Ann Hood Interview by Tavia Gilbert
TAVIA GILBERT: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Tavia Gilbert, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with New York Times bestselling author Ann Hood. Ann has written thirteen books, including Comfort and the bestselling novels The Knitting Circle and The Red Thread. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Good Housekeeping, the New York Times, Paris Review, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. She is also the winner of several awards, including two Pushcart Prizes and the Best American Spiritual Writing Award. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version of Ann’s latest book, The Obituary Writer, simultaneously with the hardcover March 4, 2013. Thank you so much for joining us for the conversation today, and congratulations on the release of The Obituary Writer, which is such a lovely book. Can you tell us a little bit about The Obituary Writer?
ANN HOOD: It’s interesting because I haven’t written a book like this before in which the pieces of it came together in such different ways that I was thinking that when I have to describe how the idea started, all I can think of is that thing that catches lint in the dryer. Different things were coming and my brain was just collecting seemingly disparate ideas. But I was asked to write an obituary for someone I had met once at a dinner party. Of course, at first, I said no thank you, but apparently in my jubilant mood (laughs) I had told him I would do it—
TG: (laughs) Oh.
AH: … not realizing he would die suddenly, and soon. Then his partner asked me to do what I had promised. So I embarked on this. I had been a fan of obituaries forever, and I even have a favorite obituary writer, the late, Robert McG. Thomas, who used to write for the New York Times. But reading them and writing them are quite different, and I was struck by how we focus on dates and degrees, and not the person. So when I wrote this man’s obituary, he came to life for me as I talked to people in his life and I tried to convey that on the page and not focus on just his accomplishments and the number of this and the number of that. I thought what an interesting job that would be—to be an obituary writer who does it in an unorthodox way.
AH: My character sprang from that. I was going to my computer as I do every morning, and it was the anniversary of the day my daughter had died. The first thing that always comes up on my computer in the email is the Writer’s Almanac, and as it was loading I thought, “OK, Garrison, help me today. Send me a poem that will make me feel better. I’m counting on you.” And what the day’s entry was about was the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. I hadn’t realized it was the same day that my daughter had died—I mean, obviously different years. I started thinking about earthquakes and how we have so many private ones in our lives where our world is shaken and our foundation is shaken. Then, there are the ones that affect the world, or hundreds or thousands of people. So somehow from that came my obituary writer’s background. Do you see what I mean about this lint that was collecting? As I began to plot it out and think about it, I felt that it was too one dimensional. I did not know what I could do to give it the fullness that I wanted. I certainly had a character I liked. I had a situation I liked. I even had a plot knowing she’d be looking for this lost lover. But it still didn’t feel rich enough. Then I watched Obama’s first inauguration, and it reminded me of Kennedy and the hope of that era. Suddenly, they just seemed to collide, and I thought, “Oh, we have an era of despair, and now I could have one of hope.” Then came the idea of creating a character in 1961.
TG: When you started to write the stories of Claire and Vivien, did you know how they would be intertwined or was that a surprise to you?
AH: I did know. I’m a writer who really doesn’t write until I have a sense of my story and where it’s going. I remember John Irving telling me once at a dinner party that he can’t write until he knows his last line. I picked his brain and realized that in a way I had been doing that myself. I only had a couple novels out at that point, but I hadn’t articulated it that way. When I understood why he felt that way, I kind of adopted it myself. He said when you read and study literature, you know at the end of a novel, your character has landed in an opposite place than he was in the beginning, and that by deciding on your first and last, if not line, then at least image or conflict, then you have a literary structure already. So I always kind of know, once I get my first line the way I want it, it leads me to my ending. Of course, you still have three hundred more pages to figure out—
TG: Right, sure.
AH: But it’s nice to have at least two.
