Arguably my favorite book, unarguably my favorite author, The Dispossessed tells the story of a brilliant physicist born and raised in a colony established on Anarres, the barren red moon of Urras, a blue planet that bears a striking resemblance to late-19th-century Earth. LeGuin’s Hainish cycle often explores socio-political issues at play in our own society, and this book is no exception. The Dispossessed describes what might have happened if a group of anarcho-communists (Odonians) had been able to establish and develop a society in isolation from the hierarchical, capitalist world that rejected it. I appreciate LeGuin’s evenhanded presentation of each world: the egalitarianism and austerity of Anarres, and the lush abundance and injustice of Urras.
Shevek leaves Urras because his work as a physicist isn’t considered “central” by Odionian society, but he struggles to maintain his ideals and his identity on a planet that grants him luxury and wealth while forcing others to live in hardship and poverty. As Shevek travels between the two worlds, his journey sheds light on the wonders and flaws of each.
On Anarres, it is an insult of the highest order to call someone a profiteer. In her 2014 acceptance speech for the National Book Award, LeGuin used the word “profiteers” to refer to the increasingly money-focused publishing industry. Anyone who’s read The Dispossessed will recognize the philosophy of the Odonians in the following excerpt from that speech:
“We need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”
I first learned of Ellen Kushner’s work through her radio show “Sound and Spirit,” on WBGH. Grounded in the songs and stories of cultures throughout the world, her show explored the spiritual and religious traditions and themes that transcend divides of politics and dogma. This understanding of how ancient stories and archetypes echo through the ages blossoms forth in The Fall of The Kings. It’s one of the Swordspoint books, which take place in an unspecified country that bears some resemblance to 18th-century Venice or London.
Earlier books focused on political intrigue and traditions around sword-fighting, and evoked a time in which same-sex love was part and parcel of the fabric of society. As a bisexual woman, I find it refreshing to read about a world in which people were free to take male and female lovers without scandal, condemnation, or even much gossip.
The plot of The Fall of the Kings, which Kushner co-wrote with her partner Delia Sherman, turns not on its characters’ amorous adventures but on a deep, old archetype found in British folklore and tradition. Echoes of the story of the Oak King and the Holly King can be found in Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, Le Mort D’Artur, accounts of William the Conqueror’s reign, and in modern Traditional British Witchcraft. Kushner takes this old myth and makes it new in a story that weaves love and sexuality, scholarship and magic, family duty and political intrigue, and ancient notions of kingship and leadership into a rich tapestry that touches the very deepest part of human experience.
[EDITOR’s NOTE: This is a reprint of an article originally posted at the Reaching Review August 25, 2010]
Lesley Wheeler is the author of Heterotopia, winner of the 2010 Barrow Street Poetry Prize. Her first volume of poetry, Heathen, came out the previous year. With Moira Richards and Rosemary Starace she is co-editor of Letters to the World: Poems from Members of the WOM-PO Listserv. She took the time to answer a few questions about her work as a poet and professor, her experience of the contemporary poetry scene — both in person and online — and her own development as a writer.
When did you first start writing poetry?
I’ve been writing since I could hold a crayon—one of my first memories is defacing a picture book, trying to add new words—but I started to narrow in on poetry during high school. Two authors inspired me then: Keats (in the curriculum) and Ginsberg (very much beyond it). I remember how their sensuousness and their urgency pulled at me. Being a teenager is pretty awful, or it was for me, and they helped me write my way through it. My English teacher, Sister Ignatius, commanded me to enter poems in a contest sponsored by a local college, and I won first place. That encouraged me. I’m glad I didn’t know it would be decades until I won another poetry prize.
At what point did you decide that it would be a good idea to make a career out of it? In my senior year of college, I was writing an honors thesis on Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich and one assignment was to teach a portion of it to other thesis students. I had been very shy, afraid of public speaking, but I had them read Sexton’s “Rapunzel” and then asked a few questions. After a minute or two their faces kindled, then they leaned forward in their chairs and started talking intensely, and that was it—I knew I wanted to create conversations about poetry for the rest of my life. Most of a professor’s job is not so great, endless committees and grading and email and forms, but that core of literary conversation is utterly wonderful.
