Andrew Catá

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In Joshilyn Jackson’s captivating new novel, The Almost Sisters, a successful comic book artist finds she may need some superpowers of her own. Just as Leia Birch gains the courage to tell her small-town Southern family that she’s pregnant with a biracial baby after a tequila-fueled one-night stand at a comic book convention, she discovers that her relatives have surprises too. Leia’s stepsister is in the midst of a failing marriage, her niece is having coming-of-age issues and her grandmother is literally hiding bones in the attic. Luckily, Leia has what it takes to hold it all together.

This fast-paced novel explores the power of a feminine hero, the age-old issues of the American South and the resilience of familial love. Moreover, it accomplishes all of that with ease and wit.

Jackson is the bestselling author of seven novels, including gods in Alabama, The Opposite of Everyone and Someone Else’s Love Story. A former actress, she's a compelling storyteller who writes character-driven narratives that focus on modern life, racism, motherhood and, in her latest work, sisterhood. We asked her about the process that birthed The Almost Sisters and whether she sees her own experiences reflected in its flawed and forthright characters.  

Leia, the narrator of the novel, is such a great character—brassy but principled, extremely independent, willing to confront racial prejudice. Do you think she’s representative of young women in the present-day South? Or is Leia an outlier in the way she views the world?
That’s so hard to say—the South is such a wide, diverse place. I hope she is. I have certainly met many women like her. I think one thing that makes her more of an outlier is that she isn’t defensive about her own racial bias. Every human on this planet has biases and blind spots, and I am a human on this planet, so . . . fill in the syllogism. Leia is white and middle class and tries to be a good person—this describes me, too—and us middle class, white, good-leaning folks have a tendency to respond to the evidence of systemic racism as if it IS an attack. But I’m not a racist, we sometimes say, touching our hands to our heart, instead of, wow, this is a problem, and maybe I need to examine how I am complicit or unaware.

Leia is a successful comic book author, but she still feels the pressures and uncertainty of being an artist. Ultimately, she is able to bring her life experiences into her fiction. Does that trajectory reflect your own creative process?
Oh, absolutely. I always say that the best novels come from the dark and salty marshes of my own mental illness. Art in all its forms is the personal made universal; my novels are very personal; Leia’s art is very personal. At one point, faced with a difficult decision, she sits down to draw, saying her head doesn’t know what to do, but her hands might. In the same way, I think I wrestle with the big questions in my life via story. Writing through another artist’s process was like looking at a reflection inside a reflection—I was using my writing to explore how an artist uses her work to understand herself as a way of understanding myself. In other words, trying to understand my process by exploring her process via my process. #inceptioned! #turtlesallthewaydown  

As evidenced by your Twitter feed, you are fascinated by comic books. How did your interest in the genre help you in crafting her character?
I am more of a gaming/geekTV kind of dork. I don’t read much epic fantasy or sci fi (anymore—I was a junkie as a kid) or very many graphic novels, but I can quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer like a pro and I roll 20-sided dices with the best of them. I married an old school comic book dork who keeps his collection in plastic sleeves, and I have some graphic novels that I love almost as much as I love Jane Austen and Haven Kimmel novels: Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, Neil Gaiman, Persepolis. So it was fun to let Leia have a strong dork ethos. It’s a small part of the novel, one that acts as a counterpoint to her stepsister Rachel’s goop-tastic and well-groomed mainstreaming, but for my fellow dorks, there are Easter Eggs hidden—little references you will only get if you have a favorite “Doctor Who” or shipped Gabbi and Xena.

“Yes to goodness. Yes to right for right’s sake. Yes, even, to manners and civil discourse, and hell yes to kindness and forthright honesty.”

Who’s your favorite superhero and why?
Oh, Wonder Woman, just like Leia! The older I get, the more I come to value earnestness. My cynical 24-year-old self, fronting in swing dresses with combat boots and mattE red MAC lipstick, got hives merely from being earnest-adjacent; now I find my former self both cute and a little sad. Wonder Woman is a True North hero—the kind with no cynicism, no murky motives; she leans hard into hope and truth and justice. I think the world needs that right now, even though it feels outdated. I think we need True North heroes because it feels outdated. Yes to goodness. Yes to right for right’s sake. Yes, even, to manners and civil discourse, and hell yes to kindness and forthright honesty. Yes to Diana Prince.

