BRIGHT SHARDS OF SOMEPLACE ELSE announces the arrival of a distinctive new fictional voice

Bright Shards of Someplace Else

Bright Shards of Someplace Else: Stories

By Monica McFawn

University of Georgia Press: Sept. 15, 2014

164 pages, $24.95

 

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Occasionally I come across a book that is more challenging than most to review. It’s not because it’s a bad book and I don’t want to write a scathing review; in those cases I just don’t bother with a review (life’s too short to be mean-spirited about a book). It’s because the work is so distinctive or pleasantly perplexing that I struggle to put my thoughts and feelings about it into words.

Monica McFawn’s debut collection is such a book. She submitted a selection of her stories to the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction contest and was named one of the two winners for 2014 (the award is given out biennially to two writers).  And there is good reason for that: although it is still early in her career, she is already writing at an impressively sophisticated level. The result is this collection (published along with Karin Lin-Greenberg’s supremely entertaining Faulty Predictions).

McFawn, who teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, possesses a fiercely idiosyncratic intelligence that is revealed on nearly every page of this eleven story collection.  A few stories  (“The Slide Turned on End,” “Elegantly, In the Least Number of Steps,” “Ornament and Crime”) reminded me of the quirky hyper-modern stories of Karen Russell and Ramona Ausubel (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of George Saunders). In these cases, McFawn provides her eccentric characters with unique challenges that make for compelling reading even as they keep the reader confused or off-balance.

“The Slide Turned on End” is a brilliant exploration and mockery of scientific and academic research pretensions in which a former biologist and DNA expert becomes convinced that abstract art appeals to us because it captures the essence of our physical selves. He soon becomes a professor of art and a cause celebre in certain circles. A journalist meets with him for an interview, in which O’Hara explains his theory, known as “micro-aestheticism. ”

“‘I realized we humans probably react to art because we must, in some subconscious way, recognize it. Even abstract art. What I’m saying is I think we can sense the tiniest part of ourselves–and our origins–the cells, platelets, and our amoeba ancestors–in these images. And I think that’s what resonates with us when we view abstract art.  We are, in a sense, recognizing the bits.'”

“O’Hara went on to compare this who’s who of abstract art to what he assured me was a who’s who of bacteria, protozoa, and cells. Here and there the resemblances truly were uncanny, but what that proved remained obscure.”

Eventually, O’Hara persuades the journalist to provide him with a drop of blood so they can examine her own “abstract art” under the microscope. This experiment requires the use of a new blood stabilizing agent called Ethiphet. Soon the journalist is experiencing O’Hara’s theory firsthand and discovering new insights into art. But matters do not progress in the way one might expect.

In McFawn’s more traditional stories, she uses her pen as a scalpel to cut to the heart of her characters’ foibles, and in doing so, she tells us much about ourselves.

In the opening story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” Grace, a twenty-something oddball is baby-sitting a nine-year-old boy described by his mother as “different,” “special,” and “high-maintenance.”  She is told that young Andy is not to use the phone. Grace soon learns that Andy is a highly capable negotiator; he likes calling salespeople to practice. After speaking with a termite exterminator, Grace asks him if he’d like to try clearing up a mistake on her phone bill with a call to customer service. What’s the harm? But one call leads to another as Andy straightens out Grace’s messy life. “Adult lives spread out before him like big sloppy maps that their owners could not refold.” But the evening doesn’t end quite so well.

In “Dead Horse Productions,” the owner of a boarding stable passes away, leaving her son Bill to attend to matters. Despite his mother’s mid-life discovery of a passion for horses, Bill knows or cares little about horses. He is faced with a dead horse in the middle of winter and calls upon Fran, a former riding student who had become an acolyte and employee of his charismatic mother. They engage in a tense debate regarding how to move the frozen equine from the pasture. Fran wants to use a special massage she’d learned from Bill’s mother that would relax the muscles and allow the carcass to be moved more easily; Bill suggests using the backhoe.

