Fiction is a Power Trip: The Millions Interviews Eleanor Henderson

September 25, 2017 | 6 books mentioned 10 min read

covercoverIn June 2011 Stacy D’Erasmo wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Eleanor Henderson “writes the hell out of every moment, every scene, every perspective, every fleeting impression, every impulse and desire and bit of emotional detritus.” D’Erasmo was referring to Henderson’s much lauded debut novel, Ten Thousand Saints, but Henderson’s passion and skill are equally evident in her follow up novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight. In her latest, Henderson has taken a significant dogleg in subject, time, and locale, leaving behind the straight-edge movement of 1980s New York and delivering us with equal skill into Cotton County, Georgia in the acutely troubled era of the early 1930s. It is into this dusty, highly charged tableau that Elma Jesup, the teenage daughter of a white sharecropper, gives birth to an unusual set of twins—one light-skinned and the other dark—born of different patrimony and quickly coined the Gemini twins. In the rush of the book’s opening salvo, Elma’s father, Juke, accuses Genus Jackson, a black field hand, of Elma’s rape, and Juke, along with Elma’s fiancé, Freddie Wilson, lead the mob that lynch Genus from the gourd tree. Freddie, adding insult to murder, subsequently drags Genus’s body down the unnamed road known only as the Twelve-Mile Straight. It is on the other side of this tragedy that the novel slows and deepens, exploring the irreparable damage done by family secrets; secrets made all the more damning by the fact that family provided the only stability there was to be had.

I talked with Eleanor Henderson about her writing and research process, if the film adaptation of her debut altered the way she works, and the particular challenges of writing a novel of historical fiction that is perhaps unexpectedly relevant to our current cultural conversation.

The Millions: Let’s begin with how you began this book. I understand the seed of it actually grew from stories of your father’s childhood in Ben Hill County, Georgia.

Eleanor Henderson: I’d wanted to write a book set in Georgia for a long time. For all of my childhood I’d heard stories about my father growing up on the farm during the Depression, but I didn’t know what to do with them. Meanwhile, I was beginning to think about a novel about newborn twins with different paternity—I was amazed to know that such a phenomenon exists!—and I wasn’t getting anywhere with that book, either. It wasn’t until I married the two ideas together that I found that the Georgia story and the twins story were the same. What would it be like, I wondered, to share a childhood with someone who is supposed to be more like you than anyone else, and yet that person might look and be very different than you? When I imagined that situation in the context of the Jim Crow South—a place that would be very intolerant of those differences—I began to see the shape of the story. That’s pretty common for me—I work on two different ideas for a while, get nowhere, and then smash their atoms together. At that point I was ready to explore but also move past the stories about the farm, and to write a novel that confronted the horrifying injustices of that time and place–injustices that of course are still with us today.

TM: This is your second novel about a very specific time and place and I know a good deal of research went into getting 1930s Georgia accurately on the page. Do you enjoy the research process?

EH: It’s my favorite part! I think one of the most rewarding parts of writing historical fiction—I think of both of my books as historical fiction—is that I get to live in another world for a while. Research for me is an attempt to know a time and place with an authority that I can never achieve in my own world. Of course, it’s an impossible task, and so it’s endless. I spent about five years elbow-deep in archives and newspapers and books, immersing myself in the music and the photography and the language and the culture of the place. After a while I began to recognize the hubris in that kind of research, and I began to worry about appropriating history for my own design. It was something I had to accept in order for the project of the novel to work, and I had to acknowledge that I could never get to the bottom of the research well. In the end, the place I’m writing about is an invention—Cotton County doesn’t exist—but I hope that readers who are old enough to remember Georgia in the Depression would recognize some piece of their realities there.

One of those people is my dad. I’ve found that I’m drawn to the stories of people I’m close to—in my first novel, I wrote about the world my husband grew up in, and this one, I wrote about my dad’s. So I spent a lot of time talking to him about daily life on the farm and in town. For several years, I was waking up early to write before my young kids were awake, and my dad, always a child of the farm, was up early, too. So I’d send him emails about whatever scene I was stuck on. Did you have a sink? How did you wash your clothes? Did the country doctor visit you, or did you go to town? How did you get there? It was a great gift, getting this daily dose of insight into my father’s life, a life that had seemed distant until then.

