I swear I met Ann Hood many years ago when she was working as a flight attendant, although maybe I just like to think that I met her. I was three hours early for a plane (typical Leavitt) and reading a book and this blonde woman in a uniform swept through, glanced at my book and said, "That's a great book! I loved it!" and then continued to rush by me. Well, she looked like Ann Hood, anyway, and maybe that counts, too. In any case, I'm thrilled to host Ann here and have her talk about her sublime new novel, THE OBITUARY WRITER, which is both a meditation of lost chances and grief, as well as a stunning story of two women who are decades apart--yet closer than they could ever imagine.
Ann Hood is also the author of the bestselling novel, THE KNITTING CIRCLE, THE RED THREAD, and the memoir, COMFORT: A JOURNEY THROUGH GRIEF, which was named one of the top ten non fiction books of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly and was a New York Times Editor's Choice. Her other novels include: WAITING TO VANISH, THREE-LEGGED HORSE, SOMETHING BLUE, PLACES TO STAY THE NIGHT, THE PROPERTIES OF WATER; SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF MAINE, and RUBY She has also written a memoir, DO NOT GO GENTLE: MY SEARCH FOR MIRACLES IN A CYNICAL TIME; a book on the craft of writing, CREATING CHARACTER EMOTIONS; and a collection of short stories, AN ORNITHOLOGIST'S GUIDE TO LIFE.
Her essays and short stories have appeared in GOOD HOUSEKEEPING, THE NEW YORK TIMES, LADIES HOME JOURNAL, MORE, TIN HOUSE, PLOUGHSHARES, and THE PARIS REVIEW. Ann has won a Best American Spiritual Writing Award, the Paul Bowles Prize for Short Fiction, and two Pushcart Prizes. She now lives in Providence, RI with her husband and their children. I'm so jazzed to have Ann here. Thank you, thank you, Ann!
I loved the two time frames, the sixties juxtaposed with the early nineteen hundreds. What made you focus on these two particular times? What sparked the whole idea of the novel for you?
A few years ago I went to a dinner party and was seated next to a charming man. We had a great time chatting and laughing all night. A week later, he died. And his partner asked me to write his obituary. I didn't know how to say no, but I also didn't know how to actually do it. His partner said he wanted it more like a short story than an obituary. I happen to be a fan of obituaries. And I own a copy of the late NYT obit writer, Robert MacG Thomas' collected obituaries. So I turned to them for inspiration. But the responsibility of capturing a life--really capturing it--in such a short space got me thinking about obituary writers. Around the same time, April 18, the anniversary of my daughter's death, came. As I do every morning, I read The Writers Almanac on line and learned that April 18 is also the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Themes of loss, personal and more global, came together in that moment, and Vivien was born. Her story unfolded easily, but it seemed more a novella than a novel. Then, months later, I was sitting in an auditorium watching Obama's first inauguration and got swept up in the hope all around me. I actually went to JFK's inauguration as a very little girl, and I remembered that same sense of hope and optimism. What if a woman from a time of hope felt hopeless? Two women in two times. The stories seemed to fit somehow. And then I was on my way.
So much of The Obituary Writer is a gorgeous meditation on loss and longing and the ways we try to keep hold of the things that we cannot. There’s a line in the book that really got me, when Vivien says, “Don’t waste your one beautiful life.” Can you talk about that line in relationship to grief?
That line was probably the hardest line to write. Vivien needed to capture so much in that moment. And I had a lot of mis steps in trying to find the right, true words. Vivien is at the end of her life and her grief, though still present, has taken on a different shape. She can look at it almost objectively through the lens of time. It's advice that's hard to hear or understand when you are closer to grief, but it resonates despite that.
The novel is so exquisitely detailed that I want to ask you about the research. What was that like? Where were the surprises?
I knew exactly nothing about San Francisco in 1906. Except the earthquake happened and I watched a kind of cheesy touristy film about that years ago in San Francisco. I immersed myself in books about the earthquake, wrote to the Napa Historical Society, that kind of thing. One night I watched Sixty Minutes, which I never watch. And they showed a lost film taken on Market Street the day before the earthquake! Honestly, I hadn't watched that show since I was in college and it had just what I needed on it that night. The film went online and I studied it quite a bit. The 1961 details were easier. I was only 4 then, but I have vivid specific memories of that time. I had to check them--the songs, etc. for accuracy. And I bought a pile of women's magazines at a junk shop for recipes and things. I love doing research. I wouldn't say there were surprises; rather I kept getting delighted. By the wine growers in Napa, the suburban housewives of the early 60s...I read every newspaper account about JFK and Jackie and the inauguration. I loved getting lost in all of it.
Let’s talk about my favorite subject: craft. What kind of writer are you--or were you--for this particular book? Were you drowning in pages of outlines or did the story unfold almost organically? And what’s your daily writing life like?
My writing process is always a combination of outlining and organic storytelling. This one required a lot of precision. Things had to happen at certain times. So I was perhaps a bit more committed to an outline for plot points. But I like having a blueprint. I think it allows creativity to blossom. Without it, I feel like I'm throwing rubber bands at the stars. And missing too many times.
I write for two hours every day. But once I get to about page 50 in a novel my writing time is much longer. More like four or six hours a day. After that I reach a law of diminishing returns and the prose isn't very good. My husband just created a gorgeous new knitting room for me and it has a daybed with piles of pink pillows. That's where I've been writing these days. I like to write partially reclined and propped up with pillows.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Right now I'm obsessed with yarn bombing. That's when someone knits a public structure--a statue, a phone booth, a bus. I mean, they knit over it so that the thing is wearing like a coat. My next novel--which is really a mess of about 30 pages right now--has a yarn bomber as a character. So I'm collecting photos of yarn bombed things and reading about the bombers. It's also called guerrilla knitting.
Any last words?
I remember Russell Banks describing alternating POV chapters in CONTINENTAL DRIFT by saying that the reader has to reach the end of each section wanting to stay in that time and place every time. That was the challenge for me. I needed the reader to not want to leave Vivien when her section ended, then not want to leave Claire. Every time. But I love a writing challenge like that.