“She was afraid of trying the backhoe. Afraid it wouldn’t work–because if the full force of the machine bore down on the carcass and nothing happened, the floating horse would have moved into a more certain plane of paranormal. Afraid it would work–and his mother and her massage would have been bypassed, overthrown, disregarded, unneeded, unheeded–it would be, for Fran, a death of a god. No, the backhoe would not do. The dead horse was no doubt a mystery, no doubt a problem, but there were many mysteries and many problems, and if you had to forsake something to solve each one you’d have nothing left for your trouble.”

To Bill “the dead horse was a mystery, to be sure, but it was a mystery that had overstayed its welcome. There had been mysteries and inexplicable things throughout his life….One could learn to live with these mysteries, but a dead horse, in all its corporeal fact, could not be endured.”

This encounter between two people incapable of understanding each other leads to a revelation for each of them.

“Key Phrases” finds the manager of Journey’s End Memorials (“our company made videos of deceased loved ones to play at funerals or wakes”) attempting to find a way to fire an incompetent employee, with little success.

In “Line of Questioning,” a college English professor is questioned by the police regarding the nature of his relationship with a former student who has been found murdered. Here McFawn plays with the conventions of such plots and again finds something new to reveal.

“Snippet and the Rainbow Bridge” allows McFawn to demonstrate her impressive knowledge of the equestrian field. Judy and Marti own Heart’s Journey, a horse rescue ranch. Despite their successful business partnership, they have different philosophies of horse care. They retain two large animal veterinarians, Dr. Jim and Dr. Merrill, one Old School and one progressive, whose philosophies align with that of Judy and Marti, respectively. They are faced with the question of what to do about a seriously ill horse with a special talent for painting (yes, you read that right).

The story’s highlight is a brilliant depiction of how a horse’s mind operates. “To live in a horse’s body is to experience a perpetual loop of sensation, as if each nerve ending were being plucked in a pattern….Then, of course, there are the eyes, set on the side of the head. It is like being on a themed ride at an amusement park: everything to the side is thrilling and bright, but the area right in front of the car is black. Your world is peripheral. The blind spot in the center of your vision is your center, dark and certain, a void you can retreat to whenever you want.”

The collection closes with one of the strongest stories, “The Chautauqua Sessions,” in which a successful country songwriting duo, lyricist Danny and singer-guitarist Levi, reunite at a studio in the Appalachians to try to recapture the magic of their heyday. But the chemistry is altered when Danny’s son, Dee, a recovering drug addict, arrives to reconcile with his father. Levi and the ranch-studio’s manager, Lucinda, give Dee the benefit of the doubt, but Danny has seen and heard it all in his long history of coping with Dee’s addiction. Is Dee really clean and sober? Can music bring them together? Will Danny risk making himself vulnerable to more suffering in yet another attempt to save Dee? Danny’s plan to get rid of Dee so he and Levi can work results in an unexpected but entirely plausible series of events that will change everyone’s lives.

Monica McFawn’s stories are not easy reads with simple conflicts and pat resolutions. She leaves a lot to the reader to infer on the way to reaching a final impression of a story’s meaning. While some stories in Bright Shards of Someplace Else are less successful than others, McFawn is always intriguing and thought-provoking, and the quality of her prose is never an issue. This is a smart, ambitious collection of stories by a writer whose initial acclaim is certain to grow.

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Guest blogger Monica McFawn on storytelling: “Why I Don’t Write Them Down”

M-McFawn  Bright Shards of Someplace Else

Monica McFawn won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Karin Lin-Greenberg, whose book I reviewed recently). Her debut short story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, was published by University of Georgia Press on September 15 to enthusiastic reviews from the likes of NPR, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. McFawn’s fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review,Web Conjunctions, Missouri Review and other publications. She teaches writing at Grand Valley State University outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. My review of Bright Shards of Someplace Else is forthcoming. 

 

“You should write that down!”

I’ve heard this for years.  I might be sitting with a group of acquaintances, empty wine bottles and plates on the table.  I might be in a car with a friend, talking to pass the time.  I might be at work, at night, regaling a coworker with a story that extends past the hour when we both should be getting in our cars and heading home. It’s a compliment, I know, so I always smile while simultaneously shaking my head. Despite the fact that I’m a writer, the majority of stories I’ve told won’t be committed to paper.   It isn’t because I think the stories aren’t good enough.   In fact, some of the stories I tell are polished to a sheen, any crude transitions or slow spots worn away by years of telling, of watching listeners’ faces.  Still, I believe the fact that I don’t write them down has paradoxically helped me become a better writer.

