Jane Hamilton: Writing an obsession and a joy

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 30, 2012

By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — Jane Hamilton was just as charming answering questions as she was during her talk Thursday at the Brady Author’s Symposium at Catawba College.
She started by sharing from one of her favorite pieces, an essay by Willa Cather on Katherine Mansfield, “One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them.”
Hamilton said the piece expressed “the rich mind novelists can go to.”
Her books have been told in first person and in third, which prompted a question from Deal Safrit: Is first person intimidating for a writer?
John Updike said it was easier, Hamilton said, and he thought writers should start with the third person narrative to challenge themselves. Richard Russo said the first person narrator is the mature point of view for a writer.
“Voice is an intuitive decision,” Hamilton said. “ ‘The Book of Ruth’ has no plot. It’s fueled by her voice.
“I love third person, I want to write more of it … what you get with it is a kind of very quiet commentary.” As she gets older, she’s more interested in books written in the third person.
She told the earlier audience about a failed novel — what happened?
Well, when she wrote “Map of the World,” she wrote “four complete novels” before she got it right. She got her main character, Alice, in trouble, but couldn’t figure out how to get her out of it. Then she read about a young woman convicted of abusing children at a day care, falsely accused, and realized she had to get Alice in more trouble before she could be redeemed.
“I got to the end of the gajillionth draft when I realized the book was about marriage … So then I got it. It would never happen like that again. HA!”
She’s written the failed novel four times. “It’s like I’m doing archaeology in the wrong city.” But she plans to keep digging.
Hamilton does multiple drafts for everything she writes. “Sometimes I can’t do the next thing until I finish the bad thing.
“Jane Smiley does just one draft. I find that hard to believe. Does she take a longer time with each sentence?”
Hamilton writes quickly, “trying to find the plot. I know the trouble, I know a couple characters and the last line. I keep driving into the middle, but then I go back” fixing things.
“It’s really important to read your work out loud to yourself. You must enjoy your own work, enjoy the process … sometimes I read my work into my iPhone and play it in the car.”
Once she read a part of a novel to her husband. He was bored. She set it aside with great relief, glad to be rid of it.
More tips and revelations:
• The danger of workshops is people believe “you can make a plot by reading a how-to book.”
• How do you get into your characters? “With Howard McCloud (“The Short History of a Prince) I imagined putting on his body every day, with all the things his body should have … I had to get the timbre of his voice. … You inhabit other lives as well as your own. You carry your people with you.”
• She isn’t Ruth, “but we have the same temperament.” They share a certain spirituality. “I had to give her books — how else do you form a self?”
• When she was writing the satire, “Laura Rider’s Masterpiece,” she was “really angry.” She was filled with anxiety that everyone wants to be a writer, but no one is reading.
• “Some people write because they’re angry or to celebrate something or to try and recapture youth.”
• “I think we are all plugged into a collective consciousness. Our words are smarter than we are,” she laughed, “sometimes they’re dumber, too.”
• What happens on a bad day? “I want to get it right. I want to honor that kernel that’s already there.I have a duty to the work and the people.” It’s important, she said, to take time off before going back.
• Writing is a compulsion, an obsession. “Some people say it’s lonely. Are you kidding? You’re surrounded by people of your own creation. It’s kind of fun.”
• When she started writing, she had small children and shared a computer with her husband. “My early novels were fueled with pure rage,” she said. She wanted to be a good mommy, a good wife, a good writer.
She now writes from around 8 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, with a break for lunch. Then she starts moving — swimming, running, “I do that to process.”
• A genius writer, she said, has a clear-eyed wonder of humanity. “Having a little of that is every writer’s wish.”