with Jean Harfenist, author of A Brief History of the Flood
A Brief History of the Flood is your first collection of short
stories. What inspired you to start writing?
I started to write fiction in 1990 while home on medical leave from an
ad agency, recovering from what had been diagnosed as chronic mononucleosis.
After two years of being nearly bedridden, I had begun to have hours and,
occasionally, entire days of feeling well enough to do something, when one
morning the UCLA Extension catalog slipped from the stack of mail I was reading
in bed. Idly, I flipped through it - and, just as idly, I reached for the phone
and registered for a course called "Writing from the Inner-Self."
I had always been a planner, a lover of flowcharts and methods-time-measurement
studies. This was whim. I wasn't well yet. And I was a businesswoman, not a
writer. This was frivolous. It was silly. But I had to get out of the house; I
had to produce something; and I had exactly nothing to lose. This was a
low-cost, low-threat, no-credit course. Sick people could drop out. Besides, how
difficult could it be to write from the inner-self?
"Snap-fit assembly" is a term describing a manufacturing method in
which two pieces of plastic are molded separately but designed to fit together
perfectly and permanently. You've experienced it: two pieces of plastic are
pressed together and the resulting soft click eliminates any question about
whether the right pieces are in the right place.
I had to drop that first writing course, and I had to drop in and out of several
of those that followed, but I had heard the click.
Once you felt that "click," what led you to the Andersons and
Lillian? Are they and Acorn Lake modeled after your own rural Minnesota
After years of living in Manhattan and even more years of living in
Los Angeles, the first assignment of my first writing course spun me around and
pushed me back toward rural Minnesota. The assignment was to ape the structure
and tone of a sample story handed out in class. I remember only that the
first-person narrator took us, dreamlike, from her present to her past, age by
age, year by year. Like this: Im seventeen, and my father is talking quietly
to his mother on the phone as I pack to elope with the mechanic who cracked the
block in Dads 57 Chevy. I pause to sniff the STP trapped in the crescents
of my uncut cuticles
. Im fifteen. Im angry. Im out of here
and so on, moving hypnotically back toward the crib.
I began by making a list, jotting a brief memory next to every age of my life.
In most cases, it was nothing more than a few words of remembered dialogue or an
image; seldom was it more than a sentence or two, but it was always truncated. Then,
working backward, year by year, I wove fiction around each memory, creating a
small story that gave plot and meaning to that which had had neither. Later, of
course, I realized that those free-floating little memories are buoys marking
unfinished business. But thats another story.
The structure of A Brief History of the Flood is largely a result of my
first-ever writing assignment; there is at least a kernel of fact in each story
(if memories can ever be fact), Ive stolen from my remembered childhood to
write my fiction. Its a method that set these stories firmly in a
landscapeboth human and geographicthat is of my childhood.
One thrill as a writer has been discovering the ways in which the episodes nest
and cycle and repeat themselves. From a fragment of remembered dialogue or just
as often from a long Midwestern silence, will come a story or scene that is part
of a pattern that couldnt have been recognized without the devotion of a
great deal of time and attention. A few remembered words can be a path back
through generations of a family and a communityeven if the writer has lost
over time everything except those few words and the feelings that surrounded
them. Those same words can often predict the future as well.
What do you think was unique to growing up in rural America in the
In A Brief History of the Flood, the town of Acorn Lake is
sixty miles from Minneapolis, while the town I grew up in was barely half that
distance. To put it plainly, you could get from our town to Minneapoliseven
before the freeway was built, long before a bridge spanned the Minnesota River
between Savage and Shakopeewell, you could get to The Cities faster than you
could go two blocks in a cab in Midtown Manhattan tomorrow morning in rush-hour
What was unique to rural life in the sixties was particularly intense just
thirty miles from a major city. Although we didnt understand what we were
looking at, we had front-row seats for the demise of the farm as a family
business and as a way of life. My father was a salesman but we lived in a
farming town. Our friends, neighbors and classmates were farmers and children of
farmers. It was a time that began when farmers who had inherited farms from
their fathers and grandfathers still believed that their kids would inherit the
farms from them; their daughters would marry farmers; their kids who didnt
inherit would find work, just as their own cousins and siblings had always done,
jobs that supported (and relied on) farming. Theyd work at the grain elevator
or the feed-mill, start at the bottom in the lumberyard, get a job at the
hardware store, or maybe even buy a bar.
