A Conversation with Jean Harfenist, author of A Brief History of the Flood
Q: A Brief History of the Flood is your first collection of short stories. What inspired you to start writing?
A: I started to write fiction in 1990 while home on medical leave from an ad agency, recovering from what had been diagnosed as chronic mononucleosis. After two years of being nearly bedridden, I had begun to have hours and, occasionally, entire days of feeling well enough to do something, when one morning the UCLA Extension catalog slipped from the stack of mail I was reading in bed. Idly, I flipped through it - and, just as idly, I reached for the phone and registered for a course called "Writing from the Inner-Self."
I had always been a planner, a lover of flowcharts and methods-time-measurement studies. This was whim. I wasn't well yet. And I was a businesswoman, not a writer. This was frivolous. It was silly. But I had to get out of the house; I had to produce something; and I had exactly nothing to lose. This was a low-cost, low-threat, no-credit course. Sick people could drop out. Besides, how difficult could it be to write from the inner-self?
"Snap-fit assembly" is a term describing a manufacturing method in which two pieces of plastic are molded separately but designed to fit together perfectly and permanently. You've experienced it: two pieces of plastic are pressed together and the resulting soft click eliminates any question about whether the right pieces are in the right place.
I had to drop that first writing course, and I had to drop in and out of several of those that followed, but I had heard the click.
Q: Once you felt that "click," what led you to the Andersons and Lillian? Are they and Acorn Lake modeled after your own rural Minnesota lake-town upbringing?
A: After years of living in Manhattan and even more years of living in Los Angeles, the first assignment of my first writing course spun me around and pushed me back toward rural Minnesota. The assignment was to ape the structure and tone of a sample story handed out in class. I remember only that the first-person narrator took us, dreamlike, from her present to her past, age by age, year by year. Like this: I’m seventeen, and my father is talking quietly to his mother on the phone as I pack to elope with the mechanic who cracked the block in Dad’s ’57 Chevy. I pause to sniff the STP trapped in the crescents of my uncut cuticles…. I’m fifteen. I’m angry. I’m out of here… I’m fourteen…and so on, moving hypnotically back toward the crib.
I began by making a list, jotting a brief memory next to every age of my life. In most cases, it was nothing more than a few words of remembered dialogue or an image; seldom was it more than a sentence or two, but it always truncated. Then, working backward, year by year, I wove fiction around each memory, creating a small story that gave plot and meaning to that which had had neither. Later, of course, I realized that those free-floating little memories are buoys marking unfinished business. But that’s another story.
The structure of A Brief History of the Flood is largely a result of my first-ever writing assignment; there is at least a kernel of fact in each story (if memories can ever be fact), I’ve stolen from my remembered childhood to write my fiction. It’s a method that set these stories firmly in a landscape—both human and geographic—that is of my childhood.
One thrill as a writer has been discovering the ways in which the episodes nest and cycle and repeat themselves. From a fragment of remembered dialogue or just as often from a long Midwestern silence, will come a story or scene that is part of a pattern that couldn’t have been recognized without the devotion of a great deal of time and attention. A few remembered words can be a path back through generations of a family and a community—even if the writer has lost over time everything except those few words and the feelings that surrounded them. Those same words can often predict the future as well.
Q: What do you think was unique to growing up in rural America in the sixties? Today?
A: In A Brief History of the Flood, the town of Acorn Lake is sixty miles from Minneapolis, while the town I grew up in was barely half that distance. To put it plainly, you could get from our town to Minneapolis—even before the freeway was built, long before a bridge spanned the Minnesota River between Savage and Shakopee—well, you could get to The Cities faster than you could go two blocks in a cab in Midtown Manhattan tomorrow morning in rush-hour traffic.
What was unique to rural life in the sixties was particularly intense just thirty miles from a major city. Although we didn’t understand what we were looking at, we had front-row seats for the demise of the farm as a family business and as a way of life. My father was a salesman but we lived in a farming town. Our friends, neighbors and classmates were farmers and children of farmers. It was a time that began when farmers who had inherited farms from their fathers and grandfathers still believed that their kids would inherit the farms from them; their daughters would marry farmers; their kids who didn’t inherit would find work, just as their own cousins and siblings had always done, jobs that supported (and relied on) farming. They’d work at the grain elevator or the feed-mill, start at the bottom in the lumberyard, get a job at the hardware store, or maybe even buy a bar.
