Wednesday, April 06, 2011
Michelle Hoover writes a tale of two women.
Interview with Doug Holder
Michelle Hoover is a petite woman but her writing is anything but diminutive. In her critically acclaimed novel “The Quickening” she writes of the friendship of two farm women during the early part of last century. These women and their significant others speak plainly, but the subtext of what they say is loaded. Hoover, who was born in Iowa and from a long line of farmers, captures the hardscrabble life of these straight-no-chaser women. Hoover currently teaches at Boston University and Grub Street in Boston, Mass. I spoke with Hoover on my Somerville Community Access TV: “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: Your first novel “The Quickening” was a huge success. You ever worry that your second book might not measure up to your first—you know the sophomore jinx?
Michelle Hoover: I do. You want to do something different. It’s hard. I am excited about my new book—but certain aspects of it will be totally different from the first. I think the next book has a lot of promise though.
DH: What is the next book about?
MH: It is about two of my great aunts who disappeared from the family right after WW II. They were quite young. They were never heard from again.
DH: Like poetry, every word counts in your writing. With an economy of words you write a very evocative novel.
MH: I am a terrible poet. I grew up in a family where simple language was preferred. When I took my GRE to get into grad. school my vocabulary was got the lowest score. So I had to work on that. This stripped down language works with these two ladies in “The Quickening.” I wanted it something like the landscape—very plain and flat. Gertrude Stein wanted her sentences to evoke a certain message and so do I.
DH: “The Quickening” sounds authentic. How much research did you put into this--to get it just right?
MH: My grandmother’s journal that I used was only 15 pages long. In the beginning of the book one of the ladies, Mary, almost kills her husband Frank by feeding him chicken when he was sick. And that really happened. But that was only a few sentences in a long book. For instance, pigs are slaughtered in the novel. Now I never slaughtered a pig, but my uncles told me how it was done. My family gets together every February in Arizona and tells stories and sings songs- all that kind of stuff. They are a bunch of old farmers. That’s how I got the story right, by getting all these oral histories from my family. I wanted to get personal stories which were the basis of my research. I did historical research but I found it went against what I was doing.
DH: In the harsh and unforgiving lives that Enidina and Mary lived there was the church. The church offered a respite, the one place where these women would have the chance to address spiritual concerns, to transcend their day to day grind. However, the minister Borden had a major lapse in his ministry, as he was brought down to earth by the loneliness of his calling. Do you view religion as a front, offering the illusion of an afterlife for people with a very unsatisfying real life here on the material plain?
MH: I don’t think religion is always a bad thing. A lot of my family is religious; I am more of an agnostic. I am suspicious of the self-righteousness that religion can take on. A sort of “I am better than you because I believe in God.” Borden has a lapse. Bordon is human. Mary uses religion to prop herself up. I don’t think it is bad that people have religion if it helps him. I don’t like people who use their religion against other people.
DH: No one could accuse you of writing a Chick Lit. novel. There is nothing glib, or superficial about this work. Do you think you can reach a wide audience with these straight-no-chaser women?
MH: I would hope so. I was hoping to create a new woman heroine with Enidina. She is very different from me—big-boned and awkward. Mary is the more typical character you would find in Chick Lit. She has her own darkness too. But both of these women are very stoic, no navel-gazing—the type that if they have problems they would keep it to themselves. I admire this but I can see how it can be harmful.
DH: You said in an interview that your characters are like the landscape. Don’t we all take on characteristics of the landscape?
MH: I think so. I am part of my characters' landscape. I find the farmland of the Midwest beautiful—other people may not.