Long before I had the notion to be a writer, I was a storyteller.  I grew up in a household where both my parents told stories, and monologues, rather than dialogues, were the primary form of interaction.   As I kid, I was bullied because of my crossed eye (“maybe if we hit her in the back of the head we can knock it straight” was one memorable taunt) but I believed that I was being mistreated simply because they didn’t really know me. The problem was, as I saw it, that they had never heard me tell a story. As I walked through the halls, I practiced stories I might tell, stories that would make it clear that I was far too self-aware, ironic, and subversive to ever be the target of a bully.    A story, I thought, was a perfect, round package of my selfhood, far better than one side of a conversation, which was so easy to misconstrue.

I still see stories as a shortcut to understanding, a better method for learning about someone than the shapeless one-offs that back-and-forth conversations demand.  Why not just tell a story, and hear a story back? At any one moment, I have two or three stories in heavy rotation for just this purpose, with a few others that are semi-retired, though the right circumstance will bring them bubbling forth.  One of my favorite stories dates from 2008, and I’ve been worried, as I’ve gotten older, that perhaps 2008 marked the last time my life was colorful enough to produce a story.  I’ve known adults who’ve only told stories from their youth, as if they only persisted into adulthood to serve as a living record of their glory days.   But fortunately, 2013 was a good year for stories, so I have a few fresh ones to trot out.     People find these stories amusing, shocking, or strange, but no matter how strong the reaction, I never commit them to paper.

One of the main reasons is that I don’t want to lock a story down in one form.    Even the phrase “write it down,” seems to imply that the stories must be dragged down from the ether and pinned to the page.  The stories, in their mutable, airy form, maintain their dynamism.  I never know, exactly, how I will tell that same story to any given audience.  There are short versions of each story and long, minutely detailed versions.  There are versions that emphasize my bumblings and those that emphasize my cunning.   Each time I tell a story, I refine the delivery and tighten the structure.  The story—what actually happens—is the only thing that doesn’t change.  But by telling the same story over and over, I’m able to see the myriad possibilities in any story, the way the plot dictates so little of what the story actually is.  As a fiction writer, this has been a useful lesson, since the “idea” of a story is so secondary to the tone and richness with which it is told.

Whenever I tell a story, I launch into it with great enthusiasm, even though I’ve told it before.   I’m an old magician who has somehow retained the ability to be dazzled by my own tricks.  I have to be dazzled, or I won’t tell the story well. I can’t fake it, so somehow, as I’m telling it, I have to tap into whatever was compelling, strange, or moving about the original experience, no matter how long ago that was.  This ability to draw from the same well over and over has been one of the most useful things for my writing.  Often, when I’m beginning a short story, I’m exhilarated by my concept and ideas.  But after weeks or months of struggling with the writing, I begin to doubt my idea, and the whole story seems stale, dry, and not worth telling.  At that moment, I imagine that this story—the one I’m writing—is the only one I’m able to tell, and someone is waiting for me to tell it—someone I need to charm.  I force myself to find the place where it still sparkles, and I begin writing again with new courage.

After all this talk about stories, I think I need to tell one, one that I never planned on writing down. It’s short and seemingly insubstantial, but it has stayed with me for years.   It goes like this:  I’m an undergraduate student, taking an Anthropology class in a large lecture hall.  I flopped down in my seat one day to see the professor is different from normal. Rather than a woman with crimped blond hair, it’s a shorter, dark haired professor.  A sub, I figured.  The lecture was already in full swing when I entered class, and I found myself struggling to make sense of it.   The woman kept going on about rocks.