But at about the same time that the expansion of the Twin Cities made the land too valuable to keep, it became necessary to purchase shockingly expensive, sophisticated equipment in order to compete with gigantic corporate farms. The farmers sold their land off in parcels. Profits declined farther and then disappeared until it became a question of whether they could manage to lose less this year than last, and whether they could keep up the payments on the new equipment.
I don’t think there is a great deal of difference today between rural and city kids – even those far away from major metro areas. Acorn Lake, if it existed, would be homogenized by TV, movies, franchised stores and fast-food outlets.
Q: You describe Lillian, the narrator of all the stories in this collection, as "fierce, wonderfully wry and yet painfully earnest, marching from eight to eighteen—the child of child-like parents, always figuring out new ways to raise herself…" What inspired Lillian’s personality?
A: Lillian is, in a way, a literary construct. I had written a number of stories about the Anderson family, most in third person from her older brother, Randy’s, point of view, in which Lillian was just one of the four kids, and probably too introspective and analytical to be of real fictional interest. Then one day she got angry, and as I played with it on the page, I started to hear the voice of a great childhood girlfriend—a cheerleader, a fearless, robust, farm girl who could cook a meal for a dozen farmhands when she was ten years old, a girl who, with the flick of a wrist, once sailed a dried-up cow-pie at me like a lethal weapon. When I laid her voice in over a less secure girl, it worked—probably because the robust voice coming from Lillian feels like a protective device. And it energized the fiction.
Q: There are four children in the Anderson family: Randy, Mitzy, Lillian, and Davey. Do you think siblings share a special bond that is strengthened through shared adversity?
A: No doubt. Although as anyone who has a sibling knows, never in history have two children grown up in the same household or shared the same parents—which takes us right back to the importance of memory and the way we look back from adulthood to create our own personal myth using as a framework the very fragmented moments that never quite made sense, the little buoys that mark unfinished business. We add to those the family chorus, those repeated stories that define us, and then toss in crystal clear memories that later turn out to have been remembered only from photographs.
Siblings do have the amazing awareness of shared history. But I think we often have an odd and seldom-discussed alienation from each other—and thus, I think, from the world, because even the people who were there often didn’t see what you saw; and as a result, their very presence today denies your inner reality—except for those rare stunning moments when something unexpectedly triggers a memory that lives in your body and your brain, and you look in a sibling’s eyes, and there are no words for that moment of profound connection.
And then you look away.
Q: Jack and Marion, Lillian’s parents, have a terrible marriage; Jack is an alcoholic who is mentally—and sometimes physically—abusive, and Marion takes pills by the handful to cope. Why does Marion stick with Jack? Do you think many women are trapped in similar marriages for similar reasons?
A: Marion stays with Jack because, as it’s often explained in the simplest psychological terms, she married a man like her father and she will make this man love her the way her father didn’t. She’ll get it right this time if it kills her. And it almost does.
Cycles and repetition and dysfunction roll downhill, one generation to the next.
Add to that personal history the socio-economic factors. Few couples divorced in that place and time. Even when Marion wanted to leave Jack, she couldn’t. She had no education, no work history, not a clue about how to behave outside the bedroom and the kitchen (she’d fled the PTA in bored horror years earlier). She’d been trained, ingrained from birth to believe that she was unintelligent. If she ever tried to use her brains, Jack told her that she thought too damned much. Even if she’d had the skills or the education to be self-sufficient, by the time she woke up to the fact that it was time to leave an abusive marriage, she was disabled by self-doubt.
Lots of women are trapped today and for similar reasons. I’m always surprised that so many are trapped in the year 2001 in spite of the progress of the last thirty years. So many seem trapped in trying to redo the past, hamsters running in cages, motion-mesmerized in the addictive drive to find the love they didn’t get. It happens to men too of course, but I didn’t write that book.
Q: Many of your characters get through life with a little help from various chemical substances: uppers, downers, alcohol, junk food. Do you think there is a culture of escapism unique to rural parts of the country?
