Patricia Henley was born in Indiana in 1947 into a large, working-class family. She attended the Master’s program in poetry at Johns Hopkins University. In her biographical essay, she recalls, “Stories were my first love, however, and as soon as I was mature enough to sit still, I began writing stories. My first stories arose as a result of moving to Washington State in 1975 to live in an anarchist back-to-the-land community. Living that way—without running water (in winter) and indoor plumbing, growing some of the food I ate, caring for a dairy cow, spending much of the day in a paradisiacal remote canyon—renewed my childhood ecstasy, and I felt the boundaries dissolve between me and…the more-than-human world. That feeling…gave rise to the stories collected in Worship of the Common Heart.”
Henley has also published two other story collections, The Secret of Cartwheels and Friday Night at Silver Star, and two books of poetry, Back Roads and Learning to Die. Hummingbird House, her first novel, was a finalist for the National Book Award and The New Yorker Best Fiction Award Book. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Anthology. She has recently published her second novel, In the River Sweet. Patricia Henley is a professor of Creative Writing at Purdue University. As she writes, "I live with my husband and two cats on a country road not far from campus, with long green views of the Indiana fields."
She is at work on her next novel.
Robert Birnbaum: You are a resident of Indiana, which is, as many people know, west of Philadelphia, and I noticed that your book tour is taking you to both coasts. As a resident of the so-called Heartland, how do people treat you when you are on the coasts?
Patricia Henley: (long pause) Sometimes I feel like I have to defend the Midwest. I feel especially like I have to defend living in Indiana because it has a terrible reputation. It’s hicksville. I don’t put too much energy into defending it. People will actually say things to me about it, “How did you end up there?” That sort of thing.
RB: Even from book people?
PH: The other side of the experience has been running into people who are from there and that has been great. Who are either from Indiana or other places [in the Midwest]. I read at Tattered Cover in Denver, and this gentleman who organized the reading had gone to school at Wabash College, and that’s about 25 miles from where I teach. So we had a good connection about that. I’ve run into other booksellers who are from the Midwest or Indiana and they’ve been interested in the book because it’s set in Indiana and Michigan and interested in me because I am from there. So I shouldn’t make it sound like all the people I have met have a bias against Indiana because that’s not true. But I know that’s out there. If you are from the hinterlands, the interior…
RB: Care to hazard a guess as to why coastal types feel that?
PH: I imagine they think of Indiana as the home of the Ku Klux Klan and Dan Quayle. These are things that people mention to me. I hasten to remind them that there is a big peace and justice community there because three of the historically pacifist churches are in Indiana—the Mennonites, The Quakers and the Church of the Brethren.
RB: I’m sure that has a big impact.
PH: Well, that’s one thing I can say. And it’s quite beautiful there in a pastoral way as well. However, I have this division myself as well because I didn’t dream I would be staying in Indiana for 16 years when I moved back there in 1987. I moved back there for the job at Purdue. I had been living a real hand-to-mouth life in the Pacific Northwest.
RB: I understand you lived in a commune for a while.
PH: Yeah. Trying to support my writing habit. When my first book came out from Graywolf and I knew I was competitive for a teaching job at that level I went for it. Because I felt like I needed the security. I needed to be able to settle down. I needed a steady income. So I’ve stayed there.
RB: You were born and grew up there?
PH: In southern Indiana. And then I lived on the East Coast and then in the Pacific Northwest. I never saw myself as a coastal person. I lived in the mountains. I taught high school in British Columbia. I’ve lived in Montana, Oregon and Washington. And that’s where I was living before I moved back to Indiana. I cried the whole summer before I left. So I have mixed feelings about being there.
RB: What was it about going back that you felt badly about?
PH: Leaving the mountains. I felt bad about leaving uneven terrain. I’m an outdoor person. I love to hike and that was the hard part for me, leaving that life.
RB: It seems to be a conventional wisdom in the publishing community—or at least the writing community outside of New York City—that there is a New York kind of book and the publishing business seems to favor a certain style of book. It doesn’t seem to me that In The River Sweet is that kind of book. How is that your book was noticed in New York?
PH: My agent, Faye Bender, came to Hummingbird House before it was a finalist for the National Book Award. I didn’t have an agent at the time.
RB: You have published two other books of stories, right?