TG: That’s really interesting, especially since one of the things that was so special, so unique about this book, is that it was so surprising. It’s been described as part literary mystery, part love story, and it was a mystery. There were so many moments in the book, even within the narration of the book, when I was astonished all over again. Something was just breathtaking and very unexpected. So having that level of preparation and knowing your last line, your last image, you still manage to keep everything so surprising, moment to moment.
AH: It’s the hardest novel I’ve ever written. It was so hard, and I remembered many times my math teacher telling us that we would use math in our lives, and I used to think, “Not me, I’m going to be a writer.” But I was doing a lot of math to make sure (laughs) that everything I was saying could happen—that people could meet in a certain way, that ages made sense. I had a lot of that kind of figuring to do to make sure I could do what I wanted.
TG: Math leads me to talk to you about the subtraction. What was so powerful in the work, in the craft, was what you didn’t include. Did you take out of the book, or were you very focused on the whole time what was going to be included in the draft?
AH: I’m shocked I didn’t take out. And when I look at my novel The Knitting Circle, I think in manuscript was about 370 pages, the manuscript I handed in was over 700 pages, almost half that book. Maybe I never want to do that again and that’s why I did the opposite this time (laughter). I’m not sure.
TG: Right, right.
AH: To me it was very delicate, what…the information I gave and when. So I really felt like I was someone doing very fine carving or something, instead of sort of hacking away at marble as I sometimes feel like I’m doing to sculpt something. This was just really fine and I had almost a storyboard like you would do for a screenplay. I had Post-it notes and dates on top of character things and it was quite amazing even to me (laughter).
TG: I read this book in bed and I was up late—one in the morning, maybe—reading so closely, and it felt exactly that. You had done such fine work and every line, to the sentence level, was so finely crafted, so that everything is just powerful. It packs a punch and the losses themselves are very visceral. The book is extremely visceral. But that sculpting was so finely wrought.
AH: When I teach, I often suggest that students do this—to find an objective correlative to the whole piece, something that can keep you focused. In this case, I used those Emily Post quotes about grief and how to help the grieving. I went to my library and found her original—the old—Emily Post, and her etiquette book and read and took notes on her section on grieving. It just helped me focus each chapter.
AH: Usually the chapters are paired. There’s always a Vivien and a Claire. I alternated them. So for each pair, almost like a couplet, I started with one of the quotes, and that helped me. If it was a quote about a friend helping another friend, then I knew that was the focus of that couplet I was writing.
TG: I wanted to read a quote from Andre Dubus III who says, “It is a rare novelist who can summon the creative nerve to plumb the depths of grief, but that’s just what Ann Hood does here with such compassion and grace. The Obituary Writer is an unflinching exploration of loss and the love that somehow remains, one that both wounds and heals. This is a deeply engaging and moving book.” So it is literary mystery. It is a love story. But it is a book about grief and about loss. You’ve written about your own loss of your beloved daughter Grace, and I wonder what has been the experience of your own grief in writing this book about grief, about this loss?
AH: I remember the writer Tim O’Brien saying once that a writer has their theme or their topic and they just keep trying to get it right and we return to the same ones again and again. I don’t think it helps. I can’t say that it never will, but I don’t think it helps so much in personal healing, but it helps in understanding, in trying to look at the prism of grief from different angles. So that if in one book I’m examining the loss of a child, or in The Knitting Circle I tried to explore all kinds of loss, even the loss of a life that you loved. I feel it’s just trying to grapple with this huge emotion. People often ask, “Is it healing to write about it?” All I can think is when I go to those tough places that Andre so beautifully described in that quote, it wipes me out for several days.
AH: It’s the opposite of healing.
TG: Many people who read this will have not lost a child or will not have experienced a particular kind of grief or loss, but the book is powerful in that it allows a space for every person to explore what their own griefs have been, whether that’s the grief of losing your lover, your husband, your partner, your child, or your best friend, or your sense of safety and security in the world. There are so many losses that you cover.