Sediment this, limestone that, what was the point of this? Probably these rocks were made into spearheads for some tribe or something. I let my mind drift, as it often did, until it was time for break.  The professor was handing back tests during this time, and everyone got their test back but me.  I marched up to the professor and demanded my test.  She asked my name and scanned the roster.  “You’re not on my roster,” she said.  “Well, I’m in this class alright.  So someone made a mistake.”  I leave her to fix it, mumbling to myself as I sat back down.  Sheesh, what a disorganized sub.  The professor resumed her lecture, still talking about damn rocks. I looked up at the clock, hoping we’d be let out soon.  I felt a sudden vertigo.  The clock was on the wrong wall!  Normally it was on the right, now it was on the left.

In a flash, it occurred to me that I might be in the wrong class.  I turned to the student next me and asked if this was Anthropology 105.  “This is Geology 305,” the student responded, side-eyeing me with haughty disgust.   The different professor, the lack of being on the roster, the subject matter—none of this had tipped me off.  After over an hour in the wrong class, only the clock struck me as wrong.

Why do I tell this story?  I think its because I love all the ways I rationalized what was different, how I tried to make the rock-loving brown-haired professor fold into my scheme of normality.   There was something strenuous about my justifications, yet at the same time I was too lazy and inattentive to see the obvious.  I also love the point in the story where I turn to the student next to me.  At that moment, when I saw the clock on the wrong side, my whole sense of reality tipped.  My familiar Anthropology class had become someplace foreign and strange, and when I turned and asked the student what class I was in, I was also sharing what felt to me like a shocking epiphany.  But the student was bored, blasé, annoyed—I was just some confused underclassman.

That disconnect between what I was feeling and how it was received seemed to me both hilarious and profound: isn’t that how it always is? Many of the characters in my fiction experience this same disconnect of perception, so perhaps it was a good thing that I told this story so many times, turning over that same absurd, poignant moment again and again.   Now that I’ve written it down, though, I will have to find a new moment like this in my life, something sparkling, like a piece of quartz, I can carry with me and share.

My Favorite Books of 2014

Everything I Never Told You  The UnAmericans  The Hundred-Year House  The Home Place  Life Drawing    Now We Will Be Happy  Be Safe I Love You  Faulty Predictions   The Bees   Flashes of War

2014 was a very strong year for literary fiction by women. I tried to make a Top 10 list, but that proved impossible. So I decided instead to make a list of my favorite books of the year and ended up with 30. They are listed in alphabetical order rather than by ranking. I will say that a handful of books knocked my reading socks off and stayed with me for a long time. Those titles are noted with an asterisk. I think there is something for everyone here.

It should go without saying  that there were hundreds of books that I did not get around to reading (some are still on my to-be-read list), and I’m certain many of them would have made this list had I read them. So this is just a very idiosyncratic list of the best books one guy read in 2014. Make of that what you will.

The links will take you to my review of each book. I hope you will also take the time to read my interviews with many of these authors. You can find them by visiting the Index page or using the Search bar.

Molly Antopol — The UnAmericans: Stories*

Robin Black — Life Drawing

Vanessa Blakeslee — Train Shots: Stories

Katie Crouch — Abroad

Karen Joy Fowler — We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

Amina Gautier — Now We Will Be Happy: Stories*

Lisa Gornick — Tinderbox

Cristina Henriquez — The Book of Unknown Americans

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You*

Lacy Johnson — The Other Side: A Memoir*

Kristina Kahakauwila — This is Paradise: Stories*

Lily King — Euphoria*

Maya Lang — The Sixteenth of June

Carrie La Seur — The Home Place*

Lisa Lenzo — Strange Love: Stories

Jessica Levine — The Geometry of Love

Karin Lin-Greenberg — Faulty Predictions: Stories*

Rebecca Makkai — The Hundred-Year House*

Francesca Marciano — The Other Language 

Laura McBride — We Are Called to Rise

Celeste Ng — Everything I Never Told You*

Laline Paull — The Bees

Virginia Pye — River of Dust

Claudia Rankine — Citizen* (poetry-essay-memoir hybrid)

Katey Schultz — Flashes of War: Stories*

Brittani Sonnenberg — Home Leave

Emily St. John Mandel — Station Eleven*

Rene Steinke — Friendswood

Natalia Sylvester — Chasing the Sun

Tiphanie Yanique — Land of Love and Drowning

 

