Jennifer Haigh is the author of four critically acclaimed novels: Faith, The Condition, Baker Towers, winner of the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award for Fiction, and Mrs. Kimble, for which she won the PEN/HEMINGWAY award. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and later graduated from Dickinson College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her short stories have been published in Good Housekeeping, Alaska Quarterly Review, the Idaho Review, Global City Review and elsewhere. She lives in Hull, MA. Photo credited to Sharona Jacobs.
This interview was conducted over the phone and transcribed by Interview Editor April Hanks. She said of the process, “Jennifer Haigh is the author of four novels and one collection of short stories. In her writing, Jennifer tackles difficult issues with grace. I was so engrossed in Faith that I was unable to put the book down and consequently finished it in a day.” In this interview she discusses setting, uncertainty, and inside jokes.
Superstition Review: When reading your works, I felt very connected to your protagonists. In an interview with Grub Street Daily, you mentioned that your stories are character-driven. What motivates you to explore your characters in such depth?
Jennifer Haigh: Well to me writing fiction—writing realistic fiction—is kind of like reading it. It's an exercise in empathy. So the whole point of doing it is to live for a time inside another person's skin and sort of understand how that person experiences the world.
SR: I found your stories to be very tied to their settings. For example, there are detailed descriptions of the location in Faith. Why is setting important and how does setting influence the story?
JH: You know, it isn't always. It really depends on the story. In some of my books, like Baker Towers for example, the setting is really the main character and in others, like Mrs. Kimble, it's really a story that could happen anywhere. So it really is a function of the story. In the case of Faith, for example, that is a story that could only have happened in Boston. If you think about it, Boston really was ground zero for this clergy sex abuse scandal. It kind of first hit the newspapers in 2002. People in Boston have a different relationship to that story because it was made public there first. So that's a story that I really couldn't have set anywhere else.
SR: Bakerton is the setting of Baker Towers. What inspired you to return to Bakerton and its inhabitants for News From Heaven?
JH: Well Baker Towers is a novel with a very clear dramatic arc. It's really about the life and death of a coal mining town, sort of its journey from boomtown to bust. There was actually a whole lot more to say about all the characters in that book but most of it didn't fit into the structure that I was committed to. So after I published that book, I started writing short stories about some of those characters. I didn't initially think about publishing them as a collection. I actually had written quite a few of the stories before it even occurred to me that they really did belong together in a book.
SR: You come from a western Pennsylvania coal town, similar to Bakerton in Baker Towers and News From Heaven. To what extent did your hometown inspire Bakerton?
JH: Quite a bit. Truth is it's the kind of place you would never write about unless you were from there. It's not a town that people visit. You're either born there and work there or you don't know such a place exists. Bakerton in my stories is really a composite. I borrowed from several of the towns in that part of Pennsylvania, including my hometown, Barnesboro. So there were several towns that had certain features that I wanted to write about so I sort of combined them all together and created this fictionalized location.
SR: Like you said, News From Heaven is a collection of short stories. Do you have a favorite character or story from this collection?
JH: You know, probably Sandy Novak. I've been wanting to tell his story for quite a few years now. And he is certainly the character that readers ask me most often about. Baker Towers was published in 2005—so gosh, that's already eight years ago—and I still run into readers who want to know what was the deal with Sandy. Why was he so secretive? What happened to him? What became of him? And in News From Heaven I finally got to answer all of those questions.
SR: “Desiderata” from News From Heaven quotes the poem of the same name by Max Ehrmann. What about this poem inspired you?
JH: Well you know, it's funny, “Desiderata” is actually a very earnest, sincere, kind of quirky poem. Anybody who has any sophistication about poetry is going to roll his eyes at some of the lines in that poem. And in a way, that's what delighted me about it. If you think about the way the poem is used in my story, it's the poem that keeps finding its way into high school yearbooks, back in a certain time—the sixties and early seventies—when teenagers were much more idealistic than they are today. And for that reason, it becomes kind of a running joke between my characters, the married couple Joyce and Ed. In my story, Ed has been dead for a year and Joyce is remembering all the private jokes they shared. The line is something like, “the complex web of shared silliness that no longer means anything to anybody” and I think that's really what moved me about the poem. It's this kind of private joke that's lost because Ed is gone and Joyce is left to laugh at it. There's no one left in the whole world who gets it.