In some ways, this novel seems especially timely, especially in the way it contrasts urban and small-town valuesDid you have any hesitation about dealing with controversial issues—like class privilege and racial bias—in your fiction?
Well, sure. I am such a coward. I never want to go down into the places that hurt, or might make me look bad, or where I confront my ugliest self. But my characters always seem to want to, and I have learned that if I fight them, I end up with 30,000 words of drivel I have to throw away.

I have a lot of privilege. I was raised small-town South, and I live urban. I try to be cognizant of my biases—we all have them—but I am imperfect. I try to write my way into a better understanding of myself and the world around me. That’s never comfortable. I think I write page turners—I like plot twists and kissing and shooting and bodies in the attic and humor—because these things are the sugar-spoons that lets me look at all the issues of social justice and sexual power-politics, all the dark bits. It does kinda trap me between genres, though.

People ask me what kind of books I write, and I used to waffle around, but now I have an answer: I write Weirdo Fiction with a Shot of Southern Gothic Influence for Smart People Who Can Catch the Nuances but Who Like Narrative Drive, and Who Have a Sense of Humor but Who Are Willing to Go Down to Dark Places.

Do you think the desire to hide the ugly parts of our lives is a particularly Southern thing?
I think it is a particularly human thing.  

The title didn’t seem central to the book until its conclusion. Then I began to recognize how it informs the theme of sisterhood and familial love. As the book ended, I thought back and saw the characters in a new light—just as Leia does. Was that intentional?
It went the other way. The book was called Origin Story the whole time I was writing it. I still like that title. In this book, history is alive, all the ends are present in the beginnings, and any past they try to bury rises into the now. But only Leia-Style dorks would get the joke—an Origin Story is how a superhero comes to have powers. For Team Rachel readers (Or Team Birchie or Team Wattie), it doesn’t resonate.

I named it The Almost Sisters after the book was finished, and yes, it was partially because I had found my way to that end—a lot of it I hadn’t expected. I also meant it to refer to the trio of symbiotic, sister-ish relationships in the book: Leia and Rachel (stepsisters), Birchie and Wattie (best friends from the cradle on), Violence and Violet (comic book characters with a powerful, mysterious connection).

Combining the elements of an unexpected pregnancy, a collapsing marriage, a coming-of-age teen, a grandma with dementia and a small-town murder mystery into one novel is an incredible task. You did it, though! How did you keep all those narratives under control?
Yes—people keep saying that! You and many reviewers and beta readers have said this book feels like it has all these threads and then they say nice things about how I manage to make them come together in a cohesive story—but to me it feels organic and all of a piece. It is one single thing: a small span of time in a life. Lives are this way. They have many pieces, and all the pieces touch. Of course, since this is a book, all the pieces of Leia’s life converge to light up the main themes, but even so, to me it feels very much like a single storyline.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

You often read the audiobook versions of your novels. Do hear the characters' voices in your mind or even speak them aloud as you write?
Oh yes. Sometimes I am not even aware I am doing it. I have whole conversations between imaginary people when I am bored and am working out a scene. It’s important to be bored—it makes your creative brain-monkey wake up and start doing tricks. So I do housework, which I hate, or drive, which I loathe. Sometimes I will be at a traffic light and notice the people in the car next to me are looking at me with concerned faces, and I will realize I am having a passionate argument between two characters. Out loud. At that point I try to pretend I am singing.

What’s next for you?
I am working on a book that came out of The Almost Sisters, actually. One of my favorite characters, an 89-year-old woman named Wattie Price tells Leia, “You can’t go around holding the worst thing you ever did in your hand, staring at it. You gotta cook supper, put gas in the car. You gotta plant more zinnias.”

