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Baker Towers: A Novelby Jennifer Haigh
Author Q & A
Was Baker Towers inspired by your own family history?
Yes and no. The characters themselves are inventions; they don't resemble anybody in my family. But the details about the town itself, what life was like in the postwar years, definitely came from my parents and other relatives. Baker Towers ends in the Vietnam era, right around the time I was born, so I couldn't rely on my own memories of the period I was writing about. By the time I came along, the coal mines were already in decline. The era of the company town was past, and the region was on its way to become something else. But I grew up hearing about how things used to be, and when I set out to write this book I had a wonderful time interviewing family members about what life was like when coal was king.
How did the characters evolve from the time you began imagining them?
The characters really did develop a generation at a time. When I began writing, Rose and Stanley were clearest to me. I had a vivid mental picture of what they looked like — Rose very dark, southern Italian; Stanley a Slavic type, big and blond — and I was fascinated by how those two sets of physical traits would combine and manifest in a large family. As far as developing the characters, that happens in the process of writing. Each event in the character's life changes her destiny in some way, and the writer makes these discoveries over time. One of the pleasures of writing a novel is following the characters over many years, from infancy to adulthood. When the story opens, Lucy is two months old; by the end, she is a grown woman. It's important to me that the reader recognizes the child in the adult, that the character "turns out" in a way that seems organic and true.
The novel is packed with details that re-create a vanished world. What were some of your best research sources?
I do my best research by talking to people. These conversations yield more than simple facts; they give me a feel for how people talk, what they remember, which events in their lives hold the greatest significance for them. Beyond that, I spend a lot of time looking at old newspapers and magazines — not just the headlines, but the advertisements. I care what people were wearing, what kinds of cars they drove, what groceries cost, what was playing on the radio. Some of this information finds its way onto the page, but most of it doesn't. It's my way of creating a world in my imagination, of making it real and vivid for myself.
How did the experience of writing this novel compare to that of your debut? What is life like now, as a full-time writer?
When I was writing Baker Towers, I felt a real sense of obligation to the region and the people who live there. It's a part of the world that doesn't get written about very often, and it was tremendously important to me that I do it justice, that I get it right. I'd been thinking about this book for many years, before I even wrote Mrs. Kimble; but I wasn't ready to tackle it. I think I sensed that I didn't yet have the skills to write it.
Writing full time is monotonous and lonely, but it works for me. When I'm deep into a novel, the characters are much more real to me than anybody in my own life, and that's necessary for me as a writer. Years ago, when I was writing mostly short stories, I could get by writing in the evenings or on weekends; but when I'm working on a novel, I really benefit from being able to work in long stretches. I write at home, in a quiet room with the curtains drawn. It sounds boring, and it is; but I can't write unless the world in my head is more vivid than my surroundings are. I'm amazed by writers who can compose on airplanes or in coffee shops. Writing is hard for me, and it only works in a place where nothing can distract me.
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