Patricia Henley

Patricia HenleyPatricia 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 especiallylike I have to defend living in Indiana because it has a terriblereputation. It's hicksville. I don't put too much energy into defendingit. People will actually say things to me about it, "How did youend up there?" That sort of thing.

RB: Even from book people?

PH: The other side of the experience hasbeen running into people who are from there and that has been great.Who are either from Indiana or other places [in the Midwest]. Iread at Tattered Cover in Denver, and this gentleman who organizedthe reading had gone to school at Wabash College, and that's about25 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 Indianaand they've been interested in the book because it's set in Indianaand Michigan and interested in me because I am from there. So Ishouldn't make it sound like all the people I have met have a biasagainst 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 coastaltypes feel that?

PH: I imagine they think of Indiana as thehome of the Ku Klux Klan and Dan Quayle. These are things that peoplemention to me. I hasten to remind them that there is a big peaceand justice community there because three of the historically pacifistchurches are in Indiana—the Mennonites, The Quakers and theChurch of the Brethren.

RB: I'm sure that has a big impact.

PH: Well, that's one thing I can say. Andit's quite beautiful there in a pastoral way as well. However, Ihave this division myself as well because I didn't dream I wouldbe 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 realhand-to-mouth life in the Pacific Northwest.

RB: I understand you lived in a commune fora while.

PH: Yeah. Trying to support my writing habit.When my first book came out from Graywolf and I knew I was competitivefor a teaching job at that level I went for it. Because I felt likeI needed the security. I needed to be able to settle down. I neededa steady income. So I've stayed there.

So I thought, "What if?"—writing fiction is always a process of always asking "What if?"

RB: You were born and grew up there?

PH: In southern Indiana. And then I livedon the East Coast and then in the Pacific Northwest. I never sawmyself as a coastal person. I lived in the mountains. I taught highschool in British Columbia. I've lived in Montana, Oregon and Washington.And that's where I was living before I moved back to Indiana. Icried the whole summer before I left. So I have mixed feelings aboutbeing there.

RB: What was it about going back that youfelt badly about?

PH: Leaving the mountains. I felt bad aboutleaving uneven terrain. I'm an outdoor person. I love to hike andthat was the hard part for me, leaving that life.

RB: It seems to be a conventional wisdomin the publishing community—or at least the writing communityoutside of New York City—that there is a New York kind of bookand the publishing business seems to favor a certain style of book.It doesn't seem to me that In The River Sweet is that kindof book. How is that your book was noticed in New York?

PH: My agent, Faye Bender, came to HummingbirdHouse 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 ofstories, right?

PH: On my own. Scott Walker at Graywolf publishedboth collections of stories. And then I had an agent for HummingbirdHouse and she wasn't able to sell it in New York. And peopleare always asking me now, "Well, how many houses did she try?" Ireally can't even remember. Maybe fifteen, which I know is not alot. I've heard stories of people being rejected at twenty sevenhouses. She couldn't sell it or at least she wasn't selling it andI got it back from her after about a year and a half and said, "I'lltry the small presses." I tried two or three and then foundMcMurray & Beck on my own. Then my [current] agent read thebook and came to me and said, "Do you have an agent?" I said, "Idon't need an agent. I'm a small press writer." But she was prettypersistent. And then the book got the attention that it got. MeanwhileMcMurray & Beck had sewn me up with a contract for In theRiver Sweet, my next novel. After six months I began to feelI had done myself a disservice by signing on with them, particularlybecause they were sold to McAdam Cage. The people I worked withthere—Fred Ramey, a fabulous editor, he left to go to PenguinPutnam—I just didn't feel comfortable with the new book comingout with McMurray & Beck. I asked for it back. And they agreedto give me back the book if I gave them back the money. MeanwhileI had made an arrangement to work with Faye Bender and within aweek she sold it to Pantheon. To Luanne Walther. So Faye Benderis one of the reasons why In the River Sweet was noticedin New York.

RB: A cautionary tale, get an agent.

LH: Yes, I needed an agent, and I hadn't had greatexperiences with them before. But Faye is fabulous. I think my workwas noticed, of course, when Hummingbird House was a finalistwas for the National Book Award. People actually came up to me fromNew York houses and said, "Why didn't I know about this book?"

pat henleyRB:Duh. Yeah, well.

PH: So that's how it happened.

RB: I was trying to decide if perhaps youare a sweeter, gentler Robert Stone. You have thrown everythingat your characters, put them at considerable risk. What hasn't happenedto 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 thatit's a family that reaches what Johnny [the husband in In theRiver Sweet] calls "critical mass." Things have been buildingup, and they have these tensions that just keep coming to the surface.