It came out of her mouth—I heard her say it in my head—and it surprised me. It is related to the work I do with Reforming Arts, a nonprofit with whom I teach creative writing and lit courses in Georgia’s maximum security women’s prison. I think about my students, many of whom I have had for multiple classes, many of whom I have come to know and care for, and one of their most common, shared fears is that that after they serve their time, they will still be seen only as their worst moments. They did something destructive, they were punished for it, but they fear the punishment will continue—that they will be cut off from opportunity and community. So I am writing a novel about a woman who did a very, very bad thing indeed, years ago, and has now reinvented herself as a children’s piano teacher, a stepmother and mother, a wife, a pillar of her neighborhood. I want to explore the mechanics of forgiveness.

In Joshilyn Jackson’s captivating new novel, The Almost Sisters, a successful comic book artist finds she may need some superpowers of her own.
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In two new books from middle grade adventure writer Terry Lynn Johnson, survival is key.

In Sled Dog School (ages 7 to 10), 11-year-old Matt has to survive math class. Mr. Moffatt assigned an extra credit assignment that requires him to start his own business, so Matt decides to start “Matt’s Sled Dog School,” where he can teach others his passion for dog-sledding and gain the extra credit he needs for math class. While running a business is difficult, Matt finds that he is capable.

In Falcon Wild (ages 10 and up), Karma has to survive the Montana backcountry. In a quick turn of events, the 13-year-old finds herself stranded in the wilderness with a runaway boy named Cooper and her family’s rescued falcon, Stark. Karma may be young, but she has spent her whole life interacting with birds of prey and going on educational wilderness trips. She’s ready for nearly all the challenges that come her way.

These stories are relatable, exciting and empowering to young readers. Karma is a fiercely intelligent and independent young girl, and Matt learns a lot about himself and true friendship.

Terry Lynn Johnson with sled dogs

Author Terry Lynn Johnson with sled dogs  

Johnson is not only the author of Ice Dogs, the Survivor Diaries series, Falcon Wild and Sled Dog School, but she is also a former backcountry canoe ranger, sled dog team owner and a Conservation Officer for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

What is the most important thing children can learn from the outdoors?
In my opinion, learning to look after yourself in the outdoors gives you self-confidence. It teaches you that you can rely on yourself. Accomplishing something hard outdoors, such as portaging a canoe, gives you resilience—the character trait that helps you succeed in all things.

Your books include themes that perfectly target the middle grade perspective: family dynamics, school, making friends. How do you stay in tune with children of that age?
I do a lot of reading—especially books for that age group. It helps me remember my own childhood. Also I watched my stepdaughters grow up through the middle grade years. I quietly drove them around and listened to all their friends in the backseat discussing the latest dramas in school. All writers watch and listen and absorb.

Action moves fast in your books, especially when Karma and Cooper (in Falcon Wild) are lost and alone. As someone that spends a lot of time in the wild, does it really move that fast in a survival situation?
At times, things can happen within a moment. Especially in survival situations, the difference between living and dying can depend on quick reactions. Assessing a situation and determining the best course of action is essential. The need for plan B tends to progress quickly, so you should be ready.

There are moments throughout your books when you address technology: Karma’s 45-minute allotment of internet time each day or Matt’s family being off the grid. What do you hope to share about technology usage with children?
During various times in my life, I’ve lived as Matt’s family does with outhouses and propane lights. And as a kid, I had off-grid neighbors who were the inspiration for Matt’s family. The neighbors were a bit kooky and boisterous—so different from my own family. They fascinated me. When I began writing Sled Dog School, those real-life characters shoved their way onto the page. I thought it would be fun to explore that lifestyle in this story, and share it with modern readers. For Falcon Wild, it was technology—a fickle GPS—that got them into trouble. I didn’t mean for that to be a message, but perhaps that says something about the author!

You’ve been a musher and have spent lots of time in the wilderness, but what is your experience with falcons (if any)? Why did you decide to write Falcon Wild?
I’ve always been fascinated with birds of prey, starting from when I was 12 and read Hawkmistress! by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I was going to be a falconer when I grew up! But I ended up with 18 sled dogs rather than a bird. I mention this because of the similarities between the two. The bond between human and animal is the focal thing in both falconry and dogsledding. Mushers, like falconers, spend inordinate amounts of their time, energy, money and resources to be able to continue their passion. I knew this going in to the book, but when I was researching for Falcon Wild, my fascination only grew, along with my respect for the men and women who dedicate their lives to falconry. I interviewed several falconers, visited several more and even flew some falcons. Then I had falconers read earlier drafts of the manuscript. I’m so grateful for all the time they gave me. I believe falconry is a bit of a mystery to the mainstream, and there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding it—as there are with dogsledding. It was important to me to try to portray it accurately.

