Jane Hamilton's latest novel, The Excellent Lombards, is a coming-of-age story that has been praised as "tender, eccentric, wickedly funny" with "so much grace, wit, and resonance." Hamilton, however, is no stranger to success. Winner of the coveted PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction, her novel, The Book of Ruth, was an Oprah Book Club selection that was made into a television movie, and her novel, A Map of the World, also an Oprah selection, was made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver (nominated for a Golden Globe) and Julianne Moore. Her nonfiction work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Allure, O: The Oprah Magazine, Elle and various anthologies. She is married to an apple farmer and lives on an orchard in Wisconsin where Stay Thirsty Magazine caught up with her for this insightful Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: Your latest novel, The Excellent Lombards, is your seventh book. Are you finding it easier or more challenging to develop and write new stories? What do you look for in deciding on a story to tell?
JANE HAMILTON: Everything I can say about the situation of new work I can instantly turn around and say that the opposite is true. On one hand, I have to write what is compelling, what takes hold of me. On the other hand, at this stage of my writing life I am perhaps more critical of the looming project, saying to myself, It won't work. I don't know enough. I should maybe approach it this way, no, no, that way. When I was younger I was an innocent, not abroad, but in my own bubble. I hadn't gotten an M.F.A., I didn't think about structure or voice or point of view. It sounds ridiculous, working so blindly, especially because students now are so brilliant at talking about the thing that we are trying to do. I never had the vocabulary. I simply wrote the books as best I could. Then I started teaching and I had to learn to talk the talk. The talk has made me much more conscious of the forms, which is both positive and negative. Willa Cather once said that in order to write well you have to forget everything you've learned. It is harder now to do that forgetting.
What do I look for? I don't exactly go looking. There is a fragment, a piece of something, a character, a situation that is commanding. I understand that that piece can gather form around it. Sometimes the novel turns out to be a bust; I've written several novels that haven't worked. A friend of mine says I shouldn't admit that. But it's true. I can't know what I've made until I've made it. Not very efficient, to be sure. But I don't know how else to work but plunge in and try to make a go of it.
STAY THIRSTY: Central to your story in The Excellent Lombards is the family farm. What concerns you most about the future of rural life and the survival of the farm as a core anchor of the family?
JANE HAMILTON: First, I don't have a particularly romantic view of the farm family. I'd imagine that most families that are involved in a business have a particular closeness as well as deep enmities. Second, I think what is wonderful about the Lombards—the cousins running the farm, is that although they have disagreements and at times rage, they are absolutely together in their love of the family property, of the land itself. When you remove that love from a farm, that profound sense of stewardship and kinship, the quality of the very food we eat is threatened, as well as the future of the soil.
STAY THIRSTY: The Excellent Lombards is a coming-of-age story that speaks to the loss of childhood fantasies and of an idyllic future brought on by outside forces that threaten the bucolic way of life and the bounds of family. Are there elements of this story drawn from your own life that reflect your own deep emotional reactions to change?
JANE HAMILTON: I am part of an actual, real life farm family. I am not a teenager but a farm wife nearing sixty. So, the issues of succession, of who will take over the farm, are part of my reality, and certainly are a preoccupation. It, however, was a lot more interesting and amusing to put the preoccupations of succession into the heart and mind of a teenager rather than a person of my own true ilk. Insert a child or teenager into any situation and the temperature rises.
STAY THIRSTY: The Excellent Lombards has been called a "book with so much grace, wit, and resonance." How do you feel about that?
JANE HAMILTON: I am especially happy that some people have felt that the book has resonance. A writer can't know if a book will have meaning to any readers outside of herself. That the matter of the farm, that the love poem Frankie is making to the farm has meaning to readers, that the character herself seems to have staying power is very gratifying.
STAY THIRSTY: How has your approach to crafting a story changed from your first novel to your newest? When you craft your stories, do you plan them out strategically and then fill in the characters and scenes or do you develop the characters and allow them to take the story where they will?
JANE HAMILTON: Each novel has presented different challenges. Nothing that I've done before prepares me to do the next. Each book requires its own structure. The Excellent Lombards is episodic, The Book of Ruth quite linear, A Map of the World two internal monologues. I wish I could plan the books strategically; as I said, my way of working is inefficient, but I don't know any other way. My way will not work for someone else, and someone else's way will not work for me. I love this about the craft; you have to figure out how to approach the work yourself. No one can tell you. In fact, don't listen to anyone else! I start with characters, a problem, and I know the ending. The middles are tough to fill, like a long hot afternoon. What in the hell are you going to do for all that time? Write it, rewrite it, repeat.
STAY THIRSTY: In your many books, you have explored themes that revolve around family bonds and tensions, personal struggle, sexuality, ethics, death and tragedy. How are you able to so authentically reveal your characters' inner selves?
JANE HAMILTON: I can't know that I've authentically revealed the inner lives of the characters. What I do know is that it takes time to "probe the mystery of personality." Flannery O'Connor says that probing that mystery is what fiction is for. I don't understand a character in the first draft, or second, or third. There are writers who are geniuses who can get to the mystery in the first draft, but for me it takes time and consideration, and more time, and more rewriting and trying as best you can to be in the narrative.
STAY THIRSTY: You find great and lasting meaning in ordinary lives in ordinary places. What drew you as a young writer to explore this segment of life?
JANE HAMILTON: Ordinary lives are in fact often extraordinary, aren't they? If you take the time to think into a seemingly simple life you are often surprised and moved. Great, outsized characters often inhabit stories that are plot driven. I can't write a plot to save my life. That is, I couldn't out of the gate come up with a credible plot that can carry a complex character. For me the characters come first, the plot follows.
STAY THIRSTY: You live in rural Wisconsin on a farm with an apple orchard, far from the hustle and pressure of urbanization. How does that setting help you as a writer?
JANE HAMILTON: I am never, ever missing a party. When I was a young writer on the farm I was writing for my own pleasure, outside of any "writing community." I had a few friends I sent my work to, that was my community, but I was not in the warm bath of an MFA program. I probably would have developed more quickly if I had been but I worked at my own pace never imagining I would be published. I did the work for my own pleasure. There was no email. I was free. That freedom was important for a young woman with very little confidence. I worked out the forms myself. I read. I wrote.
STAY THIRSTY: When your finish writing a book, how do you personally feel and what expectations do you have with regard to your readers and their reactions to it?
JANE HAMILTON: I have always felt so grateful to have been able to write the book. A book is never perfect, but I have always felt I did the best I could, I wrote the book I wanted, thanks be to the gods, and if someone else is moved by it, that is icing.
STAY THIRSTY: What is next on your writing agenda?
JANE HAMILTON: I wrote a book that didn't work out a few years back, but I swear to you, I swear, there is a book in that mess. So, I'm trying to find the kernel in the rubble. I'm having fun.