Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Q&A with Patricia Reis




Patricia Reis is the author of the new novel Unsettled. Her other books include Motherlines. She lives in Portland, Maine, and in Nova Scotia.


Q: In the acknowledgments for your new book, you write, “Unsettled is necessarily a work of fiction. Even with the help of artifacts and official documents, I was tasked with imagining the lives of my pioneering ancestors.” How much of the novel is based on your own family history?


A: The family portrait featured in Unsettled hung in the living room of my childhood home. The studio photograph was made in 1900. I had never met any of these people in my father’s lineage. They all died before I was born.


All I knew was that Adam, the patriarch, had emigrated from Germany and pioneered a farm on uncultivated land in Iowa in 1865 and that his son, Jacob, the young man on the right, is my paternal grandfather. My father was a great storyteller but he told few stories about the family pictured.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: One day in the late ‘90s I happened to be visiting my parents when Anne Spartz, the family genealogist, showed up. She arrived bearing newspaper articles and obituaries.


That’s when I learned that Adam died in a hay wagon turnover a year after the portrait was made. He was 61. A few years later, Elizabeth, the assumed mother of my grandfather, was put in an asylum and later took her life at age 47. That is when I began to become a bit haunted by these people.


Years later, in 2000, I was sitting in an Adirondack chair overlooking the Great Minas Basin in Nova Scotia. I had a yellow legal pad and pen in hand but nothing in particular to write when I “heard” a voice say, “It wasn’t that I wanted to die. It was just that I was so damn mad and it was the only means at hand.” 


I do not usually hear disembodied voices, but I knew right away who it was. Holy Cow! I thought, this is Elizabeth speaking!    I wrote her words down and knew that I was being tasked with writing her story.


I did some research, in the intuitive way I like, following ideas down the rabbit hole, reading novels, history of pioneers, women’s stories. I glean, picking up what feels useful. For the characters themselves I swam down the DNA, figuring that somewhere they lived inside me.

I wrote some, and put it away to do other things, other books, and then pulled it out again, and wrote some more and put it away. I shared what I had with a few trusted readers and they made suggestions. Back in the box it went.


In 2022, I was sitting outside on a bench overlooking the ocean in Portland, Maine. Again, I heard a voice. This one I recognized as mine, or at least the wiser part of me. “Patricia, will you please pull that manuscript out of the box and reread it.”


Obediently, I did as I was told. I thought, “This is good! I would read this book!” 


I called my trusty agent, April, and asked, “Can we think about submitting this again?” Earlier we had queried a few of the big-name publishers to no avail. 


April was excited! She had just met the publishers of Sibylline Press, a new press, who were publishing works of women over 50. I qualified! They had one more slot in their 2023 lineup. Bingo! 


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


A: The title had gone through various iterations. When I realized that Prairie Fever had been used, maybe even over-used, I considered the overarching theme of “settlers”: the fact that these pioneers arrived on the uncultivated prairie land that was being sold off by railroad companies. 


They were not the first people to live there, but were the first to bring the plow. They were settlers. Then I landed on Unsettled, which felt closer to truth in a larger sense.


Q: The author Michael Lesy said of the book, “One chapter to the next feels like walking, step by step, into a haunted house. A great read: Once you start, it’s hard to stop. Even when you meet a ghost.” What do you think of that description?


A: The writer Jacqueline Rose says “Haunting, or being haunted, might indeed be another word for writing.” In writing this work, I felt the word to be apt.


The land was haunted by those who had been pushed off, by government decrees, by fraudulent treaties, by people who wanted to farm the land: the tough uncultivated prairie grasses required the invention of a new plow to open the earth for planting; the people who arrived were driven by visions of the land’s amplitude and brought down by the harsh realities. 


We romanticize the pioneering life, forgetting the calamitous challenges.


Each of the characters are haunted in different ways. There are ghosts. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently working on a series of essays under the title Hospitable Memory: Reckoning with Ghosts. Most of the essays focus on animals and the landscape.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for the great questions. I hope I’ve answered them well.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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