Interview with Michelle Hoover
A couple of years ago, I participated in a weekend revision workshop led by Michelle Hoover at Boston’s Grub Street. Michelle provided helpful insight into what my fiction could be – versus, alas, what it was. On the theory that good critics make good writers, I looked forward to reading her debut novel, The Quickening. Even so, I was startled to find the book a literary page-turner, with interesting plot twists and memorable characters.
The Quickening has earned rave reviews from The Boston Globe and Publishers Weekly as well as a starred review from the Library Journal which noted that “Hoover burns away the glamour of the pioneer life, blending history and brilliant storytelling in her debut novel.” In July, Poets and Writers Magazine selected The Quickening as one of the top five debut novels of the year.
Michelle, currently on tour promoting her book, spoke with me from the road.
Michelle, congratulations and thank you very much for agreeing to this interview with Beyond the Margins.
Of course! Beyond the Margins is doing great work. Thanks for including me.
Can you tell us briefly what The Quickening is about? What is the reason for the title?
Two very different women—each other’s closest neighbors on the isolated Midwestern plains—work to save their families and farms during the Great Depression, until one betrays the other.
A “quickening” is a child’s first movements in the womb. The first of these women, Enidina, is writing her part of the story to a grandchild she’s never met. The only thing she knows of him is the quickening she felt when she rested her hand on her daughter’s belly, a daughter who left home when eight-months pregnant. Enidina hasn’t seen either daughter or grandchild since.
But the “quickening” is also both women’s attempts to become something, to grow something, on their small farms. The attempt is both exciting and prone to great loss, just as pregnancy was in those years.
You said you were inspired to write the novel when your mother lent you fifteen pages of a journal written by your great-grandmother, Melva Current, during the last year of her life. What in particular about this journal moved you to write a novel? What were some of the other reasons you wanted to write it?
The first words of the journal were: “Perhaps my life and that of my dear husband has meant little or nothing to anyone except to us and our immediate family….” Of course, my great-grandmother was wrong. She only began to write after the loss of her husband—they were married almost fifty years—and the story that follows is so full of sadness and dedication that I couldn’t help but listen and write a similar character myself. Beyond the journal, though, I also wanted to write a very Midwestern story and a story of Midwestern women, because neither has been given enough attention in our literary tradition. I also wanted to convey a certain temperament – one of hard work, humility, and emotional resilience – that isn’t often represented in contemporary stories.
I understand that you began writing The Quickening when you were in your twenties, then put it away in a drawer and, years later, picked it up and worked on it until you finished. Why did you give up the writing of it the first time? Was the novel, in the end, what you thought it would be when you began it in your twenties?
I gave up writing it because it was confusing and silly and without a true narrative arc, and I wasn’t a skilled enough writer yet to figure out why. Basically, I needed to simplify the text, but I couldn’t yet handle those sacrifices. Right now, I can’t really remember what my twenty-something self thought it might become. I’m sure it’s both different and the same.
Despite the existence of one quiet, under-expressive central character, The Quickening is full of drama and suspense. Can you describe the tools you used to achieve this dramatic effect?
It’s hard for me to clearly sense the effect of the text on a reader, especially after so many revisions, so thanks for the compliment. I think some of the quietness probably contributes to the drama and suspense. These characters often hide their most important emotions and repress any memory of the deeds that most embarrass them. This repression can lead to a lot of tension under the surface. The landscape holds that same tension, as does the character’s isolation. Force two very different people to rely on each other under desperate circumstances, do so with the full complexity of their personalities, and you’ll have drama no matter what.
Did you ever consider writing the story as a third-person narrative? Why did you settle on using two first-person narratives?
These voices just came through in first-person. I’m not sure why, but I have a habit if writing in first-person, playing with voices. You can do some of the same with a close third-person, but not quite. Of course, first-person has awful limitations on perspective. You can get in trouble choosing too narrow a perspective without also understanding and exploiting that narrowness for the story’s benefit.
Enidina, one of your two first-person narrators, was writing to the grandson she never saw. Who did you conceive Mary as writing to/for?
That was an early question I had to deal with. As you recall, early on in the book Enidina observes that Mary talks to herself. In the end, I’m not sure to whom she’s telling her story – maybe to God? Or perhaps she’s just trying to justify her actions to herself.
One of The Quickening’s first major conflicts – resulting in enthralling scenes – between the two sets of neighbors arose over the issue of the mandatory hog killing. Can you describe the historical event (the Hog Reduction Program) and its impact on the farmers of the day?
Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace (an Iowan), wasn’t sworn into his post until just after farrowing season. Though he lamented the timing, he was determined to correct farm prices as soon as possible and so ordered the slaughter of millions of pigs to balance supply and demand. The government of course paid farmers for these pigs, a pretty decent price at the time, though far below the usual market price of the late twenties. Still, in order for the program to work, the farmers had to agree to take part en masse – and eventually they did. Most farmers sold their pigs to butcher houses that then transported the meat elsewhere for processing. But with the new program, many of these butchers became overwhelmed, as did the processors, and the meat wound up rotting in large warehouses instead of being processed and given to the poor, as promised. Rumor had it that carcasses were thrown into the Missouri River just to get rid of the meat.
My mother first told me about the program and wondered aloud how farmers responded to it: “That kind of waste. Can you imagine? It went against everything they believed in.” But I did try to imagine it, on the page. Most farmers didn’t have to do the dirty work themselves, but it wasn’t a far stretch to imagine some farmers agreeing to the sale and others not, groups of farmers banding together to ensure that the program worked, and the final straw—the breakdown of those butcher houses and processors so that any farmer who’d agreed to the money (and most desperately needed it) had to guarantee that their pigs were out of the market for good.
The program actually worked – extremely well – and Wallace repeated the same for other farm products. Sometimes what saves a large group of people also causes them extreme confusion and sacrifice, especially if the solution goes against long-held traditions. The same is happening now, with health care especially. We can’t ignore that anger and sacrifice, but such reactions don’t necessarily mean a solution is doomed to fail.
You’ve said that you like reading about modern characters but not writing about them. Can you elaborate on that statement a little?
It’s not that I don’t like writing about modern characters. I just find that my best work takes place in the past. I can’t explain why this happens. It’s frustrating, if anything.
I’m sure that you dealt with the following question in your queries to agents, but I’d like to know, too: Why do you think modern readers will like to read about the lives of two Iowa farm women that took place over a century ago?
Perhaps naively, I focused my early queries on the writing and story itself, on my own interest and family connection, not on why I was interested. If an agent doesn’t understand how the past informs the present in complicated and natural ways, there’s little helping him. I met one who thought I should tie the book to a specific current event, that I should directly note the link in the novel itself – such as Roth’s The Human Stain and the Lewinsky scandal – to give reason for a reader’s interest. But what happens when the current event is no longer current? Then you’ve got an historical novel tied to dead and ridiculous news story. In any case, I found few agents who needed such tricks.
But I was lucky too. I had several early bites on my queries, but my writing in my early twenties was so mangled and downright bad that agents rightfully turned it down. Once I tamed my style, I met my agent Esmond Harmsworth at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and he’s been working with me now for years. I would recommend such conferences to any writer: meet agents and editors face to face if you can.
But why should readers be interested? Enidina and Mary face the same love of their families, the same fears of losing these families, and the same passions and threats that we do today. Individual vs. community rights and responsibilities have long been complicated, and other’s beliefs could easily impinge on your choices – just like today. Early on in the current recession, economists and politicians were (somewhat excessively) likening the state of the country to the Depression – the novel’s most significant time period and the event that best shapes the characters’ thinking. We were suddenly penny pinching, reusing, reducing, and altogether approaching a “less is more” mentality. But the country seems to have quickly gotten bored with such thinking. When the health of an economy is based on how willing consumers are to spend, despite non-existent savings accounts and unprecedented personal debt, we’re in big trouble. Of course, this has been happening for a long time and few stew on it. It somehow seems unpatriotic to do so. In many ways, I wish people would return to lifestyles based less on ownership and waste and more on everyday experience, but I think only a major crisis and a different kind of politics could send us there.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing The Quickening?
Writing The Quickening.
Okay, maybe the timeline? That drove me crazy. The fact that a woman probably couldn’t give birth at 55 drove me crazy. The fact that a toddler wasn’t really old enough to make complex moral decisions, crazy. And of course, the picky stuff about wars starting and ending when they did, about droughts and floods occurring in specific seasons and years, about certain characters possibly being shipped off to war unless I could give good reason for their remaining home. I had to remember how old my characters were, what they could and could not do at certain ages, and what year it was—both in the book and in history. I revised the plot at least five times due to timeline problems alone.
One of the aspects of the novel that most intrigued me was the tightness of the plot. Seemingly indifferent actions lead to unpredictable but still believable reactions and results and all falls into place like dominoes coming down. Can you comment on how you developed the plot?
