Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Stranger

On Sunday I had the privilege and pleasure of taking part in Julie Maloney's WOMEN READING ALOUD series at the Bernardsville, NJ Public Library. It was a terrific afternoon, spent responding to great questions from Julie and from the smart, engaged audience members who turned out to talk about writing on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

One topic that was particularly interesting in this context was the idea of "the stranger" in my novel Stranger Here Below (there in the title and epigraph, in all the references to "pilgrims and strangers" in old hymns, in Maze's names for her newborn twins in 1968, in Camus's The Stranger, which Daniel and Mary Elizabeth discuss in a coffee shop one night instead of joining Maze and Harris at a country dance). Driving into Bernardsville that afternoon, I'd noticed signs in a number of front yards like the one I've included here, declaring (in bold purple type), "Strangers? Not in my schools!"

I was curious about these signs, as were a number of other folks in the audience that afternoon. Madelyn English, the Library's Adult Programming Coordinator, explained that the signs were actually in reference to a cost-cutting measure proposed by the local school board: outsourcing of jobs like those of bus drivers, custodians, and classroom aides to an outside company (instead of hiring local residents and paying for their benefits). Suddenly the signs seemed much less xenophobic and ominous--even like they might be expressing a position I could support.

But I don't know nearly enough to claim any kind of position, of support or otherwise, on this issue, which is apparently coming up in a number of suburban New Jersey school districts. (I tried to do a little Internet searching to learn more but ended up reading a really unfocused and increasingly angry exchange of comments on a blog that kind of scared me.)

But it says something about the power of words--both to represent and to misrepresent our deeply held positions--when you read signs like these. What does the word "stranger" mean to you? And what do you think when you read "Not in my schools!"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What Does a Reader Want? Part 2

Sometimes I get a little fatigued by the way I read published fiction--yes, like a writer, I guess. I’m constantly thinking That scene made me mad; why did it make me mad? I should have been moved by that moment but I wasn’t; why wasn’t I moved? That was gorgeous; I have to read that again; what was the magic number of words in that sentence/balance of short and long sentences in that paragraph/ratio of external action to internal exploration in that passage or chapter? Why don’t I care about what happens to this character? Why did I cry when I finished this book (thinking here of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas again; sorry--I know I refer to that book obsessively)? Those kinds of things.

So after reading Terrence Rafferty’s review of Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale and writing about literary vs. genre fiction in my post on February 8, I made good on my promise to myself and read Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale. I found it really compelling--couldn’t put it down actually. I don’t agree at all with Rafferty’s assertion that the book fails as a horror or mystery (or maybe more accurately suspense) novel because of all its literary trappings, because of the way it “allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way,” in Rafferty’s terms. I found it quite suspenseful, and I thought it delivered up the goods (the hints of horror, the various possible explanations for those moments of horror and fear) with appropriate pacing. And I loved all the background on divining, on the inexplicable and mystical aspects of seeking water underground, the real history and psychological speculation throughout the book. Just loved that stuff.

But in the end I didn’t love the book. And now a warning: multiple spoilers follow here. I found that I didn’t care all that much about the characters, including Cassandra, the woman at the book’s center. I didn’t quite believe in her relationships with her sons. I was left cold by what should, I think, have been a brief but intensely erotic scene depicting Cassandra’s fleeting affair with her twin sons’ father. And most distressing: I didn’t find the depiction of Cassandra’s father’s Alzheimer’s particularly believable, and I hate to say this, but I didn’t care at all when he died. (I was also surprised that the villain turned out to be exactly who we’d been led all along to assume it would be--but that’s more a plot than a character point.)

So . . . I guess my reaction to the book was the polar opposite of Rafferty’s. I thought it worked on the level of compelling suspense (except for that rather un-surprising revelation of the bad guy), but disappointed on the more literary level of depicting emotionally compelling characters.

