Saturday, April 7, 2018

Jennifer Haupt talks about IN THE SHADOW OF 10,000 Hills, genocide in Rwanda, building a relationship with a novel, and so much more

Jennifer Haupt is magnificent. There, I said it. Wonderful person, wonderful writer, and I'm thrilled to be reading with her and Julie Maloney at KGB in Manhattan on May 22. And her debut (I love debuts), In The Shadow of 10,000 Hills proves it. A thrilling saga that explores the genocide in Rwanda, this debut will change the way you look at the world--and isn't that the point of great literature?

First, let's swoon at the praise:


“…both an evocative page-turner and an eye-opening meditation on the ways we survive profoundly painful memories and negotiate the complexities of love. I was deeply moved by this story.” — Wally Lamb, bestselling author of She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True
“This blazingly original novel is about the illusions of love, the way memory can confound or release you, and the knotted threads that make up family—and forgiveness.” — Caroline Leavitt, bestselling author of Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World
“Jennifer Haupt has woven an intricate and moving tale of family and culture, of conflict and love, and of the challenges of healing after unthinkable loss. Told with remarkable compassion and grace, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is a story everyone should read.” — Therese Anne Fowler, bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
“In the Shadow of Ten Thousand Hills is a beautifully written novel that tells a compelling story. I was deeply moved by it. Jennifer Haupt is a gifted writer, whose heart is as large as her considerable talents.” — Steve Yarbrough, author of The Realm of Last Chances|
“Jennifer Haupt takes readers on a journey that spans from the turmoil of Civil Rights Era Atlanta to an orphanage in Rwanda born of unspeakable tragedy. In this hopeful story that transcends race and cultural differences, Haupt guides both the survivors and readers toward the courage to believe in love again. An important story reminding us that when a crime is unforgivable, only grace will do.” — Susan Henderson, Founder of LitPark blog, author of Up From the Blue and The Flicker of Old Dreams

“This astonishing debut novel about an American woman’s search for her father in Rwanda knits together intricate, complex stories of love and the destructive forces of society that tear families apart.” — Jessica Keener, author of Night Swim and Strangers In Budapest

Jennifer Haupt has been a journalist for more than 25 years, writing primarily about women prompted by their own depression and grief to reach out and help others to heal. Her essays and articles have been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Rumpus, Psychology Today, Travel & Leisure, The Seattle Times, Spirituality & Health, The Sun, and many other publications. Her Psychology Today blog, One True Thing, is a collection of essays contributed by and interviews with bestselling and emerging authors. In the Shadow of Ten Thousand Hills is her first novel.

Thank you, Jennifer! See you soon to hug you in person!

Q: I always want to know what was the “why now” moment for you to write this particular book?

A: I went to Rwanda in 2006, twelve years after the genocide that wiped out more than one million members of the Tutsi tribe, as a journalist with no intentions of writing a novel.  I wanted to explore the connections between grief and forgiveness, and I also wanted to see the wild gorillas in the Virunga Mountains.

I had had three assignments to write about nonprofits in Kigali, Rwanda’s largest city, that helped survivors to tell their stories in a safe place. A funny thing happened: during my first week in Kigali, all of my assignments fell through. But I had seen the healing power of telling stories and I wanted to hear more. I hired a driver, Moses, and we headed into the 10,000 hills for two weeks. Moses took me to little-known genocide memorials in small villages, schools and churches where people had thought they would be safe after the mass murders began.

 There was always a guide at the bloodstained memorials, usually a woman in her mid-40s—my age at the time. Often, these women were lone survivors whose entire families were murdered at the site. Sometimes, they were left alive by the Hutu soldiers so that they could tell what happened. It was incredible to me that the soldiers were actually proud of the atrocities they committed.

I wasn’t surprised that I was always the only visitor at these memorials, as Rwanda wasn’t exactly a tourist destination. I spent sometimes hours talking with these women, sometimes with Moses translating. I felt a connection as a Jew whose ancestors had been murdered during the Holocaust, and something more: I had a sadness, unresolved grief.  My sister, Susie, had died when I was too young to remember her. Of course, my grief wasn’t in any way comparable to what these survivors were dealing with, and yet we shared a powerful mixture of emotions — compassion, sorrow, longing — that crossed the boundaries of race and culture. We bonded over love and grief; I began to realize that these two strands of emotion are intertwined and connect us all.