The Hundred-Year House offers absorbing hybrid of family saga, literary mystery, examination of creative life

The Hundred-Year House   Rebecca Makkai 2013

The Hundred-Year House

By Rebecca Makkai

Viking, July 10, 2014

$26.95, 335 pages

Rebecca Makkai’s sharp-witted sensibility is at work on every page of The Hundred-Year House, an entertaining and absorbing novel that combines genres into an appealing and unique hybrid. Her second novel (following 2011’s The Borrower) is a literary mystery, a multi-generational family saga, a ghost story, a portrait of several marriages, and an exploration of the creative life set in three different eras (1929, 1955, and 1999), reflected in the novel’s three sections.

It is 1999 and Doug and Zee Herriot have agreed to live in the expansive carriage house on the Chicago-area estate of Zee’s eccentric mother, Gracie Devohr, and her Y2K-obsesssed stepfather, Bruce. Zee is an English professor at the local university and Doug, currently unemployed, is researching the life of minor American poet Edwin Parfitt with plans to write a biography. What would possess a young couple to live with the wife’s parents? Well, the price is certainly right, but for Doug it’s the fact that Laurelfield was once an artists’ colony at which Parfitt was a regular guest. When he learns that several file cabinets containing Laurelfield Arts Colony records are locked up in the attic, Doug becomes a man obsessed. His biography has stalled early in the research stage and he fervently believes the documentation needed to break his writer’s block and lead to a groundbreaking biography will be found in those file cabinets. But Gracie won’t let him or anyone else near the attic.

Doug and Zee soon find themselves disturbed by the huge portrait of Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet Devohr, hanging in the dining room. Violet’s spirit permeates Laurelfield, and not because she and her husband were the estate’s original residents starting in 1900 or because she was involved with the opening of the arts colony. Violet committed suicide somewhere on the property, but no one will say where or how. What is known is that Augustus Devohr, of the aristocratic but cursed Toronto Devohrs, had the lakeside estate built for Violet in 1900.

Makkai has cleverly structured The Hundred-Year House in reverse, so we experience Doug’s investigation into the life of Edwin Parfitt and the estate’s past as we travel back to 1955, when the house changed from arts colony to a private residence once again, and 1929, when the colony was in its heyday. And the family’s secrets are also revealed by going back in time. Makkai juggles several plot strands with aplomb, and there are plenty of surprises in store for attentive readers who are trying to solve the mysteries of Laurelfield alongside Doug. The plot is complicated, with many characters living at or orbiting around Laurelfield in each era.

The Hundred-Year House shows us that the history of both people and a place are not always what we expect and in some cases can never truly be known. This is a wickedly plotted and colorfully peopled novel that makes for a completely engaging read, full of perplexing mysteries, skillfully revealed (and often twisted) explanations, and a palpable sense of time and place. The story of Laurelfield the family estate and Laurelfield Arts Colony is even more compelling and provocative than you can imagine. When you finish the Prologue (set in 1900) on page 335, you will be tempted to turn to Part I (1999) and start all over again, looking for all the clues and insights you missed the first time through.

I enjoyed The Hundred-Year House from beginning to end (or should I say from the end to the beginning?), and it stands as one of my favorite books of 2014.

 

 

“Urgency. Please.” Writer Beth Kephart on the need for honest, relevant fiction

Beth Kephart

I need them urgent. I need them to persuade me of their relevance, to yank me by the hair, to stop me in my whirling tracks, to somehow give me faith (still, still) in this planet rotten with injustice.

I am a bore, I am a scold, I am no fun, excuse me and but:

There is a girl in the Gaza strip paralyzed neck to foot and (also) orphaned. There is an Ebola virus mad with intent. There is a lake that holds no water in California, a husband murdered by the cops, so many lost Syrians that we are losing count, disappearing birds, confounding politics, Salvadoran children running toward a country that will turn them back, a comatose boy in a hospital bed, a mother’s young son going blind and if, in this time, in this place, you ask me to understand narratives built merely to sell, stories packaged merely to distract, books sold merely on the basis of hollow hype—well, I can’t.