AH: And that’s what I hoped for actually. I always remember after a talk I gave when The Knitting Circle came out. Afterwards I tend to get a lot of people who have lost children, or sometimes spouses or parents, and they want to share their story. But this one woman came up to me and she was sobbing. What had happened was she had married a much older man and he had retired and wanted to move to Arizona or some place, and she was still young enough that when she moved with him to this retirement community, she left behind her own children, her family, her book club, her knitting friends, and she was bereft. So what she had lost was her lifestyle and—you just said that so beautifully—her comfort, her safety net. I remember feeling so…I mean, it sounds odd to say so good, but so good that the book was touching people just who want to get through this thing. Whatever this thing is. That someone who had her husband and had her children still could relate to this idea of loss and hopefully to seeing her way through, that there is hope on the other side.
TG: We all find comfort in knowing we are not alone, no matter how alone we feel in that moment. And there’s nothing that can take away that grief, but knowing we’re all suffering something extraordinary, or many of us have suffered extraordinary losses. Mine have been physical and relationship losses that have been excruciating, and I didn’t feel shut out of the book because my losses weren’t exactly the same circumstances. I think that speaks to the depths that you are willing to very bravely approach—the darkest places that you have opened up in your own heart and your own soul that then make their way onto the page. They’re places for me as a reader, and they were places as a narrator, to feel that I had had communion, so I’m really grateful for that and I think people will feel that deeply.
AH: Thank you so much. I tried to make that point in some subtle ways as well, and that’s why there’s often Vivien who’s the woman living in 1919. She is holding on to an era, like she won’t get a typewriter. She comments on people’s clothes who are moving toward the flapper sort of look and what she believes is right and how things are done. I also wanted to look at the loss of how culture changes and times change and of course in the larger net of this is the role of women and how that changes over time and what we give up and what we gain. So I was trying to hit that same note in so many different ways.
TG: Well, so successfully. It’s really beautiful. What is your writing process? How do you write? When do you write?
AH: I try to write two hours every day at least, but I find that when I’m starting a novel I’m not really at my computer very much. I really try to work things out in my mind, and kind of toss words up in the air (laughs) and see how they land. Try to get that first sentence. Try to understand why I’m writing the story I want to tell. I struggle with the first fifty to sixty pages for months and months and months. In fact, I have a new project and my agent said, “Please let me see it.” And I kept saying, “You don’t understand. You never read this part. This is not good yet.” “Oh, I really want to see it.” So I sent it to her and she says, “OK.” “You’re right, Ann, thank you.” I was correct (laughter). I’m aware that it’s not there yet, but once I hit that sixty pages roughly that get it right, then I can just go. So my writing time incrementally increases at that point.
TG: I know that you went to flight attendant school and Claire was a flight attendant before she got married. How did you move from being a flight attendant into being a full-time writer?
AH: Oh, you know. The usual route from flight attendant to writer. (laughs)
TG: (laughs) Yes, of course. We all go through it.
TG: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny because I was a writer first who was not published yet. I started writing when I was seven or eight years old, and I started writing because my little town didn’t have a library and the only books I could read were the ones the teachers kept in the back of the classroom. So desperate to read after I’d read, like my parents got Reader’s Digest and Time magazine, and after I’d whip through those, I would just write stories so I could read something. Isn’t that funny? So then I’d read my own stuff. My father would take me on Saturday mornings to the post office and I would send off these handwritten twelve or fourteen pages—I’d called them novels—and I’d send them to Bennett Cerf at Random House.
AH: (laughs) I identified myself as a writer for as long as I can remember. I erroneously thought that to be a published writer, you needed adventures. I soon learned that Eudora Welty was right when she said, “All you need to be a writer is to sit on your own front porch.” But I think at twenty one, I didn’t want to sit on my own front porch, literally or metaphorically, so I thought this job would be great. I’ve always been nomadic and the travel bug bit me early and stayed with me, and I thought it would be great. I think in many ways it was because it did fuel my desire to travel, and I did have a lot of adventures, but it also had the benefit of not being a nine-to-five, five day a week job, so I had a lot of free time. I got my master’s in American Literature while I was a flight attendant, and I had days and days to write and jetlag in which I was awake and would take out my notebook and write stuff. I wrote my first novel while I was doing that job.