RB: I meant what I said as good thing. It'snot like an ordinary family plugging along. Everybody has secretsand a past, it's not some kind of spontaneous combustion.

PH: I think that the secret that Laurel [thedaughter] has is a very ordinary secret. She wants love and affectionand she is a lesbian. And she has finally decided to come out andtell her parents. It's really Ruth Anne who has the major secrets.Johnny, like thousands of other men, was in Vietnam and in someways his secrets are fairly ordinary because of that. It's RuthAnne who's kept so many secrets, who has played her cards closeto her chest.

RB: That's right. I didn't want to say thatthe daughter's sexual preference was a secret.

PH: But it is a secret. It's already comeout when the reader enters the book. But it has been a secret andRuth Anne—it's one of Ruth Anne's difficulties—she wantedher 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 movedyou 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 takeme. But it's turned into an amazing relationship. I am very closeto my daughter now. A couple of years after we reunited, I startedwriting a memoir about that era, the Sixties, the time before abortionwas legal and the shame associated with having a child out of wedlockat that time. It just wasn't working as a memoir. So I filed itaway 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 thetime wanted me to fictionalize it more. And my sense of a memoiris, it's about what really happened. And so if what really happenedwasn'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 itwasn't enough maybe even to engage me as a writer.

RB: You are saying it didn't engage you enoughbecause it happened to so many women?

PH: I didn't get far enough along in writingit before I was made to feel as if it wasn't working by a coupleof publishers and by my agent. So I thought, "I am going to backoff from this because it's not my way to write about what reallyhappened to me." I think I stopped doing that when I stopped writingpoetry. So I filed it away and thought I would probably fictionalizeit. And then I started writing a short story in 1998 that was toldfrom a women's point of view looking back on her childhood whenher father was a POW. I'm not sure what drew me to that story, maybeit was the absent father which is one of my top 10 tunes or maybeit was the setting. I wanted to set something up in Michigan…maybea variety of things entered into this story. But I found myselfgoing to the public library and doing all this research on Vietnam.I was a Vietnam protester in the Sixties but knew very little aboutthe war—the day to day of it, what was really going on forpeople who were there.

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.

RB: Didn't you watch television?

PH: I did but…actually I didn't watcha lot of TV, then. I was real anti-TV. So I started reading allthese books about Vietnam and I found two that were first-personnarratives of women who were in Vietnam: Piece of My Heartand In the Combat Zone. I became fascinated with the storiesof these women. Over ten thousand women served in Vietnam. So Ithought you heard all the stories of men who went there who hadchildren there. So I thought, "What if?"—writing fiction isalways a process of always asking "What if?"—What if a womanwent over there and fell in love with a Vietnamese man. It seemedto turn the whole thing on its head and seemed to bring up issuesabout 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 manalso, an American, a former soldier, who owns what I am told isthe 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 andhe said, "I was just a GI in love." And that just triggered somethingfor me and I thought, "Of course. What if a woman went over therean just fell in love?" The story started coming together then. Atthe same time, I was really interested in the Buddhist-Catholicdialogue. I was asked to write an essay about religion in Indiana.I said I wanted to write about The Buddhist-Catholic dialogue, neverdreaming I would actually find it there. There is a monastery, southof Indianapolis, in Beech Grove, a Benedictine monastery, and oneof the nuns there is the director of the Inter-monastic Dialogue.It's an international organization and monks and nuns meet severaltimes a year to give papers and to meditate together. I was invitedto the monastery when the Dalai Lama's brother participated in BenedictineVespers for the first time. It was a deeply moving experience. Youwalk into this monastery and there are pictures of the Dalai Lamaon the wall. So I thought that was so important and I didn't thinkthe average person in the pew knew anything about it. So I wantedthere to be something about the Buddhist-Catholic dialogue in thereand the Vietnam part of the story fit because Vietnam is primarilya Buddhist and Catholic country. It just started coming together.It seemed like a place, this family, this history where I couldwork out some of these connections and explore these things andhow they manifest themselves in one American family. It's been avery common experience in the last twenty years that young peopleare leaving their religion they were reared in to become Buddhistsor some other religion that doesn't jibe with their upbringing.I wanted a young woman to challenge her mother to change and growbecause of the decisions she was making. I think Laurel does that.

RB: And swimming in the riptides of thisstory is a middle-aged couple that is in love with each other. Howcould that be?

