Table for Two: An Interview with Patricia Henley

categories: Cocktail Hour / Table For Two: Interviews

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Patricia Henley with Jack

Patricia Henley has hiked a long way to get where she is, and yet she’s someone who knows how to stay put. She’s taught at Purdue for 24 years, for one example, and she’s just kept writing, even when the weather got rough. She’s the author of two chapbooks of poetry, three short story collections, two novels, a stage play, and numerous essays. Her first book of stories, Friday Night at Silver Star (Graywolf, 1986), was the winner of the Montana First Book Award. Her first novel, Hummingbird House (from the once brilliant house of literary discovery, MacMurray & Beck), was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999. She’s kept writing stories (Glimmer Train, Seattle Review), and recently her trail crossed that of the writer Victoria Barrett, also an editor (Freight Stories, Puerto del Sol, good lit mags in which Patricia has published), who had just started Engine Books, a new press dedicated to finding the best fiction and to getting it out in the world. And, in a triumph for the press and author alike, Engine Books has just published Patricia’s 4th collection of stories, Other Heartbreaks. By email, I asked Patricia where in the whole world she’d like to sit for our interview if we could actually be together. “Camping,” she said, or rather, “Camping,” she typed. So insteadof imagining two writers going back and forth on email and talking on the phone, picture us in Montana, deep in the Bob Marshall wilderness, several days hiking behind us, many more days hiking ahead.

Since it’s been raining (and raining and raining, if I’m going to keep the career metaphor alive) we’re particularly joyful to see the billion stars, the northern lights mounting in colorful curtains, the sense that our time has come. And because everything’s so wet, we don’t feel guilty lighting a big fire of ponderosa pine branches atop a stack of big pinecones, one match.

As the sparks fly to heaven Bill says: Why short stories?

Patricia thinks a long time, her eyeglasses glinting in the mounting fire. The wood smells citrusy as it burns. It’s a still night and the smoke plumes straight upward. In another era our peoples in their outposts far and wide across the plains would read that smoke, know just what was being said.

Patricia smiles, then frowns, then smiles again, finally speaks: “I was wounded when a novel I wrote after In the River Sweet was rejected, first by my big house editor and then by other editors when I broke up with that big house. I wrote about this process in a little essay titled “The Potholder Model of Literary Ambition,” published on the Glimmer Train Bulletin a few years ago. I use the word wounded and it felt like that, painful and as if I would always suffer from it. I did not know if I would ever commit to another novel, but I knew that at one time I had loved writing short stories. I liked the idea of small,

From Engine Books

hand-crafted objects (the potholder and the story). Writing stories seemed like a humble activity after the overconfidence needed to write novels. I was getting back on my feet. Also, some stories beg to be novels. Most of the stories in Other Heartbreaks did not. When I started the novel Hummingbird House, a novel about the lives of women and children in wartime, I felt I wouldn’t do the subject matter justice if I were to divide up the big story into short stories.

BILL: Should we open that bottle of Scotch? This is a fantasy, so it’s from The Macallan Fine and Rare Collection, the 1926, 60 Years Old, as they call it, born same year as my father, who is 84. The Scotch was bottled in 1950, closer to our dates. It cost me $38,000, so let’s not waste any.

PH: I don’t know. My liquor of choice on ski trips and camping trips was always Drambuie. I’d pour it into a bota bag and carry it into the backcountry like that.

BR: But.

PH: But, Bill, if you want to crack open a bottle worth 38K, go for it.

BR: I guess we could make some first-class rusty nails. Of course I’ve got a complete bar and ice and everything in my pack. While I’m making drinks : What year did you start writing fiction?

PH: I started writing fiction in 1979. I began the habit then of rising early in the morning, before the rest of the world’s awake, to write. I was married to a hunter and alpine climber at the time and it suited our lives perfectly since hunters and climbers get up long before dawn. I am usually up between 4 and 6 in the morning.

BR (handing off a drink): I go to bed about two or three most nights, opposite.  And I’m not sure I could pinpoint a year I started writing, though it must have been in college (and of course the work wasn’t bottled till many years later). How do you mark your vintage so exactly?

