, the third novel by the utterly charming and gracious Samantha Hunt, is one of those rare books in which both the language and the story take center stage. We were hooked by the remarkable prose and then compelled by the inventive plot and the (somewhat literally) fantastic characters. Ruth and Nat are best friends growing up in the Love of Christ! Foster Home, run by an aging megalomaniac and his sometimes-there, drug-addicted wife. Out of boredom and, later, for profit, assisted by an eloquent, intriguing con man, the two kids channel the dead. Hunt alternates Ruth's chapters with a narrative set years later following her pregnant, unwed niece Cora, who is being led by a mute Ruth on a silent journey across the state of New York. Mr. Splitfoot
is a beautiful, funny, bizarre, and wholly original tale that manages to incorporate love, death, motherhood, séances, and ghost activism.
In a starred review, Publishers Weekly
raves, "This spellbinder is storytelling at its best," and Kelly Link implores, "Samantha Hunt is astonishing....Her new book contains everything that I want in a novel. If I could long-distance mesmerize you, dear reader, into picking up this book and buying it and reading it at once, believe me: I would." We were thrilled to choose Mr. Splitfoot
for our Indiespensable
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What was the genesis of Mr. Splitfoot
I started writing it when I was nine months pregnant with twins. I could hardly walk and so, yes, of course I should write a book about two women walking across New York State! And make one of them pregnant! I was thinking about Linda Thompson a lot. I love her music. I think often about how she lost her voice for so many years. Linda Thompson, Maya Angelou, Marianne Faithfull. What does it mean to be a woman, a singer, who can't talk, can't sing? My great-grandma Ada lost her voice after her first child died. I wanted to make a character who can't speak. How is she going to tell her story?
What's your interest in, and experience with, the supernatural? Have you ever held, or attended, a séance?
I am very interested in the supernatural, though that doesn't necessarily translate to belief. I think often about how the dead affect my life. There are loads of natural things that are super, like eyeballs, peacocks, and telepathy. Many things have happened I cannot explain. For example, when my youngest daughter was three, we drove past a roadside memorial. The cross said "BILLY." My oldest daughter asked, "What's that?" I paused a minute before answering because it was sad. In that pause my three-year-old, a child who could not yet read, said, "That's where William died." Not Billy as the memorial read (and she couldn't read yet anyway), but William. My husband and I froze. Said nothing. Finally I managed, "How'd you know that?" Her answer: "The robot in my brain told me." Now what am I supposed to do with that? What do we do when faced with the unexplainable? We just carry on as if it didn't happen.
I wrote Mr. Splitfoot
to spend time with the supernatural. Belief interests me very much. Part of my research involved trips to Lily Dale in Upstate New York. It is a gated Victorian Spiritualist community. Kind of like Chautauqua, only everyone there believes in open communication with the dead. Twice a day in the summer people gather at Inspiration Stump, an amphitheater in the woods past the pet cemetery. A medium stands before those gathered and calls out the names of the dead he or she is speaking with. "I've got Susan here. Anyone looking for Susan?" Or, "You in the black and white sweater, your Uncle Harold thinks you should go back to school." It's amazing. Amazing and sad, as many of the people are parents of dead children. I get that. Where else are the parents of the dead supposed to go? It's a demonstration of hope.
While I was at Lily Dale, I met with one of their board-certified mediums. She was very proper, like a grandma. She said, "Women come to me in this ear. Men the other." That seemed less proper. She then told me that there was a woman there with emeralds on her fingers. I have red hair so I thought, Okay. I get it. You see red hair, you think Ireland, you think emeralds
. I didn't know anyone who wore emeralds and I didn't recognize the person she described at all. I didn't believe it, but then she said, "There's a man here who wants you to know that in life he'd never pass through these gates."
As soon as she said that, even though I still didn't believe it, I was crying like a baby. My dad died kind of young from smoking cigarettes. My dad was a nonbeliever. So I bawled on her lanai for a half an hour, and even though I thought it was a con, it didn't stop it from helping me. It was time-collapsed therapy, years of work in 30 minutes. The medium said, "Your dad is sitting next to you on the couch. Is there something you want to tell him?" And when she put it that way, I found I didn't really have anything that I needed to tell him. I miss him, but maybe it is okay that he is dead.