SR: You are currently doing readings for News From Heaven. What do you enjoy and what do you dislike about readings?
JH: I'm an introvert by nature, I think like a lot of writers [are]. But I really do enjoy reading aloud and I love meeting my readers. The only problem really is the timing. I'm typically sent out on a book tour just as I'm getting started working on something new and it's really distracting to have to talk about a book I completed a year or two ago when I really have moved on and something else is alive in my imagination. So I think if the timing were less awkward I probably would enjoy it more.
SR: What is your process for choosing a title for your works?
JH: That assumes there is a process. I would say typically what I do is first panic. And then I sort of flounder desperately. And then I second-guess myself. And then I repeat that process all over again. So I do that as many times as I need to to come up with something. But often I never do find the right title and I just end up going with the wrong title. I find titles very elusive and very, very difficult.
SR: Most of your stories are set in the past. What factors do you consider when choosing a time period?
JH: You know, actually I'm not even sure that's true. I think if you look at everything I've written, probably half of it is contemporary and half of it isn't. I don't know, it's never a rational decision. I guess I just write about times and places that inspire some kind of longing in me. I'm often not a very good judge of what those times and places will be. I'm often surprised by what I end up writing about.
SR: So what is your process for deciding what to write about?
JH: There is no process. There's no process whatsoever. It's completely random. I just sort of back into an idea. Typically what I do is I'll flash on something and I'll spend about six months thinking about it before I write anything. And what I'm doing in that time is really just taking long walks and sort of mumbling to myself and just kind of thinking my way into the story. But I don't actually write anything for quite a while. And if the characters I'm dreaming up still interest me after that six months, then I know it's at least worth taking a stab at it.
SR: The part from Mrs. Kimble that has stuck with me the most is when Dinah receives an award but is then taunted on her way to accept it. The criticism and embarrassment felt very real. What motivated you to write this scene?
JH: Oh boy, that's always a hard question to answer. I wrote that scene a really long time ago. It's probably fourteen years since I wrote that scene, so I can't remember the exact impulse behind it. You know it's funny, after I've lived with these characters for a number of years, it seems to me that all of these things just really happened and I'm just writing down what happened. When I think about it now, I don't feel like I invented that scene. I feel like that's just what happened to her and I eventually sat and wrote it down. Of course that's not true—I made the whole thing up—but it feels so real to me now that I can't remember the process of inventing it. And I'm not even entirely convinced I did.
SR: Faith is your only book that has a single narrator. What draws you to multiple narrators? How did you decide to tell Faith from a single point of view?
JH: I think it's rare that there's any one character who knows all the good parts of the story. And I suppose that leads me to use multiple narrators in most of my novels. And some of them really are entirely about the point of view. The Condition, for example, is really a book about the way different members of the same family remember the same event. It's kind of like that old Japanese story where you have several different people recounting the same series of events. The events are less interesting than the discrepancies between the various accounts from the different characters and The Condition is that kind of book. I think that's very true to the way families remember their histories. The characters in The Condition would probably not agree about any of these things that happened in their past. They would remember all of them differently and that's really what I find fascinating about the story.
SR: You are currently writing a screenplay for Faith. What difficulties are there in translating one of your novels into a screenplay?
JH: It's been so interesting. I guess that the greatest lesson has been that it really isn't possible to render an entire novel in a two hour film. It just cannot be done. So once I understood that this wasn't adapting my novel, but I was really just composing a slideshow loosely inspired by my novel, then the process became much easier. Before I attempted it, I always thought a screenplay was all dialogue and, as it turns out, there's very little dialogue in a screenplay. It's really just a series of images and so I probably ended up using less than a tenth of the dialogue in my novel. There just isn't time or space for it. It's a visual medium, it's a visual way of telling a story. So what you're doing as a screenwriter is just stringing together a series of related images.
SR: Your short story “The Boy Vanishes” was published on Byliner. In what ways is publishing electronically different from publishing in print?
