Joyce Hinnefeld


Sunday, September 26, 2010


Stranger Here Below launched successfully on Friday, at our wonderful local independent bookstore, the Moravian Book Shop (oldest continuously operating bookstore in the U.S.!). It was a wonderful evening for me--so nice to look out on the smiling faces of so many friends, seated there amongst the children’s books. I’m grateful to all who came out to support me and the book, even in the midst of all the Celtic Classic traffic!

Now I’m gearing up for events in Brooklyn (at WORD, on Thursday, Sept. 30) and in Clinton, NJ (at the Clinton Book Shop, on Friday, Oct. 1). More details on these events at the Events page of the book web site.

And I’m also reading and responding to student poems, trying to get the word out about urging Pennsylvania state legislators to enact a meaningful severance tax on natural gas drilling (along with other Friends at Lehigh Valley Quaker Meeting), looking into Chinese and Chinese-American poetry for a class I’m teaching next semester, and eagerly awaiting my daughter’s return from a friend’s sleepover birthday party. And it’s only Sunday!

This is what’s called a full and rich life, I know; I’m working hard to see it that way. Actually, the only part that’s hard work is the natural gas drilling business. That’s hard, and deeply worrisome to me. If you want to learn more, start with Sandra Steingraber’s excellent work recently in Orion magazine. And if you live in Pennsylvania, please get in touch with your state legislators soon, and urge them to make every effort to protect the state’s natural resources--particularly its water--or, at the very least, to ensure that the companies involved can’t simply wreak havoc here and then leave the mess for us to deal with.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Big Coal and the Battle of Blair Mountain

When I started working on Stranger Here Below many years ago, I never imagined that I’d get as worked up as I am today, about Big Coal. Sure, I have a references to “King Coal” decimating the homes and lives of people connected with my character Vista Jansen, but I’ll confess that I saw that as something you said about eastern Kentucky in the 1930s, when Vista decides to leave her home in Appalachia.

And then, shortly after Fred Ramey signed the book for publication in 2010, I started hearing and reading more about mountaintop removal coal mining, and the sinister things that are happening in Appalachia today. I’d like to say that all of us--except those nasty coal company people--are innocent. But of course it’s our hunger for power (to charge up our phones and computers and keep on blogging, for instance) that allows those companies to do what they do.

In the novel, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding a character named Daniel Burgett. He’s handsome, and different, and kind of secretive; he’s also a fervent supporter of unions like the United Mine Workers of America. One story that circulates about him, among his fellow students at Berea, is that he’s the grandson of a miner who was killed at the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. This was a ten-day battle in August and September, 1921, in which law enforcement fought with over 10,000 miners seeking the right to unionize. President Warren Harding declared martial law, bringing in the U.S. Army and Air Corps, who even dropped bombs. More than 100 people were killed on both sides.

In March 2009 the National Park Service added Blair Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places. Less than a year later, though, the Park Service decided to de-list the site, claiming that some property owners were not included in the vote about whether or not to list Blair Mountain. Suddenly eight mysteriously missing letters appeared, from property owners who objected to the listing.

But two of those letters came from people who were actually dead (you couldn’t make this up if you tried), and others came from people who were apparently not actual property owners. It turns out, of course, that the coal industry wants to do surface mining on the site. And a listing on the National Register of Historic Sites makes that a little messier. You can read more about this at the Friends of Blair Mountain site and at the Charleston, WV Gazette’s Coal Tattoo blog.

This month the Sierra Club and allies filed a legal challenge to reverse the decision by the National Park Service to remove Blair Mountain from the National Registry of Historic Places. There’s more about this at the Sierra Club web site.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Independent Booksellers in Atlantic City

Stranger Here Below is showing up in bookstores--very exciting.

And yesterday I got to talk about the book in a room full of independent booksellers, at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association meeting in Atlantic City, NJ, which was a blast. The meeting was in the Trump Marina, and I stayed there Monday night; may I just say that I find casinos SO WEIRD. The one place in the U.S. that still leaves your clothes reeking of cigarette smoke when you leave.

I love talking with independent booksellers, who always have interesting stories about books and writers, and usually about their own lives. I had a brief conversation with someone I found really inspiring--Jonah Zimiles, the father of an autistic son who owns Words in Maplewood, NJ, a bookstore that employs and reaches out to people with autism:

Even in a bad economy and in the midst of dire predictions about the future of the book, these people find a way to keep on doing what they love: selling books. Even though Adam Gopnik accused all of us writers in the room (himself included) of pandering to the crowd in our effusive praise of the independents at yesterday’s lunch, I think every writer was sincere in his or her praise. Without these people, we’d never reach the readers we depend on to read, and talk about, our work.