Matt and Karma are very young but so skilled at their crafts. Do you know of a falconer or musher who is as young as them?
There are loads of mushers who start out young. I’ve met many in my years at races and dogsledding events. Apprentice falconers have to be 14, but if you’ve grown up around birds, it would be a natural skill to have. In society today it can seem as though young people are getting away from the outdoors, but there are many out there learning, mastering and feeling a zest for life that only exposure to these real experiences can provide.

If you were stranded in the wilderness, what are three things you’d want with you?
The most important things are shelter, fire and water. I’d want tools—equipment to build shelter, fire-making tools and the ability to get clean drinking water.

What’s something about sled dogs that young readers would find most surprising?
The most common misconception is that all the dogs on a team are the same. That can’t be further from the truth. If you take a class of students and ask them about their pet dogs, some of them would have dogs that bark at visitors, some would have dogs that lick visitors to death; some dogs like to sleep, others need something to do at all times. All dogs have their own personalities, even on a sled dog team. They’re all individuals with their own unique character traits, and the goal and joy and challenge for a musher is to get the most from each member of the team. You have to really know your dogs to make sure they’re having a good time and getting what they need.

Your first book, Ice Dogs, published only three years ago and was a big success. How long has writing been a passion for you?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in middle school because I’ve loved books and reading for as long as I can remember. But I didn’t start writing seriously until 2009 when I took an online course and began writing for magazines.

What’s next?
I have a few projects on the go. One is about a junior game warden with a detector dog!

In two new books from middle grade adventure writer Terry Lynn Johnson, survival is key. Johnson is not only the author of Ice Dogs, the Survivor Diaries series, Falcon Wild and Sled Dog School, but she is also a former backcountry canoe ranger, sled dog team owner and a Conservation Officer for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

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As a blizzard blows through New York City, 60-year-old NYU professor Richard Bowmaster faces a series of surprises. His car slams into the back of a white Lexus. The young Latina driver emerges, tries in vain to shut the trunk lid that is popping open, and speeds away as Richard hands her a card with his contact information. Baffled by the suspicious event, Richard heads home to end his hectic day, but soon finds the driver of the other car on his doorstep needing help.

More surprising twists are in store, as readers of Isabel Allende's delightful and deeply moving new novel, In the Midst of Winter, will soon learn. Richard's journey is enriched and entwined with two women who enter his life: Evelyn, an immigrant from Guatelmala, and Lucia, a visiting professor who lives in the downstairs apartment of his home. This beautifully told story—a blend of mystery, romance and historical fiction—embraces the personal histories of these three unique characters, uniting them in unpredictable ways.

Allende, who lives in Northern California, has written more than 20 books since her international bestseller, The House of the Spirits, was published in 1982. We asked her about the inspiration for In the Midst of Winter, the origin of the title, the novel's three fascinating central characters and more.

You said in a TED talk, “All stories interest me and some haunt me until I end up writing them.” What was it about this story that haunted you?
At the beginning I really didn't have a story, I had a time, a place and a snowstorm, and then the characters came to me. They were hiding somewhere, waiting for me to find them. Each one of them had a traumatic past, especially the young Guatemalan immigrant, who was inspired by real cases like hers that I have seen in my foundation. Those stories haunted me and still do, months after I finished the book.

Can you tell us a bit about the quote from Albert Camus that inspired the book’s title: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” When did you first read it and why did this passage stick with you? 
I heard the quote at a conference in the Omega Institute, a spiritual retreat upstate NewYork, which the characters in my novel end up visiting. It resonated with me because I was going through one of those apparently endless winters that sometimes happen in life. I was getting divorced after 28 years of marriage, my beloved agent and three close friends died, also my dog had died. I felt that I was stuck in a grey and cold place, but the quote reminded me that I have an invincible summer in me. That summer has saved me from many dark periods, except the illness and death of my daughter. That was the longest winter in my life.