But at about the same time that the expansion of the Twin Cities made the land
too valuable to keep, it became necessary to purchase shockingly expensive,
sophisticated equipment in order to compete with gigantic corporate farms. The
farmers sold their land off in parcels. Profits declined farther and then
disappeared until it became a question of whether they could manage to lose less
this year than last, and whether they could keep up the payments on the new
I dont think there is a great deal of difference today between rural and city
kids even those far away from major metro areas. Acorn Lake, if it existed,
would be homogenized by TV, movies, franchised stores and fast-food outlets.
You describe Lillian, the narrator of all the stories in this collection,
as "fierce, wonderfully wry and yet painfully earnest, marching from eight
to eighteenthe child of child-like parents, always figuring out new ways to
" What inspired Lillians personality?
Lillian is, in a way, a literary construct. I had written a number of
stories about the Anderson family, most in third person from her older brother,
Randys, point of view, in which Lillian was just one of the four kids, and
probably too introspective and analytical to be of real fictional interest. Then
one day she got angry, and as I played with it on the page, I started to hear
the voice of a great childhood girlfrienda cheerleader, a fearless, robust,
farm girl who could cook a meal for a dozen farmhands when she was ten years
old, a girl who, with the flick of a wrist, once sailed a dried-up cow-pie at me
like a lethal weapon. When I laid her voice in over a less secure girl, it
workedprobably because the robust voice coming from Lillian feels like a
protective device. And it energized the fiction.
There are four children in the Anderson family: Randy, Mitzy, Lillian, and
Davey. Do you think siblings share a special bond that is strengthened through
No doubt. Although as anyone who has a sibling knows, never in history
have two children grown up in the same household or shared the same
parentswhich takes us right back to the importance of memory and the way we
look back from adulthood to create our own personal myth using as a framework
the very fragmented moments that never quite made sense, the little buoys that
mark unfinished business. We add to those the family chorus, those repeated
stories that define us, and then toss in crystal clear memories that later turn
out to have been remembered only from photographs.
Siblings do have the amazing awareness of shared history. But I think we often
have an odd and seldom-discussed alienation from each otherand thus, I think,
from the world, because even the people who were there often didnt see what
you saw; and as a result, their very presence today denies your inner
realityexcept for those rare stunning moments when something unexpectedly
triggers a memory that lives in your body and your brain, and you look in a
siblings eyes, and there are no words for that moment of profound connection.
And then you look away.
Jack and Marion, Lillians parents, have a terrible marriage; Jack is an
alcoholic who is mentallyand sometimes physicallyabusive, and Marion takes
pills by the handful to cope. Why does Marion stick with Jack? Do you think many
women are trapped in similar marriages for similar reasons?
Marion stays with Jack because, as its often explained in the
simplest psychological terms, she married a man like her father and she will
make this man love her the way her father didnt. Shell get it right this
time if it kills her. And it almost does.
Cycles and repetition and dysfunction roll downhill, one generation to the next.
Add to that personal history the socio-economic factors. Few couples divorced in
that place and time. Even when Marion wanted to leave Jack, she couldnt. She
had no education, no work history, not a clue about how to behave outside the
bedroom and the kitchen (shed fled the PTA in bored horror years earlier).
Shed been trained, ingrained from birth to believe that she was
unintelligent. If she ever tried to use her brains, Jack told her that she
thought too damned much. Even if shed had the skills or the education to be
self-sufficient, by the time she woke up to the fact that it was time to leave
an abusive marriage, she was disabled by self-doubt.
Lots of women are trapped today and for similar reasons. Im always surprised
that so many are trapped in the year 2001 in spite of the progress of the last
thirty years. So many seem trapped in trying to redo the past, hamsters running
in cages, motion-mesmerized in the addictive drive to find the love they
didnt get. It happens to men too of course, but I didnt write that book.
Many of your characters get through life with a little help from various
chemical substances: uppers, downers, alcohol, junk food. Do you think there is
a culture of escapism unique to rural parts of the country?
