Samantha Hunt won critical acclaim for her first novel, 2006’s The Seas, capturing a National Book Award “5 Under 35” nod. Her follow up, 2008’s The Invention of Everything Else, earned her a spot on the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Her fans have waited seven years for her new novel, Mr. Splitfoot.
Mr. Splitfoot is about Ruth, a foster child turned con artist turned mysterious mute. Two parts of her life are told in alternating chapters. The first is from her youth: she meets a fellow foster child named Nat and the two become as close as siblings. The second is years later, when she mysteriously returns to her long lost niece, Cora. Ruth refuses, or is unable to talk, yet convinces Cora to walk across upstate New York on a life-altering pilgrimage.
We interviewed Hunt early one morning over the phone and talked about researching religion, mediums, and ghost stories.
The Millions: Let’s just start off with genre. Your last book really blended historical fiction and science fiction, and Mr. Splitfoot is a modern, gothic ghost story. What draws you to certain genres and styles when it comes to writing?
Samantha Hunt: Hmm. I can’t say that it’s originally part of my thinking. I mean the interest in Tesla one was just him. So, I was surprised that I ended up writing historical fiction. In fact the first time I got invited to a historical fiction conference I was like, “Me?! What?!” But they told me like, yeah, I did write a historical fiction novel.
With this one, I think it’s different. Who isn’t interested in ghost stories? Maybe there are some people, but I find it hard to imagine. The most natural interest in the world is death. So that was I guess the idea from the start. Really, the start of this book was a record that I cut off the back of a box of Honeycombs when I was probably six years old that was given out at Halloween. It was really scary. First of all, it was amazing that they were giving out records on the back of a cereal box. I was totally obsessed with it. It was a recording of the story of the [vanishing] hitchhiker. It’s in the book again and again. I keep telling that ghost story in Mr. Splitfoot. So that was the real start.
You probably wouldn’t even notice [the use of the story]. In my own thinking I notice. There’s one very obvious retelling of it and then I keep on coming back to the hitchhiker story.
TM: I don’t know much about ghost stories. I never sat around a campfire trying to scare people or be scared. Yet that initial early use of that tale that Ruth tells really struck me. And then she says that every story is a ghost story. Do you personally believe that sentiment? Or did you just attribute it to Ruth?
SH: I think that I definitely believe that. I don’t think I would have said that when I was younger. Now, you know the longer you live means the more people that die, and it’s like every story is a ghost story. Everybody’s dead. It’s not in such a bleak way. It’s just that everybody, every character, will die eventually. Everybody’s life is a ghost story. Wow, that’s totally bleak. I’m trying to convince you that it’s not, but it totally is. Maybe I just like to think about ways to use the hauntedness of life in a different way. To think about “haunted” is not necessarily a bad thing; to think about our dead in a different way. To use them in some way. Even though the people using the dead in this book are total con artists, it does give some shake and hope to [the people they talk to].
Part of the reason for me going up to Lily Dale [a camp and meeting place for spiritualists] was because there is a spiritualist community there. I live in upstate New York — maybe you can tell that from the book’s setting — and Lily Dale is in another part of the state. It’s kind of this wonderful, creepy spiritualist community. They have mediums there all of the time. A lot of the people there were parents of dead children. I understood it. To me, it seemed like a really hopeful thing. That they would go and try it, even if it meant paying these con artists to “talk” to their children. It seemed like such a hopeful thing, because how could you go on if your child died? You couldn’t. You would need some understanding about why something so sad could happen.
TM: Did you research these con artists yourself?
SH: When I was researching this book I did go to mediums. I never believed them, but I was definitely affected by them.
TM: What do you mean by you didn’t believe them, but they still affected you?
SH: Well the first lady I went to, I went in and was very skeptical and cynical. That was in Lily Dale. She tried contacting this older women with emerald rings on, but I was like, “Oh I see how you go there: girl with red hair, Irish girl, emeralds.” So immediately I realized she was a complete con artist. But it didn’t matter, because the next person she tried she said to me, “So there’s a man here and he wanted you to know that in life he would have never walked through those gates.” My dad is dead and he’s a total skeptic, but even though I didn’t believe him I was in total shock and tears. I couldn’t stop. She asked what I wanted to say to him and so I sat there sobbing and sobbing on her couch even though I wasn’t falling for this. It didn’t matter at that point. It affected me that she was able to cut through a lot of bullshit and ask me to talk to a dead person. I was pregnant with the twins at that time, but she didn’t pick up on the two other people in the room. (laughs) So immediately after I talked to my mom and she said how the lady tried a lady first in case my mom was dead and then when I didn’t respond she tried a male. But it didn’t change anything. After the book was complete I went back and asked that medium to give me a blurb from Charlotte Brontë. And she did. (laughs)
TM: When I saw that in the press packet I thought “What the hell is this?” But now it makes sense. This is Charlotte talking to me. Let’s talk about the genesis of the entire book. So you’re a kid and you get a recorded version of a ghost story on the back of a cereal box and you decided to write this decades later. There are two stories in this: Ruth and Nat but also Ruth and Cora. Which came first?
