Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Jane Hamilton talks about THE EXCELLENT LOMBARDS, writing, being less earnest, and why she SHOULD buy that little black dress
OK, the truth is, I'm a little awe-struck here. Jane Hamilton has been one of my favorite novelists since I first read The Book of Ruth (which won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel and was a selection of the Oprah Book club), which was followed by A Map of the World, which was an international bestseller. I'm thrilled that she turned out to be so warm and funny and honest--and just listen to the praise Kirkus gives The Excellent Lombards: Richly characterized, beautifully written, and heartbreakingly poignant—another winner from this talented and popular author.|
Thank you so, so, so, much Jane! (And you can never have enough little black dresses. Just saying...)
I always believe that there is something haunting an author before a novel is begun, and that something that issue is worked out in the pages. Is that true for you? And if so, what was haunting you that pulled you into this story?
Both my agent and editor have, through the years, suggested that I write a memoir about the farm where I live, the farm I married into in Wisconsin. I have no interest in writing a memoir! How dull, to try to capture reality. And how intrusive it would be. (My attention-adverse husband has always said, “Write whatever you want. Only, not a memoir.”) Using one’s material as a point of departure poses particular problems. How do you organize an enormous amount of material that is borne from daily life and which on the surface is chaotic? In answer to your question! The richness and particularly of farming life had been haunting me, and also the questions that vex any farm family: Who is going to carry on the business? Who gets to stay? Who can’t stay? Who doesn’t want to stay but ends up trapped?
There is always such a sense of the land in your books, particularly this one. Frankie’s apple orchard seems almost mythic in how it supports her and her family, and then the times, the land, and the people change, and what once was can be no more, which can also be said about childhood itself. Can you talk about this please?
It did occur to me along the way that this book was a pastoral, although I didn’t set out to write a bucolic. But, I guess the minute you have an orchard setting, full blossom, and nude teenagers wandering through the stage is pretty set. I think there’s a certain pressure, perhaps because of all the terrific TV right now that is so plot driven, so rich with remarkable twists and turns, to think that the novel should compete with those hi-jinx. I was aware of this book being quiet, of its being a meditation, relatively speaking, on that old matter of time passing, a matter that drives Mary Frances, the heroine, to become deranged with love for her childhood. The land, the farm, is intricately bound up with her sense of herself, her present, past, and future.
The Excellent Lombards is such a richly alive coming-of-age-story. It’s also really funny, and I deeply admire the way you can write a serious novel (A Map of the World, for example) and then switch to something lighter. Do you prefer one over the over?
When I was younger, as younger people tend to be, I was far more earnest than I am now. (I think if you hang around long enough you have to become more keenly amused by your own folly and absurdity in general, or you’re in danger of putting a bullet to your brain.) I do think there are funny bits in the early novels, but writing Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, a satire, was probably the most fun I’ve ever had.
I always am interested in craft. What kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or let the characters guide you? Have your work habits changed at all during the years?
I’m not a good plotter or mapper-outer. I wish I was. I’m in the camp of: You don’t know what you’ve made until you’ve made it. Which is not efficient. But in the words of Tony Soprano: whatareyougonnado? My work habits have changed only insofar as there is now email and other distractions to contend with. In the old days, no email, oh, we were free. Now I have to work very hard to stay focused, especially at the beginning of a book, when it is terrifying, when you don’t know at all if it will work out, you are wandering in the wilderness, so much more fun to watch YouTube clips.
You’ve written so many truly magnificent books. Do you feel that it’s a brand new process with each book, building on what you’ve learned from the prior book? Did anything surprise you in the writing of The Excellent Lombards?
I do feel that nothing I’ve done before prepares me for the next book. I always feel that I don’t know enough to do the thing at hand. It does seem like a brand new process. The Lombards is an episodic book, which I’d never done before, so structurally it was different, not exactly linear, and with a lot of material left out. There’s that bit of wisdom from Willa Cather that was in my mind: “Art, it seems to me,” she said, “should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole, so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page.”
What a trick! The work of the poet. Impossible. It took me a long time to try to distill the material, to write so little.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
In the last decade I wrote several terrible novels, nothing worked, it was awful. What’s obsessing me right now is trying to resurrect one of them. I can’t believe there’s not a novel in that mess.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
* Do you feel that you are too old to wear a little black dress?
Yes. But I just bought a great one and now I have remorse.
But more seriously, I do feel resolved to write books that are about the seemingly simple problems of being this mysterious strange thing that we are, Humans, even though part of me would love to be John LeCarre. There’s a question in that statement, I’m sure of it.