And a note to any of you booksellers at yesterday’s lunch: Sorry about the mix-up with copies of Stranger Here Below, which somehow never made it to the meeting, and so did not end up in your big bag of new books. But good news: thanks to Eileen Dengler and the wonderful people at Unbridled Books, copies will be mailed to all the booksellers who were at the Movable Feast. So a copy should land on your doorstep soon. Hope you like it! And good luck with that two-minute pitch; when you come up with a good one, please share it with me!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

His Is Longer Than Mine

Lots of fuss about Jonathan Franzen and his new novel lately--all the fawning attention in the mainstream press, questions about why the latest “Great American Novel” is never by a woman, etc. And of course as soon as those kinds of questions started being raised, the backlash kicked in--asking, in essence, why women can’t just get over it already. (To Franzen’s credit, he’s apparently agreed that these questions need to be asked.)

I thought Meghan O’Rourke’s recent piece at was really reasonable and calm in its exploration of unconscious sexism. Surely nothing to object to there, I thought. And then I read some of the Comments (something I know I really shouldn’t do.)

So maybe it really is time we stopped tagging people as “women writers” or “ethnic writers” or “multicultural writers” or what have you, and just started calling people “writers.” But have the issues and struggles that led to the culture wars, and the necessity of labels and categories like those, really gone away? African-American writers, particularly African-American women writers, felt some understandable frustration when they saw the effusive public embrace of white (woman) writer Katherine Stockett’s novel The Help, about African-American domestic workers in the 1960’s American South, recently (see Bernice McFadden’s Washington Post piece about this). They’ve been writing books about characters like these for a while now. But somehow Steven Spielberg never came knocking.

I’ve had worries of my own about publishing a novel about, among other things, the lives of African-American characters in Kentucky in the first half of the twentieth century. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, could I just vent a bit about some things that keep nagging at me, about being a woman writer?

Years ago, a friend of mine, a female writer who shall remain unnamed, asked a now very well-known male writer--who shall also remain unnamed (though you might want to try to guess)--for a recommendation letter. She’d met him at a writers’ colony, and she was applying for something else—I think maybe a teaching job. She saw his letter eventually, and discovered that while he’d spoken fondly of her and her work, he’d also said that he saw her as someone who would eventually produce more, and more significant, work—once the demands of being a wife and mother weren’t taking up so much of her time.

Is it me, or is there a kind of macho athleticism at work when male writers publish 500-page tomes (ones that might have been edited to, say, 350 or 400 pages and perhaps been better for it)? A kind of flexing of the muscles? A kind of declaration that there’s time for work of this length and complexity in this writer’s life, because, well, this—the work—is what always comes first?

By the way, I make an exception here for David Mitchell’s 500-plus pages in Cloud Atlas. I savored every one of those 500-plus pages, and I felt each one needed to be there for the playful, postmodern, acrobatic—but also deeply serious and deeply humane—stories he tells in that novel to succeed as potently as they do. Obviously I'm not trying to make grand claims here, about all long novels, or all male novelists, or even all men. (Yes, Jim: I know you cooked dinner three nights ago, and I remain grateful.)

And while I’m venting: Am I right in suspecting that male novelists don’t get asked “How much of this really happened to you?” nearly as frequently as female novelists do? It’s always one of the first questions I get, at readings or when I talk with book groups who’ve read my book In Hovering Flight. That’s okay; I don’t mind this question actually—but I just can’t picture male writers being asked the same thing right off the bat. (I spoke with writer Ginger Strand about this recently, and I was pleased to learn about a piece she published a few years ago in Poets and Writers, about this very thing.)

Maybe I can’t picture the question being posed because I can't picture too many male novelists talking with book groups? Which of course are mostly made up of women. And which were largely responsible for the success of Katherine Stocket’s The Help . . . . And now I’m making myself dizzy, and also bringing myself around to all these questions about commercial success and domestic novels about families vs. novels that attend to the wider world, and so on, and the many particulars of all the Franzen mania lately. Which I was hoping to avoid here. Because, frankly, I don’t have time to think all of this through right now . . . .