In the Midst of Winter skillfully combines three personal narratives, the beginnings of a love story and an evolving mystery. While writing, how did you work to blend all of these elements into one cohesive story?
I imagined the structure of the novel like a braid. My job was to blend three strands evenly and neatly. Each piece of the braid represented one of the stories. The characters were very different but they had something in common: they were emotionally wounded by events of their past.

“I have to admit that, like Lucia, I am vain, bossy and impulsive; I get in trouble and fall in love easily.”  

Lucia seems similar to you in many ways—she’s passionate, romantic and eager to get the most out of life as she grows older. Do these personal similarities between you and your character make it easier, or harder, to write about her?
Although Lucia resembles me, I was not thinking of me when I developed the character.  I based Lucia on a couple of Chilean journalists who had similar experiences. One of them was a feisty, powerful, sentimental, smart and generous friend who unfortunately died of recurrent cancer some time ago. But I have to admit that, like Lucia, I am vain, bossy and impulsive; I get in trouble and fall in love easily. 

In contrast to Lucia, Richard appears to be a taciturn and distant loner. What are his redeeming qualities?
Lucia likes Richard because he is very smart and quite handsome, but mostly because she guesses that under his cautious and cold appearance he has a kind heart. She was right, as is proven in their common adventure. Also, she believes that he is a wounded man in need of a good woman. That has irresistible appeal to most Chilean women. We love projects. Richard is a long-term project, a challenge that would require a lot of work. Perfect for Lucia.

You’ve been a longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay area. Why did you decide to set this novel primarily in Brooklyn? As a Californian, what’s your attitude toward New York City?
The closest people in my life are my son, Nicolas, and Lori, my daughter-in-law. She is from Brooklyn and every year we all come from California (my grandchildren included) to spend the holidays with her Italian family.  Brooklyn has become my second home and I am blessed to be part of Lori's noisy and sentimental extended family. I like New York City . . . for a week or two, when I visit for work or for the theater and restaurants, but it is too intense for me, I can't handle it alone. In California I live in a cottage by a lagoon, in silence and in nature, in the company of a silly dog, ducks, geese and some insane swimmers who train in the cold waters of the lagoon.

Snow, cold, blizzards, wind—how do you react to winter weather? Love it or loathe it?
I love my Northern California weather, but if I was forced to choose, I prefer cold winter. I do very badly in the heat. In winter one can always add layers of clothing and survive, but there's no escape from humid heat. How can you look good and think straight if you are sweating? Also, when placing my characters in a novel, winter is way more dramatic than summer. I can't imagine Anna Karenina in Jamaica, can you?

You are known not only as a writer, but as a feminist. How do Lucia, Evelyn and/or Richard exemplify the message of women’s rights and liberation? 
I never try to give a message in my fiction. When I see that an author is trying to preach to me in a novel, I feel insulted. If I find a message, it should come between the lines; I will discover it if it resonates with me. The ideas, feelings and experiences of the author appear unavoidably in the writing. Why does the author choose those stories and no others? Because he or she cares about those issues. Why those characters and no others? Because they speak for the author. I write about strong women who overcome great obstacles and manage to do so without bitterness. I don't invent them, I meet them in my life and in my foundation. Those women don't preach feminism, they live it.

Your account of Evelyn’s experiences in Guatemala and her journey to the United States is harrowing. What was your research process for that storyline?
Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazarios gave me a detailed account of the crossing of Mexico and the border with the United States. Beatriz Manz, from the Center for Latin American Studies in UC Berkeley helped me with the research about the genocide of Indigenous people perpetrated by the government in Guatemala in the '80s and its legacy of violence, corruption, poverty and gangs. Of course, I have been there a couple of times. I have traveled extensively for many years and I can testify that Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The character of Evelyn and her story is based on cases I see in my foundation, as I said before. We work with refugees.

