Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Q&A with Meredith Hall

Photo by Nick Brown
Meredith Hall is the author of the new novel Beneficence. She also has written the memoir Without a Map, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Five Points and The Gettysburg Review. She lives in Maine and California. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Beneficence and for the Senter family?

A: I grew up in New Hampshire and raised my children on a little homestead in rural Maine, so farms and the farming life are familiar to me, a world I have always longed for. When I sat down and started to write Beneficence, that longing seemed to just erupt as a place that has always been known to me, familiar and beautiful and demanding.

And then I started to discover the people who called it home. Who were they? What happened among them? The essential events came to me as if it were a story I had heard all my life: a child dies, the mother, as Maine people say, “went into herself,” and the father, in his grief, behaved badly. I thought I recognized that man: my own father, a shallow and narcissistic man.

So as I started to write, I imagined that I was going to focus on Tup’s failures of character, his self-concern, his egregious breaking of family and social rules. With my own father in my mind, I especially wanted to explore how a man like that justifies his decisions, the harm he creates among the people who trust and love him.

But that is not the story that emerged. Instead, I came to feel profound respect for Tup. I witnessed the effects of grief and loss on a good man. He is flawed. We all are. But his failures arise from too much love, not too little.

Instead of writing a fictionalized account of my father, which would be a doomed experiment, I think, I discovered a large, tender and very compelling man. I was astonished to realize that I was coming to love Tup with all my heart as I wrote him.

Doris was a harder character for me to enter initially, I think because it was so difficult to consider the experience of a mother losing a child. What does it mean for her to face her basic, daily household responsibilities but to be unable to stay truly present during a time her children and husband most need her?

She is absent. She succumbs to her grief and, no matter how much she recognizes her failure, cannot find her way back to being mother and wife. Writing Doris’s grief was extremely difficult. During that period in the writing, I woke to a startled realization one night: I was telling my own story, and had not understood that at all.

I lost a child, under very different circumstances, when I was very young, and so I think this story, in many ways, is a telling of that loss, a reprise, a searching for understanding and expression. The depth of Doris’s grief is extremely difficult to witness. I feel great compassion for her, and hope readers share that sense of understanding and forgiveness—for both parents.

And Dodie. Dodie became the narrator of all I wanted to say to Tup and Doris. She grows up hard and fast, and calls her parents back to their home and family again and again and again. She asks the questions I found most troubling.

Dodie bursts with vitality, with a great hunger for life, a capacity, as Tup tells her, to love. She is loyal and kind. Already, we can see the woman she will become, and all the ways Tup and Doris created a world for her to grow to that life.

Q: The novel takes place on a farm in Maine. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: For me, setting is inextricable from characters and events. The “where” is vital to our understanding of the Senters. They are bound to their house, their farm, the land, the barn and creek and fields, the orchard and the generations of gravestones on the hill under the pines.

This place brings them purpose in their hard work, beauty and a sense of independence and freedom, an apartness from the world. And, in the end, it helps them find their way back to the comfort and love the farm has always nurtured in them.

Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: My brilliant editor at Godine, Josh Bodwell, first suggested this title. I liked it—what a great word!—but I was surprised. Where did it come from? I was astonished as I did a final edit, weeks after we agreed on this mysterious title, to discover that I use this word four times in the book. Beneficence.

Q: As someone who has written both fiction and memoir, does your writing process differ depending on the genre, and do you have a preference?

A: Yes, there is a big difference in the process for me. I am a storyteller. I have learned that I think in stories. I make sense of the world in stories. I remember in stories. So when I wrote my memoir, Without a Map, the stories already existed. I mined them, as memoirists do, for meaning and understanding.

I had hundreds of stories I could have written, so I had to make big decisions about which stories really told the larger life. I had to make structural decisions. But, mostly, it felt as if the stories were lying there on the path, waiting for me to pick them up, to recognize them, to give them words.

Writing fiction was entirely different. I sometimes hear writers say they struggle to start, struggle to find the story. For me, it feels as if I sit in my chair, turn on the Gregorian chants which always accompany my writing—beautiful music filled with longing—and something inside opens to abundance. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything can happen.

I think, Once… and a story rises, stories, infinite stories. I let one start, and I am writing. I don’t feel as if I am controlling or even really deciding, although, of course, I am doing both of those things. The emotional experience as I write fiction is almost ecstatic, even when I write the saddest scenes. That I am able to make story. 

I don’t know if this will always be the case, but I found with Beneficence that I have ended up inviting readers, strangers, into my heart and brain in ways that even my memoir did not. I am so exposed in Beneficence, more exposed and visible than in Without a Map. So fiction feels, oddly, riskier in that sense. But I love it. I am not eager to return to memoir. I have told my big story.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a novel, figuring out the voice and the structure.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I might say something about my relationship with the Senter family. As I wrote these people, this home, this farm, these events, I felt a powerful connection, a belongingness. I came to love each of these people deeply. And I felt their grief, so deeply I often wept.

I would wake in the night thinking about the writing, and the story would swamp me and I would lie in my bed crying for these people I loved. I scolded myself, saying, “Look. This doesn’t have to be their story. You control all this. Just write it differently! Don’t make them go through this!”

But, somehow, it was already their story, it existed, and there could be no way to softer ground. It was a costly writing. Still, now, I am grateful these people are in the world, calling out their story to us. I hope readers come to love Tup and Doris and Dodie as I do.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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