But is full and rich development of characters a literary thing? I know it’s not the only literary thing, of course. There were certainly moments when the language of The Diviner’s Tale thrilled me. There was, as I’ve said, fascinating background on divining, rich uses of history and mythology, stunning depictions of landscape. But the characters just didn’t reach me. Why? I’m not sure about this, but I think this might have been a function of the narrative necessities (horror, a mystery, plot with a capital “P”) trumping the full development of character. Dad’s Alzheimer’s there, dare I say it, as a convenient way to further the action. Twin boys there so we can worry about them in a dramatic final scene.

Yesterday I heard a visiting speaker at Lehigh University, Suzanne Keen, a literary scholar who’s the author of a book called Empathy and the Novel. I enjoyed her talk; it was rich with background in literary aesthetics, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. Lots of talk about this ongoing question of whether reading novels makes people more empathetic (and therefore better citizens, in a sense). Ultimately Keen seems to feel that no, we can’t make grand claims like this--or at least there’s little empirical evidence, so far, to back them up (though she did point to interesting work--and interesting results--with prisoners in a program called the “Changing Lives through Literature” program).

What I kept coming back to in Keen’s talk was her use of terms like “aesthetic emotion” and “narrative pleasure.” I left the talk with more questions than answers about what such terms might mean, but I think that’s a productive place to be, as a writer. It’s some mix of everything we want in a novel--the pleasure of suspense, yes, but also characters that reach us emotionally, rich and powerful language, the memorable voice of someone with worlds to show us there on the page.

Not long ago I came across these words from Sam Lipsyte (a writer who’s as squarely in the literary camp as it’s possible to be, I suppose), from an interview with him that was published in BOMB 111/Spring 2010: “The notion of the page-turner always seemed foreign to me. I don’t want to be sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what happened next. I want to be falling off my seat in ecstatic pain because of what language and consciousness are doing on the page.”

I guess what I want--or what I’m dreaming of trying to achieve--is all of it: that “ecstatic pain” from a novel’s language and consciousness, but page-turning eagerness too. That may be too much “aesthetic emotion” or “narrative pleasure” to ask for. But I’ve found it, on rare occasions, and I keep hoping I can find my way toward a similar kind of magic in my own work.

Of course, I’m aware that the trick might be to stop thinking about it all so much, to stop obsessing about what readers (and therefore publishers) want. Here’s something else that Sam Lipsyte says in that interview, and that I want to print in large type and tape to the wall above my desk: “. . . there’s your writing, and there’s publishing, and occasionally they intersect, but mostly it’s just about your writing.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"The Rogue Idea"

Lots I want to write about here (including Bradford Morrow's The Diviner's Tale, which I just finished; see that Feb. 8 post on blending features of the literary and the non-literary/genre novel). But for right now I only have time to plug the Winter 2011 issue of The Literary Review. The theme of the issue is "The Rogue Idea," and it has some really wonderful work, including this great photograph by Alessandra Sanguinetti on the cover. I'm pleased and proud to note that "The Rogue Idea" also includes a story of mine, called "Benedicta, or a Guide to the Artist's Resume." Thanks to all the folks at TLR for this fine issue.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Little Boat, A Little House

Maybe, when the years have come

When I can lay aside my

Cap and robe of office,

I can take a little boat

And come back to this place.

--Chu Hsi

(Translated by Kenneth Rexroth; included in his One Hundred Poems from the Chinese)

Late Saturday night Jim, Anna, and I returned from a week-long trip to Jamaica. We were there with a group of college students and with Hopeton Clennon, the chaplain at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, where I teach. For most of the week we were on the beautiful and far less touristed southern coast, in Little Culloden, near Whitehouse. We traveled around, along the coast and up into the mountains, and we helped paint a boys’ home, mixed cement for a new trash receptacle at a school, and helped build new rooms for two small homes in beautiful, remote little villages in the mountains.

Actually, the students did most of this work; they were taught by Jamaican workers who could have probably done the work a lot faster on their own. But they taught the college students, and let them do much of the work, instead. At first, I think this whole process kind of annoyed some of the workers. But these college kids really grow on you--big smiles, lots of energy, playfulness with the children who were always around. By the end of our scheduled “service” time, there was a lot of affection all around.