I came home wanting to write a story to convey what I had found and felt in Rwanda. That meant writing a novel.

Q. Was there something haunting you? What question were you trying to answer with your book?

A. I suppose the question I was trying to answer was: How are love and grief connected, and how do these two strands create family, like DNA?

What haunted me — and still does — was the potential for good and evil in all human beings, the choices we all make on a daily basis. And then, the larger choices that only the powerful can make and we must all live with. How do governments manipulate the masses to turn against their neighbors? And, most importantly, what might it take to connect through grief over the past and hope for the future? Is a kind of grace possible when there can be no forgiveness?

Q: I am astonished at how you captured the feel of Rwanda before, during and after the genocide. What was your research like and what surprised you about it?

A: I read everything I could find — books and online — about Rwanda’s history, and how the animosity between Hutus and Tutsis was perpetuated by the government long before the civil war in 1994.  The thing that surprised me most was how much I drew on my experiences in Rwanda — from visiting an orphanage run by an American expat, to playing with a young mountain gorilla (not my choice!), to feelings of abandonment and longing brought to the surface, to the stories I heard from both Tutsis and Hutus, as well as aid workers who came to Rwanda to find pieces of themselves: compassion, empathy, sometimes grief.  

Q: How terrifying was it to write a debut novel?

A: At first, it wasn’t terrifying enough! I remember thinking I was done writing about a year in. And then again, about three years in, and then three years after that. I spent a good eight years learning how to write fiction, including taking a break from this novel for two years to write a totally different novel. I’m going on year seven for that story!

The thrill and the terror of writing fiction is that I am always, always learning how to up the stakes of storytelling and craft. “Getting it right” is so subjective. Some people will still say that I got some things wrong—and that’s actually okay. I’m having so much fun speaking at literary festivals and book stores, and talking with readers about the themes of my novel. I’m just starting to line-up Skype dates with book clubs all over the country, and I look forward to these discussions. Having conversations with readers about the questions I have been grappling with for eleven years by myself is an amazing reward of publication.

Q: What kind of writer are you? You've written so many, many articles and essays for publications, but a book is such a long-term obsession. What was that like for you?

A: I am so envious of writers who can delve into novel-land for seven or eight hours — even five! I’m lucky if I can manage to write for three hours without a) falling asleep or b) giving up and heading over to Facebook. When I’m really in full-swing, I write for three hours, go to the gym and do other things in the afternoon, write another hour before dinner, and then an hour in the evening.

I love the long-term obsession. It sounds weird, but I create a relationship with my novel — not the characters, but the actual novel. I suppose it’s more accurate to say that every novel has a muse—that’s what I call it. There’s something that’s not bigger, but broader than I am. Wiser. Connecting with that muse isn’t easy; I have to prove I’m serious by sitting ass in chair for three hours every morning. But once I’m engaged, creating and writing, it’s soothing. I feel so calm and grounded when I’m in novel-land.

I’ve written quite a bit about how writing fiction helps me to manage treatment-resistant depression. I consider each of my novels a gift — and I dread starting the third one from scratch!

Q: What question didn't I ask that I should have?

A: I’m still a journalist at heart, so that’s easy for me to answer! Here’s my three-question self-interview:

Which character did you begin with?
Rachel, the white woman who goes to Rwanda to find the father who abandoned her as a child.

Which character do you most admire?
Lillian, the African-American ex-pat who heads to Africa after becoming disillusioned by the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s Atlanta. When Martin Luther King is murdered, Lillian decides to honor him by helping one child at a time, and winds up starting a small orphanage in Rwanda.

Which character most surprised you?
Nadine, the Rwandan girl who Lillian adopted after her family was murdered during the genocide. She started as a minor character and grew into a powerful presence during the last few years I worked on this novel. She embodies grace.

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