PH: On my own. Scott Walker at Graywolf published both collections of stories. And then I had an agent for Hummingbird House and she wasn’t able to sell it in New York. And people are always asking me now, “Well, how many houses did she try?” I really can’t even remember. Maybe fifteen, which I know is not a lot. I’ve heard stories of people being rejected at twenty seven houses. She couldn’t sell it or at least she wasn’t selling it and I got it back from her after about a year and a half and said, "I’ll try the small presses." I tried two or three and then found McMurray & Beck on my own. Then my [current] agent read the book and came to me and said, “Do you have an agent?” I said, “I don’t need an agent. I’m a small press writer.” But she was pretty persistent. And then the book got the attention that it got. Meanwhile McMurray & Beck had sewn me up with a contract for In the River Sweet, my next novel. After six months I began to feel I had done myself a disservice by signing on with them, particularly because they were sold to McAdam Cage. The people I worked with there—Fred Ramey, a fabulous editor, he left to go to Penguin Putnam—I just didn’t feel comfortable with the new book coming out with McMurray & Beck. I asked for it back. And they agreed to give me back the book if I gave them back the money. Meanwhile I had made an arrangement to work with Faye Bender and within a week she sold it to Pantheon. To Luanne Walther. So Faye Bender is one of the reasons why In the River Sweet was noticed in New York.
RB: A cautionary tale, get an agent.
LH: Yes, I needed an agent, and I hadn’t had great experiences with them before. But Faye is fabulous. I think my work was noticed, of course, when Hummingbird House was a finalist was for the National Book Award. People actually came up to me from New York houses and said, “Why didn’t I know about this book?”
RB: Duh. Yeah, well.
PH: So that’s how it happened.
RB: I was trying to decide if perhaps you are a sweeter, gentler Robert Stone. You have thrown everything at your characters, put them at considerable risk. What hasn’t happened to this group of characters in this story? This is a very big story, and seems to expand.
PH: (laughs) I hope that’s good. I hope that it’s a family that reaches what Johnny [the husband in In the River Sweet] calls “critical mass.” Things have been building up, and they have these tensions that just keep coming to the surface.
RB: I meant what I said as good thing. It’s not like an ordinary family plugging along. Everybody has secrets and a past, it’s not some kind of spontaneous combustion.
PH: I think that the secret that Laurel [the daughter] has is a very ordinary secret. She wants love and affection and she is a lesbian. And she has finally decided to come out and tell her parents. It’s really Ruth Anne who has the major secrets. Johnny, like thousands of other men, was in Vietnam and in some ways his secrets are fairly ordinary because of that. It’s Ruth Anne who’s kept so many secrets, who has played her cards close to her chest.
RB: That’s right. I didn’t want to say that the daughter’s sexual preference was a secret.
PH: But it is a secret. It’s already come out when the reader enters the book. But it has been a secret and Ruth Anne—it’s one of Ruth Anne’s difficulties—she wanted her daughter to have a life that didn’t require keeping secrets. Because she has kept so many.
RB: Why did you write this book? What moved you to write this story?
PH: In 1967, I gave up a child for adoption, and when we reunited in 1996 I had no idea where that would take me. But it’s turned into an amazing relationship. I am very close to my daughter now. A couple of years after we reunited, I started writing a memoir about that era, the Sixties, the time before abortion was legal and the shame associated with having a child out of wedlock at that time. It just wasn’t working as a memoir. So I filed it away and thought that I would probably fictionalize it someday.
RB: What do you mean that it wasn’t working?
PH: I was writing it and my agent at the time wanted me to fictionalize it more. And my sense of a memoir is, it’s about what really happened. And so if what really happened wasn’t enough to carry a story or a book, why write it that way? That happened to millions of women, probably, in that era and it wasn’t enough maybe even to engage me as a writer.
RB: You are saying it didn’t engage you enough because it happened to so many women?
PH: I didn’t get far enough along in writing it before I was made to feel as if it wasn’t working by a couple of publishers and by my agent. So I thought, “I am going to back off from this because it’s not my way to write about what really happened to me.” I think I stopped doing that when I stopped writing poetry. So I filed it away and thought I would probably fictionalize it. And then I started writing a short story in 1998 that was told from a women’s point of view looking back on her childhood when her father was a POW. I’m not sure what drew me to that story, maybe it was the absent father which is one of my top 10 tunes or maybe it was the setting. I wanted to set something up in Michigan…maybe a variety of things entered into this story. But I found myself going to the public library and doing all this research on Vietnam. I was a Vietnam protester in the Sixties but knew very little about the war—the day to day of it, what was really going on for people who were there.
RB: Didn’t you watch television?
