Author On the Bookcase: Michelle Hoover, author of The Quickening

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Author On the Bookcase
Michelle Hoover

Michelle HooverMichelle Hoover, welcome to On the Bookcase! Michelle's book, The Quickening, is the story of two women stuggling to make a living in the upper Midwest in the early 1900s. For one, their hardscrabble life comes easily, while the other longs for the excitement of the city. Though they depend on one another for survival and companionship, their friendship proves as rugged as the land they farm. While the Great Depression looms, the delicate balance of their relationship tips, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and exposing the dark secrets they hide.

Mitchelle answers her own Q & A and then reveals her thoughts on the live Q & A sessions in book stores and libraries. The magical time when "the book does matter, at least for a short period of time. The story is taken to heart, and for a few minutes a room is caught in an act of creation that goes far beyond the author’s little self or what lies between the pages." 

What a beautiful sentiment! Read on for more of Michelle's thoughtful "answers." 

"By the time my first novel The Quickening was published this summer, I had years of practice with readings and years more experience as a university teacher, so I’d long ago lost most fear about public speaking.

But it wasn’t until the hours before my first solo venture at the wonderful Odyssey Bookstore in South Hadley, Ma, that I realized I would not only be reading from the page but answering on-the-spot questions about the most personal of subjects—my own writing and my great-grandmother’s journal, the novel’s inspiration.

The novel itself is of course fiction, the story of two neighboring women trying to save their farms and families during the Great Depression, whether they help each other in this saving or the opposite. I wasn’t too worried about the Q&A. I’d responded to plenty of bizarre student drillings on books and writing without much pain. It was more a matter of wonderment: that I would be standing at the head of a group of folding chairs all facing my direction and every raised hand would be raised in curiosity of me. 

Q:  How long did it take you to write this book?
A:
  Six years, seven months, two days. I think. I started when I was twenty-three, too young to realize that I was too young to begin a novel. That version now sits in the crumbling UMass-Amherst library and I wish the building would just collapse already so that students wouldn’t have to duck their heads to escape plummeting bricks and that my sorry “thesis” might find an appropriate death. When I rewrote the book in my thirties, I kept only thirty or so pages of the original, killed off five characters, two narrators, and at least 200 pages. I’ve had plenty of adult students at Boston’s Grub Street cry out in near despair about the years and sacrifices it takes to finish a good novel. I tell them to keep going. Now I hope I have a little more clout to back up my advice.

I don’t particularly like to be the center of attention. Still, a close friend of mine commented at yet another reading that, unlike most she attended, I looked genuinely happy at the podium. “You seem like you’re having fun,” she said.  I looked at her, amazed, only to realize I was having fun. I found the Q &A sessions an absolute kick in the pants.  Other than the blog entries and guest posts I’ve been asked to write, there’s a big difference for me in these live ramblings. I’m not chasing after people to notice something. I’m not acting the salesman. It’s a sad thing, but debut authors from small presses have to spend plenty of time on the virtual street corner shouting out the benefits of their fictional potions, and sometimes that’s all the book becomes: shouting for wares. 

The QuickeningQ:  Why did you write this book?
A: 
I wanted to represent a certain temperament, the kind I grew up with--one of reserve, work, and strength.  I tried for a kind of raw beauty too, though beauty aimed at directly usually becomes its opposite. "Why are we reading,” Annie Dillard asked, “if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed." I wanted to show that bareness and mystery of the Midwestern plains. And of course I wanted to save those seventy-one years of living that made up my great-grandmother’s journal. I wanted to capture all her stoicism and grief after my great-grandfather’s death, as well as the happiness in their life-long marriage and what they were able to grow together.  

In bookstore Q&As, the audience has already arrived. True, they may not shell out the dollars for a book, but writing isn’t really about cash. Of course, I’d like to earn enough to buy myself a semester off to write. I’d love for my favorite bookstores to make loads, as well as my publisher. But as long as my audience enjoys their thirty minutes or so in those seats, I’m a happy camper. And if just one person tells someone else about it, all the better. Borrow the book from a friend. Better yet, make sure both of you leave it heavily damaged so a person can tell someone’s come close to devouring it. Or check the book out from your local library—that sacred place where commerce ends. Just be sure to leave the plastic cover well intact.

Q:  What lasting effect do you want your book to have on readers?
A:
  I hope my characters trouble them and that readers feel immersed in a place and time only to wake after the last page as if from a dream. I’d like to make people think of the Midwest and our history there in a deeper way, and then tie this history to today’s difficult economic and political climate. Though we are likely not as isolated in our losses and loves today as my great-grandparents were, we still experience these things deeply. We need books to reflect our experience and to do so without blinking so we don’t feel alone in our craziness. Aristotle claims that a well-written tragedy purges an audience’s fears. Others have written that good storytelling grows our sympathies for others, however unlike us they are. I could never claim with any certainty that my novel does either, but I can still hope it does.

Here’s the real wonder of Q&A sessions: That the ones who raise their hands are genuinely curious about the book and the making of it. I haven’t been paid a dime for their attentions and many are outright strangers. And the sessions are not at all about me (thank God) but about this object that sits on the table and what it takes to make such an object come alive. The audience is a sign of something I’ve believed in all along: numbers in the seats don’t matter, not when the author’s ego finally shuts its trap. But for the dozen or so who arrive, the book does matter, at least for a short period of time. The story is taken to heart, and for a few minutes a room is caught in an act of creation that goes far beyond the author’s little self or what lies between the pages. It’s the highest of human endeavors:  willing something about ourselves and outside ourselves to exist.

I'm on my book tour now -- fourteen events in fourteen days in the Midwest. We'll see if my view of the Q&A has changed by the end. I hope it doesn't."

Thanks so much for extending your Q & A with us. Such lovely thoughts on the joy of reading and book discussion! 

Learn more about Michelle.

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