Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Read this Book: 31 Hours

One of the pleasures of having writer friends is that we are always in and out of one another's working lives. We get to see the process. Masha Hamilton is a great writer and a great friend, and I read (and was knocked out by) an early draft of her novel, 31 Hours. The published version is even better (and racking up the raves) and I'm thrilled Masha agreed to answer questions on my blog. Thank you, Masha!

I had read an earlier version of this novel and what impressed me so much was the difference between the final version—which was leaner, more focused, and more powerful—and the first version, which I had also loved. Characters were streamlined, events changed shape and position. Can you talk about the process, how you got from A to B?

I was lucky enough to be able to write the first draft of this novel during a single month ensconced at Blue Mountain Center, an artists’ retreat in the Adirondacks. I worked nearly around the clock and lived and breathed the novel, and I think some of the pacing is really due to that. I think because I felt the circumstance of this novel so deeply, I needed to be away from my real life in order to write it. It was an intense period for me, a period of tears and occasional nightmares. But of course, after that initial rush of writing comes the concentrated process of revision. During the writing, I don’t self-censor at all; I let everything come out, even parts I don’t understand. But during the revision process, everything is reconsidered, and deepened or tossed. For me, the first draft is like kneading the bread dough, and the revision process is like letting it rise. Perhaps publication is when it’s baked, if we want to carry the metaphor that far…

Although 31 Hours concerns itself with a homegrown American terrorist, to me, the book is also really about the relationships we have with other, the ways we miscommunicate, or are seen and not see, and about the moments "that change us forever." Jonas says goodbye to the man he had been, Carol says of her son, "We change, but they change more," and a homeless man, Sonny (the kind of person most people choose not to see at all), has premonitions of what is about to happen. What I found most interesting is none of these lives intersected. Jonas and Vic, his girlfriend, are very much on each other's minds, but while they share scenes in the past, there are no scenes of them in the present together. Jonas and his mom never have a conversation or meeting in the present, either, and Sonny never gets to tell anyone who could stop it what he fears is going to happen—and that makes it all the more terrifying. I'm curious what you think might have happened if Vic or Carol had been able to reach Jonas. Would it have changed anything?

You are absolutely right, Caroline; for me, this was partly about missed connections. At one point Jonas thinks he sees his mother Carol, but actually doesn’t, and at another point, Vic sees Jonas’s mother but can’t quite believe it is her, and it is. Sonny, too, briefly passes Carol and Vic at various points in the 31 hours of the story, and had in the weeks previous once seen Jonas. Without revealing what does happen, I’ll say that I think definitely circumstances would have changed if Jonas’s mother or girlfriend had been able to connect with him. How, though, I’m not sure. I don’t plot my novels. I just try to listen hard to the characters. So I never know what is going to happen until it does!

Sonny, the homeless man, says that a diet of longing can drive people to the gun—and all of the characters here have different intensities of longing going on, but only Jonas was pushed toward destruction. Why?

Jonas is young, so young. He is in that parenthesis of time – he is not a child, but nor is he fully an adult. He is idealistic. He is troubled by corruption and cruelty. He wants the best for the world, in some large way. He is isolated, tired, confused. He is who he has always been, in some essential way, but in other ways, he is just a young man struggling to learn how he fits into a chaotic, imperfect world. Who he is now is not who he will be in a decade, if given the chance.

As the mother of a son, I was moved so deeply by Carol's fears and her love for her son Jonas. I think you got that fear and love and needing to let go and yet needing to stay connected exactly, heartbreakingly right. Part of the tragedy is that I think Carol did everything right—I can't think of anything else she could have done—and that, to me, makes the book all the more chilling. Is there any other way she could have played this?

I think Carol, like most parents, is being the absolute best parent she can be. I think Jonas’s father, Jake, is also being the best dad he can be, by the way, even though he’s been more absent than Carol in Jonas’s life.

I'm always fascinated by process, so can you tell us what your writing life is like and what you are working on now?

During the pre-publication for 31 Hours, I was working on a non-fiction project that has been held up, so a lot of my writing time went there. In May, I founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, an online series of workshops taught by rotating teachers (including Caroline as our very first teacher) and aimed at giving Afghan women writers a voice in the world and fostering creative and intellectual exchanges between our established writers and their up-and-coming writers. We have expanded our mandate a bit to try to raise funds for Afghanistan’s first women’s-only Internet cafĂ©, since women mostly cannot go to the Internet cafes comfortably. The start-up of that project has taken a big chunk of time, but little by little it is getting organized. And I’ve begun a new novel—so new that, you’ll understand Caroline, I can’t talk too much about it!

I'd like to ask about your bed and breakfast—which seems like the perfect other job for a writer. Is it?

It really is. Over breakfast, I often hear wonderful stories from our guests. I’m constantly exposed to characters and plots! And usually, in the middle of the day, I can shut myself off and work. It’s not something I ever planned to do, but for the moment, it’s working out brilliantly.

1 comment:

Cari said...

Yay Masha! I can't wait to read this.