PH (sipping appreciatively): Oh, I did write a story or two in college. But for years I wrote poetry. I can remember the very day and the way the autumn light fell in the hallway outside my professor’s office when I stood against the wall reading Anne Sexton’s All My Pretty Ones. And I thought, “Wow. You can write about that.” And a poet I was for quite a few years. I always say that I couldn’t sit still long enough to write stories. The mystery writer Elizabeth George says that you have to have “bum glue” to write fiction. I was backpacking, running wild in certain ways, protesting the war, dropping LSD, taking road trips to pick apples in central Washington. In 1979 I had an illness that laid me low. I had to sit still to recover. I decided to try my hand at fiction. I was living in Desert Hot Springs, California, for the winter. And then I was in Oregon after that. I had a Selectric typewriter, a big improvement over the manual one I’d carted around for years.

BR (sipping plain whiskey): How do you work? How do you fit writing into life?

Patricia with her youngest grandson, dressed up for a bookstore date in Cincinnati

PH: I write as far as I am able into the morning, when other demands are felt. I teach full-time, I have animals, I have family life and community life that I don’t want to neglect. I accept that those aspects of life feed my writing in ways that might not be apparent in the moment. So I write before I have to put on those other hats — teacher, dog companion, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, neighbor, friend. Andre Dubus III told me that his father used to say that when he was finishing a piece he was “like a horse getting close to the barn.” I feel that way, too, and in those final weeks or days or hours as a project nears completion, I will go back to writing later in the day or evening, in that rush to the barn. At that point, I feel as if I’m writing almost 24 hours a day. Allowing the characters to wake me in the middle of the night, for instance. I used to think that I had to write every day. And when I was a young writer, establishing a writing practice, that was important. But now I do not mind taking a week or ten days off to travel or visit family. Or, in the case of the next few months, taking time off to help get my book out into the world. So when people ask me if I write every day, I say, “When I’m writing I do.”

BR: Your new collection, Heartbreak and Other Stories, has just been published.  Do you have any favorites among the stories?  I always want to know which of mine readers like best, so I actually ask. And people over time have picked every story–even orphans I never had much hope for, such that over time I’ve come to appreciate my work fairly evenly, even stories certain editors told me could never be published, stories I didn’t trust for a while, but gave a chance. Can you say which of the stories in Other Heartbreaks is your favorite? Or which few are favorites? Or which gave you fits? Or is it like children, better not?

PH: I’ve never asked any readers which stories they liked! Maybe I will. I like them all for different reasons. And there are passages in each story that I love reading aloud. But one of my favorites is “Sicilian Kisses.” I was happy writing about the developing intimacy between Barbara and Lucy and how that contrasts with the relationship Barbara has with her husband. In my experience, sometimes relationships with women are much more intense, even as you are married to a man. But the women have to need it to step outside the confines of marriage. And Barbara and Lucy do need each other. Lucy is a character I love—a kind of woman I met often in the West—tough, tender, sassy, sexy in a frontier sort of way.

BR: I like that one, too. And I like all your stories. “Kaput” is a favorite of mine, maybe because the protagonist and narrator is 58, as I am now. It’s a story about putting one’s self in the hands of fate, at least in part. Bonnie has lost her college teaching job because, well, the college has closed. She’s living in her van, on campus. We don’t actually learn her name till near the end, a nice touch, I think, since she’s so effaced by the loss of her job and the loss of her idea of marriage, not to mention the loss of the marriage itself, some years before, also by the loss of sixties culture, perhaps no great loss, but still: what about idealism? And something more, the loss of the familiar. Maybe the most telling phrase in the story is “Cancun Costco.” Because Bonnie ends living up in Mexico, with the offer of a less-than-ideal job. But, Patricia, you calibrate things so finely that we readers feel like something positive has happened, even if Bonnie and her new employer, who’s also her ex-husband’s newer ex-wife, still have secrets between them. Am I getting it right? Where did this story come from?

Patricia at lunch with friends in Brooklyn

Patricia at lunch with friends in Brooklyn

PH: I have a particular fondness for “Kaput” for several reasons. I’d been trying to write a story for years about those women at a communal farm. It came in fits and starts and then I’d put it away. This past spring I was in Mexico, in Puerto Morelos, and I found the ex-pats fascinating—where they came from, why they decided to settle there. One night I just knew that Bonnie and Kim would end up there. I worked on the story while there and when I arrived home I came down with a dreadful flu that lasted nearly a month. I worked doggedly on that story during this bout with the flu. I was driven to finish it. I like it for another reason. I found a way to write about the social experiments of the 60’s and 70’s. I lived in a back-to-the-land community in Washington State for a couple years where boundaries broke down for some folks. And these relationships sometimes continue into the future on different terms. It might be a bit unusual for women to find a way to connect, in spite of having been with the same man. I have seen it happen. I wanted to write about the layers of all that history. How you can’t ever completely leave it behind.