The photo here is of one of the houses the students worked on, high up on a mountain, in an area called Left Hall. The drive there (in a big van) was precarious: steep switchbacks, lots of potholes. The view at the top was breathtaking. There was a whole little community up there--mostly, I think, members of an extended family. There was a tiny puppy that my daughter Anna worried about a lot.

It’s hard for me to describe this trip. I’m already tired of hearing myself say “beautiful” and “breathtaking” and “fabulous” over and over. I can’t figure out how to hold on to it. Language doesn’t cut it; even the photos we took don’t capture how I felt last week. Sun, warmth, the blue Caribbean. No cell phone, no computer, very little cash on hand (I didn’t need any of these things).

Springtime in Pennsylvania is nice and all (snowdrops and crocuses opening everywhere, birds back and singing; I’m not even minding the ugly tufts of crabgrass in our yard--at least they’re green). But I’ll be honest: I’m not at all happy to be home. I want to sit in a little house on top of a mountain in southwestern Jamaica and stare out at the sea for a very long time. And I simply don’t believe you when you tell me I’d get tired of it eventually.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

This morning my husband heard from a colleague of his who’s teaching in Oman. Things are relatively stable there, she reported, though there have been some relatively rare protests. What she also said was that unlike here in the U.S., where she always feels better informed about world events than the students she teaches, in Oman she has repeatedly felt less informed than her students.

Hearing this reminded me of a story I heard on NPR last week, about the illustrious Library of Alexandria, in Egypt, where protestors formed a human chain surrounding the library to protect it. "What happened was pure magic," the director of the library is quoted as saying. "People from within the demonstrations broke out of the demonstrations and simply linked hands, and they said 'This is our library. Don't touch it.'"

I’m worried about our priorities here in the U.S., about Tea Party-fueled fervor to balance the budget by making drastic cuts in heath care and social services, education, public broadcasting, and inevitably, in public services like libraries. I’m also worried about how poorly informed our populace seems to be; I fear we’re too distracted by entertainment and gadgets and the kind of whining and bickering that passes for news on the Fox network to recognize the very real dangers (like efforts to gut the collective bargaining rights of public employees) that are facing us, right here at home, now.

I love NPR. I love the fact that in the twenty minutes or so that I spend in the car on a given morning, I can learn about the Library of Alexandria, described by NPR’s Selena Simmons-Duffin as “a bastion of intellectual openness, holding conferences on human rights and standing firm against censorship” (and, interestingly, very much supported by Hosni Mubarak). And then, after that, I can listen to Susan Stamberg's story about Hollywood “prop masters” and the resources they draw on in gathering props for movies, like a place called “History for Hire,” whose alphabetical list of archived objects starts something like “ambulance gurnies, amputation kits, anchors . . . ” (I came home that day and wrote those three down).

Some days, like today, the stories aren’t so fun. Today I came home and wrote down a line from a brief news story about violence in Afghanistan. Military authorities there are waiting and watching, the reporter said, to see how many insurgents start to appear in this, “the traditional fighting season in the spring.”

Imagine the arrival of spring as the beginning of “the traditional fighting season.” Just yesterday, I thought this morning, there I was, in my own classroom, reading William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All” to my students and urging them to get outside and look for sprouts of green grass in the middle of all the ugly, muddy slush, for “the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf,” to look up the verb “to quicken.” I’ve been urging them to listen for bird song (it’s starting up, and it’s heavenly) for weeks now.

But that’s okay. Tomorrow I’ll tell them about spring as “the traditional fighting season” in Afghanistan. Get informed about it all, I’ll say--wildcarrot leaf, quickening, Afghanistan, the bird you’re hearing and wish you could identify, the remarkable Library of Alexandria, the teachers and nurses in the statehouse in Wisconsin, all of it. Try to think of whether there’s something you’d link arms and stand in a circle in front of in order to defend it from rocks and guns, or from financial gutting. Then write about it.

I've noticed that some bloggers that I read end their posts with a question--to invite comments, I suppose (read: Is anybody out there?) This might be a good time to pose a question, I suppose. What would you link arms to defend? Or, what are you most worried about losing, here and now?

*The Robert Mankoff cartoon at the beginning of this post appears in the February 28, 2011 New Yorker.