PH: I did but…actually I didn’t watch a lot of TV, then. I was real anti-TV. So I started reading all these books about Vietnam and I found two that were first-person narratives of women who were in Vietnam: Piece of My Heart and In the Combat Zone. I became fascinated with the stories of these women. Over ten thousand women served in Vietnam. So I thought you heard all the stories of men who went there who had children there. So I thought, “What if?”—writing fiction is always a process of always asking “What if?”—What if a woman went over there and fell in love with a Vietnamese man. It seemed to turn the whole thing on its head and seemed to bring up issues about the sexuality of the time and the repression of women’s sexuality. It seemed to somehow fit in that stream of thought. I met a man also, an American, a former soldier, who owns what I am told is the best Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans, called Photel Bay. I was asking him about his experience marrying a Vietnamese woman, bringing her back here. I was asking him all these questions and he said, “I was just a GI in love.” And that just triggered something for me and I thought, “Of course. What if a woman went over there an just fell in love?” The story started coming together then. At the same time, I was really interested in the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue. I was asked to write an essay about religion in Indiana. I said I wanted to write about The Buddhist-Catholic dialogue, never dreaming I would actually find it there. There is a monastery, south of Indianapolis, in Beech Grove, a Benedictine monastery, and one of the nuns there is the director of the Inter-monastic Dialogue. It’s an international organization and monks and nuns meet several times a year to give papers and to meditate together. I was invited to the monastery when the Dalai Lama’s brother participated in Benedictine Vespers for the first time. It was a deeply moving experience. You walk into this monastery and there are pictures of the Dalai Lama on the wall. So I thought that was so important and I didn’t think the average person in the pew knew anything about it. So I wanted there to be something about the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in there and the Vietnam part of the story fit because Vietnam is primarily a Buddhist and Catholic country. It just started coming together. It seemed like a place, this family, this history where I could work out some of these connections and explore these things and how they manifest themselves in one American family. It’s been a very common experience in the last twenty years that young people are leaving their religion they were reared in to become Buddhists or some other religion that doesn’t jibe with their upbringing. I wanted a young woman to challenge her mother to change and grow because of the decisions she was making. I think Laurel does that.
RB: And swimming in the riptides of this story is a middle-aged couple that is in love with each other. How could that be?
PH: You mean Johnny and Ruthann? Well, people do stay in love you know.
RB: Other than in romance novels people don’t often write about such couples.
PH: That initial scene where they go out to the round barns and make love—when my husband read that, he said, “You managed to make Indiana seem romantic.” (laughs)
RB: This is a big beautiful country and frequently that is forgotten. Saul Steinberg had a drawing that was a map of the US and Manhattan took up three-quarters of it.
PH: Places are very important in my work.
RB: Most writers think that place is important.
PH: Well a lot of young writers don’t realize how important it is. A lot of unpublished young writers. What I see frequently among young people is an attitude that it’s all the same. They are losing that a sense of place is important because of the chains and the malling of America. That’s why I make a point of it.
RB: How long have you been teaching?
PH: I have been teaching one way or another for thirty years. This is my sixteenth year at Purdue, teaching creative writing.
RB: I wanted to revisit the notion of “supporting your writing habit”? Would you continue to teach if you didn’t have to?
PH: Not now. I feel like I am past the point of really enjoying my teaching. I am phasing out of it, slowly. Especially since I started writing novels. I have two more novels that are in my head right now and I’d like to write five or six more in my life, if possible. Writing a novel requires so much of you. It’s quite different from writing short stories. But teaching has been good to me. Purdue University has certainly been good to me.
RB: In the period of time that you have been teaching creative writing, has there been a shift in attitudes toward such programs?
PH: If you look at the proliferation of such programs you have to assume that there are more people wanting them.
RB: Maybe it’s good marketing?
PH: I’m not completely convinced—even after teaching at a program for fifteen years—that that’s the best way to become a writer. It’s not the way I became a writer. I went to [Johns] Hopkins, it’s a one year program. I was a poet when I went. Anything I have learned about fiction writing I’ve learned by the seat of my pants. I’ve learned from reading the writers I admire and writing…just the practice of writing.
RB: This summer I read two good novels that were written by young writers who did not come from writing programs—Prague by Arthur Phillips and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. On the other hand, Frank Conroy said that six of the previous year’s class (of 25) were publishing books this spring.