My father was also my fact checker. I was greatly relieved when he gave most of the novel his approval, but he had some corrections. One detail that stands out is the way different crops were harvested. There was a sentence in the novel that read: “The peanuts wanted picking first, then the cotton.” My dad shook his head and said, “You don’t pick peanuts. You take them out of the ground.” Lesson learned.

TM: While researching, what did you find the most illuminating? What surprised you or stayed with you?

EH: A couple things come to mind. When I first started writing the book, I had a vague sense that it would take place during the Depression; my father was born in Georgia in 1932, so I thought it might begin there. Then, early on, I read a book called The Tragedy of Lynching by Arthur Raper, published in 1933, which looks closely at lynchings that took place in the South in 1930. Between 1927 and 1929, no recorded lynchings took place in the state. I came across a Georgia newspaper headline in the microfilm at the Georgia Historical Society, dated December 1929: “Lynching to Be a Lost Art.” Then, in January 1930, a horrific lynching took place in Irwin County, just ten miles from where my father was born, in which a thousand white people killed and dismembered a young black man who was accused of killing a white girl. Five more lynchings followed in Georgia that year. What the hell was happening? I wondered. What kinds of social forces had resurrected that kind of violence? It shook me up and gave the book a shape. I decided to open the book with another Georgia lynching, a fictional one that takes many of its characteristics from those real cases.

Then, when I was walking through the Georgia Museum of Agriculture in Tifton, I saw a gourd tree for the first time, looming over a cane field. I asked my friend and guide Brian Brown what it was, and he explained that the hollowed gourds were thought to keep the mosquitoes away. It was an alien sight to me, both beautiful and practical, and then chilling, when I imagined that, like the telephone poles of that era, it might also serve as an instrument of hate and terror.

TM: At what point in the process did the book take on a life of its own? In other words, when did it transcend the gathering of information and manifest the more specific voices of the ensemble cast—especially Nan and Elma?

EH: I struggled with early drafts of this book. I wrote about a hundred pages in Nan’s voice, imagining her as a kind of removed observer. She was, even in those early drafts, mute—her mother cut out her tongue when she was a baby—so I thought it would be clever to give Nan a voice in the narrating of the story. I sent the draft to a good friend, and she had the good sense to tell me that it wasn’t working. She felt toyed with as a reader, and Nan felt more like a device than a person. That wasn’t what I wanted. What the story needed was a truly omniscient narrator, someone who could access all of the characters, black and white, victim and villain, with empathy, and who could absorb their voices as well. So I had to abandon cleverness and reckon with Nan’s voice in a more direct way.

But I couldn’t imagine what her voice would sound like. Again, I worried about appropriating experience. Who was I to speak in the voice of this young black woman, whose worries I’d invented but couldn’t understand myself? It seemed a violence to deny her voice and a violence to assume it. So I wrote through that uncertainty, and tried to raise those questions in the book itself. I tried to transfer them to Elma, the young white woman in the book who feels she must speak for Nan, but who does so incompletely and sometimes inaccurately. What is the white woman’s role in speaking for black women? How are we complicit in injustice? How are we allies? What is our responsibility to other people’s stories?

TM: I’m sure you’re aware of Lionel Shriver’s much rebuked 2016 speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference in which she lamented the idea of appropriation, wishing the notion of it were a passing fad, and arguing that it threatened to be the end of fiction. In that speech she stated that fiction “is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best.” Personally, this description of fiction “at its best” exemplified much of the problem with her assertions, believing as I do that a writer’s aim ought to be empathy over voyeurism, respect and research over presumption. Since you wrestled with embodying Nan’s experience and wrote through these anxieties, ultimately manifesting an interior voice for her, I am wondering if you might reflect on your own final question above: what is our responsibility to other people’s stories? And how does that responsibility manifest itself in terms of craft?

EH: This is a question I think about a lot, in my writing and in my teaching. While I object vigorously to the carelessness of Shriver’s position, I do recognize myself in her description of fiction as “prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous.” I think we have to acknowledge that fiction does have that dangerous allure. Is it presumptuous? Sure. It’s a sacred enterprise, it’s the best means of empathy and understanding we have, and it’s also presumptuous. It’s a power trip. And we have to check that power, just as we do every other day in the world.