Lucia and Richard show true compassion and empathy for the undocumented immigrant Evelyn. Do you believe this is a timely or a timeless message? 
The world is experiencing a refugee crisis, not the first or the last. After the Second World War there were millions of refugees in search of a place to plant roots. Now that refugees have reached the shores of Europe, it is called a crisis, but really the great migrations of refugees happen in Africa  and Asia. Most refugees are escaping from a situation of life and death, they are escaping from extreme poverty, violence, war or natural disasters, yet they are seldom received with compassion, quite the opposite, they usually face hostility and discrimination. Compassion is always timely and timeless. Why do we forget this essential truth?

You’ve written more than 20 bestselling books and won countless awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What inspires you to keep writing? 
The loyalty of my readers keeps me going in those rare moments when I suspect that I may have reached the age of rest. I love writing, I love storytelling and I love the innumerable messages of encouragement and gratitude I get from my readers. I suppose I will keep on trying to write for as long as I have a brain.

Author photo (c) Lori Bara

In Isabel Allende's delightful and deeply moving new novel, In the Midst of Winter, three very different characters are thrown together during a New York City snowstorm.
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The television in the bar is showing 24-hour footage of the wreckage of Hurricane Irene. Vale, a young, strong-willed woman from Vermont, nervously watches as she bartends. Then she gets a call. Her mother, Bonnie, is missing, and nobody has seen her since the storm blew through New England. Although Vale moved far from her bleak hometown to escape her drug-addicted mother, she must now return to Heart Spring Mountain.

As she searches for Bonnie, Vale finds clues that astonish her. Through photos, police records, cellphone footage and the folklore of her family, Vale learns she is inescapably tied to the land and people of Heart Spring Mountain. She discovers the importance of that place and sees her origin in a new light.

Robin MacArthur’s debut novel, Heart Spring Mountain, exhibits the power of place and how land can hold people together. It shows how the earth we live on is tied to our being. Answering questions about the Vermont setting, her characters and the act of writing, MacArthur imparts wisdom about landscape, our attempts to redefine our pasts and more.

What inspired this work?
I’m not sure where novels come from—a dream space we’re only half conscious of, a compost pile of everything we’ve ever felt and seen and known. The first scraps (characters) arose out of my subconscious and lingered for long enough (10 years) that I knew they were worthy of my time. The more concrete shapes and themes of the novel—Tropical Storm Irene, climate change, opioid addiction—reflect my most pressing fears for my children, my community, the world.

In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene devastated my community in southern Vermont, and I realized for the first time that the effects of climate change would not only be wild and unpredictable, but everywhere. There would be no escaping its tragedies. The opioid epidemic has deeply altered my hometown. And so the question for me, and for this novel, became: How do we help one another through hard times? How can the past both answer for our brokenness and teach us how to heal?

Both of your published works, the story collection Half Wild and Heart Spring Mountain, have such a strong sense of place set in Vermont. What do you hope to capture about Vermont with your work, and in what ways do your stories go beyond your setting?
I love the Eudora Welty quote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” My work is set in southern Vermont because that’s the place I know and have access to. My great-grandparents moved here in the 1930s, and each generation of my family has lived here since. That’s taught me about this place, but more importantly, about places in general—how there are both vertical and horizontal understandings of place. I try to access the vertical layers of place in my work; to show how places evolve over time, and how the markings of time and history—racial, economic, agricultural—are etched into our everyday lives, whether we recognize those layers or not. So yes, my work is set in Vermont, but I don’t consider them stories “about” Vermont. I consider them stories about how humans both shape and are shaped by the landscapes they inhabit. About how we can be transformed by our relationships to place—their histories, their natural landscapes, the creatures we share them with, the stories embedded within.

How has your own relationship with farming in Vermont informed your writing?
My grandparents lived in the farmhouse up the hill from where I live now; they had a huge vegetable garden and cut all their own firewood (20 cords a winter). In 1968, my parents dropped out of college and built a cabin on a nearby hillside and have lived on that piece of land since, dedicating their lives to sugar making and vegetable farming. I grew up in an off-grid house with an outhouse, cows, chickens, a wood stove, a monstrous vegetable garden. I knew exactly where my water came from, where the electricity that powered our flickering lights came from (a couple of solar panels), where the heat came from, where my food came from (and where it retired). Living that way gives you a sense of interconnection with the natural world and resources that I don’t think you could ever learn from a book.

I don’t live that way now—I’m a terrible gardener and love my flush toilet—but that sense of reverence for resources and for the natural world has never left me. My parents, through their way of living, taught me that humans are part and parcel of the natural world, co-habitors, with an immense responsibility to keep the woods and fields and streams around us healthy and vibrant (for our own health and survival as well as for the ecosystem at large). Without expressing it as such, my parents are pragmatic transcendentalists, deeply humble, servants to their community and their landscape—and though I’ve rejected many parts of my upbringing (indoor toilet! lazy mornings!), I deeply admire their reverence for the earth.

Really it comes down to perspective—seeing the individual human story as a small story within a much larger story—that of seasons and generations, of the earth’s wildness and the earth’s ability to feed our bodies if we tend it with care. My mother loves the coyotes that stalk the creek between our houses as much as she loves anything or anyone. I weave that worldview into every one of my books—a shifting from the human at center stage to the human at side stage, and that viewpoint without a doubt comes from the way I was raised.

“Vale unravels family secrets and cultural secrets, and in doing so uncovers a blueprint for her future. She uncovers brokenness, yes, but within those shards are strands of hope, too. Blueprints for love. Resiliency. Connection.”

Vale is such a strong-willed and independent character. How do you think she changes over the course of the novel?
It was a challenge for me working with character evolution over the long arc of a novel. In short stories, characters can change relatively quickly—or you focus a story on that moment when they do change. With Vale, I needed to evolve her at the tempo of the book, which meant she and I both had to move slowly.

I see her as fierce and resilient at the beginning of the book, but also afraid to let people in. Afraid of intimacy. She’s running from her past (with good reason) and trying to find family / connection / belonging in a city 1,500 miles away from home. But she also doesn’t know who she is, because she’s running. She does find an adopted family of sorts in New Orleans, whom she might return to, but she can’t discover who she is until she returns home and faces her demons. And she does. She returns home to look for her mother, Bonnie, for whom life has not been easy; she’s long been addicted to opioids, has recently found Jesus. During the course of the book, Vale unravels family secrets and cultural secrets, and in doing so uncovers a blueprint for her future. She uncovers brokenness, yes, but within those shards are strands of hope, too. Blueprints for love. Resiliency. Connection. A narrative of hope, strung amid the broken rafters. And so she slowly opens herself. To vulnerability. To the humans nearby. And begins to ask questions she hasn’t asked before about life purpose, and what hers might be.

With Heart Spring Mountain, you’re considering questions of our past: what we can escape or redefine (about ourselves and our own families) and what we can’t. Why?
Yes, this is one of the big questions of the book, and something that’s personal for me. Unlike most college graduates, I chose to return home to build a house and raise a family on the land where I grew up and where my dad grew up. I wanted to be immersed in a landscape I knew well, and I wanted to be near its ghosts. Like Faulkner, the ghosts of a place are ever-present for me, in ways that both haunt me and define who I am. Faulkner’s famous quote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” echoes my worldview. We live in culture obsessed with rebirth and freedom and things that are new, but until we acknowledge the past, both our historical violences (racism, slavery, the genocide of Native peoples) and own personal histories and lineage (embedded in our cells), we can’t begin to heal. And so while I don’t believe that everyone has to, or should, return home to find themselves, I do believe that the only way forward, as a nation or personally, is by acknowledging the grievances and resiliency embedded in our pasts. Both history’s wounds and history’s beauty.

And that’s where the hope of this book lies—that when we do uncover the past, we might be surprised by what hope lies there as well. All sorts of new and beautiful things have the potential to unfold. That, in my mind, is true freedom. Not running, but digging in and letting the ghosts escape. Defining yourself via the past, not in spite of it. At the book’s conclusion, Vale has found a connection—to her family, to the landscape, to the past—that will root her no matter where she lands.