“I can’t quite bring myself to call writing and publishing poetry a career. It’s a money-losing operation overall.”
My career, then, is professing; I can’t quite bring myself to call writing and publishing poetry a career. It’s a money-losing operation overall: I buy tons of books and journals, give unpaid readings, and spend effort writing poetry that often just languishes in storage (scholarly publishing is a meritocracy; the poetry world is much more random and often inhospitable to risk). I knew that I would always write poetry, though, even as a teenager—it’s almost a physical need. In graduate school, when I often felt too busy to write poetry, I developed a chronic nightmare about being stalked by wild animals. I would write for myself, just to stay alive and away from the dream-grizzlies, even if no one in the world ever read the stuff.
I didn’t start working hard on delivering it to audiences until 2003. At that point, I had tenure, my younger child was turning three, and I just decided that it was time to be as serious about poetry publishing as I had been about scholarly publishing. Confronting the tastes of editors was good for my work, actually. It’s stronger now.
Tell me more about learning English from nuns. Sister Ignatius was my only holy English teacher and she was tough and funny, though already frail by the time I met her. She used to roll her eyes at my all-girl class and tell us how much she preferred teaching at a boys’ high school years ago, but I personally seemed to amuse her—that was gratifying. I remember very little about what she had to say about literature but she recommended Catholic authors to me on the side and insisted that incognito should be pronounced inCOGnito. The lay teacher who taught me Keats, Mr. Moore, was very good, and one of the few people who actually challenged me to write better, rather than just scribbling A++ at the top of the page.
How would you describe today’s poetry scene? Does it fall into particular classes or schools?
It’s diverse and lively and full of surprises. The web is turning English-language poetry into a transnational enterprise—it’s easier than before for us to write to each other, read each other’s work—and that’s all to the good, although that makes it even harder to pretend one has a scholarly bird’s eye view of it all. I try to keep up but I’m always coming across interesting poems and books and performers whom I’d never known about before. I do think academic and/or elite-press poetry publishing is particularly visible and has the most cachet, and it is hard to break in without powerful mentors, but not impossible—and you can always just shrug your shoulders at that world and find community elsewhere. I really admire all those poets and programmers who focus on the local and make the art accessible to everyone.
“I make notes on my submissions lists about what kinds of poems journals seem to like, and my shorthand categories include ultratalk/narrative, surreal/jumpy, free verse epiphanies, formal/lyric, sound-saturated, political, experimental (which to me means broken syntax).”
Aesthetically, I see lots of microtrends, and this is only in the print world (I love performance poetry but am not good at it myself). I make notes on my submissions lists about what kinds of poems journals seem to like, and my shorthand categories include ultratalk/narrative, surreal/jumpy, free verse epiphanies, formal/lyric, sound-saturated, political, experimental (which to me means broken syntax). Call me snarky/reductive, but there are definitely some common subgenres out there and it’s hard to get beyond them. Most editors favor two or three of those categories, I think, with little side-obsessions affecting the mix, but although I like to read and write across the spectrum, the poems of mine that editors like best seem to involve conventionally punctuated sentences, slightly surreal imagery/situations, and dense sound play without regular meter or full rhyme. I’m not sure if that kind of poem is in fashion, or if that’s just what I’m best at. I wish I could get away with breaking the sentence more or being talky, but no one seems to like that from me.
Tell me more about that turning point in your own work in 2003. What changed? I attended a class at the Kenyon Writers Workshop taught by the brilliant poet Janet McAdams, and learned a couple of basic things: that I needed to lighten up the closure in my poems and allow risk and chance to open them up in weird new ways; that persistence and simultaneous submissions (when allowed) can get you far; how to organize those submissions and write a good cover letter. I was already an English professor with a scholar’s knowledge about poetry, and I was willing to work hard, but I didn’t have the practical pieces that some people get from good MFA programs. I’ve picked up a great deal of helpful information since, sometimes just from reading and listening in a more pointed way and sometimes from other mentors and conferences—but that 2003 event was an especially rewarding experience, a kick in the pants.
“When an editor will take the time to challenge you on a weak phrase or line break, that strikes me as incredibly generous. And a few put out books and journals that are consistently full of powerful poems, so I’m grateful to them as a reader, too.”
