over the country and even consulted with medical schools about what he considers the “highest-anguish, lowest-quality approach” that he believes is often pursued in end-of-life medical efforts.

Kiernan is also an accomplished musician who has been playing guitar since age 10. He has recorded three CDs and has done a good deal of performing, but his current travel schedule makes him less inclined to take the stage when he gets home.

Music, however, is part of his writing routine. “When I’m working on a scene and I get tired, I stop and play the guitar and it gets me back in my right hemisphere,” he said.

Kiernan moved to Charlotte in September 1993. He and his then-fiancée found the process of looking for a house stressful, so their Realtor sent them to the town beach to think about the house she had just shown them. “We swam to the floating raft and watched the sun go down and saw the families playing and we decided to bid on the house,” he recalls.

What’s next for him? “I always have three or four ideas that are simmering on the backburner,” Kiernan said. “I look at those different ideas and see which one will be the most interesting and invariably write 150 to 250 pages before realizing I’m wrong.”

Kiernan often breaks his writing into several interludes during the day, broken up by playing guitar, stacking wood, visiting friends and bicycling to the town beach. “Vermont is a great place to be a writer,” he said. “I have a novelist friend in Houston who is starved for beauty, but here there is an abundance of that.”

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