Jane Hamilton: Interview

Monday, July 5, 2010

Jane Hamilton lives, works, and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin. Her short stories have appeared in Harper's magazine. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel and was a selection of the Oprah Book Club. Her second novel, A Map of the World, was an international bestseller. Jane agreed to contribute a new short story to TriQuarterly Online and to answer questions from managing editor Cheryl L. Reed. The two authors have known each other since Reed was the books editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and spent time with Jane at her orchard farm.

TriQuarterly Online: As a successful author of six books—two of which were Oprah picks and one of which was made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver—do you write short stories often and, if so, where do you publish them? And why do you write them?

Jane Hamilton: I write a story on average every three years.  Several of my novels started as short stories: The Book of Ruth, The Short History of a Prince, and Disobedience.  The story that was the kernel of The Book of Ruth was a twenty-page run-on sentence in a hick dialect that exists nowhere on Earth, but all the main pieces of the novel were tucked into that rant.  But, the fact is, I’m not a short story writer; I rarely think in the short form. A short story is nearly as difficult to write as a poem is; the poetic force of distillation must also drive a story.   A novel requires distillation too, and the discipline of making each word count, but I love the enormous canvas, and all the possibility, and I love the time it takes to write a novel, the privilege of living in that fictional world for years. However, every now and then I think I’ve written a real story, that is, one that more or less inhabits its boundaries, its beginning, middle, and end.  Sometimes, for the fun of it, to flex a different set of muscles, I set out to write a ten- or fifteen-page story—to see if I can.   

TQO: What do you think the future is of short stories and the literary publications that publish them?

JH: Writers will keep coming along who want to write stories, there will always be messianic professors who want to teach them, and therefore a certain segment of the population—small to be sure, but fervent—will cherish them.  Whether online or in book form, literary publications will endure.  Why? Because there seem always to be enthusiasts who are just mad enough to spend their time and money bringing what they love to attention.  And because it would be foolhardy to ditch a form that gives us so much pleasure.  

TQO: In your most recent book, Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, a comedy that is a departure from your other five books, were you making a statement about genre? There is a scene where the literary teacher’s books are all out of print and she seems a dull, dreary woman. What commentary were you making about the literary fiction writer with that character?

JH: I wanted to write a short book, a puff—and it turned out to be a social satire.  I knew I was writing a book about reading and writing—although some people insist it’s really a sex comedy—“Sex comedy!” I say—“No, no, it’s a book about reading and writing!!” I was thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which one must necessarily think of when writing about middle-aged passion, and the derangement of love, and I was thinking about where we are in the culture now—at a junction where there seem to be more writers than readers.  

As for the literary teacher, I suppose I was making fun of what seems to me a particularly American hunger for happy endings.  Only in America, for example, could there have been a novel like The Lovely Bones, a life-affirming story about a girl who has been brutally murdered. As a culture, we don’t seem to want to think about life as shipwreck. Laura Rider wants a lesson learned, a happy ending, and good rewarded.  The literary teacher tells her to go home and read Chekhov, to study Bummer Literature. Her convictions are meant as a foil to Laura’s earnest wish that from books she will receive reassurance and a useful self-help nugget.

TQO: Near the end of Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, one of the characters makes a statement about the state of the novel: “And the end of shame means the novelist no longer has a subject. The novel will die as a result.” Do you think the novel as a form is near its end?

JH:  Writers and readers began fretting about the end of the novel as soon as the form was invented.  I think there will always be a select group of readers who read serious fiction and there will always be a larger group who read mass market books, and the largest percentage of all who don’t read and never have.  Despite the terrific TV shows on tap now, I hold firm that fiction in the form of the printed word is still the most immediate and penetrating way to understand what it is to be another person. And reading a novel is still the loveliest way to both lose yourself and access your own best self.  I don’t think we are going to give up so much pleasure readily.  It has been said that computer games are approaching the depth of a novel, but I think there’s a good number of consumers who have no interest in sitting in front of a monitor for their narratives.  And when the grid fails, as some day it surely must—when the computers go dark—there will still be candlelight, and somewhere, on an old forgotten shelf, there’ll be a novel. 

