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TEXTURE OF PLACE
The worlds of Jennifer Haigh's novels are secret hiding places. Her spare writing style ensures that each word holds the strength needed to pull readers in and lead them closer to what they can't find in visible spaces.
Haigh's sharp prose style and powerful imagery have been honored with two PEN awards. Mrs. Kimble, her first novel, won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award for outstanding first fiction. Her second book, Baker Towers, won the 2006 PEN/Winship Award for outstanding fiction by a New England writer. The Condition is forthcoming from HarperCollins. She has also published numerous short stories in literary journals.
Haigh who will appear Thursday, November 8 at Fresno State talked with community journalist Kristin FitzPatrick about her books, her writing process, and the importance of setting in shaping a story.
In your first novel, Mrs. Kimble, Ken Kimble is an expert at reinventing himself. He is a preacher when he meets his first wife in the early 1960s, a groundskeeper when he meets his second wife in the late 1960s, and a wealthy real estate man when he reunites with Dinah, who becomes his third wife in the late 1970s. By the mid-1990s, he is even named Man of the Year for his nonprofit work. This progression marks not only his advancement as a con artist but possibly an evolution of what it meant to be a man of noble profession during each time period. Always he is a husband preoccupied with work, and his wives eventually accept him as someone focused on making money. You have been praised for creating in him a character that is at once enigmatic, chilling, and yet consistently charming to wise women and readers. In what ways, if any, did you envision Ken as an everyman, or a representative for a certain population of men?
I never conceive of my characters in an overtly symbolic way. To me they're just people who make interesting choices in life, who behave in ways that reveal something about who they are. Whatever symbolic value they acquire comes about organically, in the months and years I spend writing about them and thinking about them. Readers often articulate more eloquently than I can what the characters represent and mean. I do think Ken Kimble is influenced by the times he lives in; he has a knack for reinventing himself, and that's what I've always found most fascinating about him.
Each of Ken's female conquests is ambitious, independent, and accomplished for a woman of her time, yet each abandons her plans or her established career to devote her energies to a man that will abandon her. This is a departure from the typical heroine in such a position. What challenges did you face in constructing each female character and the details of each marriage?
No matter how well you know a couple, there's always a great deal you don't know. This is why it's so interesting to write about husbands and wives. As a writer, I'm imagining not just their public selves, but also their private selves, the ways they interact with each other when no one is looking. Often that's quite different from what other people see.
Baker Towers depicts a 1940s and '50s mining town of mostly first generation Americans which you've said (in an interview on your web site) somewhat resembles your hometown in Pennsylvania. Mrs. Kimble follows Ken through the later part of the twentieth century in several small and large Southern cities, where he deals with a variety of people and works in multiple industries. What did these settings allow that others couldn't? What more can you say about your choice of settings?
Much more so than Mrs. Kimble, Baker Towers is a book about place it's a story that couldn't have happened anywhere else but Bakerton, Pennsylvania. In some ways the town is the main character in the story you see it in its infancy and youth and adulthood and declining years, like a person you've known your whole life. I read a quotation once I can't remember where that goes something like this: A small town is a greedy enterprise. That struck me as very accurate: if you're raised in such a place, it gets its hooks into you and won't let you go easily. This is certainly true for all the characters in Baker Towers. Each has his own unique, complex relationship with Bakerton: Sandy escapes it completely, Joyce returns there out of a sense of duty, Georgie leaves and is haunted by it for the rest of his life.
In Mrs. Kimble, place is less central to the story, though it's not insignificant. Richmond and south Florida and the Washington, D.C. suburbs each of these places has very distinct feel and texture. People are formed by the places they live in, especially the places where they spend their early years. Birdie is raised in rural Virginia in the 1950s, Joan in Brooklyn, New York. Dinah comes of age in Richmond in the 1960s, a time when southern cities were changing profoundly. And in some basic ways, these different backgrounds contribute to who they are.