Can you speak a little more about confronting the tastes of editors? Mostly what I feel about editors is gratitude that they exist—they work hard for little or no material reward. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few great ones, especially on my books from C&R Press and Barrow Street, but also occasionally at journals. When an editor will take the time to challenge you on a weak phrase or line break, that strikes me as incredibly generous. And a few put out books and journals that are consistently full of powerful poems, so I’m grateful to them as a reader, too.
Most magazines with solid reputations, though, do seem conservative to me; there’s an awful lot of competent verse out there, poetry that’s by no means bad but just a bit too familiar or not fully thought-through or felt-through. I’m sure I produce some of it, despite my desire to do better. I’d rather read a messy, slightly embarrassing poem that takes an interesting risk than a competent, making-the-right-moves sort of poem, but the latter is easier to publish than the former.
I write whatever I want to, but when I revise, I do consider potential audiences, and editors are gatekeepers to audiences. I imagine a tough reader who doesn’t know or care about me encountering the poem, then identify what might attract or repel that reader. Mostly that process improves the work, but occasionally I worry that I’m smoothing away a good weirdness.
“The poets I write about, the aspects of their work I attend to, and even how I write endnotes — it all tries to redress how scholarship by women can be overlooked by male critics.”
Do you consider yourself a feminist? How has gender politics influenced (or not influenced) your work? Absolutely and fiercely, I am a feminist. I know feminism has shaped my life—my relationships, my professional ambitions, my teaching. I know it has shaped my scholarship—the poets I write about, the aspects of their work I attend to, and even how I write endnotes, trying to redress how scholarship by women is sometimes overlooked by male critics. I know it must shape my poetry too, but that’s harder for me to pin down, probably because poetry’s sources are not under conscious control. I don’t set out to write a poem about rape (“Metamorphoses”) or a girl’s fear of growing into a woman’s body (“Spring-Sick”) because the material is feminist; it’s more like I’m feminist because those subjects move me. I did think about privilege a great deal as I drafted and revised Heterotopia, and I hope I got the balance right. My mother came from working-class Liverpool, and she’s of Irish descent—the Irish suffered horribly in that city. Writing about that is tricky enough, as a well-educated child of the New Jersey suburbs. Also, though, it felt wrong to write historically about Liverpool without addressing its role in the slave trade and the infamous race riots in Toxteth. I struggled to do so without seeming to exploit the material or lecture pompously about it; I needed to pose a critique without allowing myself to stand safely outside the fray. “Vronhill Street in Liverpool 8” in particular almost killed me. It was incredibly difficult to find a tone that worked. Perhaps these considerations of race and class wouldn’t seem feminist to some people, but to me they are.
There’s a definite difference in tone between your first and second volumes. Can you tell me a bit about the journey between the two collections? Heathen feels personal, lyric, and spiritual to me; I wrote it as an uncertain thirty-something negotiating new identities (parent, teacher) and illness I didn’t fully understand. Each poem was hard-won, crafted independently from the others, and these pieces fought their way up one by one through magazine slush-piles, usually after many, many rejections. The book itself was therefore hard to shape effectively and it made the rounds for five or six years, a persistent finalist that took a long time to win an editor’s heart. I think of it as a ship full of tough customers who jostle each other around and I’m proud of them for surviving.
A few of the poems in Heterotopia are older, but mostly they came together as I was turning forty and feeling more confident professionally and personally. This time I was not just writing poems but deliberately writing a book centered around a set of interconnected stories and ideas. The collection has a great deal of narrative in it and plenty of feeling, but it feels primarily idea-oriented to me. It won the Barrow Street prize after circulating for only a few months and I felt such pleasure in that rapid acceptance. It seemed to validate not just the work but a part of myself that I tended to downplay outside the classroom, as if I finally had permission to identify as an intellectual person in any context, without apologies. You’d think I would have conquered that inhibition against seeming too smart by the time I was a full professor, but somehow I really hadn’t.
