The heroines of Judith Claire Mitchell’s engrossing new novel—sisters Vee, Delph and Lady Alter—don’t bear a lot of similarity to their creator. The three were raised with a family legacy of suicide: Their great-grandmother Iris became the first to kill herself after her husband’s chemical inventions were used as World War I weapons.
All told, six members of the generations before Vee, Delph and Lady died by their own hand, with four of them committing suicide in their 40s. Now in that decade themselves, the Alters view their fate as inevitable. In A Reunion of Ghosts, the sisters recount their family history as they seek to understand its relationship to their own stories.
Although this is Mitchell’s second novel with ties to World War I, her interest is incidental. Her grandparents all came to America from Europe, some before the war and others after.
“But it wasn’t a big family thing. Historically, I find World War I so fascinating because I feel it’s when the 20th century became the 20th century. It’s when the Victorian era died completely,” explains Mitchell, who is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin. “The horrors of that war—it introduced chemical warfare, it introduced a level of violence that, as bad as war had been, it had not been experienced quite this way. The peace treaty afterward was so poorly wrought that I firmly believe the wars we’re fighting right this minute are a product of this peace.”
A Reunion of Ghosts originated after Mitchell saw a bit of a PBS program featuring Clara Haber, on whom the character Iris is based. Clara did, in fact, kill herself after work by her husband, Fritz Haber, became the basis for chemical warfare during World War I.
“That seemed so dramatic to me. That stayed with me,” Mitchell says. “I tried to work them in as characters in the novel I thought I was working on.”
But gradually, the Haber-inspired storyline took over. “The more I found out about them, the more I found out about their descendants, the more I became fascinated with this entire family. Finally, I came up with the idea of completely inventing the fourth generation and telling the story from their point of view,” Mitchell says.
Ultimately, the novel became a suicide note from the three sisters, who set their expiration date as December 31, 1999. “It’s also about the 20th century and all the terrible things that go wrong,” Mitchell says with a laugh, “and I kind of dump it on this poor family.” So it seemed fitting, she explains, “to end it with the end of the century.”
Once Mitchell decided to write the novel as a suicide note, it began to flow. Throughout the novel, the sisters refer to themselves as “we,” as though one’s life story is a reflection of all three. It’s an unusual stylistic choice, but one that draws the reader ever closer to the narrators.
“That voice and that format just helped me,” she says. “I wasn’t really influenced by other writers or other books, I really felt like I was kind of alone in a bunker with this family, some of whom were real and some of whom I was inventing, and just had to figure it out on my own.”
The resulting tale recounts the tight-knit relationship of the three sisters and the family’s history of suicides, two of which take place in the Upper West Side apartment in New York City that has been handed down through the generations. (The Alter girls’ grandfather and mother both killed themselves in the master bedroom, which the girls refer to as the “Dead and Dying Room.”) But even with all its darkness, A Reunion of Ghosts is a surprisingly funny novel with three dry but witty women at its heart.
“I totally referred to this as the book that would never sell.”
“I totally referred to this as the book that would never sell,” Mitchell admits. “Here, it’s a 400-page suicide note, do you want to read it? Yeah, no,” she says with a laugh. “But I couldn’t stop working on it.”
“People say to me, it’s a little dark, and I’m like, well life is a little dark, but we still manage to love and laugh our way through it.”
Although her subject matter isn’t light, Mitchell, who prefers to go by Judy, is as quick to laugh as she is to share literary insight. An hour of conversation with her suggests enthusiasm for her craft and warmth that must spill over into the classroom.
And the classroom is, in fact, an important part of Mitchell’s story. As a child and again in higher education, she encountered teachers who were skeptical that Mitchell could have a career as a writer.
One encouraged her to prepare for life as a secretary instead—a more acceptable profession for girls. Mitchell also encountered professors who believed the world would knock students down, and so the professors took the first swings to help students prepare.
“My philosophy is, the world is going to knock you down, so I’m going to help you get up.”
“My philosophy is, the world is going to knock you down, so I’m going to help you get up,” Mitchell says. “It’s looking at the same situation but having a completely different way of responding to it. I think artists and writers are big balls of insecurity. The experience of being introverted and yet wanting the whole world to read what you’re writing, it’s very strange. I hit my stride in my 40s, so to tell someone in their 20s that they don’t have it, well, you just don’t know. They may have some growing and living to do.”
But it was also a teacher whose advice gave Mitchell the nerve to pursue such sprawling stories. Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer James Alan McPherson was among her professors at the acclaimed Iowa Writers Workshop.
“One day, out of the blue, we were in workshop and he looked around and said, ‘Some of you are going to publish books. If you do, I just want to suggest you write about things that are important.’ ”
Without that advice, Mitchell says, she would have written about people much more like herself. “When he said that, it was like giving me permission to write outside my world.”
And of course, the learning process never truly ends. Mitchell continues to seek improvement herself as she balances her roles as writer and teacher.
“I balance it badly. When I’m teaching, I tend to put most of my energy into that, into the teaching and into the huge amount of service that professors have to do to maintain a program,” she says. “I do tend to put my energy into the actual living people who need something from me. The manuscript tends to get back-burnered. Because I’m a novelist, I also feel I need to sink into that world, and it’s hard for me to bounce in and out of it.”
Mitchell says this accounts for the 10-year gap between her first novel, The Last Day of the War, and A Reunion of Ghosts. During that span, Mitchell directed Wisconsin’s MFA program twice and directed its post-graduate program in between. She focuses on her own writing during the summers, and has taken residencies to allow chunks of time for focusing on the book. “I try to write when I can squeeze it in,” she says.
With a third novel under way, Mitchell attempts to set aside non-teaching days as writing days. But her students take precedence; if a student can only meet on that day, Mitchell accommodates them.
“I’m hoping my third book doesn’t take me 10 years, because I will be very old then!” she says.
Students will often say they dream of the life she’s living, but Mitchell cautions them to be careful what they wish for. “Sometimes I think if I were a barista, I would have [written] more books. I tell them that, too,” she says, explaining that writing “is not the way you make your living, it’s what you do because you have to. It’s not that fun sometimes, even . . . but you have a story you’re impelled to tell.”
This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.