I’m sorry. I can’t.

I need my books urgent. I require the meticulously unveiled. I insist on purposeful, on stories that sizzle in. I need characters that help me believe that we human beings are capable of deep thinking, tenderness, complication, problems solved, humanity. Humans capable of humanity. That’s what I want. I need the books I read to give me signs of that.

Desperation—the news fills me with it. Intelligence—I’m desperate for that. For sentences that surprise me, structures that appease me, characters who give me something like truth, and something like hope, and something like proof that both are still possible, still available to us. Don’t talk down to me, don’t try to trick me, don’t fudge, don’t diminish, don’t pimp your characters or your storylines out. Don’t tell me the book before me is the next Eat, Pray, Love or the Hunger Games on steroids or Andrew Smith without the grasshoppers or the sideways, because imitation doesn’t sound like urgency to me. It doesn’t sound essential. It sounds nugatory and also pyrrhic; it sounds cruelly hollowed out.

There are people out there hurting. There is a planet splitting apart. If we, as writers, are going to make a difference, we have to stop writing toward headlines, toward gimmicks, toward sales, toward the inevitable flaming out. We have to know where we are living, and what is at stake, and what we can do about this here, and this now.

We must write the book that might proudly stand as the last book ever written, ever read.

Time is running out.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 18 books, including, most recently Going Over, a Berlin Wall novel (Chronicle Books), Nest. Flight. Sky.: on love and loss, one wing at a time (Shebooks), and Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham).

Carrie La Seur on The Home Place: “I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate”

Carrie La Seur  The Home Place ad

In a year distinguished by outstanding debut novels, Carrie La Seur has written one that stakes its own claim to the distinctive territory known as the literary suspense novel. I was pulled in on the first page of The Home Place and the story had me riveted until the last page. I was equally impressed by the quality of the writing and the multi-layered plot. There is a great deal going on in The Home Place but it never feels overloaded or heavy-handed. The many characters and conflicts, the murder mystery, the love story, and the threat posed by coal mining to the ranchers’ way of life in southeastern Montana are all handled so expertly that one would never suspect that this is La Seur’s first novel. And she wrote it while working full time as an attorney and raising children. You can read my review here

***

You have such an interesting and impressive background. Educated at Bryn Mawr and Yale Law School, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, public interest lawyer, and now author. Having grown up in Billings, what made you decide to head east to a small, private liberal arts school? Did you experience culture shock moving from Montana to Philadelphia, or had you been yearning for city life for so long that you adapted easily? Did you plan to become a lawyer while at Bryn Mawr or did that come later?

I got good scholarship support to go to Bryn Mawr, but it was a huge culture shock for me. I went there because I wanted to see the world. We could barely afford it. I typed all my papers in the computer center, worked in the dining halls, walked dogs, etc. By the time I graduated, I had an idea that I’d like to be a lawyer, because I wanted to have the tools to represent people I had grown up with who had never gotten a fair shake.

When did you start writing? Was it always a part of your life or is it a more recent development?

Writing has always been my primary form of self-expression. I kept journals for many years and still dip into one now and then. When I was a kid, I’d write plays and have my friends and little brother act them out. I’ve tried a few writing classes, but they always took the joy out of it. The moment writing ceases to be a joy, I get up and walk away. Without that, there’s no point.

Which writers have had the greatest influence on you, both as a writer and as a reader? (I always assume they’re not necessarily the same, as one can love some writers but not be inspired to write like them.)

This book began as a little project I gave myself to tell something like the homecoming story Anne Tyler told in her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes, but for myself, with characters and problems that interested me. But I’ve never thought in terms of wanting to write like someone. Every word is derivative in some way, but you’ve got to mean it as your own or why write it?

I’m a terrible reader of novels. I’m hypercritical. I keep looking for that childhood experience of being so swept away in a book that I can’t bear for it to end and I want to read it over and over, like I did with C.S. Lewis or L.M. Montgomery or L’Engle or Tolkien. Something about Doris Lessing satisfies me lately, although I couldn’t say exactly what. It has to do with puzzling out big questions in a very engaging way. I love biography, history, and histories of ideas. Agrarians have been blowing my mind lately. I could read Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Michael Pollen, or farm memoirists like Kristin Kimball all day and night. It’s probably consistent that Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer made me very happy. I like to read about people having complex, long-term interactions with places, delving into seasons and soil. And then Neil Stephenson and William Gibson and Arthur C. Clarke because my husband said they were geniuses and made me read them, and he was right. Tomorrow I will change my mind about all of this.