BR: I love the way you fit in Bonnie’s whole life, enough material for a novel. How do short stories and novels break for you? I mean, what’s the difference? How to know which you’re writing? More scotch?

PH: Just the Drambuie.

BR: I’m glad I bought both bottles.

PH: I’ve never seen a 300 pound backpack before.

BR:  Writers are strong.

PH: I like being able to compress a life into a story. I tend to enjoy novels that have public stakes, as well as private stakes. And in my stories I don’t think there are often public stakes. The suite of stories that completes Other Heartbreaks does have public stakes. And those stories were teased out of Home Plate, a novel set in Chicago that was never published. Luis, the young man who dies, is a fictional character much like the volunteers featured in “The Interrupters,” the recent documentary about Ceasefire, an organization that works to stop street violence in Chicago.

BR: Oh, I’ll have to look for that on Netflix.

PH:  You do Netflix?

BR:  I can learn.  Anyway, I was very interested in the break in the table of contents, six stories, then the subtitle “Other Heartbreaks,” and three more.

PH: Several years after Home Plate was put in the drawer, as we used to say before we wrote on computers…

BR: Now you can put your whole computer in a drawer. PH: … I decided to see if I could fashion stories from that material—the Chicago material, I called it. These three stories came first, each from a different point of view. When I submitted the manuscript of Other Heartbreaks to Engine Books, it was titled Rocky Gap. Victoria Barrett, my editor, suggested we call the book Other Heartbreaks and set those three stories off by themselves. She is clearly a wizard at figuring out how a book of stories ought to be put together.

BR: I’ve had several editors and many readers refer to one of male protagonists or another as if he were me, or refer to an incident from a story or novel as if it had happened to me. After a reading once a woman came up to me and said I was a dirty, dirty man, mistaking me for my narrator, who was a pretty dirty man, whereas I’m, like, Mr. Clean. To what extent do you use your own life in your stories?

PH: Oh, I’m in there. The Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says that we all have our Top Ten Tunes, our obsessions. That’s where the juicy material comes from — my Top Ten Tunes. But most of my characters and their circumstances are invented. I morph the original story—the real goods—into something new. For instance, I’ve been married to and divorced from two men younger than I am. In “No Refunds in Case of Inclement Weather” I took that basic situation—May-December relationship, as we used to call it—and decided to make the POV character a younger woman involved with an older woman. The core feeling driving the story, in this case the notion that you can never get a refund for all the years of inclement weather in a relationship, is one of my theme songs. But the story plays out in the lives of characters unlike anyone I know.

BR: Tell us about your career.

PH: What do you mean, “Us”? We’re here in Montana, remember? Under the stars? The Bob? Sparks flying up into the sky?

BR: By us I mean me and the stars, of course, and all those who might be reading our smoke.

PH: My career. You mean the war stories? The high points?

BR: Is that a wolf howling?

PH: Yes, a wolf.

BR: More Scotch, in that case.

PH: In that case, more.

BR: Your career, whatever.