I often warn my students that everything in a novel should be useful either to the plot or the main characters—preferably to both. This includes events, locations, conversations, choices in clothing, gestures, furniture, weather, landscape, every, every word. In a nutshell, anything that doesn’t contribute to the novel’s central vision only distracts the reader and should be tossed, no matter how dear a particular scene, metaphor, or side character may be.
But these are common ideas. Aristotle defines plot as the arrangement of incidents that lead a main character through his/her One Action—that is, through the protagonist’s motivation and progress toward his/her desire. My first versions of the novel were a messy swamp, full of disparate events that I alone found interesting. I had to understand both of my main characters’ psychologies before I could make sense of what mattered and how these events might be linked. I cut quite a few, bolstered others. Once you understand your people, once you are paying attention to who they are on the page instead of who you might have wanted them to be, these links become instinctive.
How do you balance your two careers, teaching and writing? Do the two just detract from one another or are they mutually enriching?
How do I balance them? Desperately. I’m very thankful to have my job at Boston University, but my more fulfilling teaching comes through my work with Boston’s Grub Street. Working with adult writers, with people who are really taking their fiction seriously, is simply wonderful. It also forces me to articulate long-held ideas and to make those ideas tangible by pinpointing how they work in different kinds of fiction. In that way, I learn about my own process as well, and know the reasons behind my decisions. Teaching has also helped me considerably on my author tour. I have little problem standing in front of a group of people and leading (or responding to) a discussion. That kind of experience is invaluable for an author. But teaching does take time and a great deal of emotional and mental energy, no matter how fulfilling. I’m still searching for that balance. Hopefully, this publication will give me more options in terms of where I teach and how much.
What is a typical day in the life of Michelle Hoover?
What about my favorite day? Wake up to do yoga or go for a long run, spend the afternoon writing, have dinner and/or go out with friends/boyfriend in the evening. Really, any combo of physical exertion, writing, and playtime with others is perfect for me. On the days I don’t teach or have a lot of grading/prep/consulting work to do, this is basically my life.
On the afternoons when you write, do you set yourself a minimum length of time to sit at your desk or a number of words you need to write before you stop?
If I’m not teaching, I keep afternoons open and try to put in four hours of work.
So, if in four hours you end up just polishing a paragraph, is that ok?
No it’s not ok, but it happens sometimes.
How did it feel to be finished with The Quickening?
When I’m done with the tour, I’ll know what it feels like to finished. It’s a long haul and still hard work. I’m really eager to get into my next book, but I’ll have to stop wandering the country before I can do that.
What new project are you working on/will you work on next? Do you feel pressure to publish another book within X years of publishing The Quickening?
I have been feeling more pressure in the last month or so, because I’ve had these amazing responses from readers saying their eager for my next book. Yipes! I just hope they don’t forget who I am before that second one hits the shelves (and hopefully it will—eventually). The new book has its inspiration from my father’s side. Last summer, I discovered that two of my great-aunts disappeared together from the family farm when they were young women. They were never found again, though there are rumors. I have a photo of that side of my family, that generation, and every face in the photo speaks to me. The characters are right there, even if I don’t know anything about them.
Your family provides a lot of raw material!
They do! But I want to say one more thing about the pressure to produce another novel: Neither my agent or my editor is pushing me to produce the next book, but you can get so caught up in all the publicity stuff that it’s easy to forget about what really matters. And what really matters to me is the writing. I just wish I were back in my chair doing that.
If you could offer one single piece of advice to other fiction writers what would that be?
Don’t hurry towards the publication. Make sure that when you put out a book it’s your best work, that you’ve thought everything through, and know why you want it to be there. The New York Times is going to slaughter me. I’ve seen the review they wrote and it’s bizarre. The non-fiction writer who reviewed the novel criticized it for not being as good as the historical material on which it’s based. You have got to believe in your book absolutely in order to take that sort of criticism in stride.
Michelle, thank you for your candid, thought-provoking answers.
And thank you for interviewing me!
Leslie Greffenius did not exactly earn, but somehow or other received, a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Iowa. She subsequently worked at a law firm, taught international law, and, having lived the better part of a decade in Asia and Europe, founded and for several years directed a private school for international students. Her fiction, essays and articles have appeared in The Harvard Crimson, the Iowa Law Review, the Review Review and Calliope Nerve Magazine. She is working on her first novel, Encore.