Con artists mean a lot to me. I grew up in a very lively and often drunk household full of fantastic storytellers. No one ever allowed the truth to get in the way of a good story. So I feel a great affinity to these mediums because I too am a con artist. I am a writer of fiction more interested in narrative truth than a record of events. I have great respect for con artists everywhere, particularly those who use their conning skills for good: artists, writers, moviemakers, even these Spiritualist mediums.
I hired another medium to get in touch with Charlotte Brontë for me. I wanted a Brontë blurb for this book, as Jane Eyre
meant a lot to me when I was starting to write. The medium helped me get a blurb from Charlotte. Ms. Brontë is not as articulate as when she was living, but I'm still pleased about it.
Sure, some mediums are emptying bank accounts, but others help people get comfortable with mortality, and I'm happy to use them to talk to the dead. Even if I don't believe it.
What about cults, or fringe religions? You've got two in this novel. (And if the Etherists weren't founded by such a creepy leader, it would be a pretty cool religion.) Did you have to do much research for the religions you write about?
When I started writing Mr. Splitfoot
, I had just moved away from Brooklyn to a small Upstate town. Even though I grew up in New York, Upstate was a mystery. It's huge! And many, many places are hard to get to because the Adirondacks are so grand and unpeopled. I felt that big old mystery and all that unknown history sitting right there on top of my head. I wanted to explore. That's how I found Tahawus, the abandoned mining town where some of the book's finest action takes place. It's also how I developed a deep, unrequited love for the dead and haunted Erie Canal and the ancient cities it passes through: Troy, Utica, Rome, Syracuse.
Upstate New York is a nursery for new religions. The Mormons and the Spiritualists were 15 minutes away from each other up near Palmyra. The Oneida Community and the Shakers. I love learning about them all and have always been fascinated by Mormons. I dated some ex-Mormons and I love the idea of an American homegrown religion, especially one where the founder put two seeing stones in the bottom of a dark hat in order to translate the Book of Mormon. That is some powerful storytelling. Upstate I attended the Mormon Pageant that happens every year at Hill Cumorah where Joseph Smith found the golden tablets. LDS members come from all around the world to perform the Book of Mormon on a stage 10 stories high. They stroll around in costume, wearing brown face. It is very friendly, very strange. Outside the gates, the Baptists are screaming that the Mormons are crazy. A real spectacle from all angles.
I spent some time at an Episcopalian monastery along the Hudson. My favorite part was when the brothers would sing the Psalms antiphonally. The Psalms say some really far out things like, "Do I eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats?" Crazy. Wonderful.
With Mr. Splitfoot
I wanted to make my own religion to better understand how this happens. So I collected the things I love best: outer space, geology, mountains, sex, and vinyl records. I threw them all into one big heap and came up with the Etherists. Their holy books sample a number of different religious texts plus Carl Sagan's Cosmos
, plus Cher, David Bowie, Queen, etc. It's too bad I had to make their leader a creep. I was just following the natural trajectory of all cult leaders.
Cora says all stories are ghost stories (and this one certainly is, in some ways). Do you think she's right?
I think we cannot escape the effect of the dead, the effect of the past, so yes, every story is a ghost story. Every story is haunted. One of the ghost stories I use in Mr. Splitfoot
is a story I was passionate about when I was girl. It was a free gift on the back of a box of Honeycombs, a record you could cut from the cardboard, for Halloween. It was Wade Denning telling the story of "The Hitch-Hiker." It scared the pants off me! I love it still, that good feeling of getting spooked. How could we ever write a story that isn't a ghost story when all of us are haunted by what has come before, by all the people who have walked where we are now walking? I grew up in a house built in 1765. I spent a lot of time thinking about all the other children who had ever lived in my house.
The book is really tightly plotted – even things that seem incidental at first end up fitting together in the end, leaving no loose ends. How did you think about how it all worked together, plot-wise?