What’s next for you? I’m looking at a very, very rough draft of a new book with the working title Signal to Noise. There’s a long narrative poem in there, speculative fiction in terza rima, that is incredibly weird and unmarketable, but I needed to write it and still like it, so perhaps there’s hope. The rest is more lyric. All of the poems concern listening or communication, influenced by my scholarly research on voice: where messages come from and through what media; what interferes with their reception; how we interpret their significance; and why we listen in the first place. I’m enjoying the science behind the poems—reading about everything from how radio works to neurochemistry to the weird effects of infrasonic waves. While the ideas are in place, though, the individual poems haven’t all found their final or near-final form. I need to fiddle with it and think about it for a while still as, again, I test them with journal editors.
I’ll also be in New Zealand with my family for the first half of 2011; I’ve won a Fulbright to conduct research on twenty-first-century poetry and community. I need to turn myself into a sensitive receiver and read, listen, and think like crazy, both for the sake of the scholarly project I’ve proposed and to let the next big poetic subject, whatever it might be, slowly germinate. Or, at least, this is the story I’m telling myself about what I’m up to, and I hope to make some version of it come true.
Baker’s flip, hard-boiled voice offers a pleasant counterpoint to the ageless characters that inhabit The Company novels. In the 24th century, a mysterious entity known as Dr. Zeus, Incorporated (aka The Company) has discovered how to travel back in time. In order to save on the prohibitively expensive cost of time travel, The Company recruits young humans to undergo extensive surgical enhancement that transform them into immortal cyborgs to do their bidding through the ages.
Baker’s books offer both lucid prose and deft storytelling. She achieves the difficult task of delivering self-contained story arcs in each book while also enticing the reader to follow the thread of a longer-form plot, one that stretches from the dawn of humanity to the 24th century. Who are the mysterious forces behind The Company, and what is their eventual endgame?
In this installment, cyborg “Facilitator” Joseph embarks on an assignment in pre-Columbian Alta Calfornia. His job: to convince a Chumash village to abandon their ancestral home before white settlers wipe them out. To give his story credence, he appears to them as Sky Coyote, patron god of the tribe. Baker’s well-researched facts (she’s a native Californian and worked with the Living History Centre) lend verisimilitude to the fantastical story lines that might prove unbelievable in less skillful hands.
Snow White Red-Handed is the first in a series of new mystery novels that follows the adventures of Ophelia Flax, a young woman of Yankee origins and indomitable spirit.
Author Maia Chance manages to weave together a complex set of tropes into a unified narrative, one which includes an ensemble of characters worthy of an operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan.
The novel opens in 1867 with Ophelia and her adopted sister, Prue, stranded on an ocean liner on the Atlantic. Ophelia finagles employment with a New York family traveling to a remote castle in the Black Forest, where adventurers and academics have descended upon what could be the cottage where Snow White and Seven Dwarves once lived.
Soon after they arrive, Prue finds herself unjustly accused of murder. While Ophelia tries to clear her sister’s name, she unearths layer after layer of secrets surrounding the Snow White cottage and the denizens of the village and castle nearby. Like Laurie King’s Mary Russell, Ophelia doesn’t hesitate to buck the social mores of the time and dons a variety of disguises to investigate the mystery before her.
I caught up with Maia Chance recently to discuss her new book.
Snow White isn’t your first book. Tell me about how you got your start as a novelist.
A: I published two historical romances with Dorchester Publishing about ten years ago. That didn’t take me very far, and in retrospect it’s as clear as day why: I seldom read romances for fun. But I have always read mysteries, beginning with Nancy Drew and the John Bellairs books as a kid. So the next time I took a stab at publishing, I went with mysteries.
Ophelia certainly fits the bill as a “strong female character.” How would you describe her? Why did you choose to give her some of the characteristics that she has — such as being rather tall, thin, and not classically beautiful.
A: Ophelia Flax is a woman who has had a difficult life, financially speaking, and she comes from a fractured family. She has led a nomadic life, having supported herself as a textile factory-worker, a circus performer, and a variety hall actress when the book begins. She’s tough and smart, with a Yankee pride and a certain reluctance to discuss her own feelings. I decided that she should be tall and thin first, so she could easily disguise herself as a man and second, because in 1867 tall and thin was not considered feminine and beautiful the way it is nowadays.