PH: My first lucky break came when I won the Montana First Book Award and the Montana Arts Council asked small presses to bid on Friday Night at Silver Star, essentially my first stories. The book went to Scott Walker at Graywolf Press. That changed my life and I am forever indebted to Scott. Graywolf saw to it that the book was reviewed in The New York Times. Joyce Carol Oates and Andre Dubus nominated the stories for the Pushcart and Bill Henderson took one. I was suddenly able to find a teaching position that relieved me of the constant financial struggle I’d experienced for years. That freed me up to write more. Graywolf published the second collection, The Secret of Cartwheels. I think that writers often grow accustomed to good things happening and when they don’t, it’s a shock. Even though the title story of The Secret of Cartwheels was chosen by Richard Ford for inclusion in Best American Short Stories and it was originally published in The Atlantic, the book itself was swallowed up in the transitions that occurred at Graywolf when Scott Walker left and Graywolf was subsequently under new editorial direction. But I let go of that. I could not change it and it seemed like a waste of energy to focus on that disappointment. I kept working on the novel I’d begun in Guatemala. I went to Guatemala for two months in the summer of 1989, thinking that I might write some stories set there. Three weeks into the trip, a British doctor told me the true story of an American priest, Father Stan Rother, who was murdered during the worst of the civil war, la violencia. And the doctor said that when Father Stan’s American family came to retrieve his body, the Mayan people asked his family if they could cut out his heart and bury it behind their church because they thought that Father Stan’s heart belonged in the Guatemalan highlands. Well, this story just made the hair on my head stand up. I was galvanized. I was called to write about it. But the path to publication did not come easily. My agent at the time warned me: “No one’s interested in Central America.” She had it for almost two years, if memory serves me right. Those were difficult years. No big house wanted it. Finally I told her that I’d shop it around to small presses. Within weeks, Fred Ramey at MacMurray & Beck in Denver had accepted the manuscript. Ten years from that moment on the sidewalk in Guatemala with the British doctor, after five research trips to Central America and much library research back here in the States, I held the book in my hands. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was a finalist for the New Yorker Fiction Prize. It was nominated by the Chicago Public Library for the IMPAC-Dublin Award. So I thought, finally! A New York house published my second novel, In the River Sweet, which came much more quickly. I was on fire writing that book. But in spite of a healthy advance, a luxurious book tour, and good reviews, the book did not break out. I wrote Home Plate, and after that disappointment I started writing stories again, as I said. I think that there are many mid-list writers like me who might have once been nurtured by publishing houses who aren’t now. My intuition tells me that editors look at my numbers and decide that if I haven’t broken out by now, I won’t. To dip my toe into another sea, I wrote a play. It did me good to make forays into the theatre. I spent much of last winter in a theatre immersion of my own making. I am presently shopping the play around. And I wrote a short novel with a friend, a story with alternating first-person voices. In a way, the failure I felt about Home Plate set me free to play with my writing, to try new things. When I had enough stories for a small collection, I took them to Victoria Barrett at her brand-new house, Engine Books. I knew that she’d read every word I’d ever published. She has a sense of my life’s work, its intention. I like the give-and-take of working with her. If I have an idea for publicizing the book, all I have to do is email her or text her and we bat it around. She does the same to me. And her attention to detail in all the edits has been amazing. My career, in a nutshell. I love writing. I love any opportunity I have to widen my audience. Don’t we just want to be heard, Bill?

BR: Yes, heard. Like wolves in the night. That’s why I love doing readings, I think, when voice is literal. Which reminds me that I’m really interested in the play you wrote–could you tell us more about it? Have you worked with any actors yet? Tried any staged readings? How do you go about getting a play produced?

PH: About eight years ago, I became curious about a halfway house in Chicago where prostituted women were trying to get off the street. They seemed to have enormous grit. I tried to get into that house in Chicago to interview the women, but the staff decided against it. I found an agency in Baltimore that works with prostituted women and they welcomed me with open arms. I did some interviews, visited the city jail, and eventually set the idea aside. Two years ago when I was moving and cleaning out files and so on, I found those interviews and knew immediately that the story would make a good play. I spent about a year and a half writing it. It’s called If I Hold My Tongue, and it is the story of a prostitute in her early thirties who witnesses the death of a fifteen-year-old runaway prostitute and she has to choose between keeping it secret and telling the truth. She says, “I’ve got a list of forgets as long as my arm.” It is set in a halfway house in Fell’s Point in Baltimore. The Purdue Theatre Department did a staged reading of it last October — a thrilling experience. Since then I have gone down quite a few dead end streets, trying to find a theatre company or director. Of course, it’s hard to break in. You can’t find a theatrical agent unless you have at least one production under your belt and you can’t get theatre companies — for the most part — to read your entire script unless you have a theatrical agent. But I persevere! The world of the theatre feels so alive, so vibrant, so communal.

BR: Tell us more about the staged reading–how was it performed? Set the scene for us! Did you have a role in the development of the material? Did you attend rehearsals?

PH: Purdue Theatre did two staged readings, actually, one when the play was still embryonic and later when it was finished. Both readings were held in a state-of-the-art black box theatre in Purdue’s new Pao Hall for the Visual and Performing Arts. The director, Rich Rand, enlisted actors from his graduate and undergraduate programs in theatre and from the community. In a near semi-circle the actors stood before music stands in dim lighting. The play has several meaty roles for African-American actors and for at least one of those roles — Moodge, a wise black woman — we drew from the community. I loved being able to answer the questions of the actors during rehearsals, to work closely. I loved being a part of an interracial project. The audience gave considerable feedback right after the first performance. I took many of those comments to heart in the revision, and Purdue Theatre did another, more formal, staged reading of the entire play six months later.

