Midwestern Gothic staffer Hannah Bates talked with author Laird Hunt about what makes historical fiction successful, exploring gender roles in writing, rural Indiana, and more.
Hannah Bates: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Laird Hunt: My family has owned a farm in Clinton County, Indiana, since before the Civil War. I lived on the farm with my grandmother during junior high and high school and went to Indiana University.
HB: What about the Midwest inspires your writing?
LH: When it comes to my writing I don’t generalize about the Midwest: my central subject tends to be rural Indiana, and in particular the flat central portion of the state that is rich in both soil quality and relatively unsung history. It is not lost on me that this could be said about large swathes of the Midwest!
HB: Ash Thompson, the heroine in your most recent novel Neverhome, was formerly a housewife and farmer from Indiana named Constance. Despite the obvious geographic constraints of the Civil War, why does Ash have to leave the Midwest? Do you think the name Constance serves an allegorical purpose regarding the characteristics of the region?
LH: Well, Ash wants and to some extent needs to enlist, and the regiment she signs up with is heading to the eastern theater of the war—so she doesn’t have any option if she wants to fight but to follow along with them. Many thousands of Indiana soldiers, whether they were taking steps to disguise their identity or not, of course fought far away in the great battles of the war. There is certainly an allegorical aspect embedded in Constance’s name – and it does speak to her deep and unalterable love of the land she comes from, even if she has difficulties with some of the people that surround her there!
HB: Your previous novel Kind One, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award in 2013, is also a praised work of historical fiction. What are the elements that make historical fiction successful for you?
LH: The best historical fiction takes me to the past by evocation rather than explanation. In other words I look for an experience (like the kind offered in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels or Edward P. Jones The Known World) that expend relatively little energy in telling me what kind of buttons were on the general’s uniform during such and such a battle, or how many times a month the queen bathed, or whether or not a character’s boot was hobnailed. The past comes alive to me when the language is alive, when the speech patterns are unlike ours, when a character, whose worldview is quite foreign, feels nonetheless compellingly familiar.
HB: What makes setting so important to historical fiction? Do you find it easier to write about places that you’ve experienced?
LH: I spent time during the research process for Neverhome in visiting battlefields and other civil war monuments in Maryland and Virginia. I also returned multiple times to Indiana and our farm. Such on-site research is crucial to the kind of relatively near history writing I have been doing (19th century as opposed, say, to 5th century) but still can never provide anything more than partial access to the landscapes of the past. We are so good as a species at altering the way our world looks and the world itself too is pretty good at shifting the location of forests and changing the course of its rivers. Reading period documents that describe the landscape you are interested in can go some distance to bridging the gap. I read many a journal and collection of letters home from ordinary soldiers and they talk a lot about the weather and what they were eating and what they wanted to eat and couldn’t. Sometimes they give a sense of what the world around them looked like as well. And all of that was invaluable.
HB: What compels you to write about war?
LH: I wrote about war because my character had a story to tell that involved the war. In other words I didn’t set out to write something about the Civil War: I was moved to tell a story that was set before, during and after that conflict. As someone who didn’t serve I would be most hesitant to write about one of our contemporary wars, but as the descendant of people who served in the Union Army, and as someone passionate about the past, I felt I had a way in to talk about that particular terrible event.
HB: Neverhome explores gender roles by depicting the main character as neither truly feminine nor masculine. How did writing in the first person reflect this ambiguity?
LH: Writing in the 1st person was crucial – the story only ever reveals a part of the truth that Ash is hoping and trying to communicate and that feels very human to me. She is groping toward revelation and we grope along with her. And her sense of self is highly fluid. She is very much both a fierce combat veteran and a farm widow. In my mind, there is zero contradiction between those two things. Had I written in 3rd person, no matter how much time I spent in Ash’s mind, I would have had an overview that altered that interior sense of blur. Ash, like all of us, lives inside of herself. And our interior truths are complex.
HB: As an award-winning author, how do you begin the process of writing something new?
LH: Even as I am finishing one project I have already started on another. Sometimes on more than one thing. It is an old habit and works well for me. That way I am never, or almost never, without something I care about to work on.
HB: What’s next for you?
LH: Still thinking about America, still thinking about the past. One novel I am deep into takes up the infamous and abhorrent 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, and another goes deeper into American history, and deals with witchcraft.
Laird Hunt is the award-winning author of a book of short stories, mock parables, and histories, The Paris Stories (2000), originally from Smokeproof Press, re-released by Marick Press, and five novels from Coffee House Press: The Impossibly (2001), Indiana, Indiana (2003), The Exquisite (2006), Ray of the Star (2009), and Kind One (2012), which was a finalist for both the 2013 Pen/Faulkner Award and the 2013 Pen USA Literary Award in Fiction and the winner of a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. Neverhome will be published in the United States by Little, Brown and Company and by Chatto in the UK. Hunt’s translation of Oliver Rohe’s Vacant Lot was published by Counterpath Press, which also published his co-translation with Anne-Laure Tissut of Arno Bertina’s Brando, My Solitude. He is published in France by Actes Sud, and his novels have either been published or are forthcoming in Japan, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Turkey. His writings, reviews, and translations have appeared in the United States and abroad in, among other places, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Bomb, Bookforum, Grand Street, The Believer, Fence, Conjunctions, Brick, Mentor, Inculte, and Zoum Zoum. Currently on the faculty in the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program, where he edits the Denver Quarterly, Hunt has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and was in residence at Marfa (Lannan Foundation) this past summer. He lives with his wife, the poet Eleni Sikelianos, and daughter in Boulder, Colorado.