I didn’t want her to be an obviously beautiful woman because I write a lot about the concept of beauty—its perception, its making, its downfalls—and also because love stories are boring when everyone is—to quote Zoolander—“really, really good-looking.” Professor Penrose does not think Ophelia is beautiful until he begins to fall in love with her, a move I modeled on Pride and Prejudice.
Are you a feminist?
A: Absolutely yes.
Ophelia and her friend are both Yankees trying to fit into European society. Their internal monologues feature a sharply different kind of vocabulary as a result. What was your thought process in choosing this method of characterization, and how did you research the colloquialisms used?
A: I love writing in Deep POV—where every word, including the narration, match any given scene’s POV character. This gave me the opportunity to create variety in tone and bring three different back-stories to the table, too. The colloquialisms were in large part pulled from my PhD reading list, since I was hatching this book while preparing for my PhD qualifying exams.
What inspired you to combine fairy tales with the mystery genre.
A: I love fairy tale retellings of all kinds, and as I said, I mysteries comprise the bulk of my escapist pleasure reading, so I smashed the two together and tried to make them stick.
I noticed that you have three characters in this novel whose size (fatness) is used to demonstrate their unlikability. Tell me how you arrived at the decision to use body size as shorthand for unsympathetic characterization. Do you think that fat people are naturally unlikable? Or that fatness is a consequence of greed and veniality?
A: No, I certainly don’t think that fat people are naturally unlikable, or that fatness is a consequence of greed and veniality. Snow White Red-Handed is populated by people in a variety of shapes and sizes, and there is no index of likability based on body composition. There are larger-sized people who are pleasant (Frau Holder, for one), as well as unpleasant characters, such as Franz, who are small in size.
That said, two characters who are described as not-thin were designed as such to work for the story. Mrs. Pearl Coop is not especially large, but she is described as thick-waisted, and there is a scene in which she is anxious to have her corset cinched as tight as possible to reduce her waist, while looking in the mirror. Here is the “magic mirror” of the fairy tale, the talking thing that provokes the woman to gaze at herself with dissatisfaction and self-loathing. Mrs. Coop is not a likable character, but she is also a victim—via corsets, crinolines, face paint, hair dye, and self-loathing—of what Gilbert and Gubar term patriarchal “mirror madness” in which a woman “kills herself into an art-object.”
The link between Professor Winkler and greed—well, that was completely by accident. Winkler was originally written as the clichéd thin, ascetic scholar (I think I had Edward Casaubon from Middlemarch in mind). But I revised Winkler to be heavy first to take out that cliché, and then as he developed I wrote him as someone who also eats with undisguised relish. I wanted him to be—borrowing Elaine Scarry’s term—emphatically embodied. Winkler’s emphatic embodiment operates in contradistinction to the anti-worldly metaphysic of fairy tales. In other words, his embodiment is meant to underscore his belief in cold, hard science rather than magic, in fact rather than fiction.
Is this the first published work that features Ophelia Flax? Tell me more about how she came to be.
A: Yes, Snow White Red-Handed is the first published work featuring Ophelia Flax. The character had an evolution, though. Before I wrote this book I wrote a draft of another mystery with an Ophelia prototype, set in England, and the story revolved around amanita muscaria (that is, fairy tale mushrooms). I’d set it in England because everyone in publishing says that European settings are a hard-sell in genre fiction. But while writing that draft, I realized that what I was really trying to do was treat fairy tales. So I started over, and put Ophelia in a quintessential fairy tale setting: the Black Forest.
This book explores issues of wealth and social class and the assumptions people make based on them. For instance, Ophelia has to elide over her history in the theater in order to secure work as a lady’s maid. And there is palpable tension between the college professors come to study evidence of Snow White’s cottage and the “backward peasants” who live in the Black Forest. Tell me more about this theme and how it figures in your storytelling.
