An Interview with Jane Hamilton.
Are the two devastating
incidents at the heart of A Map of the World based on real events?
Both are based on real events. The drowning was the first kernel of the book: I knew a little boy about my son's age who drowned in his family's swimming pool. The death haunted me and I knew it would eventually come through in my writing. I had the first third of the book written for a long time, and I knew Alice was going to get in trouble because of the drowning, but I couldn't see how she was going to make peace with herself. I wrote the equivalent of three novels trying to come up with various solutions--all failures--but I was determined not to leave her forever in her dilemma. In 1990 I came across an article about Kelly Michaels (she was convicted of abusing scores of children at a day care center) and quite soon after that I saw a documentary about a similar situation involving a couple in North Carolina. Both the writer and the filmmaker believed their subjects were innocent and had gotten swept up in a witch hunt. The accused were in a predicament that was so horrifying I resisted writing about it, but I felt keenly that it was something that could happen to any of us. Living as I do--on the outskirts of a small, tight-knit community--it wasn't too much of a leap to imagine such a thing happening to me. It possessed me of the idea that in that situation, once accused, there's nothing you can do to save yourself.
You portray life on the Goodwins' dairy farm with astonishing authority and realism. Does your insight come from your own experiences living, working, and writing on an apple orchard in Wisconsin, or are the two worlds completely dissimilar?
On the farm spectrum I'd say that dairying is at one end as far as the commitment required. You have to milk two times a day, every day. An orchard takes as much commitment, certainly, but there is more flexibility and there's a lovely seasonal rhythm. We kill ourselves during the harvest and then have the winter to put ourselves back together. Any good farmer by nature has to be a workaholic and has to be crazy about the farm. For example, most farmers I know--Howard included--put their energy and care into their outbuildings rather than their own home. The house is falling to the ground, but the barn is beautiful.
There's a strong focus in this novel on motherhood and the relationships between mothers and daughters in particular. How do you see Alice in comparison to the other mothers in the book?
Alice is the most human mother in that she commits the ordinary sins of parenthood. There's a great disparity for her between the dream and reality. She is constantly shocked by the fact that her daughter Emma isn't of her own design, that Emma is this wild little person who on some days seems to be sent from hell rather than heaven. Most parents sin this way on a small scale--wanting their child to look, to act a certain way at a specific time, to be someone he or she isn't. Emma often doesn't meet Alice's expectations based on her dream of The Family. Still, Alice has other mothers to measure herself against and sometimes she comes out better. Her mother-in-law is a busybody who doesn't have any knowledge of her son's character and personality; her own mother has become this gauzy, insubstantial memory. Theresa is bound by intuition, good sense, family support, religious conviction--furthermore, she's lost her own child and she's become sanctified. Compared to Theresa, Alice doesn't have anything holding her in place except her own impossible ideals.
A Map of the World has been compared to the works of Jane Smiley, Rosellen Brown, and Sue Miller, among others. Why do you think that's so?
I admire all of those writers greatly, but I'm not sure we share that much stylistically. There are common elements, though, for example; there's a sub-genre--novels written by women authors about farms--to which both Jane Smiley and I have contributed. And perhaps it can be said that Howard has the same sort of blind spot that Smiley's main character has in A Thousand Acres. Rosellen Brown deals with the kind of fall from grace that occurs in A Map of the World. And thematically, both Alice in A Map of the World and Anna in The Good Mother are placed in situations where they have no choice but to let the trouble play itself out.
Do you see A Map of the World as a great thematic and stylistic departure from your first novel, The Book of Ruth, or are there common issues explored in both?
Stylistically, there's clearly a difference. The Book of Ruth was fueled by Ruth's voice. I think of her voice now, years later, and it still seems to have an almost volcanic energy. In A Map of the World, I felt propelled by the incidents; I wanted to understand how people live when they've been cast out. There were very definite problems I wanted to understand through the writing of the book. I suppose it is fueled more by the plot than by the characters' individual voices. In some ways it feels as if different authors wrote these two books, but as far as broad themes--both Alice and Ruth are trying to figure out how to live without God and what it means to find truth.
Which authors have most influenced you?
When I was a teenager I read books not to figure out how people fell in love, but to figure out how, once they were in love, they came together. I read Jane Eyre and Emma and Sons and Lovers. The coming together part, I could see, was as complicated as I'd feared. I read heaps of contemporary trashy novels with good girls and bad girls, bad boys and good boys--books which seemed to be more helpful, although the predictable happiness in the end always seemed a little suspect. Other topics that interested me were privation and suffering (The Dairy of Anne Frank) and the big emptiness of life itself (the Herman Hesse phase coupled with all of J.D. Salinger). I also wanted from a book instructions about living in the world especially if you felt you were alone. (The Diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh were lovely company.)
Now, in middleage, I still read for some of the same reasons, but for others too. Beyond instructions for living, I read to marvel at a strong or lyrical or surprising sentence. A great sentence is rarer than we think. Lorrie Moore is always stunning in her ability to yoke two or three unlikely things in one graceful and often hilarious sentence. Carol Shields and Kevin Canty and Carol Anshaw and Michael Cunningham, to name just a few, also have the ability to surprise and amuse and induce awe. How do they do it? I love reading along and having to pause, to reread, to read out loud, to marvel at the writer's craft. To ask that question again and again--how on earth did they do it? In middleage I read for a writer's wisdom, his invention, his grace, his penetrating gaze, his fluid sentences, his sense of humor. In old age, as the book lives on, I suspect it will be the same.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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