JH: If we're talking about short stories, the difference is dramatically different. From a writer's point of view, the results are much more immediate. Readers can download the story a minute after it's posted rather than waiting months for a magazine to come out. Also, e-publications have a much greater reach than, say, a print literary journal. Journals typically have small circulations and they are available in just a limited geographic area, but an e-publication like Byliner can be downloaded anywhere in the world. And so I found myself hearing from readers in all sorts of far-flung places you never would have seen the story told in a small journal.
SR: Your books feel very realistic because they are so factual. For example, Faith describes a Catholic priest's life in detail and The Condition has thorough information on Turner Syndrome. How long do you research and what does your research look like?
JH: There's really no general answer to that question. It depends entirely on what I'm writing and how much I need to learn. In writing a book like The Condition, for example, I realized I had about a tenth grade understanding of cell biology. So I had to do a lot of remedial study just to understand what the Frank character does for a living, you know, what it's like to run a lab at MIT. To do that, I had to get used to asking a lot of really stupid questions of some very smart people. It was really an exercise in humility and the book required quite a lot of research. That isn't true for everything I write, it varies enormously.
SR: Even though your books are diverse, they all deal with the subject of familial relationships. What about this theme keeps drawing you back to it?
JH: You know, it's an accident to some extent. I don't do it on purpose. I usually don't set out to write about a family. In the beginning I'm writing about a character or characters in an interesting situation and what I discover every time is that I can't really write about these people unless I know where they came from. So I find myself asking a lot of questions about who their parents were, what their early experiences were like, how they became the people they are. And so in that way I end up writing about families sort of inadvertently. I find it's the only way to really write well-developed characters.
SR: In an interview with The Writer's [Inner] Journal, you mentioned that you feel doubt and uncertainty when writing a book. How do you work through this doubt?
JH: I'm not sure I ever do. What I do is spend a year or two trying to put together a draft. And once I have that first draft, I make a decision about whether it's worth continuing. And sometimes the answer is no and I just put it down. But I will say that the doubt never really goes away. That whole first draft, for me, is fraught with uncertainty and I think my biggest anxiety is trying to figure out the right ending for the story. We've all had this experience as readers where you're reading a novel, you're enjoying it, you're engaged in the characters, you get to the ending and it's so disappointing that you throw the book across the room in frustration and you remember it forever as the novel with the lousy ending. You don't remember it as the novel with the great opening chapter. And as a reader, I've had that experience so many times that I kind of live in fear of making that mistake as a writer. So until I get to the end of the first draft and figure out what the ending is, I don't really trust what I've got.
SR: I have definitely had that experience of being angry at a book's ending. So how do you know when you've written the right ending?
JH: Well, I don't know. It's sort of that question: how do you know when you're in love? You just know. But sometimes I have to write the wrong ending a few times before I get to the right one.
SR: Do you have any writing rituals?
JH: Yeah, I suppose so. I'm very consistent in my work habits. I work every day. First thing in the morning I get up and go to my studio and I basically work for as long as I can stand it. Some days that's not very long, but I'm very consistent. I typically don't take days off. I need a certain kind of continuity to really make any progress in a book. I'm a big believer in writing by hand—I do quite a lot of that. I find that I compose better sentences when I'm actually making the letters on the page rather than composing at the keyboard. I read a lot of poetry—I find that's very, very helpful and I think a lot of serious fiction writers do that. It sort of reminds you where the bar is in terms of language and what language can actually accomplish.
SR: In an interview with Entertainment Realm, you said that novels can tell truths about the human condition. What did you mean by this and what are some examples from your work?
JH: That's a hard one to answer—I don't know if I have a ready answer for that. I will say that the thing you're always trying for in writing fiction is to get at something truly universal. And I think we've all had this experience as readers where you read a passage in a book that articulates so perfectly a feeling you've had or an experience you've had and you really, literally can't believe that somebody else knows exactly how that feels. These moments of deep recognition where you feel that this writer has understood something very personal to you. And that happens to me all the time as a reader and I guess that's what I'm shooting for as a writer as well.