A: The snobbery of the professors (or, in Penrose’s case, his ostensible snobbery) was influenced by more of my academic work. I wrote a paper about traces of superstition in 1850’s and 60’s American domestic advice manuals, and in the process I learned that the academics of that time period correlated traditional knowledge with both femaleness and intellectual debasement. Folklore and folk knowledge—such as medicines and midwifery—carried the taint of, basically, superstition throughout the nineteenth century. So, fairy tales—orally transmitted sub-literature, often transmitted by female story-tellers—encapsulate this weird class/gender tension. Of course, this is complicated in my novel since Ophelia is reluctant to believe that fairy tales have a historical reality, whereas the academic, Professor Penrose, secretly belives in magic.
What’s next for our heroines?
A: Their second adventure, Cinderella Six Feet Under, picks up only weeks after Snow White Red-Handed ends. Ophelia and Prue travel to Paris to find Prue’s mother and, naturally, murder and fairy tale intrigue ensue.
Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick is a lyrical, haunting book which I devoured in a single night. It was shelved in the science fiction/fantasy section of my local bookstore, but the novel really defies genre. It’s more in keeping with the Gabriel Garcia Marquez tradition of magical realism than the stereotypical pulp fiction often found in the sci-fi aisle.
I love narratives that challenge the linear nature of time and push at the edges of everyday reality, especially when they incorporate beautiful language and recurring motifs. This novel does all that and more.
Set on the same island in seven different time periods, the novel explores the themes of love and sacrifice as it weaves together characters who recur in different iterations and permutations. “I might be lots of people […] Why do I have to be just one? I am lots of people and I love all of the and they love me.”
Sedgewick drew inspiration from a painting in the Swedish National Gallery called Midvinterblot (Wikipedia link here). His vivid description of the painting and the way he brought its narrative to life inspired me to research it further. This passage from the book echoes its real-life reception, which relegated it to the dust-heap of history until almost a century after its creation:
“Sacrifice. That’s a somewhat… outdated… notion, isn’t it? In this modern world?”
“Outdated?” echoed Eric. Suddenly, he felt very old. He felt that he didn’t understand.
“The theme is old, but not outdated,” he explained, feeling bewildered. “And it refers to the island, whose very name is written in blood!”
“Really?” said one of the men.
“Indeed. People think the name of this island means ‘blessed,’ and so it does, but ‘blessed’ does not mean what people think it does. In the old tongue it was blestian and before that blotsian, and before that, just blod. It means sacrifice.”
“To bless means to sacrifice, and in blood.”
There is a pause. A long pause.
Then, “Good. Well, thank you for your time here today, Mr. Carlsson.”
With that they left.
[ NOTE: This review was originally published at Goodreads on 7/18/2014. ]
Publishing houses have been complaining about losing money since the dawn of the printing press. For about that long, authors have been complaining about how hard it is to make it into print. Many more authors make it into print only to see their editions languish on the discount table. That’s because publication isn’t the same thing as marketing, and publishers don’t always have the budget or the inclination to market every book they put out. So it’s often up to authors to market their books themselves. And herein lies the rub. In general, the qualities that make someone a great writer — especially of non-fiction — aren’t the same qualities that make someone great at marketing their work.
That’s where I’ve been particularly impressed by Andrew Himes. I first became aware of his work with the Voices in Wartime project, which is how I ended up on his mailing list and heard about his book The Sword of the Lord, ready for wide release on May 15, 2011. This is a book that manages to make history personal. Himes, whose grandfather John R. Rice was founder of the Christian fundamental newspaper Sword of the Lord, combines his own personal story with that of his ancestors, creating a seamless picture of a people forged in strife and trauma and adamant in their beliefs in the face of historical pressures. A more in-depth review is forthcoming.
Given my own personal journey around matters religious and spiritual, I think it a ringing endorsement that Himes could make me see this particular religious group — one which tends to demonize people like me — in a spirit of compassion. Himes’s sense of compassion, as well as his willingness to engage in a meaningful email correspondence, is what won me over to him as a person and not just as an author. He agreed to answer a few questions for me:
Frances Donovan: I can tell that you researched this book very thoroughly. Can you describe your research and writing process?
Andrew Himes: I decided from the beginning of researching and writing that the stories and references in the book needed to be beyond dispute. So you might disagree with my analysis of conclusions, but you should still feel confident that the narrative is a truthful and accurate recounting of history. So I read and annotated almost 250 books in order to write my one book, and I read countless articles and posts and historical documents online. I visited the archives of The Sword of the Lord newspaper several years ago to get copies of a number of specific issues I was interested in, and read four biographies of John R. Rice, two of which are unpublished dissertations, and I delved into Rice family archives in the possession of various family members.