Recently author Manuel Muñoz came to campus to speak with us and one thing he discussed was the rewards and frustrations of the adjectives people place before writer. For example, at an event abroad, he found it refreshing to be called an American writer. On the other hand, he also advised us to forget about adjectives. Flannery O'Connor argued that good writers should be regional writers. What adjectives, if any, do you think bring particular reward or frustration, or most honestly describe you and your work?
Hm. I can't say I've experienced this personally no one has ever described me as a Pennsylvania writer, or a Ukrainian-American writer. But in the publishing world, there is a tendency to classify books, for reasons both practical and expedient: to familiarize the public with a writer's work, to get the book into the hands of people who might want to read it. In many cases this is beneficial: if you write mysteries or romances, it makes sense to identify yourself to readers of those genres. Because my books don't fit into any of those enticing categories, they are sometimes referred to as literary fiction -- and it's hard to think of a more deadly label! I try not to describe my work this way, but I haven't been able to come up with a more compelling phrase.
Are there any poets or nonfiction writers you particularly admire? Would you say their styles influence the concise and emotionally rich language that fills your pages?
Poets set the bar for the rest of us. The best ones shame me into writing better. I'm thinking of people like Philip Levine and Mary Oliver and Charlie Smith and Stanley Kunitz. I'm also a great fan of the novelist and short story writer James Salter, who writes prose as rhythmic and dense with meaning as any poet working today.
You do a lot of research by talking to people. How thoroughly do you plan a narrative before you begin researching, and at what points do you do this type of research? Would you say the research steers your plans in new directions? Do you wait to write the pages until you've done a certain amount of research?
It's hard to generalize about how a novel takes shape. Each of mine has evolved differently. I'm not much of a planner. I know writers who begin by blocking out the story scene by scene before they even begin writing, they know precisely how the story will end. This approach has never worked for me. Instead I spend several months writing about the story who the characters are, their histories, the impulses that drive them, why they want what they want. After a few months of this, I begin to feel that I know my characters pretty well. That's when I start writing the book.
Sometimes I need to do research in order to get to know the characters; sometimes not. Baker Towers was set in a familiar place I knew plenty about western Pennsylvania coal towns but an unfamiliar time. I had lots of questions about what life was like in the 1940s and 50s, and as I was learning about those times, the story started to take shape in my head.
For me, doing research is a very pleasant part of writing novels. It makes me feel productive, and like everything else in life, it's much, much easier than writing. If I'm not careful I can get lost in the pleasure of researching and forget why I'm doing it in the first place.
You explain on your web site a bit about your immersion in a world and a set of characters while you write about them, and that you had an idea to write Baker Towers before you wrote Mrs. Kimble. What other worlds are you waiting to explore? How do you choose them? What can you tell us about your current project?
My third novel, The Condition, is set in Boston, where I now live. It follows one dysfunctional family divorced parents, three adults kids -- for a year as all their lives come apart and knit back together again. The title refers to the middle daughter, Gwen, who has a condition called Turner's Syndrome -- she is in her thirties but has never matured physically beyond age eleven. Gwen is a bright, accomplished person, but being labeled with this condition has affected her life and her family -- in all sorts of ways, from the obvious to the less-obvious. But it's not just Gwen who sees herself as having a Condition; in fact, every member of this family sees himself as defective in some fundamental way. In this family, everybody has some sort of Condition and everybody is looking to be fixed.
I wrote The Condition in about three years, during which I was very preoccupied with this idea. It seems to me that we're living in an age when so much has been medicalized. Science has evolved to the point where so much of what makes a person unique what was once considered personality or individuality or the normal wear-and-tear of aging -- can now be treated with drugs or surgery or talk therapy or Botox injections. It seems, now, that everybody can be fixed but what is gained in the process, and what is lost? Those questions are at the heart of The Condition, which will be published by HarperCollins in May 2008.
Jennifer Haigh will read this Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Alice Peters Auditorium. She will also hold a Q&A session on campus at Fresno State in UC 202 from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m.