Obviously, there are some similarities between Alma Terrebonne and you, in terms of where she was raised and educated and her career choice. How did you decide which autobiographical aspects to use in The Home Place? Did you start out writing a memoir and it turned into a novel because it gave you more freedom and allowed you to include more than your personal experiences? A few authors have told me this is how their novel began (e.g., Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave).

There are settings and characters that are very familiar to me, and of course themes that I wanted to explore, but the story really isn’t very autobiographical. It was certainly never a memoir. If anything, I used details from my own life to emphasize the fact that my fictional characters aren’t as improbable as they might seem.

The Home Place is a character study and the story of a family dealing with a tragedy amid a web of complex relationship dynamics. The writing is often lyrical and there is a palpable sense of place. These are all characteristics of literary fiction. Yet it is a murder mystery set against the rural drug culture and complicated by the environmental issues posed by Big Coal trying to expand mining in Montana. What were the challenges of writing a “literary thriller”? How did the plot evolve?

Alma needed a compelling reason to come home, and something to keep her in Montana long enough to deal with what she left behind. That required an urgent event right away. Once I decided what that event was, much of the rest fell into place – as much as you can say that about a novel that easily went through a dozen rewrites. Mostly I wanted to tell a good story, one that the people I’m writing about would appreciate.

Do you view The Home Place as a sort of “belated coming-of-age” story? I’ve read several novels in the last few years in which characters who have been away from home for a long time feel the pull of “home” (both family and place) and experience a transformation in acknowledging this connection.

There are definitely elements of the bildungsroman here, especially considering how long it took me to write it.

As you wrote The Home Place, did you picture certain actors playing each role? Or when it was finished and existed outside of you? It’s a very cinematic read, and I found myself doing that as I read. Are there any plans for a movie?

To tell you the truth, I didn’t think about that until you asked. I wasn’t picturing famous faces.

It’s probably not the greatest commercial choice, but if they left it up to me I’d go for Noomi Rapace – who played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies – for Alma. She kicked ass, and Alma has more than a little fight in her to get where she is. The accent might be a challenge, so then Rooney Mara.

For Ray, I love Evan Adams, but he might be a little old for the role. For Vicky, Taryn Manning, “Pennsatucky” from Orange Is the New Black. Maddie: Betty White. Helen: Someone like Debbie Reynolds or even Sally Field. Pete: Channing Tatum, all the way. Walt is Woody Harrelson or Nick Nolte in hairy, crazy mode. Chance: Nobody too pretty. I never said he was handsome. Someone like a young Hugh Laurie.

No movie deal yet.

What is your writing routine? Do you write in a particular place? What five things do you need in order to write?

I write whenever I get a chance. Much of The Home Place was written on the couch after the kids went to bed. The only 5 things I need are 5 minutes of peace and quiet, and sometimes that’s all I get.

What has surprised you about the process of writing and publishing your first novel, both good and bad?

It’s all surprised me. I knew nothing. I was stunned to find an agent and ecstatic to sell my book. The whole thing is still hard to believe.

Fun Questions

If I were a car, I would be… a bicycle. A really fast one.

If I were a city, I would be… Melbourne, Australia.

If I were a pet, I would be… a horse.

If I were a product from the Home Shopping Channel, I would be… ? (I don’t have cable.)

If I were a TV show, I would be… Firefly.

If I were sushi, I would be… unagi.

If I were a movie, I would be… The Thomas Crowne Affair.

If I were a fairy tale character, I would be… the witch.

If I were a Disney character, I would be… Quasimodo.

If I were an actor, I would be… broke.

If I were a sound, I would be… the song of the western meadowlark.

If I were a beverage, I would be… Laphroaig.

If I were a year, I would be… next year.