Finally, I showed various drafts of the manuscript to several family members, including my mom and all of my aunts — the daughters of John R. Rice – plus my sisters and brother and several cousins, and got extensive critical feedback. I had hundreds of hours of conversation with various church historians, professors, and pastors so I could deeply understand the historical and religious issues I was writing about.
My writing was a process of exploration and transformation. I had no plan in the beginning other than to use the story of my life and my family’s in order to illuminate the story of fundamentalism. So I followed one story or book or historical incident to the next, almost as if I was using stepping stones to cross a shallow pond, but without knowing where the next stone would be until I was ready to step on it.
Frances Donovan: The ending chapter gives us a sense of your own spiritual and political journey. You talk about trading one kind of rigid belief system for another, and it’s obvious both from the overall tone of the book and from your grandmother’s example that compassion is an important spiritual value to you now. Can you tell me a little more about your own spiritual beliefs and practices today?
Andrew Himes: Compassion is absolutely at the center of my own spiritual practice, and I’m aware that I inherited this focus from both my granddad and my grandmother, as I recount in the book. And compassion is not merely a feeling. It’s an action. The Latin from which the word comes means literally “co-suffering,” and if when we are in deep communion with someone else who is suffering we are driven to act in order to relieve the other person’s suffering. So the very heart of the gospel as we have it presented in the New Testament is Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is a verb. Compassion is an action.
Frances Donovan: Do you think there is a difference between religion and spirituality? How would you describe that difference?
Andrew Himes: Wow! That’s a question that might require several thousand books to answer. .I suppose the crucial distinction is that spirituality describes the path of an individual towards salvation and enlightenment, while religion is a communal and community-based response to the fundamental questions of human existence, including the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the moral foundations of life. I believe that every single human is built to be both spiritual and religious and connect with the notion of God, a mystery much bigger than our individual lives, the idea and reality of God a mystery beyond anything any of us can imagine or understand. Even people who claim to believe in no God are nonetheless driven to ask these big questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, how to understand their connections with other humans, and how they might be held accountable for their actions.
Frances Donovan: It was especially engaging following the thread of your own ancestors’ story within the greater context ofAmerica’s political and religious movements. Is it possible to relate their story to the challenges faced by Muslim Americans in this day and age?
Andrew Himes: My ancestors came to America fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, and economic disaster. They came to find a new world where they could live in freedom and thrive by taking advantages of new opportunities. The same story can be told of countless new immigrants to the United States, including Muslims from many countries. The faith of Muslims is no more alien to the dream of America than was the faith of my ancestors. We all share in this dream of freedom.
Helen Scully’s prose is lush and fluid, like the flood waters of the Mississippi. She sweeps you through three generations of the Riant family, from the golden days of the Civil War hero founder through its decline and rebirth in the midst of the Great Depression. One book jacket blurb describes this novel as “Southern Gothic,” and the prose does have a dreamy, decadent quality. At times I found the story depressing but appreciated its proto-feminist ending. One can only wonder how much was inspired by events in the lives of the author’s own family.
From page 33: “She felt a surge of power as she focused on the empty road, and its vision on this particular morning made a print in her mind. Soon she would strike out; great things awaited her, travel and love — the courageous search. Where would it take her in this life? … As she turned and stalked back through the sweet stirrings of the garden, she felt an urge to expose herself alongside the flowers, but knew she could not, not yet. Suddenly violent, she lashed with her new parasol against the elephant ears in her path. Then, sap on her shoes and in the webs of her fingers, moth wings in her hair, she returned by the same routes through the dark and chilly downstairs, sipping cold black coffee until sick and unable to sit still, waiting for the house to wake.”
From page 311: “None could guess where Imogene’s search had taken her, but by then the heat had gotten to all of their heads. No behavior seemed out of the ordinary. That was the season, hotter and hotter, the season of blueberries, plums, thunderstorms, storm drains overflowing with the smell of swamp, shutters closed against the sun.”