May Attaway—the protagonist of Jessica Francis Kane’s fourth book, Rules for Visiting—is not your usual middle-aged woman: She prefers plants over people, and at 40 years old, is still living with her father in her childhood home in Anneville. As a professional gardener at the local university, May lives out most of her existence toiling over trimmings and maintaining a safe distance from others. The premature death of a stranger, the flurry of heartfelt online tributes to this stranger and her generosity toward others, and an unexpected paid leave of 30 days forces May to look at the lack of friendship in her life. And so, she plans a trip to visit four friends from different parts of her life: Lindy, a childhood friend; Vanessa, a friend she met in the eighth grade; Neera, a college friend; and Rose, who was in May’s graduate landscape-architecture program. In preparation for her trip, May purchases a new rolling suitcase and names it Grendel, after the friendless monster in Beowulf.
Recently, contemporary literature has seen a multitude of novels and stories—such as Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl—exploring the theme of female friendship. Kane’s novel joins these ranks but, at the same time, the narrative shines as a singular story of one woman’s journey away—and toward—herself and others. With each excursion, the reader can’t help but quietly root for May Attaway as she seeks to rekindle friendships from years past and, later, makes an attempt at romance. An extra bonus: A handful of beautiful illustrations of trees by author/artist Edward Carey punctuate this elegant, moving narrative.
The Millions talked with Kane via email about the writer Amanda Davis, H Is for Hawk, urban gardening, and friendship during the social media age.
TM: When did you decide to write this novel? Had it been an idea that has been percolating for a while?
JK: The first inkling of the idea dates back to 2003 when I learned of the death of the writer Amanda Davis. I became a little obsessed with the tribute page that McSweeney’s created so that anyone who’d known her could share memories. Taken all together, it’s an extraordinary document of friendship, and it set me to thinking a lot about friendship just as social media began to take over the world. Facebook launched in 2004.
TM: When did you first encounter Davis and her work?
JK: I never met Amanda Davis, but I’d been aware of her work and had read her first book, a collection of stories called Circling the Drain. I’d been following the release of her first novel, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me, with great interest, in part because she’d achieved my dream: After a collection of stories, she’d published a novel. I’d published a collection, too, but in 2003 I was at home with my first baby and beginning to feel like a novel was never going to be within reach. She was an inspiration and the news of her death was a shock. Then I read the tributes, and much like May in my novel, felt she must have known something about friendship that had alluded me.
TM: I love the quote from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves as your epigraph. It’s one of my favorite novels, and in a way, The Waves is one of the original friendship novels with how it explores what we know about ourselves and our identities through our relationships with others. What in Woolf’s novel inspired you with Rules for Visiting?
JK: I first read The Waves in college when I took a whole course on the novels of Virginia Woolf. She was one of my favorite writers then, and her work is still important to me, but I must confess to finding this epigraph in a not particularly noble way: I saw the last line of it via a search in Bartlett’s for friendship-themed quotations, then reverse-engineered it back to the book. When I reread the full context and remembered what The Waves was about, it seemed too good to be true.
Originally the book had a different epigraph at the beginning of each of the five sections. These were hugely important to me during the writing years, but eventually my editor at Penguin suggested they were part of a scaffolding that could be removed, and I immediately saw that she was right.
TM: How did you land on May Attaway’s voice? Was there a particular novel or story that inspired you in finding a balance between remoteness and intimacy, reclusiveness and a desire for connection?
JK: Definitely Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Also Claire Messud’s Nora Eldridge in The Woman Upstairs. But also, and this may seem odd at first but bear with me, Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk. I loved that book so much, and after I finished it, I knew I wanted to try to write something with as many layers. MacDonald layered a story (grieving her father), with another story (raising her goshawk), and also gave us a mini-biography of T.H. White. In a similar way, I wanted my narrator, May Attaway, to sound as if she were writing a memoir (the story of a year visiting friends), layered with another story (the grief in her family), and also share a ton of information on the plant and tree world she loves so much.
TM: Do you consider May Attaway a reliable narrator?
JK: I’m not sure what May is. Sometimes she seems reliable because she is very accurate and forthright in her manner. Other times she’s unreliable because her very mission of accuracy belies a sorrow, or a gap in her understanding of how people behave. Maybe she is unreliable by virtue of trying to be so reliable.
TM: I loved how you weave so many different references to classic texts, particularly The Odyssey, throughout the narrative. When did you read The Odyssey for the first time? And did you know right away that you might use the epic poem as a recurring point of reference for your protagonist?