PH: Well, that’s Iowa. They are in a class of their own. They do a lot to introduce their students to the publishing world. They bring agents over and that sort of thing. We’re much more of a back water than that. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing that we ask the students to focus on their writing and honing their craft for the three years they are with us. Maybe toward the end start to reach out and try to publish. There is a wonderful essay by Ted Solataroff called “Writing in the Cold.” He asks the question at the beginning of that essay, “Why is there so much promise in creative writing programs that never gets realized later?” I think every creative writing program applicant should be required to read that before they decide to go because so much of getting published is just endurance, just sticking with it, just doing it in the face of terrible odds and heartbreaking rejection. Most people who go into programs don’t know that and don’t want to hear that, don’t think that’s going to happen to them, and I don’t think they come in prepared for the kind of apprenticeship that is ahead of them, and I don’t think they leave really prepared for it, either.
RB: Why do people subject themselves to this ordeal?
PH: Why do people want to become writers or why do they become writers? We are no longer talking about students of writing.
RB: Okay, why does someone want to become a writer?
PH: In the best of all possible circumstances you want to become a writer because you love language and you love playing with language and exploring the human condition. But I don’t think that’s why most people at first think they want to become—I think that people think it’s a glamorous life.
RB: How did that happen?
PH: I don’t know. (laughs)
RB: I can’t think of many movies that glamorize the writing life. In your biographical essay you point out that your grandfather took you to the library before you were in kindergarten and taught you how to read. In grammar school you spent recess apart from the other students reading a book. When I was a child my mother took me to the library regularly. Who are these people like you and me for whom reading is so important? Why don’t they rule the world?
PH: That’s what I keep wondering. Why is nobody listening to us? I think that’s a big part of In the River Sweet. Vo [the Vietnamese man] and Ruth Anne fall in love because they are reading together because stories bring them together. Writing stories, telling stories is one of the most complicated things human beings do. When you are really in the zone, when you are writing you are just tapped in…I can almost feel as if the stories aren’t coming from me, as if they are just being given to me.
RB: All the time?
PH: No, when I am really in the zone. (laughs) When things are really cooking, I feel that way.
RB: And how many revisions do you have to do after you have been given a story?
PH: That depends on the piece. People often comment on the ending of Hummingbird House. The last page or so was just a gift that I experienced. I woke up and sat down and wrote it, virtually the way it is. It can still bring tears to my eyes when I read it.
RB: Because of the words or your experience of writing it?
PH: Because of the meaning…being able to say what I really wanted to say with no clutter. And knowing it’s a page that has a profound impact on people, that’s it’s memorable to them and that two years later they’ll say, “I’ll never forget the ending.” So, I think reading and writing are very powerful experiences and I often ask myself why are the people who have this—I would go so far as to say this wisdom that you gain from doing that sort of work all your life, reading or writing or both—how come the powers that be aren’t paying more attention to us?
RB: Here is one possible answer. Yesterday I spent the day finishing Donna Tartt‘s novel [since I am to speak with her soon]. What do you think Ted Turner or Michael Eisner were doing? So while they were making money I read a book. At the end of the day I felt okay with that.
PH: You’re right. It’s a hermit-like existence.
RB: We should take comfort from the epigram that is on the Sigmund Freud memorial in Vienna, “The voice of reason is small but persistent.” [Rosie, my dog, enters the room] Hey Rosie! There’s no food here…
PH: Rosie. Hi baby. Oh yeah. Sit down here by me. Her coat is so pretty.
RB: So is it the case as a result of being a finalist for the National Book Award, that your stock has gone up?
PH: I went from writing a novel that nobody wanted to publish to writing a novel that became a finalist for the National Book Award in a year. So that was a big change and certainly that year and a half or so when I couldn’t find a publisher was a very dark period in my life. Probably the darkest as a writer. I spent years researching and took some risk by going to Central America and I had grown tremendously, but I wanted the book to be read. And I felt that no one was going to read it. It was a terrible period and then a few months later there it was.
RB: You never know.
PH: That’s true. It’s given me more confidence.
RB: It is a testimonial to perseverance. How can you write and be creative when you have this feeling of dread and of putting out so much and not getting much back?
PH: I had pretty much decided that I would never write another novel. I would only write short stories. Writing a novel—for me—I just become obsessed with it, and I said no to so many other parts of my life in order to do it that I just didn’t think it would be worth it if they weren’t going to see the light of publication. The most important thing was that it gave the book new life. I can go into almost any bookstore in America and they will have a copy of Hummingbird House. And that is a good feeling, especially because the book is about something that really matters to me: the fate of women and children in wartime.
