An interview with Jan Maher; first published in The Huntington Herald-Press
A chance meeting at a carnival in Huntington 45 years ago is inspiration
for Jan Maher's first novel, "Heaven, Indiana." Maher, who lives in
Seattle, spent her first seven years in Huntington, where she was born.
"A main theme of the book is the way in which social and political interaction affects us," Maher said during a telephone interview from Heritage College in Seattle. She teaches educational methods, curriculum and learning theory there and has written several plays, essays, and poetry. Maher, 54, lived at the Huntington home of her maternal grandmother, Louise Miller, from 1946 through 1952. The house was at 652 E. Market St. Jan Maher's father, James Maher Jr., grew up in Marion, but moved to Huntington after marrying Alberta Ruth Miller. Ruth Miller-Lang now lives in Chicago. James Maher Jr. died in 1971 in Cincinnati.
While Maher bases "Heaven, Indiana" on her meeting with the daughter of a worker at a carnival that had made a stop at Hier's Park she said that incident is the only thing autobiographical. "It's very hard to quantify a work of fiction," the author said. "Fiction is a synthesis of everything. It's a bit of what would happen if you put a certain element with another element but yes, pieces of the book are from experience. "For example, I probably patterned the house Ellie lives in in the book after my grandmother's house." Ellie and Nadja are main characters in the novel and the house where Ellie lives is near a railroad track. "I recall that the Erie Railroad was close to my grandmother's house," Maher said. "And I've always remembered Hier's Park."
Maher explained she was 8 years old and had already moved with her parents to Fort Wayne, but was visiting in Huntington when she met the daughter of a carnival worker. "That girl and I were at a swing set at Hier's Park," the writer said. "I recall thinking at the time that meeting someone from somewhere else was a strange phenomenon and as a child I fantasized how glorious carnival life might be."
In Maher's book, the reader learns Nadja is an illegitimate child and grows up to become a fortune-teller. "Illegitimate births were hushed when I was growing up in Indiana," Maher said. "Rumors would fly when a girl would leave school that she was pregnant and going to a home for unwed mothers." There is no town in Indiana named Heaven, but Maher said during a trip to Hartford City in 1994 to do research for her book she drove to a country roads intersection in Blackford County just south of Montpelier. "I liked what I saw," she said. "It seemed so peaceful. I decided to choose that spot as setting for the town where most of the action in my book takes place."
Much of the dialogue in the novel centers around gossip at the beauty shop in Heaven operated by Sue Ellen Sue (Seese), a contemporary of Ellie and Nadja. "Seese's shop is the women's hub of town news and history," Maher said. Another social hub is Clara's Kitchen where Stella is proprietor. The reader is privy to lots of gossip at Clara's Kitchen from the mostly men - farmers and owners and workers at Heaven's small businesses - who frequent the restaurant. Clara's Kitchen is not unlike Nick's Kitchen or George's Dog House, popular gathering places in downtown Huntington.
"I find there is something very secretive about people's lives that's hidden underneath all that flatness in Indiana," Maher said. "What I've tried to do in the book is pull away the flat rug and reveal some of the secrets of the characters. "As a child, I also had the feeling that Indiana was a state with a secret history," Maher said in reference to underground railroads described in the book. The underground "railroad" system of safe houses in Indiana was used by slaves in the South to escape to the North. "Heaven, Indiana" has a surprise ending concerning a person of mixed race. "I find irony in the fact that while an Indiana law prohibiting people of different races from marrying one another was not abolished until 1965 there have always been people of mixed race living in the state," Maher said.
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.
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