Better just to say I’m a writer maybe. A busy one, with a young child, a husband, a teaching job. My books aren’t real long. Hardly any of it really happened to me. But almost all of it has roots in my personal emotional history. I’d love to go into more detail, but I’ve got about 50 more things to do before I go pick my daughter up at school in an hour.

And of course this blog post is already way too long.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shakers vs. Quakers

People often confuse Shakers and Quakers, and I’ve noticed a tendency for people to identify Sister Georgia---the character at the center of my novel Stranger Here Below--as a Quaker, when in fact she is a Shaker. The difference is pretty significant, as I’ll try to explain here. But this confusion is completely understandable. To shake = “to move irregularly to and fro”; to quake = “to shake or vibrate”; “to tremble or shudder” (in the words of my old Webster’s New Collegiate). And both are religious groups with roots in eighteenth-century England.

The Quakers came first. Known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers trace their founding to the year 1652 in the English Midlands, where founder George Fox persuaded members of another religious group, the Westmorland Seekers, to become Friends (or Friends of Truth). Quakers, or Friends, put continuing divine revelation ahead of church or scriptural doctrine, and individual conscience ahead of state authority. Not surprisingly, they were considered heretical by both church and state in England.

Quakers worship together in silence; there was (and is) no minister who leads a service. When a Friend feels the spirit, or the light, within, he or she may rise to speak to other Friends assembled for worship. The name Quaker refers to the apparent trembling or quaking of early Friends when they experienced the spirit and rose to speak during worship.*

Shakers, or members of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, actually have roots in a group of Protestants in France, known as the Camisards, who fled to England in 1706. William C. Ketchum, Jr., author of Simple Beauty: The Shakers in America, writes that “There they found new adherents among disaffected Quakers, Anglicans, and Methodists, and forged a religious community referred to as the ‘Shaking Quakers’--a reference to the exuberance of its ritual expression.”

The Shakers found their way to the United States by way of a poor English woman, Ann Lee, from industrial Manchester, who arrived in New York with several of her followers in 1774. Eventually “Mother Ann Lee” and her followers settled in upstate New York, near Albany (in what is now Watervliet). Though persecuted in the U.S. (as they had been in England), they also attracted followers, including radical Baptists from New York and New England, establishing “America’s most successful communal sect,” according to Priscilla J. Brewer, author of Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives. They grew in numbers through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, establishing western communities like the one at Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, where portions of Stranger Here Below are set.

Do the differences between Quakers and Shakers really matter, in terms of understanding the novel? In my mind, they do. The Shakers, at their height (and at their most mystical), apparently danced with great gusto at their worship services; that kind of shaking strikes me as pretty far removed from the quaking of someone who feels called by the spirit to rise and speak into a silent gathering.

That kind of shaking has also been connected, in my mind (since I first learned about the Shakers long ago), with the Shaker practice of celibacy. Just a bit of sublimation going on there, surely. And I’ve always wondered what might have happened, later, in secret, outside the Meeting House, when a young brother and a young sister might have found each other in the nearby woods, after a round of worshipping--that is, dancing--with abandon.

Well, that’s the stuff of a novel--though not specifically of Stranger Here Below. By the time my Shaker character, Sister Georgia, signs the covenant of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, she is one of only three remaining Shakers at Pleasant Hill. The other two are very old, and Sister Georgia dances in the Meeting House on her own. She has chosen a life of celibacy for her own very sad reasons.

The Shakers didn’t last, though one community continues today, in Maine. The Quakers--who are not celibate, and who do not require the surrendering of all worldly goods and living together in community--continue as a religious organization today, thriving particularly in and near the city of their founding in the United States, Philadelphia. Full disclosure: I am a practicing Quaker, an attender at the Lehigh Valley Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends in Bethlehem, PA. I’m not celibate, and I don’t think I have what it would take to live communally--though sometimes I wish I could accomplish the latter (the former, not so much).

But I’m fascinated by those who made the choice to follow Mother Ann, whom they perceived as Christ come to the world again, appearing for a second time, this time in the form of a poor woman who had lost four children in infancy by the time she was thirty. And that fascination is, in many ways, at the root of Stranger Here Below.

*In preparing this post I’ve drawn on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends’ Faith and Practice (PYM, 2002), Priscilla J. Brewer’s Shaker Communities, Shaker Lives (UP of New England, 1986), and William C. Ketchum, Jr.’s Simple Beauty: The Shakers in America (Smithmark Publishers, 1996).