Hannah Gersen’s writing has appeared in North American Review, The Southern Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Granta, and The New York Times, and she joined The Millions as a staff writer in 2013. At that time she had recently given birth to her first child, and she was at work on her first novel. It’s being published this month by William Morrow, a major New York house. Which is to say that writerly dreams do come true.
Home Field is set in the fictional town of Willowboro in western Maryland, a stand-in for the town Gersen moved to at the age of 10, after spending her early years in Maine and New Hampshire. The novel opens with teenage Stephanie and her stepfather Dean, the revered coach of the Willowboro High School football team, riding horses in the woods near his father’s Pennsylvania farm. They hear the “mew” of distant sirens. When they get back to the farm, they learn that Stephanie’s mother has hanged herself in one of the barns.
So Home Field is the story of how a man, his stepdaughter and his two young sons deal — and fail to deal — with monstrous grief. The novel is also a knowing portrait of how it feels for a girl to come of age, how it feels to live in a suffocating small town, and how difficult it is to see that the love we need most is usually right in front of us, awaiting our embrace. It’s a remarkably assured and un-showy first novel, the work of a young writer with immense poise and immense promise. So go ahead and accuse me of logrolling, but I asked Hannah Gersen if she would be willing to talk about her book, first novelist jitters, and other subjects with a fellow staff writer for The Millions. She agreed, and on a scalding morning we met over iced coffees in the back courtyard of a café near her home in the harborside enclave of Red Hook, Brooklyn.
The Millions: The first thing I want to ask you is, how do you feel right now? Are you having kittens?
Hannah Gersen: I’m really nervous about what people will think. Also, I’ve never had a very big audience before. It’s a much bigger audience than I’ve ever had, so I just don’t know what that will be like.
TM: Are you going to do a book tour?
HG: I’m reading in a couple of places — in Winchester, Va., in a little bookstore in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I’m going to have a launch party down the street.
TM: Home Field is a family story. It’s about grief, it’s about a death in the family, how people cope with it or don’t cope with it. One of the things that really hit me was the fact that the writing is very un-fussy. I love that. So many first novelists do the “look-Ma-no-hands!” kind of writing. The writing here is very clear and clean. Did that just happen, or was it a conscious decision on your part to tone down the writing?
HG: Pretty conscious. I used to write a little fussier. I reread Anna Karenina probably 10 years ago — I had read it as a teenager and loved it – and I was surprised by how clear and calm the writing is, and there’s so much turmoil in that book. I thought, that’s how I want to write. I wanted that clarity and that calm because it made it easier to write about complicated things.
TM: Your novel is set in a small town in western Maryland. I lived for a time in a small town in Pennsylvania not far from there. You capture the sense of claustrophobia in a small town very beautifully. One of my favorite moments in the novel is when two teenagers are driving down the main street and they look into the video store and see one of their teachers going through the beaded curtain into the Adult section. That was so perfect! There are no secrets in a small town.
HG: You’re so anonymous here in New York, which is great. But I was remembering how different a small town was, how you really know people’s daily lives. As a kid, you see inside people’s houses. You’re babysitting, or you’re visiting your friends’ houses. You just have a much better sense of how other people live.
TM: Along those lines, there were sentences that were wonderful. Let me read a few to you: “Families were so strange. The trivial things you knew, the big things you didn’t. The two getting confused, one masquerading as the other.” That’s really the book, isn’t it?
HG: I was thinking about my own family — how I know little details about some of my relatives, but there are big holes in their life stories that I just don’t know. As a child you hear bits and pieces, and you put it together later as an adult. I’ve lost a lot of family members over the years, and there are questions I’ll never get to ask.
TM: You were born in Maine and moved to western Maryland as a young girl — so there is some autobiography in the novel. But it felt like a much bigger story than someone writing about herself. There’s an extended family and school and friends and in-laws, and a grandfather, who’s huge. Tell me about your decisions there.
HG: Moving to Maryland when I was 10 was a big deal. The culture was completely different from New England. Maryland is a mix of North and South, whereas New England is very northern. Northern manners, northern values. I remember the way people spoke to you on the phone in Maryland, it was completely different. In New England you get right to the point. In Maryland you’d have to chit-chat about the weather, how was your day? — and then you would say what you needed to say.
TM: It also takes half an hour to say goodbye.
HG: Exactly. Also, the emphasis on football was strange to me. My dad is a huge football fan, so it wasn’t completely foreign, but things were different — the weather, the plant life, the trees. We moved there in the year of the 17-year cicadas, these huge swarms of cicadas, and they’re so noisy — and I thought, where have I moved? It was almost tropical. But I loved it, too. I loved the wildlife. It was much more rural than where I’d lived.
TM: That was also where you took up long-distance running, which plays a big part in the novel. Did you get serious about it?
HG: Yeah, in middle school my gym teacher said I could be a good runner. Between middle school and high school I made an effort to learn how to run. It was hard and I was really bad the first year.