Last spring I taught a graduate seminar at Syracuse University on narrative distance and point of view, and next spring I’ll teach a senior seminar at Ithaca College called Writing the Other. Both classes focus on how the writer’s subject position facilitates or inhibits our narrative access to characters and their worlds. In politics, we talk about privilege, and I think it’s a very apt term in fiction as well. Which characters do we have access to, and how, and why? As Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda write, we have to “change the terms of the conversation… So, not: can I write from another’s point of view? But instead: to ask why and what for, not just if and how.”

coverFor me, those questions are best answered through narrative distance. (David Jauss’s essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays,” which I read as a grad student, changed the way I thought about point of view.) Will the camera remain outside the character? Will it have interior access? How can I approach my subject with respect? How close do I want to bring my reader to the subject—and who is my reader, anyway? The analogy of the photographer is helpful but limited, because of course the fiction writer has the power to go inside, which is a presumptuous act. And honestly, after watching Get Out and reading Zadie Smith’s review in Harper’s, I won’t ever think of getting inside the “skin” of a black character in the same way. It’s perhaps the most presumptuous move a white writer can make.

Ultimately, I did make that move, and I have to own it. I tried to adopt a kind of mythic narrator who could access all of the characters’ interior lives, while also revealing the limitations of that narrator’s moral knowledge. I do have faith in what Toni Morrison calls “a shareable language.” That phrase gives me hope.

TM: Your reference to the camera perspective has me thinking about the cinematique quality of both your novels. You move so deftly from the panoramic to the close-up (and yes, the interior) in each book, but did seeing Ten Thousand Saints being made into a film have any effect or place any new burden on your process when you sat down to the blank page again?

coverEH: I was in the middle of writing The Twelve-Mile Straight when the movie came out, so it didn’t fundamentally change my thinking about the book. But when I was struggling with Nan as the narrator, it did occur to me that that conceit—a mute character telling the story—would not work on the screen. While it ultimately didn’t work in the novel, either, thinking about the power and limitations of both forms probably helped me to see the story more clearly.

TM: Since this particular story is so relevant to our current cultural conversation, illuminating racism, sexism, and the reverberations of poverty from generation to generation, I’m curious if at any point in the writing you were propelled more by obligation than curiosity? In other words, was the process of writing this book more emotionally complex than the first?

EH: Even though the material of the books is very different, the same kind of curiosity led me to both. In this novel, I was drawn to writing about the world my father grew up in, and in my first novel, I was drawn to writing about the world my husband grew up in—the straight edge hardcore scene in New York in the eighties. But when I finished writing Ten Thousand Saints, I wanted to move out of my comfort zone and explore more historically complicated material. It was a more emotionally taxing project, but mostly my anxiety was about not doing emotional harm to my readers (or my characters). I didn’t feel obligated to write either novel; on the contrary, I worried about whether readers would be interested. When I began writing The Twelve-Mile Straight in 2011, I was ignorant to just how relevant it would feel six years later. Do we need another novel about the Jim Crow South? I wondered. Now I think it’s clear that, sadly, we do.

TM: As a teacher, what piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers who are struggling with a larger manuscript?

EH: No matter how big it gets, find a way to see it all on one page. I’m a visual person, so I used whatever tools I could—a map, an outline, a family tree—to keep me focused and keep the moving parts clear. My father’s sketch of his family’s farm, as well as a sketch he did of a peanut plant on the back of a paper plate, hung above my desk as I wrote. (I really should have known that peanuts aren’t picked but taken out of the ground.) I also kept a Pinterest board with photographs, advertisements, and songs from the 1930s. (Thank you to the writer Katherine Howe for this idea!) That page helped me organize some of my research and also remain in that world. When I taught a workshop on historical fiction, I had my students create their own Pinterest boards and present them to the class, and the results were really fascinating.

TM: We’ve discussed Nan and Elma, but there are so many rich and fraught relationships in this novel. It is often Elma’s father, Juke Jesup, and the Wilson family who catalyze tragedy for others. If you could undo one situation for one of your characters, relieve them of one burden, what would it be?

EH: I’d have Elma take back her nod. It’s her silent consent that gives her father and Freddie Wilson permission to kill Genus in the first chapter. I’d undo it because it might save Genus’s life (perhaps not—they were bent on killing him anyway, she reasons), but of course, the story would be a different one. Instead Elma spends the novel trying to undo that action herself.

's short story collection If I'd Known You Were Coming won the 2013 Iowa Award and her debut novel, Kept Animals, will be released by Scribner in early 2019.

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