PH: You mean Johnny and Ruthann? Well, peopledo stay in love you know.

RB: Other than in romance novels people don'toften write about such couples.

PH: That initial scene where they go outto 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 frequentlythat is forgotten. Saul Steinberg had a drawing that was a map ofthe 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 realizehow important it is. A lot of unpublished young writers. What Isee frequently among young people is an attitude that it's all thesame. They are losing that a sense of place is important becauseof the chains and the malling of America. That's why I make a pointof it.

RB: How long have you been teaching?

author patricia henleyPH:I have been teaching one way or another for thirty years. This ismy sixteenth year at Purdue, teaching creative writing.

RB: I wanted to revisit the notion of "supportingyour writing habit"? Would you continue to teach if you didn't haveto?

PH: Not now. I feel like I am past the pointof really enjoying my teaching. I am phasing out of it, slowly.Especially since I started writing novels. I have two more novelsthat are in my head right now and I'd like to write five or sixmore in my life, if possible. Writing a novel requires so much ofyou. It's quite different from writing short stories. But teachinghas been good to me. Purdue University has certainly been good tome.

RB: In the period of time that you have beenteaching creative writing, has there been a shift in attitudes towardsuch programs?

PH: If you look at the proliferation of suchprograms you have to assume that there are more people wanting them.

RB: Maybe it's good marketing?

PH: I'm not completely convinced—evenafter teaching at a program for fifteen years—that that's thebest 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 poetwhen I went. Anything I have learned about fiction writing I'velearned by the seat of my pants. I've learned from reading the writersI admire and writing…just the practice of writing.

RB: This summer I read two good novels thatwere written by young writers who did not come from writing programs—Pragueby 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 classof their own. They do a lot to introduce their students to the publishingworld. They bring agents over and that sort of thing. We're muchmore of a back water than that. And I don't think that's a bad thingthat we ask the students to focus on their writing and honing theircraft for the three years they are with us. Maybe toward the endstart to reach out and try to publish. There is a wonderful essayby Ted Solataroff called "Writing in the Cold." He asks the questionat the beginning of that essay, "Why is there so much promise increative writing programs that never gets realized later?" I thinkevery creative writing program applicant should be required to readthat before they decide to go because so much of getting publishedis just endurance, just sticking with it, just doing it in the faceof terrible odds and heartbreaking rejection. Most people who gointo programs don't know that and don't want to hear that, don'tthink that's going to happen to them, and I don't think they comein 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 thisordeal?

PH: Why do people want to become writersor why do they become writers? We are no longer talking about studentsof writing.

RB: Okay, why does someone want to becomea writer?

PH: In the best of all possible circumstancesyou want to become a writer because you love language and you loveplaying with language and exploring the human condition. But I don'tthink that's why most people at first think they want to become—Ithink 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 glamorizethe writing life. In your biographical essay you point out thatyour grandfather took you to the library before you were in kindergartenand taught you how to read. In grammar school you spent recess apartfrom the other students reading a book. When I was a child my mothertook me to the library regularly. Who are these people like youand me for whom reading is so important? Why don't they rule theworld?

PH: That's what I keep wondering. Why isnobody listening to us? I think that's a big part of In the RiverSweet. Vo [the Vietnamese man] and Ruth Anne fall in love becausethey are reading together because stories bring them together. Writingstories, telling stories is one of the most complicated things humanbeings do. When you are really in the zone, when you are writingyou are just tapped in…I can almost feel as if the storiesaren't coming from me, as if they are just being given to me.

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: 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 todo after you have been given a story?

PH: That depends on the piece. People oftencomment on the ending of Hummingbird House. The last pageor so was just a gift that I experienced. I woke up and sat downand wrote it, virtually the way it is. It can still bring tearsto my eyes when I read it.

RB: Because of the words or your experienceof writing it?

PH: Because of the meaning…being ableto say what I really wanted to say with no clutter. And knowingit's a page that has a profound impact on people, that's it's memorableto them and that two years later they'll say, "I'll never forgetthe ending." So, I think reading and writing are very powerful experiencesand I often ask myself why are the people who have this—I wouldgo so far as to say this wisdom that you gain from doing that sortof work all your life, reading or writing or both—how comethe powers that be aren't paying more attention to us?

RB: Here is one possible answer. YesterdayI spent the day finishing DonnaTartt's novel [since I am to speak with her soon]. What do youthink Ted Turner or Michael Eisner were doing? So while they weremaking money I read a book. At the end of the day I felt okay withthat.

PH: You're right. It's a hermit-like existence.