RB: What’s your reception been like as you have crisscrossed the country to talk about your new book?
PH: It’s a really amazing experience when people come up to have me sign what I think of as my old books. That’s been great. To talk to readers…
RB: How much is your writing edited?
PH: With In the River Sweet, the first thing I was asked to do was cut a hundred pages from the manuscript and I think I maybe cut sixty pages.
RB: Does your heart sink when you are asked to cut?
PH: At first. But then I am really open to being edited and love getting good criticism that will help the book. Anything that is going to help the book is important to me. So I went through and conflated some scenes, got rid of some things and cut, just by trimming phrases. It was a good thing and I think it’s a better book. Then Luanne [Walther] did some fine tuning, some small things but (long pause) the editing on Hummingbird House was much more line by line [by Fred Ramey].
RB: Do you have first readers of your work?
PH: My husband and my son read Hummingbird House and In the River Sweet—I think my husband read it…parts of it and gave me early criticism. I don’t know if any else read it before I turned it in.
RB: Apparently you don’t have a system?
PH: Where so and so has to read it? No. I need to feel confident of it. That’s the main thing. I need to write it until I feel confident of it. I know writers who have regular readers and they get together in a group and read each others’ novels, chapter by chapter. I do so much of that teaching, that I don’t think I would have the energy to do that with my peers. I think that’s wonderful that they have that energy to give each other but I’ve never done it. I’m a loner.
RB: Are you friends with other writers?
PH: I am, but they are in other places and we stay in touch by e-mail and on the phone.
RB: Dorothy Allison ‘blurbed’ your book. Is she a friend?
PH: I don’t really know Dorothy to call her a friend-friend. I worked with her at Port Townsend at the Centrum Writer’s Workshop there and I thought if we lived near each other I would love to be her friend. I was really grateful that she liked the book as much as she did.
RB: Do you have time to read?
PH: Oh yes!
RB: Well, many people who don’t write novels and don’t teach and don’t travel around the country say they don’t have time to read. Have you read anything outstanding lately?
PH: I loved Atonement [Ian McEwan] I’m a fan of his and I thought it was beautifully written.
RB: Did you read Enduring Love by him?
PH: Another one of my faves. The beginning of that book…it’s an amazing event, beautifully told. It’s a perfect instigating event for a novel for everything to spring off from there. I like Three Junes a lot. A lot. I liked Steve Almond‘s book, My Life in Heavy Metal. When I first started reading these stories I thought that they were more stories about a young guy who wants to get laid. But then I thought he really took the stories somewhere else. He really reveals the underside of…
RB: Of being a young guy and wanting to get laid.
PH: Exactly. And Kevin Brockmeier, Things That Fall From The Sky, he has a wonderful short story called “These Hands,” about a young man applying for a job as a nanny that is amazing. His portrayal of the life of this two-and-a-half-year-old girl and the man’s relationship and understanding of how a child thinks and acts. And there is this attendant suspense you feel because a man is being a nanny. That’s a little bit scary. It’s really an amazing story. Very tender.
RB: Have anything to say about regional writing?
PH: Well even though this book is set in the Midwest my next book is going to be set, I think, on the East Coast.
RB: So there will have to be a lot of brand names: Gucci, Audi, Armani.
PH: Are those mountain ranges? (both laugh) And Hummingbird House was set in Central America.
RB: Why would you want to set your next novel on the East Coast?
PH: I definitely want to write an urban book. It mighty be Chicago since I am close…I want the challenge of seeing what happens when I bring my sensibility to an urban environment.
RB: Does that mean you will live in a city while you write?
PH: Yes, I have to.
RB: You mentioned somewhere that you considered town living a temporary necessity. This is truly is giving up you body for the team…
PH: Sure. I love cities. I love cities and walking in cities. Where I live I have to get in the car to go everywhere. I love museums and theater and music and all of it. So if this happens [setting a book in a city] it will be fun.
RB: What is definite for your future at the moment?
PH: (laughs) That I am going to the Bahamas for Christmas. (both laugh)
RB: I didn’t quite mean it like that but good for you.
PH: I want to start this next book after the New Year. Beyond that I don’t know. I am on sabbatical next year so I want to use the time wisely and write this next novel.
RB: Can you do it in a year?
PH: I can get a draft of it in a year.
RB: Is this book spoken for?
PH: No but I hope that it will be.
RB: Well, good. Thank you.
PH: Thank you.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing