Interview with Jane Hamilton, 1989 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner


Photo Credit:  Leslie Brown

Jane Hamilton won the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Award for The Book of Ruth

 

Q:  Your biography states that you were raised in Oak Park, Illinois. Did you attend Oak Park and River Forest High School, the same high school that Ernest Hemingway attended?   If so, what was that like?

A:  Yes, OPRFHS is my alma mater.  Frank Lloyd Wright and Hemingway were the big stars of the past.  We all knew, however, that Hemingway did not regard Oak Park as we regarded him.  There was his famous quote, "Oak Park is a place of wide lawns and narrow minds."  He apparently hated Oak Park High.  Hard to know if he would have hated any high school or if for some reason Oak Park High deserved his contempt.

Because I was a weirdly happy high school student, I thought that Hemingway had perhaps been a pill?  The people I knew seemed to be enlightened!  Later, when I started reading Carol Shields, I felt much more pride of place, knowing that she had grown up in Oak Park.  But, I also think I took Hemingway for granted.  He was part of Oak Park's furniture.

 

Q:  Did you read a lot of Ernest Hemingway’s work because you lived in Oak Park?

A:  I was so happy to receive the Hemingway Prize, truly!  But, I confess as a girl Hemingway was not a writer I loved. We read A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises in English class.  Because I did not understand the notion of impotence, I had no idea what was going on in The Sun Also Rises. This was not something the teacher explained.

The Victorians and the Edwardians, the Brits, were my writers of choice.  The first time I felt a real kinship with Hemingway was in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston when I was a judge for the Hemingway prize.  There was a display of Hemingway's drafts—I think the last pages of A Farewell to Arms.  He wrote several terrible endings.  It was wonderful to see his struggle before us.  He was a mortal.

 

Q:  Did your experience at Carleton College shape your writing life, and was there anyone at Carleton who inspired you to become a writer?

A:  I had a professor, Keith Harrison, a poet, who told someone else that I would write a novel someday.  This was a conversation I overheard.

Keith never said so directly to me.  It was far more powerful to overhear this vote of confidence than to have it said to me face to face.  For one thing, I didn't have to react.  I could hold that information in my head, heart, soul, etc., and believe it to be true.

I had many other wonderful professors, many of whom are still important people in my life.  The privilege of a going to a small college is not only the lifelong friends you make and keep, but the connections you have with your teachers.  I'm very grateful to the place.

 

Q:  What is it like having two books – The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World selected by Oprah’s Book Club?

A:  It is not like anything else that I know of.  Oprah gave me a glorious plenty of readers for each of those books.  Again, I'm very grateful.

 

Q:  How long have you lived—and worked—on an apple orchard, and how does living and working on an orchard help your writing?

A:  I've been living on the orchard since 1979—coming up on forty years.

It was very good for me as a young writer to be working in a small farming community.  I didn't know any other writers.  I didn't see The New York Times Book Review with any regularity.  I figured I'd never be a real writer, that writing was something I would always do for myself.  I read and I wrote short stories for several years after Carleton.  (I hadn't gotten into any of the graduate programs I'd applied to, a boon, as it turned out.) Again, I'm grateful to have lived in a place where there is never a party I feel I am missing.

Although on a farm there is a great deal to occupy oneself with, and a certain amount of chaos, I've had the chance to claim time and quiet.

 

Q:  Please tell us about your newest novel The Excellent Lombards in which the setting is an apple orchard:

A:  The Excellent Lombards concerns a heroine named Mary Frances Lombard.  She is a girl who never wants to grow up, cannot bear time to be passing, wants to live on the family orchard forever.  Into the body and mind of MF Lombard I have put questions that have preoccupied me for some time:

In a family business, in the matter of succession, who gets to stay?

Who has to leave?  Who ends of staying but isn't equipped to stay?

Who is the one who stays and ends up exerting power?  What role does the farm wife play? 

Mary Frances is right about certain things, so wrong about others, and makes her way through her girlhood in love and in war with the extended farm family.

 

Q:  What is your favorite Ernest Hemingway story or book and why?

A:  I love them equally and fairly.  Or, in other words, I haven't read any of them for years and will have to get back to you on that question.

 

Q:  Do you remember where you were when you received the news that you won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and how did winning the award affect your career?

A:  Yes, I remember exactly.  I'd been at the Ragdale Foundation, an artist colony outside of Chicago.  There was a Japanese artist, a woman who seemed very old to me—she was probably in her 70s.  She was a psychic.  One night she read tarot cards for some of the residents.

There was a man who not so long after died of AIDS.  She told him he was going to die.  She told me that I would have the success of Joan Chase, a writer who won the Hemingway in 1982 or so.  Joan was the director then of Ragdale.  That prediction impressed me.  Several years later, in the spring, or late winter, I was cleaning the bathroom when the phone rang.  I picked it up, and there the news was coming over the line.  What was as unbelievable to me as being the winner, was the fact that it had been foretold.

Winning the award changed everything for me.  My book had been published in November.  It had pretty much disappeared—there had been some nice reviews, but that's about it.  I had low expectations and was simply happy it had been published.  But, the award gave it new life.  It spurred me on.  More gratitude.  I've always been grateful for the vote of confidence of the award.  When you win a prize like that, especially probably when you are young, it becomes a part of your person and history; it's a fact about yourself that you always have.  That is a lovely thing.

 

Wayne Catan, April 13, 2017