1. Some great questions came my way from a recent book club meeting, so I thought I'd share them with everybody. Enjoy!
Where did you get the idea for the two main characters? What research did you do for the book?
The book is loosely based on a journal my great-grandmother wrote in the last year of her life. It is very short, only about fifteen pages. Enidina is based on a combination of my great-grandmother (at least in events) and my grandmother (in physicality and—I was later told by my family when they read it—in voice). Mary is based on the real-life Frank’s sister-in-law, also named Mary. My great-grandmother’s journal contains an early scene (only a few sentences really) in which Mary nearly kills Frank by trying to feed him when he’s ill. My great-grandmother wrote: “I didn’t have time for her after that.” And with a woman like my great-grandmother, I’m sure she didn’t. Mary was a very small character in early versions of the book, but readers seemed to like the tension and energy she brought to it, so I turned her into a neighbor that Enidina would have to deal with no matter what. Early on, my agent wanted me to stick with Enidina alone, but when I took Mary out, the book just fell flat. She’s like an open air valve to these otherwise stoic characters. In truth, I don’t think anything would actually happen unless Mary was there. And I needed her side of the story to make her character work at all.
For research, I interviewed family members, scoured libraries, and read/listened to any personal stories about farm life during that time period that I could find. I’ve never slaughtered a hog or milked a cow, but am more than happy that most people who read the book believe I grew up doing so.
2. Why is Eddie writing to her grandson, when it sounds like she has never met him and it seems unlikely her daughter will ever return? How does she know it is a grandson and not a granddaughter?
In chapter three, Eddie remembers an old letter that her daughter sent claiming the doctor has told Adaline that she’ll have a boy. Eddie knows her grandson’s expected birth date after that. But she begins to write when the grandson turns eleven. She always thought Adaline would have returned by then, knowing what happened at that age to herself and her brother and how difficult the memory is to Enidina. But Adaline doesn’t return. And the only reason she doesn’t, Enidina believes, is that something has happened to the grandson. She needs to know what.
In truth, Enidina actually does know what has happened to her grandson, but she has imagined it otherwise. Her letter is a way to keep him with her. It’s also a way for her to explain—to Adaline or anyone who might return and read what she has written—what happened to the family and why.
3. Who is Mary writing to in the chapters in her voice?
Her chapters are kind of a confession. In the first chapter, you’ll see that Enidina notices Mary is always whispering to herself, as if she had God or an audience at her feet. Mary is confessing to anyone who will judge her. This includes God in a sense, but also her sons, and even Jack. She wants to be forgiven. She just has no idea how to go about it.
4. Your book evokes the misery of farm families during the Depression. Do you think it would be very different if the setting were changed to today? Do you think people who stay in farming differ from those who leave it? If so, how?
The Depression certainly engendered a particular mindset, one which my parents were born into and carried with them all their lives. They essentially bred that mindset into me. Do not waste. Do not behave in excess. Do not take things for granted. I thought the recent recession might return us to that way of thinking, but Americans have too many credit cards. As far as people leaving versus staying, I’m not sure. I myself left home because of some significant losses in my childhood and teenage years. These weren’t nearly as significant as Adaline’s losses, but her leaving does in a way reflect my own. (Though I still try to call my mother every other week.) People who stay love the land; they love the familiar. They love the history of their families in the place and would consider it a betrayal to leave what their fathers and grandfathers worked for. This is what I think at least. Of course, some don’t have a choice. The small farmer can barely make it today. We’re really losing an important way of life, and we’re only gaining worse food, worse pollution, worse pricing, worse health.
5. Do sparse communication exchanges between the women and children reflect communication problems ending in estrangement or do you see the spareness of the dialogue as a literary device that adds to the suspense of how the story will play out? In other words, do you see Mary and Eddie as at fault in their children’s estrangement?
Mary is at fault for her sons’ estrangement. She’s so intense, such a perfectionist, and more concerned about things as they appear instead of as they are. Her boys simply flee her. The sparse communication itself is more a reflection of the kind of people I grew up with, the kind who seldom speak directly about their feelings, whether high or low, and often hide their most complex thoughts. This is what I consider a Midwestern temperament. It includes the highest form of emotional responsibility but also problems with repression. It was actually quite difficult to write. I had to always work through implication and small gestures, the spaces between words. If in the end, this style increased the suspense of the book, all the better. But I didn’t do it just for suspense. I would think that’d drive readers crazy.
6. The title refers to…
a. the quickening Enidina felt under Adaline’s skin
b. Kyle’s quickening—caused many problems. It would be a different story w/o him
c. all the pregnancies in the novel
d. quickening of the life that emerged for both families in their harsh circumstances
e. “the quick and the dead”—Apostle’s Creed
f. none of the above
It refers to a through d.
7. Do you mean the reader to feel conflicted about Mary? Is she a victim of her experiences or is she just a self-centered, evil woman?
She’s both. She was certainly a victim at age twelve, and a victim to a rather unloving mother. She is a victim to Jack’s rage. But she also causes his rage. She has convinced herself that what she does at the end is for her family’s preservation, but it is more for her own. I don’t consider her evil. Hitler is evil. Mary is similar to quite a few people. Extreme self protection and self righteousness eventually leads to hurting those around you.
8. Did Mary provoke the boy in the woods when she was twelve or was she entirely innocent?
She was entirely innocent.
9. Why did Kyle whip the horse? Was it his repressed rage at his father’s beatings?
You got it—repressed rage. I also think he sees the horse as himself in a way—a desperate, starved animal—and therefore he is beating the part of him he doesn’t like.
10. Do you think the current economic times are pitting people against each other like in the story?
I think poverty often brings out a savage instinct to survive. We all have these instincts, though our rational sides usually balance them out. Still, when people are poor, when their sense of humanity is taken away from them, you can’t always expect them to act like saints. It’s simply the pyramid of need. I do believe in personal responsibility, but I also don’t condone selfishness. We have to take care of each other. This is what civilization is all about.
11. Do you think the dynamics in small country towns are still the same as in the book?
I haven’t really lived in a small town for years. Certainly, the cliché of a small town is that everyone is in everyone’s business, that appearances matter while sometimes the most important events are hidden behind doors. These clichés are based on something true, at least, like all clichés, but generalizations are always dangerous. Still, you see reflections of this kind of small town life in nearly every book and movie with a small town setting.
12. “Fire colors” come up a lot. Do you think these colors when you think of Iowa or are these colors there to emphasize the relationship to earth (living off the land) and passionate feelings?
Because most of my characters don’t wear their feelings on their sleeves, I did have to use the landscape to reflect much of their internal world. The land is almost its own character, and so only natural colors would work. And in truth, such colors are simple the most beautiful to me.
13. Why did you want to write this story?
I started this book in grad school, when I was twenty-three. At twenty-three you don’t have much material. I’ve never been keen on those novels that are thinly veiled autobiography. There are so many more interesting things to write about. I wrote the beginnings of Enidina’s voice in a class exercise, and thought I had something/someone I wanted to follow. I really wanted to write about these people and this place. The temperament, the land is very much a part of me. I guess writing it helped me figure out what that part really was and how I am still negotiating it now, both respecting it, saving it, cherishing it, as well as leaving some of it behind. In that way, the novel is still a reflection of myself. I suppose ever novel is, because they all carry the writer’s vision. What greater reflection of self is there?