AAK: After fifteen books and forty years as a writer, what has been the most gratifying experience of your extensive career thus far?
SH: The most gratifying experience of my writing life was the acceptance by Judith Jones, senior editor at Knopf, of the manuscript of my first novel, Armadillo in the Grass. I had worked for five years on the novel, teaching myself to write as I reworked the initial idea of a young woman, married and with children, who becomes an artist. Just as Clara, in the story, became a sculptor, so I, on the acceptance of my first book, became a writer. It was the day on which my life divided into Before and After.
AAK: It's been said that "Shelby Hearon is to marriage as Jane Austen is to courtship." Do you think this analogy is accurate?
SH: I like the comment, because I do prefer to write about and read about what happens after courtship is done and a real marriage begins. My favorite books growing up dealt with what happens in passionate, conflicted, convincing marriages: George Eliot's Middlemarch, Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. And now that I am a writer myself, I still feel drawn to stories about what happens after the quadrille of courtship, when it's time for the choices and consequences of intimacy. In Jhabvala's Out of India, I was appalled by the way the Indian bride was ruled by her mother-in-law, by how the wife had to be always in attendance to her husband, even watching him while he slept. More recently, I was captivated by Ha Jin's novel Waiting, which, while seeming to narrate an eighteen-year courtship, in reality explores a long-term marriage.
In an early book of mine, Now and Another Time, a law professor tells a young lawyer who doesn't want to commit to him: "I want the pink toothbrush and dirty socks of marriage." That was, and is, the author's view.
AAK: How do you think Ella in Bloom stands apart from your other works of fiction?
SH: Although I am the oldest of four daughters, and have had narrators with sisters before, I have shied away from the theme of parental favoritism and its lasting effects. But this issue was central in the life of my mother, who died five years ago at ninety. The elder of two sisters, she was her mother's favorite, but her mother died when she was fifteen; her sister was her father's favorite, and remained closed to him all his life. I believe the story of sisters competing for love and experiencing jealousy would have been painful to her. Although I'm sure she, married to my father for over sixty years, would never have viewed herself as in any way like Ella, I see clear similarities: she never perceived herself to be the prettiest, or the most competent; she never saw herself as the winner.
AAK: Place always seems to play an important role in your novels. Why did you choose the settings you did for this book and how deeply entrenched in these locations are your characters?
SH: I always begin a story with place; place defines the characters and becomes a metaphor for their story. Ella in Bloom came out of a trip I took back to Austin, Texas--my old hometown--a couple of years ago. I hardly recognized the city, not only because it had increased in size by half again, but because the high-tech influx had created a new population. It was as if the old Austin, a small, tight-knit enclave, had been absorbed into an international community. The old rules of class, ancestry, and neighborhood had changed.
I wanted to write about this on a more personal level, to write about how families resist change, how they deceive and coerce one another in order to maintain the established order, to preserve the way things used to be. As a contrast to Austin, I selected Old Metairie, Louisiana, a very elite sequestered community with no room or desire to expand. Also, having encountered Texas in the grips of a dreadful drought, I wanted to use Louisiana's tropical storms and flooding to show that while the Old ways were drying up in Austin, they were drowning in Old Metairie; that the very weather itself altered our world.
AAK: Your books often center around the death of a loved one and the effect this has on the remaining characters. Why have you used this device of grieving as the context for these people's lives? Could Ella have "bloomed" without the death of her sister?
SH: I do not think of death as being an integral part of my writing, although I would say that loss and the recovery of loss is. In my first novel, Armadillo in the Grass--about the sculptor, Clara--the mother dies. There I was dealing with a young woman's realization that her mother simply vanished from everyone's memory as soon as she was gone; I was dealing with the invisibility of women. Can they leave something behind besides children? It is this that drives my woman to become an artist, to leave something tangible behind. In Hug Dancing, the woman's mother died some twenty years before, and here I was dealing with how thoroughly do we repeat the lives of our parents with no knowledge of doing so. The mother died in a flash flood on the way to meet her lover--a doctor whose son, our narrator, is driving through a violent storm to meet on the same road . . .
In my last three novels, I have dealt with deaths closer to home. Life Estates was written after I had lost several women friends far too soon; I wanted to write about the lives we had shared together, and to deal with the fact that we shared less than we thought. Before the last two books, I had close friends who lost a child (as happened in
Footprints) or that cruel loss, a sibling, and this is reflected in Ella in Bloom. Ella thinks: "After all, your sisters or brothers, whoever you had, were the people who went down the same road with you all the way. You came into your parents' lives after things had already happened; the people they'd once been were gone and the people they were you couldn't really know. And it must be the same with your children. You were already set when they showed up, you were opaque to them, they were in another time zone from you. But siblings, they were on the same boat, in the same car, skating down the same sidewalk from the start." (p. 14)
I think I am not dealing with grieving, but with what strengths, weaknesses, old wounds, bitter disputes, unresolved issues, surface when someone who is part of your past is absent from your present. Is there less of you? Yes, I believe that Ella would have bloomed once she learned that her mother was a different woman from the one she thought she knew. This knowledge freed her from having to dissemble, to try to be someone she wasn't. Had her sister lived, Ella would not have gotten involved with Red, but she would have been free to open her life in a different way. As Terrell might also have done, out there in Ector County in West Texas where she would have moved.
AAK: You've written that "a daughter has to come to terms with her mother. Until you've done that, you don't really know who you are." This mother-daughter relationship does seem to be the crux of the issues within Ella's life. Can you share more of your thoughts on this topic?