With Vale coming from New Orleans to witness the wreckage of Tropical Storm Irene, it seems that our land faces similar questions of repeating the past, and bearing the wounds of the past’s damage. Is this something you wanted to explore with your novel?
Yes. There’s a quote from Evan Pritchard’s book No Word for Time that I use in the book: “To do damage to the earth does spiritual damage as well.” In some ways that quote captures what I believe to be the heart of this story—the ways in which we, as a culture, have severed our connections to the earth, to community, to indigenous traditions, to family, to the past, to spiritual traditions, and in doing so, have become, like Bonnie and like Vale, irreparably or reparably lost.

Climate change and opioid addiction are both symptoms of the same illness: capitalism and disconnection. Just as Vale has to unearth her family story in order to begin to find herself, there are secrets written in the landscape that will continue to haunt the landscape until those secrets are revealed. In the case of this book, Vale learns about the Eugenics Survey of Vermont, a survey of the 1920s and ’30s whose intent and result was to institutionalize, terrorize and force into hiding Vermont’s marginalized people. Many native people in Vermont were institutionalized, sterilized and forced to either hide or flee. This is not ancient history—it’s a fresh and violent wound that has been successfully covered up, and has yet to be properly acknowledged or addressed. How can we heal, as a culture, until we acknowledge our trespasses? How can we have a sustainable relationship with the earth if we have evicted and silenced our indigenous cultures?

Capitalism is very good at distracting us. It has bred a world of disconnection—to the past, to community, to family, to reverence for the natural world. And the repercussions are vast: war, climate change, opioid addiction, inequality—you name it. Healing—personal via changing neural pathways, or cultural via reparations—can only begin once we acknowledge what’s been done. And then we need to come together, as the characters in this book do, in the most old fashioned and essential of ways. With fire. And music. And soup and bread and wine, to keep one another company. We need to learn from the vanquished past ways of survival, ways of reverence. Life is long and can be so lonely. We are in a dark spell and the years ahead may be dark as well—authentic companionship is key, and where hope lies.

What was the most difficult part of writing your debut novel? What was the easiest?
This novel had been brewing in my mind (and on scraps of paper) for a good 10 years, so I knew, for years, what the general shape would be. I knew the characters. I knew that Vale would return home. I knew I wanted it to have a buoyancy of perspective—hop from one point of view to the next quickly, skip back and forth in time—to reflect the ways in which the past and the present, and each of us, are inextricably interwoven and interconnected. So the overall shaping of the novel was surprisingly easy. (I think because it happened in an unpressured dream space over such a long period of time.) The writing itself was also fun—scenes, characters, voice—those are my bread and butter. The challenge was creating a narrative arc for the novel as a whole, and for each point of view (there are seven). I needed to make sure each character thread had urgency and momentum, but was moving at the same pace as the novel. And then I had to find a way to weave them all together in ways that felt organic. I spent many hours mapping scenes, and wasted many more moving scenes around trying to find their perfect home. Thank goodness for my brilliant editor, who let me know, gracefully, when to take my hands off the pages and call it done.

You are a musician as well as a writer. Do these two arts inform each other?
Yes, my husband and I have a band, Red Heart the Ticker. We’ve recorded four albums and toured and all that jazz. We’ve stopped recording and performing music (for now), but I like to think of my writing as an extension of that singing. My grandmother was a folk-song collector and singer; I grew up listening to her and others sing in her farmhouse up the hill. There’s a part of me that considers the writing of books a continuation of her singing—keeping company through the darkness, offering a gift to bring peace or laughter or yearning or mere companionship to another. Like I said above—life is long and these times are dark. Art is the light in the dark. Both blueprint and company. On a more practical note, I think I might rock back and forth a bit when I’m writing; the rhythm on the page, like the rhythm of the song, is for me essential.

What are you working on next?
Oh, I don’t know! I have three or four files on my computer that are each growing slowly and fermenting, and at some point I’m hoping one of them will jump off the page and scream, “Me! I’m next!” I don’t think we can choose these things. Writing a book is a long love affair. One has to feel authentically called to the page. So we shall see what happens.

Answering questions about the Vermont setting, her characters and the act of writing, Heart Spring Mountain author Robin MacArthur imparts wisdom about landscape, our attempts to redefine our pasts and more.

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