Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jennifer Haigh: From Writer’s Cloister to Far-reaching Novels

( Photo by Asia Kepka.)

Well folks, the Somerville News Writers Festival is upon us (Nov.13 6:30 P.M. Arts Armory—Somerville, Mass.) and Somerville Bagel Bard Rene Schwiesow interviewed one of our featured writers Jennifer Haigh. For more information go to:

Jennifer Haigh
From Writer’s Cloister to Far-reaching Novels

by Rene Schwiesow

It was a lovely New England, autumn morning when I spoke with Jennifer Haigh by phone. A perfect day I thought for talking with a writer who has won the PEN/L.L. Winship award for outstanding book by a New England author. Haigh will be appearing at the Somerville Writer’s Festival on November 13th. While she is not on tour at the moment, she accepted the speaking gig in Somerville because the Writer’s Festival reputation precedes itself and out of friendship for the hard-working Timothy Gager who hosts the festival each year. Those in attendance will be the fortunate recipients of her sharing.

Jennifer spoke easily from her home and one can imagine the author who maintains a “large, lively circle of imaginary friends,” relaxing in the space where her words are allowed to spin themselves into fine novels. Jennifer Haigh is the author of four books. Mrs. Kimble, her first novel, won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction. Her second novel, Baker Towers was a New York Time’s Best Seller in addition to winning the PEN/L.L. Winship award for outstanding book by a New England author. Her third novel, The Condition, was published in 2008. Her fourth novel, Faith, will be published by HarperCollins in May 2011.

It is “absolutely inevitable,” Haigh said. A writer, by the nature of the vocation, “spends a lot of time sitting alone in a room.” She understands that there is no way around it and she welcomes the aloneness. Yet, as an author with four published books, the fact is she must travel, must be in the public eye. How, I asked her do you find your quiet time then? “I don’t,” she said matter-of-factly. She made it clear that she enjoys those engagements that go along with each book publication, but that they are incompatible with quiet time and writing. In the beginning she attempted to combine the two, but has since learned that to write while promoting deprives her of the focus she needs for her work.

She talks about time and focus as a gift for the writer. And Haigh, who is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and their MFA program, says that time and focus is exactly what she had in Iowa. Haigh feels that time spent in an MFA program can be very valuable. In addition to her novels, she writes short stories, many of which were written while in Iowa and, subsequently, published. She has been working on a short story collection though a possible publication date for that collection remains a nebulous dot on the timeline. Her novel, Mrs. Kimble, which was written during the time she was in Iowa, was not a product of the workshop or the MFA program, because she feels strongly that showing a novel piecemeal in workshop is dangerous, allowing for judgment to be passed on the work via small segments. “Too much can be taken out of context,” she said. It was, however, written alongside the work she did for the workshop and her grad work.

Jennifer, it seems, has the heart of a writer. It beats through her as she speaks about writing, about the process of becoming a writer, about the writing coming before the need for publication. “No one becomes a writer overnight,” she said. Several times during our discussion she reinforced the need for time and focus, the inevitability of the aloneness and quiet that one experiences as a writer. Becoming a writer to Haigh is an evolutionary process. She always wanted to write, so she wrote. “The writing you control,” Haigh said. She feels that what happens once the writing is finished and sent out with the hope of publication is subject to so many variables that are not within personal control. Jennifer Haigh writes from a creative spirit. Her books have no biographical slant nor does she intend to write with a theme. “I love research,” she said, and her stories are often born through a serendipitous experience during research. For example, it was while doing medical research for a project never written that she stumbled across Turner’s Syndrome, the medical affliction Gwen suffers from in The Condition. From that discovery of a chromosomal abnormality, the story of Gwen and her family was conceived. It is the discovery that triggers her inspirational thought processes, the discovery that births the story.

Jennifer Haigh has had no concrete future agenda for what happens with the work after she has completed the writing, she simply writes. And through writing, her well-rounded characters develop; the story evolves. Later, when the book has left her control, the reader will lift the story from the page and allow it entry into their world. It is there, in the reader’s world, where insight may be drawn from Haigh’s gift to us. The gift of her time and focus, the weaving of her words that crafts her fiction.

***Rene Schwiesow is a Massachusetts poet and writer, co-host of The Art of Words poetry venue in Plymouth, MA.

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