RB: We should take comfort from the epigramthat is on the Sigmund Freud memorial in Vienna, "The voice of reasonis small but persistent." [Rosie, my dog, enters the room] Hey Rosie!There's no food here…

PH: Rosie. Hi baby. Oh yeah. Sit down hereby me. Her coat is so pretty.

RB: So is it the case as a result of beinga finalist for the National Book Award, that your stock has goneup?

PH: I went from writing a novel that nobodywanted to publish to writing a novel that became a finalist forthe National Book Award in a year. So that was a big change andcertainly that year and a half or so when I couldn't find a publisherwas a very dark period in my life. Probably the darkest as a writer.I spent years researching and took some risk by going to CentralAmerica and I had grown tremendously, but I wanted the book to beread. And I felt that no one was going to read it. It was a terribleperiod 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 ofdread and of putting out so much and not getting much back?

PH: I had pretty much decided that I wouldnever write another novel. I would only write short stories. Writinga novel—for me—I just become obsessed with it, and I saidno to so many other parts of my life in order to do it that I justdidn't think it would be worth it if they weren't going to see thelight of publication. The most important thing was that it gavethe book new life. I can go into almost any bookstore in Americaand they will have a copy of Hummingbird House. And thatis a good feeling, especially because the book is about somethingthat really matters to me: the fate of women and children in wartime.

RB: What's your reception been like as youhave crisscrossed the country to talk about your new book?

PH: It's a really amazing experience whenpeople 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 firstthing I was asked to do was cut a hundred pages from the manuscriptand I think I maybe cut sixty pages.

RB: Does your heart sink when you are askedto cut?

PH: At first. But then I am really open tobeing edited and love getting good criticism that will help thebook. Anything that is going to help the book is important to me.So I went through and conflated some scenes, got rid of some thingsand cut, just by trimming phrases. It was a good thing and I thinkit's a better book. Then Luanne [Walther] did some fine tuning,some small things but (long pause) the editing on HummingbirdHouse was much more line by line [by Fred Ramey].

patricia henleyRB:Do you have first readers of your work?

PH: My husband and my son read HummingbirdHouse and In the River Sweet—I think my husbandread it…parts of it and gave me early criticism. I don't knowif 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. Ineed to feel confident of it. That's the main thing. I need to writeit until I feel confident of it. I know writers who have regularreaders 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'tthink I would have the energy to do that with my peers. I thinkthat's wonderful that they have that energy to give each other butI've never done it. I'm a loner.

RB: Are you friends with other writers?

PH: I am, but they are in other places andwe 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 hera friend-friend. I worked with her at Port Townsend at the CentrumWriter's Workshop there and I thought if we lived near each otherI would love to be her friend. I was really grateful that she likedthe book as much as she did.

RB: Do you have time to read?

PH: Oh yes!

RB: Well, many people who don't write novelsand don't teach and don't travel around the country say they don'thave 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 byhim?

PH: Another one of my faves. The beginningof that book…it's an amazing event, beautifully told. It'sa perfect instigating event for a novel for everything to springoff from there. I like Three Junes a lot. A lot. I likedSteve 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…

Ted Solataroff…asks the question…"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.

RB: Of being a young guy and wanting to get laid.

PH: Exactly. And Kevin Brockmeier, ThingsThat Fall From The Sky, he has a wonderful short story called"These Hands," about a young man applying for a job as a nanny thatis amazing. His portrayal of the life of this two-and-a-half-year-oldgirl and the man's relationship and understanding of how a childthinks and acts. And there is this attendant suspense you feel becausea man is being a nanny. That's a little bit scary. It's really anamazing story. Very tender.

RB: Have anything to say about regional writing?

PH: Well even though this book is set inthe Midwest my next book is going to be set, I think, on the EastCoast.

RB: So there will have to be a lot of brandnames: 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 novelon the East Coast?

PH: I definitely want to write an urban book.It mighty be Chicago since I am close…I want the challengeof seeing what happens when I bring my sensibility to an urban environment.

RB: Does that mean you will live in a citywhile you write?

PH: Yes, I have to.

RB: You mentioned somewhere that you consideredtown living a temporary necessity. This is truly is giving up youbody for the team…

PH: Sure. I love cities. I love cities andwalking 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 themoment?

PH: (laughs) That I am going to the Bahamasfor Christmas. (both laugh)

RB: I didn't quite mean it like that butgood for you.

PH: I want to start this next book afterthe New Year. Beyond that I don't know. I am on sabbatical nextyear 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

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