TM: Going back to small towns, you wrote a wonderful essay for The Millions a while back in defense of being pretentious. The list of things that you said were frowned upon when you were living in that small town in Maryland included “indie rock, foreign films, vegetarian diets, keeping your maiden name, bottled water, wearing black, drinking wine, drinking Starbucks coffee, reading The New York Times and doing yoga.” I laughed out loud when I read that. It sort of dates you because, as you said in the essay, those things are a lot more acceptable in small towns today. But that list tells about a time and a place. That was real, wasn’t it?
HG: Definitely. I remember this girl, she’d moved from a nice suburb in Maryland and she was carrying bottled water, and people thought it was so strange and pretentious. It’s so funny because now everyone carries bottled water everywhere.
TM: Speaking of indie rock, another thing I loved about the novel was the musical references. There’s a playlist at the back of the book where you talk about your reasons for including certain songs. Sometimes, in the novel, you just mention the artist and sometimes you mention specific song titles. Why did you include the music?
HG: Stephanie is a teenage character, and music is so important when you’re a teenager. Maybe I’m biased but I feel like music was really good in the early- to mid-’90s, in terms of rock music. Hip-hop was also interesting then, but that wasn’t really my thing.
TM: You were more into Tori Amos. She’s in the book.
HG: Yeah, and I knew it would be important to Stephanie and for other kids, too. I don’t know how kids listen to music now, but buying music, hanging out at stores, trading mix-tapes and CDs — it was a big way of making friends.
TM: You just wrote an essay for The Millions likening Bill Cunningham, the great street photographer for The New York Times, who just died — likening him to Proust. You wrote that Cunningham saw “the sublime in the everyday.” You’re a big Proust fan. Did you always think of Bill Cunningham as a Proust acolyte, or did that only come to you after he died?
HG: I’ve been reading Proust all year, and I’ve been noticing how good Proust was on clothing. I do think that Bill Cunningham’s sensibility about clothes was similar to Proust’s. He’s interested in how people wear clothes, and how it suits an individual, and how clothes express a time and place. He’s not about trends or celebrity. Proust wasn’t either. He viewed clothes as beautiful decoration — and expression.
TM: In your essay you mention Bill Cunningham talking about “summer fox,” that women in the 1920s wore fox collars in the summertime. Obviously he knew his history. That makes him a little Proust-like, doesn’t it?
HG: I think so. I was thinking he was probably familiar with some of the fashions that Proust wrote about.
TM: Tell me about how Home Field came to be. Did you work on it for 50 years, or did it come pretty quick?
HG: I started working on it when I was pregnant with my son. I didn’t have an easy pregnancy, so I didn’t make a lot of progress until after my son was born, in August of 2012. Then when my son was three or four months old I started writing again. Because I could only work on it when I had child care, I worked at a very steady pace, 15 hours a week pretty much. That actually worked pretty well because I had to step away from it.
TM: That’s not a bad thing, is it?
HG: No. I finished it around my son’s second birthday.
TM: So being the mother of a young child doesn’t have to kill your writing, does it?
HG: No. I’ve always had a day job, so right now being a mother is my day job — which is a much nicer day job.
TM: Tell me about the other day jobs.
HG: I worked as a secretary at a law firm for many years Very stressful. And I worked as a speechwriter for the Parks Department — a great job, I really liked that. I worked in a drug treatment center for a while, administering a grant at Samaritan Village in Queens. I worked at school for crafts in Maine for a few months because I had to get out of New York for a while. I worked in a hotel in Maine.
TM: You wrote another essay that was about what we’re talking about right here — that you have to fit the writing into the life, and you can accomplish a lot by doing a little bit of something every day.
HG: It’s true. I have much more faith than I used to that things will get done. I used to really worry about it a lot. But now, if I don’t finish something one day, then I’ll finish it the next day. That comes partly from being a parent, too. You see that your kid gradually acquires skills.
TM: So you’ve got to have the long view. That’s what novel-writing is, isn’t it?
TM: Are you working on another novel?
HG: Yeah. I haven’t had a lot of time to work on it lately, and I’m dying to work on it. It’s much lighter in tone that this one. It’s a comic novel, I’d say. [Laughs.] That’s all I want to say.
TM: You’re living the dream. You’ve got a major New York publisher for your first novel. What would you say to young people like yourself who are struggling to do it?
HG: One of my mentors told me that everything takes longer than you expect, even if you have what you think of as a realistic expectation. I never thought I was going to publish in my 20s, or even my early-30s, but it still did take longer than I thought. I would keep that in mind. Also, the culture’s really focused on making money. You have to ignore it and think of enjoying your life, enjoying learning how to write better, enjoying reading, enjoying meeting interesting people, enjoying movies, listening to music, whatever inspires you. In New York it was hard, especially in my early-30s. A lot of my friends were finishing graduate degrees and going on to professional careers — not necessarily in writing, but as doctors and lawyers, and they had a very specific role. And I really didn’t. It’s hard.
TM: And fiction is becoming almost a boutique operation.
HG: It is. I guess it depends on your personality. For me, I’m barely breaking even, so I’ve decided it’s not worth worrying about. Writing is gratifying on a daily basis. If I didn’t love doing it, I would have stopped a long time ago.