JK: I read The Odyssey as an English major in college, and of course it stands as one of the great journey narratives of all time. I was working on Rules for Visiting and I suppose thinking of literary journeys when I remembered the famous line “O Muse, I sing of arms and the man.” Right away I knew I wanted to recast that for my female hero on her series of domestic journeys. The line, “O Muse, I sing of visits and the woman,” came to mind. That was the beginning.
JK: I follow Edward on Twitter, where he will occasionally post a sketch or a bit of a work-in-progress or an exercise he’s set for himself, and one day when I was writing the book, I saw an amazing sketch (charcoal, I think) of a dead rat.
It was the summer of 2016 and I had most of a first draft of the novel. I began to think I wanted it to have tree illustrations, if possible, because I thought readers should have a guide to the shapes of the trees discussed. I don’t think many people have a working sense of tree forms in their minds. I wanted something fairly botanically accurate, but also with mood, and honestly, the very first thing I thought of was that Edward Carey rat. I wrote him an email, he asked to read the manuscript, and then he agreed. My only regret is that we couldn’t put more of his trees in the book.
TM: What is your personal relationship to flowers and trees outside of writing? Where do you find nature in New York City?
JK: I have a balcony in New York City where I have been trying different approaches to container gardening. I don’t love annuals either—May and I have this in common—so I’ve tried ambitious plants with mixed results: a rosebush (dead), a crepe myrtle (dead) a dwarf cypress (still alive, but struggling). My current delight is that I have some peonies coming up in a pot and I’m crossing my fingers they keep growing until they bloom.
TM: What do you think is being lost with friendship during this social media age?
JK: I think we might be losing the art of visiting. We are so busy and mostly unwilling to inconvenience someone else because we don’t want to be inconvenienced ourselves. Just look at the language around asking if you can stay with someone: “I don’t want to put you out.” “Please don’t go to any trouble.” “I’ll be out of your hair soon.”
Today we stay in touch with emoji buttons, text instead of call, and travel mainly for sights and experiences instead of friendship. Think of Jane Austen’s novels. They are full of lots of things we don’t seem to have time for: letters, walks, and visiting, the stuff of lasting friendship.
TM: It’s funny because you and I met through Twitter, and then IRL when you came to Austin last November. So, some aspects of social media produce authentic connections despite all of the artificial curated facets of it? Have you experienced this with other writers, too?
JK: Yes, a handful. And other readers, too. I love it when a Twitter friend moves into real life. It can feel awkward to make that initial contact—I remember we talked about this when I came to Austin and we met—but it has never yet been not worthwhile.
TM: What’s a favorite thank-you gift to give to others when you’re visiting friends or family?
JK: If I can’t think of something specific to the person, and there isn’t a favorite item that I know I can bring them from New York, then my favorite gift has been a hand-blown glass votive similar to some that I have. I like the idea of our households being linked by candlelight.
Rachel Fershleiser is the co-editor of the New York Times Bestseller Not Quite What I Was Planning and three forthcoming books of Six-Word Memoirs. She has written for The Village Voice, New York Press, Print, Los Angeles Times, National Post, Salon.com, and several amazing print and online publications you’ve never heard of. She day jobs happily at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe.I don’t think there’s one best book I read this year, but looking back over my emails, facebook status updates, and oh-so-tolerant friends, there is clearly one I was most evangelical about.Have you ever read King Dork?I asked everyone who crossed my path – working on the sales floor of a bookstore, that’s an awful lot of readers – and no one had. When it was published in 2006, Time called it “Impossibly brilliant,” Entertainment Weekly gave it an A, and virtually every other review was a rave, but somehow, Frank Portman’s young adult geek-rock opus still needs some hyping.It’s as funny and filthy and filled with the inhumanities of high school loserdom as everyone has said (“pitch-perfect… realistic, self-aware” – The Oregonian, “cutting satire… smartly skewers.” – The Plain Dealer). But for me, the true brilliance lies in the complex questions of our antihero’s dead father and the coded messages left behind in his library of classic books. King Dork is the only book I’ve ever read in which the mystery is never resolved, and I finished feeling completely satisfied anyway. For that near-impossible feat, this story is as sophisticated as it is scatological.In 2008, I also reread the always-wonderful Wonder When You’ll Miss Me by Amanda Davis, fell in love with Elizabeth McCracken, sublimated my political obsession into Stephen Elliott’s Looking Forward to It (I tried to tell Stephen how much I liked it at parties on both coasts; each time he would not hear my praise, instead turning his prodigious rave-dancing abilities in my direction), and enjoyed beautiful minicomics by artists like Gabrielle Bell, Ken Dahl, Alec Longstreth, Liz Prince, and Jon Chad.More from A Year in Reading 2008