Paula Saunders has been working on some of the material in her wrenching debut novel since she was in graduate school some 30 years ago.
“It was like following little fires around the hills,” Saunders says of her long composition process during a call to her home among the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains. “I followed whatever I could find to make it work. Not blindly, but consciously.”
Set in Rapid City, South Dakota, in the 1960s, The Distance Home tells the story of psychological trauma in a seemingly normal, working-class Midwestern family. Al and Eve marry young and live for a while in his parents’ basement before striking out on their own and starting a family. Al, a cattle trader, is away from home for long stretches of time, and when he returns he vents his frustrations, sometimes brutally, on their oldest child, Leon, a sweet, remarkably sensitive boy and a gifted ballet dancer. René, their daughter, is the golden child. She is lively, successful in school and is also a talented dancer. She develops a deepening sense of how unjustly her brother is being treated and the damage being done to him. Jayne, the youngest, is so young that she seems to escape most, but not all, of the trauma. The novel begins quietly, but in the end is profoundly moving.
Like her character René, Saunders grew up in Rapid City and studied ballet. She later danced as an apprentice with the Harkness Ballet in New York. So, is The Distance Home autobiographical?
“That’s such an interesting question,” Saunders says. “For me it is an autobiographical novel. But for a lot of other people involved, maybe it wouldn’t seem so. I think the invention in the novel comes from trying to draw out a relationship that I have an impression of. I have a deep love and concern for each of these characters, and of course they reflect my family circumstances. I had a brother who passed away early from liver failure, and I have a very dear sister who is still here. A big part of the material for me was trying to understand it and see it more clearly. So I created the circumstances that make sense to me, given the character of the people I knew and the eventualities that occurred.”
Asked about her understanding of the tragic figure of Leon, Saunders says, “There are people who can accept the rules of culture, adapt to them and become good at them, even though the rules often have a raw, jagged edge that is hurtful to others and yourself. But there are people who for one reason or another can’t acquire the rules or find them unacceptable. They suffer in a hidden way. Their feelings lead to some kind of alcoholism or drug addiction because they haven’t found an acceptable way in the culture to express themselves. That’s what I think about the tragedy of Leon. There are people who are very tender and very hurt by our culture. Most people can adapt, but some people can’t.”
A singular pleasure of the novel is Saunders’ depiction of the landscape around Rapid City. “That physical landscape is very much a part of me. I have just loved it. As a child you completely soak in all the things that surround you.”
But it is a morally complicated geography as well. Subtly, but quite deliberately, Saunders names some of the worst sites of Native American massacres. And some of her minor characters are obvious in their dislike of Indians.
“There are people who are very tender and very hurt by our culture. Most people can adapt, but some people can’t.”
“Well, the book is a lot about inequality and unfairness,” she explains. “And it’s also about violence. There’s violence that happens in the book all the time. To me, there’s no greater violence in this country than the genocide of the American Indians. It’s a horrific thing that we carry with us, that we never acknowledge or apologize for. We just keep consuming and moving to take for ourselves what isn’t necessarily ours, without any thought of who we’re leaving behind. That’s important to me, and that’s why there’s a parallel drawn between Leon and Native Americans.”
Saunders and her husband, George (who published his own debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, last year), are longtime practitioners of Buddhism. She says this helped her in working with emotionally fraught material.
“Without that practice, without that kind of new way of looking at it, without cultivating that kind of understanding, I don’t think I could have written it.”
Saunders wrote much of the book on a repurposed dining room table from Home Depot in a tiny room in their house outside of Oneonta, New York. To escape the winters of the Northeast, they later bought a house in California. That’s where she finished working on the novel. “I wish I could say I was writing in a little closet,” she says, laughing. “But I have a dream writing space. We’re up in the redwoods. It’s large. It has windows on three sides, one looking over a vast vista. It’s very calm. I can’t describe how much I love this space.”
Saunders thought she had finished the novel, written then in first person, and sent it to her former teacher Toni Morrison to read. “I hate to claim this, because it’s like wearing clothes that are too big, but I sent it to my great mentor. She read it, and she is not, let us say, reticent with her critique. I was a bit taken aback. I had to go and rethink the main character. I realized that if I moved that character into third person, I had the key to the character. So I went back and wrote the whole book again in third person. That took about a year and a half.”
After so much time, the publication of this novel “is really satisfying,” Saunders says. “To have this novel accepted and put forward so that other people can read it and appreciate or understand it in their own way also feels like a big blessing to me.”
Author photo © Chloe Aftel.