No. Although urbanites like to think so. They might argue that
theres not much else to do in the boondocks. Or, worse, they imply that
its a population with a lower IQ, and what can you expect from those people?
And theres the idea that the sheer frustration from the lack of opportunity
out there at the gravel crossroads drives people to drugs, alcohol, and rutting
like the farm animals they tend. I admit theres a little truth in all of
that. But the city flipside offers as least as many reasonsand probably
moreto seek escape. Slightly different reasons; same endgame.
Is there a mystique to people like Lillian, or yourself, who manage to
truly escape, people who leave?
One would hope so.
The idea of the "survivor" has always intrigued, whether its the
kid who escapes from a tough backgroundrural or urbanand then thrives, or
the shipwreck survivor, or the gladiator who walks from the arena.
Thats human nature, that wanting to identify with the survivor (read:
winner), to believe for a moment that we, too, could have survived the same
situation. Add to that a fairly uncomplicated curiosity about how that
particular rat escaped from that cage.
It seems that no one is more mystified or more curious about what made the
survivor survive than the survivors themselves.
As a writer, who are your influences?
My husband, my mother, my father, my siblings, my dear smart friends,
my dog who begs shamelessly for love, and my cat who makes me beg. My
step-children who grew up on a planet called "New Jersey." Louise
Erdrich who wrote Love Medicinea novel if I ever saw one, but with the
structural beauty of short stories, and book full of people who stumble through
life on land that feels as if it were my own; by Anne Tyler who writes so well
that she makes it look easyso easy that reading any few pages, anywhere, in
any of her novels, can fool me into believing that its so easy that I can do
it too; Tobias Wolff who had the courage to write This Boys Life and
to do it with such sustained dignitylong before Dorothy Alison wrote Bastard
or Mary Karr wrote Liars Club; Tim OBrien who convinced me of what
I already knewthat voice, even when its undoubtedly a voice that had to
have been painstakingly carved into shape, can bring power to an idea. I think
most writers want to create a set of feelings in someone who reads our
workmaybe its part of not wanting to feel so alone. We want to write it so
well that someone weve never met will one day look us in the eye like a
sibling and say wordlessly, "Yes. Thats it." And Tim OBrien
convinced me with The Things They Carried that voice is the music that
makes the words of opera penetrate from our brains down into our souls. If a
writer had enough talent, she could, with voice and a few well-chosen words,
without a musical instrument in sight, sync a story to Barbers Adagio for
Strings without the reader ever knowing where that sorrow and that feeling
of being lifted up by the back of the head came from. If a writer had enough
talent, she could create with a few well-chosen words the photographs that were
What advice would you give to young writers?
Write. Read. Write some more. And if you get stuck:
Take a nap. Read a great book. Open a great book to any page and type it out
until youre straining with the desire to throw off the other (greater)
writers clothes and go your own damned way. Take classes from many
instructors, but take only what you need and leave the rest. Trust your
instincts about when to move on. The instructor didnt adopt you; she just
gave you a seat in class and the benefit of what she gave blood to learn. Take
it, be grateful, and move on, wide-eyed.
Come to think of it, label a manila folder like this: STUCK? And into it drop a
note about anything that ever works to get you unstuck. Stick a Post-It to the
side of your computer screen reminding you to look in your STUCK? file the next
time youre stalled out.
If you truly want to learn how to write a good story ending or beginning or any
other thing, spend days and nights sitting alone on the floor, moving stacks of
old prize collectionsPushcarts, OHenrys, Best American Short
Storiesfrom your left side to your right, reading only the ends of
stories or only the beginnings, and taking notes on how it was done when it
Accept the truth that you will have to write and rewrite and rewrite and
Accept the truth that unless youre unlike any writer Ive ever heard of,
you will have to give up a great deal of your life to be a writer. Hours, days,
weeks, months, years. In short, most of your waking hours until you die or lose
your marbles. But if you have that "writer thing" inside you, if you
are that thing, youll die if you dont do it. And if you have that thing in
you, no one will have to explain to you that you have to forgo lots of picnics,
parties, football games, long chatty phone calls to friends, and those inanest
of inane hours reading People magazine. Youll already be wondering why
anyone would ever expect you to waste your time with activities that seem
frivolous. That seem, well, silly. Youre not a businesswoman; youre a