TG: That’s wonderful. I love the idea of your father walking you to the post office to send off your manuscripts. That’s charming and it’s very promising that you had the motivation to do it.
AH: I did, and in fact my town was pretty—and still is—pretty economically depressed, and the guidance counselors were much busier dealing with really serious problems—behavior and kids with problems at home and I think out of my class of three-fifty, I think about eighteen of us went to college—
AH: Including the community college. And so when I marched in and said, “I want to be a writer. How do I do that?” I might as well have said, “Well, take me to Jupiter right now.”
TG: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
AH: They had not a clue. Although they thought, “Well, that’s a great idea,” one guidance counselor actually said to me, “Ann, people don’t do that.” So I think the more people said, “You can’t,” the more I thought, “Yes I will.” (laughter) I was pretty determined.
TG: Who were your biggest writing influences?
AH: When I was middle school aged, that library in my town finally opened, and I never even stepped into the children’s section. I just devoured trashy books that I loved. But I have to tell you, they really taught me a lot about stories. My favorite book that I’ve read again and again is Marjorie Morningstar, (laughing) if you know that book.
TG: Mm. Hmm.
AH: I love it. It used to make me sob. I think I was choosing books by how fat they were.
AH: Because I also read and loved—and this is by far not trashy—but Victor Hugo. Les Mis as we say now. I read all of those and I read Russian novels. I loved big fat books with lots of characters and epics—stories that went on and on. And as I got more guidance and went to college and was an English major, then I fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Willa Cather. I really liked that era a lot.
TG: Can you tell us before I let you go what your next project might be?
AH: I have two incredible projects that I’m so happy to tell you about. The first one coming in November is I’ve edited an anthology of writers writing about knitting. There was a point were writers were emailing me to be in it. I mean knitters love to talk about knitting and writers who knit are the best combination, so we have in it—among many—Andre Debus III, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, James Smiley, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth Berg, and Anita Shreve. I mean, it is an amazing lineup.
TG: Oh, it sound great.
AH: Yes, so that’s coming out in November. My next book that I’ve actually written and not edited is a collection of short stories that are interconnected stories. They’re done, they’re written. But I’m not sure yet when they’ll be out.
TG: Wonderful. Well they both sound very special and very promising and I’ll look for them. I want to tell you and the listeners of this interview that reading The Obituary Writer, listening to The Obituary Writer, that book is a magnificent novel. It’s not necessary to read it in concert with Comfort, but reading Comfort in addition to reading The Obituary Writer for me was a powerful experience to get to know you. They go hand in hand in a way, and perhaps everything you write will go hand in hand with Comfort in its way. It was truly an honor to work with your language and to get to work with these characters who are continuing to float around in my mind and in my heart. So thank you so much.
AH: Thank you.
TG: Thanks Ann. Such a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Ann Hood. You can find The Obituary Writer and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in March 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Obituary Writer
From bestselling author Ann Hood comes a sophisticated and suspenseful novel about the poignant lives of two women living in different eras.
On the day John F. Kennedy is inaugurated, Claire, a young wife and mother obsessed with the glamour of Jackie, struggles over the decision of whether to stay in a loveless but secure marriage or to follow the man she loves and whose baby she may be carrying. Decades earlier in 1919, Vivien Lowe, an obituary writer, is searching for her lover who disappeared in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. By telling the stories of the dead, Vivien not only helps others cope with their grief but also begins to understand the devastation of her own terrible loss. The surprising connection between these two women will change Claire’s life in unexpected and extraordinary ways.
Part literary mystery and part love story, The Obituary Writer examines expectations of marriage and love, the roles of wives and mothers, and the emotions of grief, regret, and hope.