SH: Ruth and Cora came first. I was pregnant with twins when I started writing this book. I couldn’t walk much and was pretty immobilized because of the pregnancy. I also just moved to upstate New York, so the idea of walking across the state was interesting. I was in a place I didn’t know and wasn’t able to explore. So I just sat there and had time to work. I fantasized about walking across the state to see what it was about, but couldn’t because of the immobilization.
After the twins were born, I took the family on the road and we went all over upstate. One of the most startling things — and I grew up down by the city and lived in the state nearly my entire life — but I knew so very little about upstate. It was kind of amazing and how shocking about how many American religions were founded up here. Like the Spiritualists and the Mormons were like 15 miles from each other. I kind of liked that idea that there was a time where this could happen. That someone could shout at people that god was angry at them because of a solar eclipse.
Out of that came the idea to build my own religion to see what kind of con artistry I could work into it. The way I did that was that I just sat down and thought about what I would throw in. I threw in all of the good things that I like. I studied geology as an undergrad so I added some geology. I was watching the new Cosmos with my girls and I watched the original one as a girl. I remember what that meant for my family; it was a communal event. It was so amazing. So I added outer space to it too. And I have a really big record collection, so that became the third part of the religion. That was it: outer space, geology, records.
TM: So you came up with these ideas, and then how did research evolve?
SH: I started researching Mormons in New York. I lived in Vermont for some time and I lived right down the road from [Mormon leader] Joseph Smith’s birthplace. I became interested in him then, and the idea of an American-made religion always interested me. So, once a summer in New York they throw a pageant in Hill Cumorah where he found the Golden Tablets. Mormons from all over the world come to this really remote place. I went, and it’s basically hundreds and hundreds of Mormons in costumes. I loved it. It was an amazing spectacle. It was a 10-story stage. They had ships flying through the air. Lightning bolts and Jesus flying in over the hill.
I just visited a lot of religious sites across upstate New York. It’s funny. Every time I say that, my husband says that it doesn’t have anything to do with my book. Which maybe it doesn’t, but it definitely got me there.
TM: I think you needed to have that deep understanding of the foundation of what it’s really like up there to have a story like this unfold in that realm. I definitely felt the religion. So all of this deals a lot with Cora and Ruth. When did the younger Ruth come into the scene?
SH: I wish I could tell you exactly when. I should be able to tell you this, but I think that relationship that Ruth and Nat has, that platonic girl-boy relationship is always in everything I’ve written. I don’t know why that is. I just have to keep exploring it. It’s like Hansel and Gretel. It’s the portrait of true innocence: starting off with this young boy and young girl and then see what the world does to them.
TM: Structure is really important to me when I read, and this one alternates past and present. When you were writing this, did you have two different documents and just decided to piece it together or how did that process work for you?
SH: I always had a vision in my head from the start that I wanted to have them bound back-to-back. I had done a lot of book making when I was younger so that seemed like no big deal, but I was really surprised that every single press said they couldn’t do it. So it was at the end when it came together that my vision had to be changed. So I like thinking of them as two distinct books. Even the idea that a person would read one story and then another would be interesting. Although, my idea of having them bound back-to-back was that both stories involve climbing the mountain and they were going to meet in the middle. It would all be solved in the middle at the top of the mountain top. I hope that structure still exists even if it’s in more of a traditional alternating chapter way.
TM: Which story would you want people to read first if it were bound that way?
SH: I think I would still start with [Ruth and Nat] in the foster home. If you were just going to read one and then another.
TM: I found it interesting when I was reading it because I wanted to skip ahead to learn more about Ruth and Nat or Ruth and Cora, but thought I shouldn’t because that would be cheating in a way. Now maybe I should have just done that.
SH: I like that it’s sort of left up to the reader. One person could read one book first and how different that experience would be if someone read the other book first. I mean there’s the fact that you can’t unread it once you’ve read it.
TM: I’ll officially tell people to read it different ways and get some research for you.
SH: (laughs) Sounds good, sounds good.
TM: I love that you get so immersed in your research as well as the narrative. Are you already onto the next book?
SH: Yeah, I started. The next one is more memoir based. A lot of it comes from the research I did for Mr. Splitfoot. I was just thinking of ways people get haunted. It’s still dealing with the idea of the ghost story very much so. I love the research part. It’s so much easier than the writing part for me. Maybe that’s the one common theme throughout the books. I could research Tesla for a long, long time. I could research ghost stories and religion for a super long time. It’s a lot less painful than writing books.