SH: Oh, my, I've written such a number of books about the mother-daughter relationship--and such a number also about the father-son relationship. The first is something every female goes through growing up; the second is a misery that every married woman with a son goes through. Ella contains, of course, both. The resolution between Red and Bailey is as disastrous and confirming, in that complex male way, as Ella's with her mother. So I guess what I've said in my novels, and in lectures and workshops, is that before you can move on with your own life, before you can make an adult sexual and loving relationship, you have to come to terms with the parent of the same gender.
It might be illuminating to have the story of Birdie, grown, coming to terms with that slightly frazzled mother of hers. Maybe in a dozen years I'll write that: Birdie Fortissimo.
AAK: In Ella, we eventually find out that, except for the children, almost everyone is lying about or covering up some part of his or her life. What are you saying about the cost of exposure, and why has this been a recurring theme in your novels?
SH: A good question. Exposure, in the sense of being seen, of being visible, of being in the spotlight, represents to me a vulnerability, which is reflected in what I write. In Owning Jolene, where I address this most directly, the narrator, a nineteen-year-old San Antonio girl, wants to be an actress but is terrified of standing up there with all eyes on her, performing. She opts instead to be an artist's model, because then people are looking at the (safe) artist's representation of her but not her. When Jolene gets her picture on the cover of Newsweek--in a feature on how artists are using live models again--the painter tells her he has given her the true cloak of invisibility: fame. And she learns to wear this fame as a disguise. I deal with disguise in all my books one way or another. Certainly Ella disguises herself in the appearance of gentility in order not to be exposed before her mother.
Yes, in Ella, everyone lies in the way that families always lie to one another: to preserve the status quo, to be who the family insists that we be, to live up to what the family demands of us. Little children do this, coming home from school; older children do this, going out on dates; grown children do this, writing home or coming for a visit. The surprise in Ella is to learn that our parents do the same, that parents lie to preserve our view of them. (I came up with the idea of Ella's letters to her mother after reading about Sylvia Plath's so chatty, so normal letters home to her mother, who never believed her daughter was depressed.)
AAK: You set Ella and Birdie in a very humble reality (it seems they are sometimes barely scraping by) yet you give them such genteel interests as gardening and music. Why the dichotomy?
SH: Ella comes from a family whose ancestors settled the state (Texas has counties named Hopkins, Borden, Bailey, Terrell and Ellis, for whom Ella was named); her father was a distinguished history professor at the University of Texas, and his brother was a federal judge in West Texas; her parents' home is filled with a vast library of books and of classical music; her parents have travelled to Europe; her mother's garden, before the drought, was such a showplace that people stopped their cars in the street to take pictures. It's only natural that Ella loves flowers and Birdie loves music: it is a central part of their heritage, of the family they were born into. Just as it is no surprise that Ella's nephew is headed for Yale. The fact that Ella chooses to live on the rundown fringe of one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the Deep South in order to send her daughter to the best public school, and that she elects to live hand-to-mouth in a cash-flow sense at a job she loves, rather than trade herself off to some husband for a larger income or train for a routine job for a larger paycheck, reflects what is all too common with single mothers whatever their background: they make tough choices.
AAK: Regarding the writing process, what is your best piece of advice to give writers just starting out, and what writers have most influenced you?
SH: I'm happy to answer this question--one that I've answered at a zillion summer workshops, MFA programs, public lectures--but it isn't a popular answer.
First, don't let anyone else read your work until you have completed it. Learn to evaluate your own work. Be your own first reader and your own first editor. The idea of the group where everyone tosses out criticism of your writing only makes for blander, weaker, safer stuff. You need to write alone until you find your own style, your own voice, and sharpen what makes you different from other writers.
Second, separate your valuable, unique view of life from the actual words you put on the page. It is as hard to get it right, to show it clearly, the first time you try as it is to get a prize-winning photograph by taking only one picture instead of half a dozen rolls. I don't favor doing the first draft or even the second on a computer because when you see it looking like it's in print, the temptation is to think you're rewriting when you move things around, rather than when you dump 50 pages in the wastebasket and start all over again. You need to remember that you have something special and wonderful to say, but that today you might not be saying it.
As to what writers have influenced me . . . When I was in school, the books I loved were mostly read in translation: Proust, Tolstoi, Undset, even Joyce, in a sense. They were novels written in another tongue in another time and place. Besides being so damn good as to be overwhelming. When I started writing, I needed someone now, here, closer to my life, for a model. Luckily, I happened, the year I began the first draft of my first novel, to read two short, contemporary, deeply convincing English-language novels, written in the first person: Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and Sylvia Ashton-Warner's Spinster. I read and reread them, trying to learn what they did and how they did it. I am always reading and I am always still in awe of writers who can take you immediately into a real world and move you to the core. Lorrie Moore, Gish Jen and Ethan Canin come immediately to mind.
AAK: After living most of your life in the South (born in Marion, Kentucky, and living many years in Texas), how does it feel now to be a Southern writer living in New England? Do you feel the two regions produce different kinds of writers?
SH: I feel a kinship with New England. My mother's people are descended from the first governor of Vermont, and, like many New England families, they came to the South (Kentucky) later. Most writers in the South have a tie back to the early New England writers as literary if not literal ancestors. Such classics as Ethan Frome and The Scarlet Letter deal with themes that are echoed in the best books by Southern writers such as Faulkner, McCullers, Welty, Percy: the battle between good and evil, the implacability of history, the inescapability of family, the question of free will and determinism. Place is different certainly, but not perhaps the response to place. The long bitter winters of Maine and Vermont and the current baking drought of Texas and Alabama both require adaptation to extremes of temperature and acknowledgment of the random vengeance of weather, and so lead to a similar engagement with the natural world.
AAK: What are you working on now?
SH: All I'd like to say now is: I'm working on a story set in Vermont about a girl who lives with a dog.