BR: What was it like being part of the audience?

PH: I felt transparent, and by that I mean, I disappeared. I felt the embodiment of the lines as if I were in each actor. There were moments when I wept. It’s an emotional play for me, hearing the voices of women struggling to break free of all that’s held them down.

BR: You’ve taught for a long time in the MFA program at Purdue. Have you loved teaching?

PH: At the beginning of the school year I love it. And gradually I grow weary. Thank God we have time to recover from the intensity of teaching. Teaching is in my bones. The first time I walked into a classroom I was in my early twenties. I made so many mistakes because—like nearly every other aspect of my life—no one could tell me anything or no one tried. I had to teach myself. Right now the program at Purdue is bearing the fruit of all we have put into it. It is very satisfying when I read the books of former students—Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Rob Davidson, Fred Arroyo, Steve Edwards, Andrew Scott, and others.

BR: And teaching doesn’t get in the way of writing? PH: If you don’t have a book out and you’re teaching you begin to feel like a fraud. But now, with a book coming out, I feel like teaching’s almost a lark. The book provides an alternate reality. BR: There! Look! Northern Lights!

PH: Not in my fantasy.

BR: Sweeping curtains of green and red!

PH: I think the fire is plenty, Bill.

A long silence. Then: BR: Women breaking free of all that’s held them down. I can’t stop thinking of that. Tell us about the breakup with the big house. So many writers have been going through this kind of thing in recent years.

PH: When I turned the novel in to my editor she was quite unhappy with it. I got into a very unpleasant loop of trying to please her with revisions I didn’t entirely believe in. To be fair, I was going through some trauma personally, and now I think that my reactions were colored by that. I just gave up, said I didn’t want to fulfill the contract. I am paying back part of the advance. In retrospect, I wish I’d negotiated another idea, a different book, as I’ve seen other writers do. Live and learn.

BR: Small presses are stepping into the void left by the abdication of big publishing in many ways, but especially in the area of the short story. How has your experience been with Engine Books?

PH: Engine Books is going to become a major small press, along the lines of Algonquin and Graywolf and Unbridled Books and MacAdam/Cage. Victoria Barrett is a powerhouse. She designs the books and edits the books. I have complete faith in her judgment. Plus, she’s great fun.

BR: Home Plate is the novel that caused the breakup with the big publishing house?

PH: Yes!

BR: I’d like to hear more about pulling the last three stories out of the novel, and more about the novel, if that isn’t too painful? It’s a fascinating subject, mining reluctantly abandoned material for gems.

PH: It’s not painful at all to discuss it. I love Pilsen, the Chicago neighborhood where the novel is set, and I love the characters, a white family—neighborhood throwbacks—living in a mostly Latino community. Pilsen has been a port of entry for immigrants for a very long time. Eastern Europeans settled it originally and I imagine some of my Czech relatives may have been among them in the early part of the 20th century. So I feel a kinship with the neighborhood. And I love the family tensions—how to remain a member in good standing in the family and still do whatever it takes to satisfy your own need for growth. The public story—the violence that erodes stability in the neighborhood (and other Chicago neighborhoods) is something that troubles me. I wanted to see if I could write about it. Joe’s story and Sophie’s story were fairly easy to extract. Emma’s story went through many drafts as a story. Victoria had some good suggestions about expanding Emma’s story and I am happy with the result.

BR: You should be. It’s a fine story and makes a good finish to the book. (Long silence. The bottle goes back and forth.)

PH: Time to turn in.

BR: Have we set up our tents? Or do we even have tents?

PH: I don’t know—I haven’t imagined quite that far yet. But this is Montana in September—it’s not going to rain.

BR: And you didn’t bring a tent anyway, or a sleeping bag, or food, nothing but books and that huge compass. In fact, your pack is bulging with books—they must weigh a ton—amazing you’ve carried them so far. Who’s in there? And which way is north?

PH: North is that way.

BR: Toward the northern lights.

PH: As if.

BR: Books.

PH: William Trevor is one of my all-time favorites. Alice Munro, of course. Richard Ford’s early work influenced my stories when I was living out west. This summer I read Townie by Andre Dubus III and In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard and Naked Summer by Andrew Scott, among others.

BR: Let us read by firelight.

PH: I need another sip of that Drambuie first.

  1. Tommy writes:

    Bill, these conversations are just delightful, almost magical, and most of all – informative. Brilliant!!