I love to revise. In revision comes the fun part of making conscious the unconscious patterns that were there underneath. I love to slip in secrets, glancing mentions, or allusions that only the most careful reader will notice. This tendency, a game of sorts, comes from an affinity for children's lit. Kids' books get to do anything. Books like Kit Williams or Graeme Base. I think about Paula Fox saying how the horror and secrecy of childhood is very significant to her. I love books with secrets. I wanted to try my hand at a mystery, and to me that meant real tight plotting, suspense, thrills. But I also wanted the words to be beautiful, lyrical, pleasing.
I really loved your language in this book – your comparisons, your similes and metaphors, in particular just shined. I read in an interview that The Seas
was originally a book of poems , and I feel like I can see that influence here – Nat is as "slight and striking as a birch branch," and the Love of Christ! Foster Home is a "brick bear spotted with mange." How did you think about your prose, your imagery? It's what I first was so impressed by.
Thank you. I learned to write by hanging out with poets, and I've never abandoned the idea that every word should be handled and adored. Making the world from 26 letters is my delight.
Nat and Ruth's relationship is so touching, and so striking – I love that they say they're sisters. It's not sexual; it almost seems closer than that. How did you think about these characters and that intense relationship?
This is a relationship I wrote about a lot – the platonic boy/girl friendship. When I was in my 20s, I was stuck fast in love with a gay man. I could not extricate myself from this painful love because it was perfect for me at the time: dramatic and grief-stricken and productive. Oh the drama!
Eventually I got tired of feeling pain, but I still think about the dynamics of what was a very important relationship and how the inherent alienation allowed me to carve out myself. I have three wonderful sisters (and two amazing brothers; by the way, all of my siblings are hidden in Mr. Splitfoot
), four fantastic sisters-in-law and three wonderful daughters. Sisters are extremely important to me, and so when I consider people who don't have access to their sisters like Ruth, I have to create new ones for them.
This is really a book about motherhood, in some ways. Cora complains how everyone is telling her about only the bad parts of being a mother, but she's also beginning to understand how fierce and brave being a mother can be. What did you want to explore about motherhood, here?
Oh God, everything. I have read so, so, so few books that even attempt to get at the enormity of mothering. Motherhood is only ever presented as clichés of overwhelming love or exasperation or self-sacrifice. Or you're told how much it hurts. I cannot believe how many strangers wanted to tell me about their episiotomies. All those clichés are nothing like the real thing. Come on! Mothers are the dealers of life and the flip side of that coin. Of course it is a conspiracy of sexism to keep mothers from knowledge of their abundant power, but it is a conspiracy I reject. So. I loaded Mr. Splitfoot
with mothers of all sorts: bad ones, good ones, dead ones, nuns. And Cora, as a mother-to-be, is collecting them all, tasting them so that she can think about what kind of mother she might become.
You recently wrote an amazing article for New York
magazine about One Direction and ovarian cancer, which I chanced upon this morning. Can you talk a bit about why you wrote that article, and what some of your reader reaction to the article was (and how some of the themes there connect with Mr. Splitfoot
I wrote that piece to figure out my obsession with the boy band One Direction. I'm crazy about them, really crazy about them, and I was perplexed by my love because, again and again, people would tell me I couldn't or shouldn't be crazy about 1D, that they are not the band for me, a woman in her 40s. This made me so angry. Nothing gets my dander up more than when the world acts like the things girls love are frivolous. I despise that.
So as I was trying to figure out the perimeters of my love for 1D, my doctor found a mass on my ovary. There's very little I can say about that period in my life because my fear was so overwhelming I don't find words for it. But afterwards I knew why I loved 1D. The boys sing and dance and make my heart light with their boy antics and their fantastic beauty. They are gorgeous flowers and flowers wilt and time is brief and we are lucky to be here. So 1D reminds me of our mortality.