Dog or cat person? Dog.

Beatles or Stones? Stones.

Dylan or Springsteen? Springsteen.

Half-full or half-empty? Leaving glasses of water sitting around is just asking for trouble.

THE HOME PLACE blends literary fiction and a suspenseful mystery into a seamless tapestry

carrie_la_seur_book_cover

The Home Place

by Carrie La Seur

William Morrow — July 29, 2014

$25.99, 304 pages

No matter how hard we try to escape it, our past is with us. We may succeed in fooling ourselves and others for a certain length of time, but the past has a way of sneaking up on us and tapping on our shoulder. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” The same axiom holds true for family and place, the two inescapable, powerful sources that shape us inexorably.

In Carrie La Seur’s masterful debut novel, The Home Place, her protagonist, Alma Terrebonne, has done everything possible to leave her dysfunctional family and its tragic history behind in Montana. She escaped by earning a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s school outside Philadelphia. Having distinguished herself there, she then attended Yale Law School. Now, fifteen years after the winter car accident that killed her parents and took her younger sister Vicky’s leg, Alma is a hard-charging workaholic corporate attorney in Seattle living the sophisticated urban life. She is content, or has at least persuaded herself that is the case.

But a phone call from Billings changes everything. Vicky has been found dead of exposure in one of the city’s drug-infested neighborhoods, and Alma is called home to help arrange for the funeral. While Alma and Vicky had remained in contact, their relationship was fraught with drama. Vicky began a downward spiral after the car accident, despite adapting fairly well to her prosthetic leg. Although she had been taken in by older brother Walt and his wife Helen, by her early 20’s she was a mother to Brittany and was using drugs, bouncing from one job to another, and relying on number two brother Pete and her sympathetic grandparents to help her with finances and child care.

Alma returns home warily but with the sense of obligation and honor that has always served her well. Once back in Billings, she learns the details of Vicky’s death, which generally appears accidental but which has also raised a few red flags for Detective Ray Curtis, a Crow Indian whom Alma knew in high school. With her lawyerly mind now fully engaged by a complex problem, Alma works with Curtis to dig out the truth of Vicky’s death from under its mysterious circumstances. They are both suspicious of some of Vicky’s acquaintances, who are involved in the meth manufacturing and distributing business. Did Vicky simply slip on black ice while taking a drug-addled walk at 3 a.m., or did someone have a motive to kill her?

While her mind is thus engaged, Alma’s heart is pulled back into the past by her family and their ancestral ranch an hour out of Billings: “the home place.” Her grandmother Maddie is still the loving and feisty white-haired matriarch, but age has caught up with her. Walt, a grumbling grizzly of a man, hides in his garage workshop and has little to say to Alma, his wife Helen (in a wheelchair due to worsening multiple sclerosis), or anyone else. Pete, with whom Alma has a good rapport, owns a high-end coffee shop with his partner Shep. Eleven-year-old Brittany had been living an unsettled life with Vicky and is now in need of a guardian. Matters are complicated further by a predatory coal mining company “land man” who is trying to get neighboring ranchers to sell their property. And Alma is surprised to find her high school boyfriend is also back in Montana running the family ranch after finishing his education at Stanford.

La Seur has woven all these strands into a seamless tapestry. The Home Place is a character study of Alma’s belated coming-of-age as she faces her family’s tragic past and complicated present, a mystery that becomes increasingly suspenseful, and a love letter to the Big Sky country of southeastern Montana. The characters are people we care about (or, in the case of the less admirable ones, at least wonder about), the plot is complex and emotionally resonant without sliding into melodrama, and La Seur’s writing is graceful and evocative.

In many ways, The Home Place is the type of novel I like best: literary fiction with an ethical dilemma or mystery at its core, well-written and respectful of readers’ intelligence, but warm-hearted and well-paced. In that sense, it reminds me a great deal of one of my favorite books of last year, M.L. Stedman’s impressive debut, The Light Between Oceans. La Seur has already made a name for herself with this sure-handed and cinematic story. She spent nearly a decade writing it while working as an attorney in Billings, and the time and effort shows on every page. Highly recommended!