Listen to the voices Studs Terkel collected in his Hard Times interviews and you'll get an idea of the stories I heard growing up, both in person and in family journals — particularly those of my great-grandmother — and how such a voice, even if only a few pages, could inspire a novel. One of my favorites is Terkel's interview with Oscar Heleen, a 78-year-old farmer who never left his birthplace of Marcus, Iowa. "You've lived on this farm all your life," Terkel says to him. "Yes," Heleen answers, "I was born in the house in the other yard right across the fence there."
When Terkel asks Heleen what comes to mind when he thinks of the Depression, Heleen answers, "The real struggle of the individual." He explains: "After [a man] lived all his life on a given farm, he lost it. It was taken away from him, just one after the other. We didn't have very many laws that protected the individual as we have today."
But the emotional gift of this interview occurs several minutes later. Heleen describes a group of farmers who decide to have words with a local judge famous for issuing speedy foreclosures. "We're not concerned whose court this is," Heleen imitates the voices that rage in the courtroom, "except that it is doing the things that we can't stand to have done to us anymore." Heleen continues:
...they finally went up and drug him from his chair, pulled him down the steps of his courthouse, and shook a rope in front of his face, then tarred and feathered him. The governor called out the National Guard and put some of these farmers behind barbed wire.
After an even-headed description, Heleen's already shaky voice hesitates. "Just you imagine," he says, and his voice breaks. "The National Guard," he says, and another break. "Putting a whole group of farmers" (break) "behind barbed wire" (break) "in this state." At this point his voice falters completely and his next words have the wet and throaty sound of a man trying to hold back: "You don't forget these things."
At this moment, the interview falls into silence. This silence lasts only seconds, but the listener can sense an attempt at correction, the summoning of memory and strength. When Heleen finally continues, his voice has straightened and he's elevated his diction as if trying to erase the past minute and a half: "Now, during this period of time..." he begins again.
That instant of silence exposes a temperament I have known since I was born, one that is repeated in the Depression-era family journal that inspired The Quickening and that I was determined to dramatize. My great-grandmother began the journal in the last year of her life, after she'd lost her husband of nearly half a century. Though the journal covers more than 71 years, she wrote only 15 pages, her date of birth — 1880 — at the top. And now here I am in February 1950, she wrote, broken hearted and sick in mind and body, begging God every day to take me to him or heal my afflicted body and show me what to do. I don't want to stay in this world. It is not my home, but for some reason I am left.
The pages end there, with more dread and longing in every sentence than I have heard altogether from my family in more than three decades. Though often grief-stricken, the journal's repeated moments of reticence remain startling: Time went on, my great-grandmother wrote. We worked and got along so nicely. While there were difficulties and hard places, there wasn't anything that was too hard for either of us to do for the other.
Much of my great-grandmother's story would shape Enidina, one of the two farmwives, trying to survive the Great Depression, who narrate The Quickening. Even in her grief, Enidina reveals the more reserved side of my great-grandmother's account. But in a medium wholly dependent on words, how does a writer dramatize a character's silences? I had to pay attention to my visual sense of the way they moved in a room, their gestures, their hesitations, and the coded messages of what they did allow themselves to say. In one scene, Enidina has just introduced her brother to Frank, a man she's grown sweet on though they've only just met:
You must understand what a shock it was for my family, their aging daughter, as strong as any of the boys and without a delicate bone to speak of. Frank brought me to my eldest brother's in his wagon, and my brother wondered at him in silence as he took us into the house. We sat together in the kitchen, the table bare between us. All of us were worn with travel or work. The evening had grown to dusk. The kitchen itself was quiet, save for a loose window that rattled in its sill. Finally, my brother spoke. "Frank," he said, "you ever drive a four-horse team?"
"Since I could tug a rope," Frank said.
My brother clapped his hand on the table and looked outside. "Well, then, it's too late in the day for travel. It's not even day anymore. We've got a cot out back. Would you be needing a place to sleep?"
"I would," Frank answered.
"Well, there you are then," my brother said. "It's yours."
These methods aren't unusual for any writer worth his weight, but when my creative imagination lost hold of the finer details, my stoic characters left me staring at blank pages. Of course, the novel itself isn't about silence, but about two families trying to protect their households against desperate and often violent events. And the second of my first-person narrators isn't silent at all. When Enidina first meets Mary, closed-mouthed "Eddie" describes the encounter in less than glowing terms: "That's the way she went, you see, talking as if she was thirsty, but not for anything I felt good enough to offer. She talked as if she had never talked to another person in her life."
If anything, these temperamental extremes are what give my novel conflict. Although there are plenty of events in the book that trouble my characters, their greatest struggles have to do with each other. In an Iowan landscape that is "as flat and plain as a plate, where little was hidden," it's the emotional differences that stand out, whether anybody wants them to or not.
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Michelle Hoover teaches writing at Boston University and Grub Street and has published fiction in Confrontation, The Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, and Best New American Voices, among others. She has been a Bread Loaf Writer's Conference scholar, the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, a MacDowell fellow, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and in 2005, the winner of the PEN/New England Discovery Award for Fiction. She was born in Ames, Iowa, the granddaughter of four longtime farming families.
Books mentioned in this post
Michelle Hoover is the author of The Quickening