I was overwhelmed by the response to this article. I thought I might hear from other 1D fans, but I could never have anticipated the number of people affected by this story. I heard from teenagers in Tehran. I heard from people who had no idea what 1D even is. I heard from the father of a child murdered at Sandy Hook. I heard from thousands of people from all over the world. Many of them were responding to an idea that is also present in Mr. Splitfoot
. In the article, I wrote that no one has ever looked at my kids and said, "Wow, you made three deaths." That sounds wildly depressing, but I don't intend it that way at all. I mean to use it like a memento mori, a reminder of death that keeps me so, so happy to be here, to be alive.
How did Mr. Bell come to be? How did you decide to have him speak the way he does? I love it when he confronts the boys chasing them, how they basically don't even understand what he's saying while he's insulting them.
I read somewhere that the Fox sisters, those young girls responsible for the spread of Spiritualism in America, once decided that a murder had been committed in their home. They asked their parents to excavate the basement, and sure enough, they found some bones. The man they fingered as the murderer was a traveling merchant named Mr. Bell. My character started there, with that fancy name. Then the notion of a bell ringing clearly, even if the bell happens to be a con man. He presents the idea that sometimes kids who grow up in bad situations turn out to be good people. I like him because he taught himself everything he knows. He makes his own tools and he survives. And he is joyful. He talks like a crazy man because he loves language! I love language, too, and through him I was able to have some fun. Plus, he's kind of like a sexy pirate.
Cora is interesting because she defines herself as shallow; she says early on that she's known for her love of rice pudding and her fantastic shoes. She's sort of eternally in the present, addicted to technology, before her journey. How did you think about her character?
Cora wants to be done with the question of identity, and so she's willing to accept easy answers. I think this is fairly common and very sad. I think it is how both nationalism and religion without thought happen, like, I'll be the Catholic guy who likes the Washington Redskins and curly fries. Or, I'll be the West Indian girl who is crazy about Elvis
. Identity is too complicated for such easy answers. It takes a long and very quiet walk across New York State to make Cora comfortable living with questions that don't have answers.
There's a great kind of montage of America that happens along Ruth and Cora's walk – the things they see, the people they encounter. Did you always know where they were going and what would happen when they got there?
No, I didn't know where they were going at all when I started writing. I am a geology geek, and when I hit on the meteorites that have landed in New York State, I thought, Huh, maybe they could kind of follow them
. I chose the meteorites because, of course, they are random and not God-like at all. Imagine my surprise when the meteorites turned out to follow the path of the Erie Canal. Eerie! I love driving around my state and finding the small places. I even made a map of the meteorites
I loved Sheresa, the "ghost activist." Her diatribes about art, about history and reality, are a kind of departure for characters who had never thought of it that way. How did you think about her role in the book?
I want to write an entire novel about Sheresa. She is my favorite. She loves art. She loves thinking and talking. She's my hero. I teach at Pratt Institute, a magical school filled with fantastic students, but as is true at any college, there's a whole lot of identity politics. "Did we invite any Lithuanian butch Communists to come talk?" While I love to hear from everyone, while there's no one I'm not curious about, identity politics quickly start to feel like we are rooting for the home team only. I tire of that. So I made Sheresa a ghost activist. She's looking out for dead people, a huge but extremely silent majority. She's making sure dead people get invited to speak at semiotics conferences. She might be the only ghost activist there is. I mean except for me.
There's a lot of great dry humor in the book, too – the tone, even though some really bleak things have happened, is often quite funny.
I worry about writing books that are too sad, or too bleak. That's not true to my life at all. I love the world. But still, I think I might be addicted to sad songs, sad stories. My mom would always read me "Annabel Lee" and "The Highwayman" when I was a girl. I love sad stories! So injecting humor is my prophylactic against too much sadness or horror.
What are you reading and listening to now that you're loving?
Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts
, Ottessa Moshfegh's McGlue
, John Wray's The Lost Time Accidents
, Kelly Link's Get in Trouble
, and Little Town on the Prairie
(with my daughters). Listening to Ketty Lester (who incidentally played a role on the TV program of Little House on the Prairie
), Georges Moustaki, Brigitte Fontaine, One Direction.