I could have an anxiety attack every day if I chose to, about the state of the publishing world. Reading the paper does give me jitters.  (Last week, for instance, a video game was reviewed on the front page of the Arts section in the Times, the book review buried in the back).  But there’s no point in having a daily upset. I love writing novels. I don’t plan to stop. 

TQO: In the book, you take several stabs at the character Laura Rider, a woman who is not well read but believes she can write a book. Do you think we’ve become a society where everyone believes he or she can write, even if they don’t read or have little training as a writer? Why do you think this is so?

JH: Every character in Laura Rider’s Masterpiece is writing, in some form or another.  As Laura herself says, “Writing isn’t rocket science. It’s storytelling, something we all do, all of us, every day.” She has a point. 

And yet.  I was recently at a graduation where the speaker, a poet, said, “Everyone is a poet.”  While it’s true that everyone should write poetry, I’m not so sure that everyone actually is a poet. It is nearly impossible to write a great poem, and those who do have been given a rare gift.  Maybe we should invent another word for those few. 

And, everyone should sing.  Everyone should sketch. Everyone should dance. Everyone should tell stories—and now Facebook and YouTube provide all of us with an opportunity to share our talents.  This is the Age of Glut.  I do worry that it will be harder for the gifted writers’ voices to bubble up through the murk of the blogosphere, and it will be interesting to see what work the coming generation makes, if young writers will have to disconnect to get good work done, or if they really are wired differently than their forbears.  

TQO: What do you think the future of books in this country is? 

JH: As I said, I think there will always be readers.  I think it will be harder for writers to make a solid living writing—but I do think the book will endure.  We have just come through a fantastical time when novel writers have been able to support themselves and their families.  My guess is that fewer people will be able to devote themselves to the writing life without working other jobs.  

TQO: What do you make of the digital e-books? Is this the savior of the traditional publishing industry?

JH: The e-readers are great gadgets.  Very fun toys.  It’s possible they will save the book industry.  We have to stay tuned.  In the meantime, I still love real books, and I buy real books. I like to write in them, and I like to see them on my shelves, a reminder of where I’ve been, and where I might like to return.

TQO: Are you working on another book and, if so, will it follow more in the vein of Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, or will it be more similar to your previous, serious books?

JH: I’ll always be working on another book.  Writing novels is the only way I know how to think.  My books have always had comic bits threaded throughout, and so Laura Rider, although it’s a satire, doesn’t feel like a major departure.  The book I’m working on now isn’t a comic novel but it does on occasion make me laugh.

TQO: As a mid-career author, how many books do you think you have left in you? Do you ever struggle for inspiration, and, if so, where do you find it?

JH: That is a concern.  Does every writer have a finite number of books in her or at a certain point does she just get tired and quit?  There is the temptation and the pressure to write topically, which can be a trap: a temptation to try to write a novel that features the latest bizarre Facebook contretemps, or the aftershock of 9/11, or, why not try science fiction—a book  in which we’re all living under the rule of Sarah Palin?  There’s the temptation to try to grab the thing that will be of the moment. This pressure can lead a writer astray, and we can lose the pleasure of what fiction does best --   Flannery O’Connor said that fiction should “probe the mystery of personality.”

As for inspiration, there’s nothing better than reading a great book or story. I don’t think—or not always anyway—I want to write THAT particular book, but I feel a deep appreciation for the experience of being in the novel, and keeping company with both the characters and the author. When I’m finished reading, I want to sit down immediately and try to do just what that author has done—make a world, and live in it.

TQO: What is your advice to others who are serious about writing fiction, despite the daunting statistics?

JH: Writers who are serious will write because they have to.  They will write because it is more difficult not to write than to write.  Because they have an urgent need to tell a story.  They should write no matter what, they should read, they should buy books, they should support booksellers, and libraries, and they should enjoy the private world that they are building. If they find readers that is beautiful, but in the meantime the work is theirs to revel in.

Read "The Scarf Dancers" by Jane Hamilton here at TriQuarterly Online.