A: No. Although urbanites like to think so. They might argue that there’s not much else to do in the boondocks. Or, worse, they imply that it’s a population with a lower IQ, and what can you expect from those people? And there’s the idea that the sheer frustration from the lack of opportunity out there at the gravel crossroads drives people to drugs, alcohol, and rutting like the farm animals they tend. I admit there’s a little truth in all of that. But the city flipside offers as least as many reasons—and probably more—to seek escape. Slightly different reasons; same endgame.
Q: Is there a mystique to people like Lillian, or yourself, who manage to truly escape, people who leave?
A: One would hope so.
The idea of the "survivor" has always intrigued, whether it’s the kid who escapes from a tough background—rural or urban—and then thrives, or the shipwreck survivor, or the gladiator who walks from the arena.
That’s human nature, that wanting to identify with the survivor (read: winner), to believe for a moment that we, too, could have survived the same situation. Add to that a fairly uncomplicated curiosity about how that particular rat escaped from that cage.
It seems that no one is more mystified or more curious about what made the survivor survive than the survivors themselves.
Q: As a writer, who are your influences?
A: My husband, my mother, my father, my siblings, my dear smart friends, my dog who begs shamelessly for love, and my cat who makes me beg. My step-children who grew up on a planet called "New Jersey." Louise Erdrich who wrote Love Medicine—a novel if I ever saw one, but with the structural beauty of short stories, and book full of people who stumble through life on land that feels as if it were my own; by Anne Tyler who writes so well that she makes it look easy—so easy that reading any few pages, anywhere, in any of her novels, can fool me into believing that it’s so easy that I can do it too; Tobias Wolff who had the courage to write This Boy’s Life and to do it with such sustained dignity—long before Dorothy Alison wrote Bastard or Mary Karr wrote Liar’s Club; Tim O’Brien who convinced me of what I already knew—that voice, even when it’s undoubtedly a voice that had to have been painstakingly carved into shape, can bring power to an idea. I think most writers want to create a set of feelings in someone who reads our work—maybe it’s part of not wanting to feel so alone. We want to write it so well that someone we’ve never met will one day look us in the eye like a sibling and say wordlessly, "Yes. That’s it." And Tim O’Brien convinced me with The Things They Carried that voice is the music that makes the words of opera penetrate from our brains down into our souls. If a writer had enough talent, she could, with voice and a few well-chosen words, without a musical instrument in sight, sync a story to Barber’s Adagio for Strings without the reader ever knowing where that sorrow and that feeling of being lifted up by the back of the head came from. If a writer had enough talent, she could create with a few well-chosen words the photographs that were never taken.
Q: What advice would you give to young writers?
A: Write. Read. Write some more. And if you get stuck:
Take a nap. Read a great book. Open a great book to any page and type it out until you’re straining with the desire to throw off the other (greater) writer’s clothes and go your own damned way. Take classes from many instructors, but take only what you need and leave the rest. Trust your instincts about when to move on. The instructor didn’t adopt you; she just gave you a seat in class and the benefit of what she gave blood to learn. Take it, be grateful, and move on, wide-eyed.
Come to think of it, label a manila folder like this: STUCK? And into it drop a note about anything that ever works to get you unstuck. Stick a Post-It to the side of your computer screen reminding you to look in your STUCK? file the next time you’re stalled out.
If you truly want to learn how to write a good story ending or beginning or any other thing, spend days and nights sitting alone on the floor, moving stacks of old prize collections—Pushcarts, O’Henry’s, Best American Short Stories—from your left side to your right, reading only the ends of stories or only the beginnings, and taking notes on how it was done when it succeeded.
Accept the truth that you will have to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.
Accept the truth that unless you’re unlike any writer I’ve ever heard of, you will have to give up a great deal of your life to be a writer. Hours, days, weeks, months, years. In short, most of your waking hours until you die or lose your marbles. But if you have that "writer thing" inside you, if you are that thing, you’ll die if you don’t do it. And if you have that thing in you, no one will have to explain to you that you have to forgo lots of picnics, parties, football games, long chatty phone calls to friends, and those inanest of inane hours reading People magazine. You’ll already be wondering why anyone would ever expect you to waste your time with activities that seem frivolous. That seem, well, silly. You’re not a businesswoman; you’re a writer.