Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Ladette Randolf talks about Haven's Wake, obsessions, Mennonites, farm families and so much more

Ladette Randolph is the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares magazine and is Distinguished Publisher-in-Residence at Emerson College. She is the award-winning author of A Sandhills Ballad (Nebraska, 2011) and This Is Not the Tropics and is the editor of two anthologies, including A Different Plain: Contemporary Nebraska Fiction Writers, both available in Bison Books editions. She is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize, a Rona Jaffe Foundation grant, four Nebraska Book Awards, and the Virginia Faulkner Award. I'm so honored to have her here to talk about her stunning new novel. Thank you, Ladette!

What sparked the idea for this novel?

I had toyed with the idea of this novel for ten years before I began to write it. I didn't start with a character or an idea (like I have with my other work) but rather with a question about something I'd witnessed--a certain dynamic-- especially in rural farm families where adult children often stay on and work with the parents. What intrigued me in particular was the relationship between a loving but controlling mother and her adult children. Since my own mother has always been quite the opposite of controlling, it makes my interest all the more curious.

Why was this a novel you felt compelled to write?

The origins of this particular novel are mysterious to me. I really can't account for why I spent five years writing about the Grebel family and their particular problems, only that as I wrote I continued to be interested in them and kept discovering through the writing process new layers of complexity and conflicting perceptions that kept me interested.

What question were you hoping to answer?

Since I didn't begin the work for HAVEN'S WAKE with a clear sense of the characters and their situation and had only a vague feeling about what I wanted to explore, I think the question I was asking kept shifting over time. In the "zero draft" (what I call the very first draft) I was simply trying to answer the question of who I was writing about. Once I discovered my three point of view characters I still had a lot of work to do to understand their complicated history together. This story isn't based in my own family history, so the work of discovery demanded a lot from me.

I was enthralled by all the details about Mennonites and about Nebraska and I wanted to ask about the research you did, and how you know what you know?

I'm a fifth generation Nebraskan, so I know the Nebraska landscape very well. As for the Mennonite aspect of the novel, I have several extended family members who are conservative (as opposed to Old Order) Mennonites. I'd spent time in their homes, but I certainly didn't know the doctrines of the faith (except that they're one of the peace churches and have refused to bear arms for 500 years) before I started writing the novel. I did a lot of reading of Mennonite theology and read a little from the doorstop-sized chronicle of their history of religious oppression called THE MARTYR'S MIRROR. I'm certainly not an expert in Mennonite theology and practice, but I tried very hard to be respectful of the faith, which I admire very much. It matters to me that I've portrayed the faith accurately and fairly, even if some of my characters misinterpret it.

Were there any surprises?

All the time. My characters surprised me as did my research. As to the latter, while I knew that the Mennonite commitment to disaster relief was a important part of their expression of faith, I hadn't been aware that in some cases Mennonite elders would actually go into war zones. Their concern for unarmed citizens in those situations sometimes takes the form of standing between armed soldiers and those citizens. I didn't want the fact that the characters are Mennonite to be central to the novel (it's simply who they are), but I couldn't resist slipping that bit about the activist elders into the story.

I’d love to talk about craft. What is your daily writing life like?

I've been a publishing professional for a long time and before that finished and PhD and raised three children. I came to writing a little later than a lot of my peers, so my writing discipline was formed by my adult responsibilities. For many years I've tried to write an hour a day five days a week. I don't always get that accomplished and I sometimes take "vacations" from that obligation, especially if I'm between things or need to focus on other aspects of my life more.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or do you find yourself rambling in the story?

I never outline. I rarely know where I'm going when I start something. Sometimes I'll hear a phrase or see an image (this is more true for short stories) that will lead me to eventually discover a character. In my first novel, I saw the main character and the arc of her life but I didn't have much aside from that.

You’re also the editor of the very prestigious magazine Ploughshares and you are Publisher-in-Residence At Emerson. How do you juggle that with your own writing?

Like most writers today who are also juggling a day job and their writing life, I just do it. I'm incredibly fortunate to have the work I do with Ploughshares and teaching at Emerson College. I feel enormously privileged in my life to be working in and on behalf of the literary community. If the work sometimes takes away from the writing, it also contributes. As I've gotten older I've realized it's never been easy to be a writer, even if you have all sorts of time available.

What’s obsessing you now?

What's concerning (perhaps obsessing is too strong a word) me now in terms of my own writing is a memoir I've just finished (under contract with University of Iowa Press). I'm doing final revisions, so it's on my mind a lot these days. I also have a lot of unpublished short stories that I need to make some decisions about. At work, we've just put to bed the Spring 2013 issue of PLOUGHSHARES (guest-edited by Major Jackson) and I'm thinking about it and AWP, which will be in Boston this spring. In my personal reading time, I've been rereading Chekhov. And to stay with the Russian theme, I've been rereading ANNA KARENINA because my husband read it for the first time this year and kept raving about it. I hadn't read it since I was 21 and I could only remember the plot. What fun it's been to rediscover that novel after all these years. Also in my personal time I've been learning (slowly) to play the accordion. It isn't always pretty but it's sure a lot of fun.

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